Philadelphia Phillies 2011 Season Preview: Blogger Roundtable

At long last, the regular season is here. To me, the time between Game 6 of the NLCS and today felt like 17 years — it was excruciatingly long and boring. I thought this day would never come! Hopefully, you are as excited for the start of the 2011 season as I am.

Early in March, I recruited some of my favorite Phillies bloggers to preview the upcoming season as best as they could. Last year’s blogger roundtable was well-received; this year, I aimed to include fewer bloggers to remove the clutter while keeping the same high level of analysis. Below, you can see the participants along with where you can read their work and find them on Twitter.

Name Writing Twitter
Eric Seidman FanGraphsBrotherly Glove @EricSeidman
Corey Seidman Phillies NationBrotherly Glove @CoreySeidman
Matt Swartz Baseball Prospectus @Matt_Swa
Michelle O’Malley NBCChicks Dig the Long Ball @M_OMalley
Michael Baumann Phillies Nation @AtomicRuckus
Paul Boye Phillies Nation @Phrontiersman
Ryan Sommers Chasing Utley @Phylan

1. Given the news about Chase Utley’s tendinitis, what do you think are realistic expectations from the second baseman in 2011?

E. Seidman: As pessimistic as this sounds, fans should expect absolutely nothing from Utley this season, and should treat anything he provides as a bonus. Nobody is 100 percent certain about the diagnosis of his injury, let alone the proper course of treatment, and even if he resorts to surgery there is no guarantee of a complete recovery. I would estimate that he will be back in action sometime around August, but that it will be the Zombie Utley we saw at times last year… you know, the Utley that hits .270/.335/.450. That slash line would still represent an upgrade over Castillo/Barfield/Valdez, which is pretty sad. The most realistic scenario is that Utley plays about 65 games this year and posts a slash line similar to the estimation above. If he can do that, I’ll be thrilled, though I am preparing myself for the worst: that he won’t play at all.

O’Malley: Chase Utley is walking a thin line right now. Either he gets knee surgery now (and I am not at all qualified to say whether he should or not) and has a chance at coming back later in the season and for the playoffs, or he waits until he feels good enough to play, and takes a chance on either getting hurt (and needing surgery) or finishing out the year (and probably getting surgery in the offseason). Realistically I think we see a lot of Luis Castillo/Wilson Valdez/Placido Polanco/whoever the Phillies are most comfortable with at second from day to day, and very, very little Chase Utley in 2011.

Sommers: You wouldn’t know it from how it was covered, but Utley managed to battle through slumps and a power-sapping thumb injury last year to put up another great season. It wasn’t his usual caliber, but  a 130 wRC+ from a second baseman, especially one with defense as good as Utley’s, is something that all 30 teams in the league would take. That, taken together with his .288 BABIP (when Beyond the Boxscore had his xBABIP pegged at .302), was enough assuage any worries I might have had for his 2011.

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This obviously changed with the press conference about his patellar tendinitis and chondromalacia. The fact that team officials have been so typically tight-lipped about it has left fans and press with only whatever wild speculation they care to engage in, and there’s been no shortage of that. It has also made any kind of projection for Utley’s 2011 impossible. The fact that they’ve not opted for surgery doesn’t really tell us much, since it’s not indicated for his condition most of the time. It’s clear the team is pursuing every last rehab protocol they can come up with, which is encouraging. Since we’re all effectively guessing, I’ll take an optimistic tack and predict a mid-July return for Utley. Since he didn’t seem to have any trouble taking batting practice with the condition, one could hope it won’t cause long term offensive depletion, even if it does hamper his defensive range. So I’ll extend my optimism to his batting line, and guess .280/.385/.485 upon his return. He’ll be worth perhaps 2.5 to 3 wins for the Phils in 2011, in the absolute best case scenario.

2. What does Jimmy Rollins’ future look like? Is he wearing a Phillies uniform after 2011?

Baumann: I’m actually bullish on Rollins this season. He was a 2.3-win player in 2010, while missing about 40 percent of the worst season of his life. Rollins, who turned 32 this offseason, will still be an elite defender and percentage basestealer for years to come. Let’s assume he stays healthy and his BABIP (.251 in 2009 and .246 in 2010) returns to somewhere in the neighborhood of his career average of .290—there’s a lot to be excited about. Rollins, like Ryan Howard, had a different approach to hitting last year, but it actually paid off for J-Roll: a career high in walk rate, a career low in strikeout rate, and for the first time in his career, Rollins walked more than he struck out. The result: an almost-identical wOBA from 2009-10, despite a 49-point drop in SLG. If he keeps his walks up and his strikeouts down, and stays in the lineup, Rollins could return not to the level of his flukish 2007 MVP campaign, but to the 4-5 WAR player he’s been for the rest of his career.

Now, will he be a Phillie after 2011? It depends on how much he costs, and who else wants him. Certainly, the Phillies could allocate some of the $23 million they won’t be paying Raul Ibanez and Brad Lidge in 2012 to a Rollins deal, but as age advances, the wisdom of an extension could be debated. Gun to my head, I’d say yes, but I don’t know what the cost or eventual wisdom of such a deal would be.

Boye: The future of Jimmy Rollins probably looks something not unlike Omar Vizquel’s. Vizquel, a good defender even into his early forties, was able to still be useful despite his diminishing bat. It’s becoming more difficult to justify his presence as anything more than a bench player these days given that his ability to play the field at all has faded, but he’s still provided plenty of value in his time. Rollins could follow the same path – through their respective age 31 seasons, their offensive numbers do bear some similarity – assuming he stays healthy. Figuring Rollins to stick around as long as Vizquel is a bit of a stretch, but every team can find use for excellent SS defense, which I expect Rollins to maintain for a few more years.

As for being in Philly beyond this season, yes, I believe he’ll be here.

Swartz: There are only a handful of shortstops capable of playing at the level that Rollins does, and there is a big difference between how those shortstops play and how the rest of shortstops play. Most teams that have competitive teams in large markets have one of those shortstops right now. What team values Rollins more than the Phillies do? They’ll squeeze each other for a while and make threats, but I’d bet they’ll get it done at the price it takes to outbid the Giants or whoever else is involved.

3. How comfortable are you with a starting outfield of Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, and Ben Francisco?

C. Seidman: Right now, not very. If Ben Francisco and his beautiful connected swing can take that next step most believe he is capable of, “not very” turns to “comfortable.” Victorino has said several times this offseason that he has re-committed himself to getting on base and increasing his weak OBP. Ibanez should put together a similar line to 2011. Francisco is the key; in a perfect world, he slides in to the number five hole and stays there.

Baumann: Not at all, and not for the reasons you might think. I’m actually not too worried about them offensively, particularly in terms of replacing Jayson Werth. Ideally, the Phillies would have platooned at both corner outfield positions—Francisco and Ibanez in left, and Brown and a cheap free agent outfielder who hits lefties well, Marcus Thames, for instance.

But since that’s not in the cards, and because Francisco and Ibanez are both average hitters with pretty big platoon splits, Ibanez could hit in the middle of the order against righties and Francisco could hide, and the reverse against lefties. It’s not ideal, but it’s perfectly satisfactory.

Where I’m going to miss Jayson Werth most is in the field. As a left fielder, Ibanez is not quite as bad as Pat Burrell, but he’s not that great. And despite the Gold Gloves, Victorino actually hasn’t been a great defensive player since moving from right field in 2008.

Sommers: Were we likely to get a full season from Chase Utley, I would be reasonably comfortable, but obviously that’s no longer the case. My ideal scenario, one which likely had no chance from the start, would have been an Ibanez/Francisco platoon in left, Victorino in center, and Domonic Brown the full time starter in right. Francisco posted a .384 wOBA against lefties last year, Ibanez .352 against right-handers, and their career numbers bear out similar talent levels. I’m a little sad that I won’t be able to see the possibilities of a strict platoon protocol for those two realized; it could have been tremendous.

Meanwhile, for all the talk of platooning Brown, curtailing the playing time of your mega-prospect is one of the better ways to make a bust out of him, and he’d never learn how to hit lefties if he were prevented from facing any. Of course, Dom went down with a hamate bone injury in spring training, and my optimal lineup dreams were dashed. You go to bat with the roster you have, not the one you want, and, that being said, the Phillies could do far worse. Francisco, Victorino, and Ibanez all fared well in wRC+ last year, all 7 to 11% above league average, despite  rather maddening offensive droughts from the latter two.

The real worry, I think, is just how defensively ugly this outfield will be. I don’t think I need to say much here about Raul Ibanez’s defense. Ben Francisco doesn’t have a very large sample from which we can evaluate quantitatively, but so far there is no indication that he’s a particularly good defender, and I think most eye tests would agree. Victorino, for all his gold gloves and popular perception, is just not a very good defender in center. He is a classic example of how speed in the field is squandered by poor tracking abilities. Add in the specter of Ross Gload seeing some playing time in the outfield, a possibility repeatedly raised by Charlie Manuel this spring, and you have a real circus in the Citizens Bank Park grass, and not the good kind.

While the Ibanez/Victorino/Francisco configuration could be well above average offensively, the amount of value that they’ll give back in the field is a serious concern. Over the last three years, the Phillies have gotten an average of 9.3 wins per year out of their starting outfielders (by bWAR). If this trio has to play a whole season (which hopefully will not be the case), expect that number to be closer to 7 for 2011.

4. Which of the Phillies’ four aces will have the worst season?

Swartz: The one with the highest BABIP? The difference between the pitchers in skill level is only about half a run or so, while the standard deviation in BABIP has a larger affect on ERA than that. The pitchers with the highest ERA won’t necessarily be the pitcher who pitched the worst at all. I guess I’d bet on Oswalt over Hamels.

O’Malley: Cliff Lee. I’m concerned with his delivery and that he’s putting too much pressure on his back. He spent some time on the bench last year because of some back issues and they’re only going to get worse as he gets older. It will be hard for Halladay to top the year he had last season, but he hasn’t given anyone anything to be concerned about this spring. Hamels is in his prime right now, and as long as he keeps his focus in the right place like he did last season he’s going to be virtually unstoppable as well. Oswalt on a bad day is still better than Kyle Kendrick on a great day. It’ll be a fairly evenly matched season between all five pitchers, I think, but if I had to pick one for the worst based on my gut feeling, it would be Cliff Lee.

Boye: Roy Oswalt seems the logical choice here. For years, he was considered one of the most underrated starters in the league, and his ’05-’07 seasons were really quite good. Now, though, as he approaches his mid-thirties, the effects of aging may start to become a real concern. Though his ERA with the Phillies (1.74) was wonderful, it seems that was more a product of a .221 BABIP and a by-far-career-high strand rate of 86 percent. This was alongside a drop in strikeout rate, and while it’s difficult to infer too much from 80 or so innings of work from a starter, it stands to reason that Oswalt has the most ground to lose on the likes of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.

5. Are you worried about Roy Oswalt’s back problems?

Baumann: Not really. He’s been phenomenally durable over the course of his career, with at least 30 starts each season since 2003. Of course, as he gets later and later into his 30s, those little niggling injuries might start keeping him out of the lineup, a phenomenon we’re certainly seeing with Chase Utley right now. But I’ll pencil him in for 30-plus starts until he proves he can’t do that.

C. Seidman: Yes, but only because he seems to be. If you delve into his responses to questions, especially the one asked at that hokey 5-starter press conference from the beginning of Spring Training, you can see subtle apprehension from Oswalt. I could see him missing a handful of starts due to injury, and maybe one or two more when the Phillies have a comfortable September lead.

6. Is Joe Blanton still in Phillies pinstripes after July 31?

E. Seidman: Yup. Blanton isn’t going anywhere unless the Phillies are in absolutely dire need of someone to fill in at a specific position that isn’t already plagued with injuries. Otherwise, I see no need to move him, and I believe the Phillies are in agreement. For some reason, fans seem to think of Blanton as this expendable piece, when he would be the #3 starter on practically 2/3 of the teams in the sport. Not only is he not going anywhere, but he is going to have a very good season as well, which will even further the discussion that is one of the best all-around starting rotations in history.

O’Malley: I’m probably the biggest Joe Blanton fan there is, so it’s hard for me to say it, but no. I think if the Phillies find themselves between a rock and a hard place due to injuries, offensive troubles, whatever, they’ll shop Blanton at the trade deadline. I would hate – hate – to see him go, and I’ve been advocating for him as long as he’s been on staff, but I think the club is going to learn from their mistakes last year and pay more attention to their needs outside of starting pitching if necessary. They may need some bats, they may need some life in the bullpen. If they need anything at all, Blanton is probably the first to go in return.

Swartz: Yes. What are the odds that none of the four pitchers have an injury between now and then that gives the Phillies pause?  If they each had only a 16% chance of being injured, there would be a 50% chance that one of them one would be. I hope they are all healthy all year, but that’s not something to have faith in.

7. Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson can both become free agents after the season. Do you keep both, neither, or one of them? And if you keep one, which one and why?

Boye: Slam dunk: I keep Madson. He seems to have made the jump to “elite” reliever, and Brad Lidge’s 2012 option is for $12.5 million with a $1.5 million buyout. Paying that much for a relief pitcher is nuts, especially for one who is clearly no longer in his prime. Madson seems in line to make up to $7 million annually in his next deal, assuming he stays in a non-saving role this season, and that’s $5 million saved that can be put toward finding a new starting left fielder when Raul Ibanez also departs after this season. Madson is no slam dunk to be as good as he was in 2010 for years to come, but I sure like his odds better than Lidge, especially at a discount.

O’Malley: I would keep Madson. I’d love to keep Lidge as well, but being a nice guy only gets you so far if you have a different pitching arm related injury every few months. This does not mean I would keep Madson to be the closer, though, by any stretch of the imagination. Say what you will, but his opponents’ batting average is almost thirty points higher in the ninth inning than it is in the seventh and either, and his BABIP is almost forty points higher. He’s allowed more homeruns in the ninth in 90 games than he has in the eighth in 214 games. His ERA in save situations is 4.20, compared to his 2.57 ERA in non-save situations. Lidge may be Charlie Manuel’s closer, but the Phillies are going closer shopping this November. Or at least, they should be.

Sommers: I’m tempted to say keep Madson and let Lidge walk, but the most prudent answer may be to keep neither one. I feel like I’ve been watching a Ryan Madson “endless debate” video for the last two years, mostly on this very blog. As you’ve extensively covered, Madson’s “closing concerns” are just a mess of sensational reporting and cognitive biases. His fastball has averaged 95 miles per hour in 2009, and about 94 miles per hour in 2010, 10-12 miles per hour than a changeup that is widely regarded as one of the best in baseball. That changeup, by the way, had the second best whiff rate in baseball. He’s averaged 8.8 K/9 and 3.6 K/BB in the last 3 years, numbers that peaked in 2010 at 10.9 and 2.2 respectively. Since 2008, of Phillies pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched, only Hamels, Halladay, and Oswalt have gotten outs more efficiently than Madson — he has the fourth lowest opponent OBP of that set (.299).

He has the best stuff, he misses the most bats, and he keeps the most men off base of any Phillies reliever. He is without question the best reliever on the Phillies, and certainly one of the best in the league. All of this screams “highest leverage reliever.” With Manuel at the helm, the Phillies are bound to traditional bullpen roles, so that means closer. And yet the fans, media, and general manager seem content to ignore these facts in favor of a flawed, century-old statistic and some rather ridiculous observational anecdotes.

Lidge, for his part, made a nice recovery last year, posting a 137 ERA+ over 45.2 innings pitched, but he continued to struggle with walks, to the tune of a 4.7 BB/9. He benefited substantially from his .250 BABIP over that period, and, in any case, does not begin to stack up to Madson in stuff, health or overall value. The problem with Madson, of course, is that he is about to become more expensive, particularly if management gets wise and dubs him the closer. He is already making an average annual value of $4 million on his current contract, and is not going to re-up at that rate. With any significant number of saves under his belt in 2011, the market for him will be fierce, and could drive his price up to $7 or $8 million per year, which is more than Amaro may be willing to pay, and, frankly, a bit above the threshold of what I’d want my team to shell out for a reliever. With the payroll as high as it is, the Phillies could make better investments with that sort of money than a relief pitcher, as volatile as they can be (even ones as good as Madson). If you’re going to overpay for a reliever, Madson is certainly one to do it for, but I don’t think it would be the optimal move, as much as I want to see him remain a Phillie.

Seidman:

Prior to the news that Lidge would miss about half of the season, I said this:

It’s easy to gravitate towards the Keep-Madson-and-cut-Lidge camp, but this isn’t as cut and dried. The issue is if Madson insists on being a closer. If that’s the case, then you buy out Lidge’s option after the year, and make sure that Madson signs an extension during the season. If Madson is okay with being the setup man, what I’d like to see is Lidge’s option be bought out, but for the team to negotiate his return at a lesser price. At $12.5 million, Lidge isn’t very valuable. But if he agrees to a massive pay cut and is willing to sign a 2-yr, $6 million deal? I think I’d go for that. But again, if Madson “demands” to close, the decision is much more straightforward, as he is younger and the far superior pitcher.

With the news that Lidge will miss half of the season, my answer can be reduced to simply: sign Madson, part ways with Lidge unless he’s willing to accept some deal with a very low base that oozes incentives.

8. How do you feel about the rest of the Phillies’ bullpen going into 2011?

Baumann: I think it’ll be fine, but I also think they’re approaching it wrong. I think Lidge will ride the ragged edge, but ultimately be fine. I think Madson, even at age 30, continues to improve. Apart from those two, I would have liked to see the Phillies hand the keys to the kingdom over to the youngsters. Contreras and Romero are fine, and Baez won’t be around much longer, but they’re all average at best. I’d rather have my “average” come from unknown quantities like Justin De Fratus, Mike Stutes, Scott Mathieson, Vance Worley, and Antonio Bastardo. The Phillies have no shortage of potential middle relievers in the high minors, and with a good offense and great starting pitching ahead of them, and a good defensive team behind them, guys like that are going to succeed now, if ever.

C. Seidman: Comfortable. Many think it is a weakness, but I don’t. The starters will eat a ton of innings. Realistically, the bullpen may pitch 9 total innings each time through the rotation, with 6-7 of them being Contreras and Madson. The light workload will help. Danys Baez can only improve. I anticipate strong LOOGY numbers from Romero.

Boye: It’s fine. Losing Chad Durbin’s ability to go more than one inning effectively is something that might be missed if Kyle Kendrick is asked to do the same this season, but I have no grave concerns about anyone else. They have their flaws, sure, but assuming their workloads are, in fact, limited with the presence of this starting rotation, my worries are limited. Sure Contreras may be 57, Lidge’s velocity and command are whittling, Romero can’t stop walking people and Danys Baez exists, but something still tells me things could be a lot worse. That’s not to say I’ll be Mariano Rivera-like comfortable, but the pins and needles will be dull.

E. Seidman:

Sommers: It varies depending on who you ask, but the others will probably be Romero, Contreras, Bastardo, Kendrick, Herndon, and Baez. There were some rumblings today that Michael Stutes might be a dark horse in the mix, but considering that it would require some 40-man maneuvering, I’ll ignore that for now. While I would rather have seen Baez released and possibly launched into space in a sealed S.S. Botany Bay type of deal, I actually find this pen to be acceptable, if it were used optimally.

This means that Romero can’t face 74 right-handed batters again, as he did in 2010. In fact, it would be preferable if he didn’t face any at all, although I suppose a few over the course of the season would be inevitable. It means that Baez should be banished to mop-up duty only, and Kendrick restricted to righties (who’ve hit just .258/.303/.397 against him in his career) in low to medium leverage situations. It means Contreras should log a lot of innings if he stays healthy, and preferably most of the high leverage situations that aren’t pitched by Ryan Madson.

I don’t exactly mean to say that Manuel should stand around in the dugout with an iPad displaying leverage and run expectancy tables (although, now that I think about it . . .), but he has the opportunity, especially considering the starting rotation, to squeeze a lot of value out of a group that isn’t exactly awe-inspiring if he just breaks some tired traditions and optimizes their use. Unfortunately, it’s almost certain he will stick with traditional bullpen rules. Whether this will be the difference between a sub-par pen and an effective one remains to be seen, but I suspect that it might.

9. Do you think the Phillies did an adequate job with the bench, or do you think they could have done more?

Swartz: I would have liked a right-handed hitter who could hit the ball out of the park, but it’s tough to criticize putting all of their resources towards signing an ace below his market price.

E. Seidman: Schneider as a backup catcher is solid, and Gload is a great pinch-hitter. Wilson Valdez is perfectly fine as the jack-of-all-positions player. John Mayberry deserves a shot and can spell Victorino in center field at times. Those last two spots are iffy, but I’d rather the team take a flier on Josh Barfield than spend millions of dollars on formerly good players who won’t get more than 100 PA. Overall, the bench is fine. It’s not incredibly deep with talent, but it has players who do certain things very well. The bench is built to help a team with healthy starters, but not make up for lost production if those starters go down.

C. Seidman: They should have done more, and I suspect they will at some point before the deadline. That being said, I love the versatility that Delwyn Young brings and pray that he makes the team. I am still not sold whatsoever on John Mayberry. That is the spot that needs to be productive. If Mayberry makes the spot productive, I’d gladly eat crow.

. . .

Over/Unders

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In the comments below, feel free to leave your own replies to the questions, or comment on the answers left by the seven bloggers that participated in this roundtable. Thanks Eric, Corey, Matt, Michelle, Paul, Michael, and Ryan for participating! Please check out their blogs and follow them on Twitter, they’re a big reason why the Phillies fan community is so great. Speaking of which, check out this squaretable with some more pillars of the Phillies blogosphere.

Lidge Out 3-6 Weeks; Contreras Named Closer

A couple important pieces of news came out today regarding the fates of Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, and Jose Contreras.

Via Todd Zolecki’s Twitter:

More from the ballpark: Lidge expected to miss 3 to 6 weeks.

Via Matt Gelb’s Twitter:

Not at the ballpark but colleague Ray Parrillo passes this along: Charlie says Contreras would be his closer right now.

And:

Lidge diagnosed with “posterior rotator cuff strain.” Billy Wagner had same injury with Phillies in 2004. Missed 44 days.

Obviously, I would have preferred to have seen Madson given the closer’s role, but it’s not a big deal. Yeah, ninth innings are typically higher-leverage than eighth innings, but if you recall my post on Madson from March 2:

The reality is that Madson, in the eighth, tends to face the heavy-hitters. In 2010, the opposing 3-6 hitters in the batting order accounted for 48 percent of all batters faced by Madson while the bottom of the order accounted for 25 percent. Lidge faced the 3-6 hitters 39 percent of the time and the 7-9 hitters 36 percent.

Additionally, the move may have financial implications. Madson becomes a free agent after the season. Closers make significantly more money than other relievers due to the perceived significance of the inning in which they pitch. Matt Thornton is arguably one of the ten best relievers in baseball, but since he wasn’t a closer, he could only manage a two-year, $12 million extension with the Chicago White Sox last year. Lidge signed a three-year contract extension in July 2008 worth $37.5 million. Closers make bank; set-up guys do not, unless your name is Rafael Soriano and you play for the New York Yankees.

By intentionally deflating Madson’s save opportunities, the Phillies effectively remove some of his leverage at the negotiating table, making him cheaper to retain. That is a good thing, generally speaking.

However, this move can have an adverse effect as well. Madson has gone on record saying he would like to both close and finish his career with the Phillies. If they are unwilling to give him the opportunity to close in 2011, he may be skeptical that he will ever get the opportunity and take his services elsewhere after the season.

Those are longer-term worries, though. Contreras is not chopped liver by any means. Pitching mostly in the seventh inning last year, Contreras averaged better than a strikeout per inning while issuing few walks. He allowed only five home runs in over 56 innings as his 94+ MPH fastball and 88 MPH slider effectively kept hitters off balance for most of the season.

Contreras can thrive in the closer’s role while Madson continues to pitch where he has been most comfortable in the eighth inning. Fantasy baseball players may be pulling their hair out, but this recent turn of events is rather insignificant.

Jimmy Rollins: X-Factor

Check out the Philadelphia Phillies preview on ESPN.

This spring, several key players have run afoul of Basebaal, God of Baseball. The Phillies now more than ever need to rely on their old standbys. Who knows when Chase Utley will have the opportunity to grace the Citizens Bank Park infield again? Will Brad Lidge‘s fastball ever come back? What if Basebaal selects another Phillies ace to take a line drive to the cranium? (After all, he has already chosen Brett Myers and Roy Oswalt.)

In thinking about who the Phillies’ X-factor really is, I had to think about what an X-factor really is. After Googling, I learned that it is a British television singing competition, one I’m assuming is similar to American Idol. That doesn’t really help me. Instead, I’m going to make up my own definition.

An X-factor is a player whose contributions are both very important and highly variable or unknown.

To me, there is only one Phillies player who satisfies that definition: Jimmy Rollins.

On one hand, you have his highly productive eleven-year career, including his winning the 2007 MVP award and authoring one of four 20/20/20/20 seasons in baseball history. He has consistently been an elite fielder and a great base runner. While his contributions at the plate have garnered him the most praise, they illustrate but one part of his abilities.

On the other hand, you have his last two seasons, terribly marred by injury and an impotent bat.  In the past two seasons, he has missed 21 days without landing on the disabled list, and missed another 68 days with two DL-stints due to last year’s right calf strains. At the plate, Rollins could only muster a .316 and .317 wOBA in 2009 and ’10, respectively. In the previous five seasons, Rollins’ lowest wOBA was .341 in ’05.

In terms of WAR (via FanGraphs), Rollins went from a 6.3 WAR player in ’07 to a 2.3 WAR player last year.

During the off-season, the Phillies said goodbye to Jayson Werth, a 5 WAR player. And, of course, Utley has been sidelined. From 2005-09, Utley produced about 7.5 WAR on average. The Phillies are ill-prepared to replace either of them, let alone both of them.

In right field, Ben Francisco is expected to get at least half of the playing time. He can very generously be considered a 1.5 WAR player and his potential platoon mate Ross Gload is generously 0.5 WAR. At second base, the Phillies have a glut of potential contributors but none of them project as anything better than replacement-level — PECOTA projects exactly none of Luis Castillo, Wilson Valdez, Josh Barfield, Michael Martinez, and Pete Orr posting an OPS above .650.

If the Phillies aren’t going to get tremendous production out of right field and second base like they’re used to, then players at other positions are going to have to contribute. Rollins has the highest ceiling for contributions because he is more than just a bat. Unlike Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco, Ryan Howard, and Carlos Ruiz, Rollins can not only hit, but play Gold Glove-caliber defense and wipe 40 bags with a success rate exceeding 80 percent.

PECOTA projects a .316 OBP and a .417 SLG for Rollins. The average shortstop in the National League last year posted a .325 OBP and a .388 SLG. If Rollins can match or exceed his PECOTA projection while staying on the field for a vast majority of the season, the defense and base running should follow. With no finger-crossing, hoping for a fluke season, Rollins by himself can help the Phillies reclaim a portion of the 12-plus wins they lost in Werth and Utley.

Rollins is the Phillies’ biggest X-factor. According to my hastily-created definition, I don’t even think there is a close competitor. People always claim that “as Rollins goes, so go the Phillies” which was probably not accurate in previous years. This year, however, it will absolutely be the case. The Phillies’ run at a fifth-consecutive playoff berth hinges on Rollins regressing up to his mean.

Be sure to check out ESPN for season previews as the regular season approaches.

The One Stat About Ryan Madson Everyone Must Know

As expected, Brad Lidge is back on the disabled list. That, of course, means Ryan Madson will be getting some save opportunities. With that, expect many Phillies fans to express their disdain with Madson in the ninth inning. They’ll cite his psychology, but they’ll cite his ninth-inning failures as well. The truly dedicated will have both in their arsenal.

Madson has 24 blown saves in his career, which sounds like a lot for someone who hasn’t been asked to close many games. Think about the save statistic first. How does one earn them? One cannot earn a save in any inning except the one prior to the end of the game, which is the ninth inning the majority of the time. However, one can earn a blown save in the seventh, eighth, ninth, and extra innings.

Here’s the breakdown of Madson’s blown saves:

  • Before the ninth inning: 17 of 24 (71 percent)
  • Ninth inning or later: 7 of 24 (29 percent)

Only about one-third of Madson’s blown saves are “real” blown saves.

Additionally, of his 24 blown saves, only 13 (54 percent) have been earned since the start of the 2008 season, when Madson became a key cog in the Phillies’ bullpen. 13 blown saves in three seasons is an average of about four per season, which sounds pretty normal if you ask me.

Finally, here’s another interesting statistic just to leave you feeling full:

Despite pitching mostly 8th innings, Madson has faced the heart of the lineup as much as Lidge. Since 2008, the #3-6 hitters have accounted for 45.2 percent of batters Madson has faced; Lidge faced the #3-6 hitters 44.5 percent of the time. Last year, Madson held the middle of the order to a .681 OPS.

I’m fine with Madson in the ninth inning. You should be, too.

What Do People See in Wilson Valdez?

The poll depicted on the right accompanied Bob Brookover’s post on Chase Utley‘s addition to the disabled list on the Phillies Zone blog on Philly.com. The question asks readers their preferred starting second baseman for Opening Day (and presumably for as long as Utley is out). At the time I perused the website, 137 ballots had been cast, with an overwhelming 75 percent of them in favor of Wilson Valdez.

137 is not the largest of sample sizes, but it is more than enough for us to know that Valdez’s 63 percent lead over Luis Castillo is not a fluke, unless someone felt the urgent need to mechanically inflate Valdez’s vote total for an otherwise meaningless Internet poll.

My immediate reaction to this was, “What on Earth do people see in Wilson Valdez that I don’t?” This question is spawned from more than just the results of that poll. On Twitter several weeks ago, I engaged in a discussion with a Phillies fan who swore that Valdez was way more valuable than Sabermetric illustrated. Last year, Valdez posted 0.9 WAR per FanGraphs and was worth a shade under $4 million — not bad, considering the Phillies signed him to a Minor League contract before the season.

Going deeper into his stats, we find that he was rather unimpressive with the bat. Spending most of his time at second base and shortstop, Valdez posted a .306 on-base percentage and a .360 slugging percentage, both numbers below the average .333 OBP and .387 SLG for National League second basemen, and the .325 OBP and .388 SLG for shortstops. PECOTA expects him to be worse in 2011, projecting a .309 OBP and .333 SLG.

Defensively, Valdez certainly didn’t hurt. He was about average at second base and slightly above-average at shortstop. His Aggregate Defensive Rating, which is like the sampler platter of defensive metrics (found at FanGraphs) was +1 at second base and +3 at shortstop, both with a standard error plus or minus 1.

Going forward, we should expect Valdez to be about replacement level overall. Light-hitting infielders with good defense aren’t valueless, but these qualities certainly don’t make Valdez the obvious candidate at second base that most Phillies fans seem to think he is. It seems most fans fell in love with his strong arm and supposed clutchness, which biases their comparisons with other similarly-skilled candidates. He’s really interchangeable with the rest of the crew.

2011 PECOTA Projections
Name OBP SLG OPS
W. Valdez .309 .333 .642
L. Castillo .335 .292 .627
M. Martinez .270 .345 .615
J. Barfield .274 .336 .610
P. Orr .272 .335 .607

Miscellany

Once again, Crashburn Alley has advanced in the Phillies blog bracket The Phield. We received the most votes of any other blog that was still alive. The road ahead will be tough: the next match-up is with Phillies Nation.

I am flattered with how strongly voters represented Crashburn Alley and can only hope that the support persists throughout the tournament. There’s no tangible prize at the end, just validation that what we do as bloggers does make a difference. Sorry for getting mushy, but I was floored by the results and am extremely grateful. You, the reader, are really what makes this blog (and others) great — you are the fuel that keeps us going.

The John Dewan Rule

Ask any Saberist what they think about spring training, and you are likely to get the same answer across the board: “It’s meaningless.” And they’re right, almost entirely. Spring training really is a breeding ground for bad analysis for a multitude of reasons, most importantly the small sample sizes. Jimmy Rollins is currently the Phillies’ leader with 59 at-bats. As Eric Seidman listed here, the only two stats that become reliable between 50 and 100 trips to the plate are swing and contact rates.

When you break Rollins’ 59 AB down further, you find that he is not exactly facing premier Major League talent through and through. He is facing #5 starters vying for a job, middle-rotation guys working on a new pitch, and even Triple-A filler*. Sure, he faces the Jon Lesters of the world too, but those at-bats are not the overwhelming majority. Hitters are always tweaking things as well, such as the openness of their stance, their proximity to home plate, or the height of their hands prior to a swing a la Domonic Brown.

* Also known as the Yankees’ #3 starter. Boom! Roasted!

There is, however, one way to use spring training stats to get a general feel of the upcoming season. John Dewan was one of the few to foresee the breakout of Jose Bautista, who went from a previous career high 16 home runs to 54 last year.

How did he do it? By comparing hitters’ spring training slugging percentages to their career average slugging percentage. If the difference is 200 points or greater in favor of spring training, then the hitter has a 60 percent chance of a breakout season.

Here are the leaders in slugging percentage among Phillies with 35 or more AB this spring:

Player Pos AB SLG Car Avg DIFF
Pete Orr 2B 38 .553 .335 .218
Wilson Valdez 3B 47 .532 .326 .206
Ben Francisco OF 52 .635 .446 .189
Shane Victorino OF 51 .588 .428 .160
Ross Gload 1B 45 .533 .414 .119
John Mayberry OF 54 .630 .536 .094
Michael Martinez OF 54 .444 .368 .076
Josh Barfield 2B 40 .450 .375 .075
Ryan Howard 1B 51 .627 .572 .055
Raul Ibanez OF 51 .510 .476 .034

According to this theory, both Orr and Valdez are primed for breakout years, with Francisco on the cusp. Maybe the Phillies didn’t need Luis Castillo after all.

Obviously, apply extreme skepticism with this theory, but it’s fun to think about and it will be interesting to look back after the season to see how well it performed.

Miscellany

Crashburn Alley has advanced to the Sweet 16 in The Phield. The next match-up is against Recliner GM. With your help, Crashburn can advance to the Elite Eight, and hopefully win the whole damn thing.

Votes are accumulated with web polls; no longer is the e-mail system used. If you would like to support your favorite blogs, jump on over and vote for them.

The Worst of Sports Journalism

There’s been a lot of terrible sports journalism lately, but the last few days have reeked of it. Craig Calcaterra commented on T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times, who childishly attacked Marcus Thames‘ integrity. Meanwhile, poor sports journalist standby Jon Heyman has been assassinating the character of Luis Castillo on Twitter for the past few days.

From March 18:

Congrats to ollie p for outlasting Luis Castillo. #mets [Link]

not sure castillo gets a job. backup 2b aren’t in demand, even for the minimum. bad pub doesn’t help either. [Link]

its nothing personal on castillo. i just think hes a crummy player now w/ zero range who looks perpetually put off [Link]

March 20:

sorry, there is some human drama involving castillo and ollie.we all know the outcome of duke, i think. [Link]

via @JSalisburyCSN, #phillies signing Luis Castillo. personally, i think valdez/martinez/barfield are better 2b options [Link]

not a bad guy. no power (as u know), zero range (cant run anymore), exudes mopey-ness. other than that, hes great! [Link, was in response to @HowardEskin]

March 21:

#phillies signing of castillo smacks of 2b desperation. theyve said utley will likely miss opener. do they think he misses yr? [Link]

Ok, amaro just told media castillo signed for 10-day look. I feel better about phils. Tho I’d rather view valdez/barfield/martinez [Link]

Luis Castillo has now annoyed 2 managers in 1 spring over his arrival time. and his 10-day tryout is down to 9. #goodjob [Link]

Heyman also responded to several people who called him out on being overtly biased against Castillo. Even then, he couldn’t help but take unwarranted pot shots at the Phillies’ recent acquisition. Among other comments, he reminds readers that he likes Castillo more than his previous managers (which is to say not much), that Castillo has an “off the charts sense of entitlement”, and that he isn’t “so anxious to play”.

Twitter is a great tool for both journalists and fans of sports teams in that they get up-to-the-second sports news and analysis. When Bryce Harper sprained his ankle, fans knew within seconds and even had photographic evidence to boot. However, the downside of Twitter is that the same journalists who provide these important details can also provide their instant, unfiltered analysis.

Additionally, there’s been a Perez Hilton-ization of sports journalism, it seems. Simers and Heyman aren’t the only ones to openly bash and goad players, nor will they be the last. Recall Mandy Housenick’s completely unwarranted roasting of Jayson Werth as another recent example. Is this their attempt at staying relevant in a crowded sea of national writers, local writers, radio shock jocks, and bloggers?

Sadly, there are plenty of sports journalists who are professional, who keep their biases out of their reporting, and who don’t cast a bad light on their colleagues. We are forced to address the trolls like Simers and Heyman while ignoring the larger percentage of good reporters and writers. As long as these trolls have job security, this will always be the case because they will always have a platform to shout over everyone else.

An Encouraging Comparison

It seems that the longer spring training goes on, the more fans start to worry about the fate of the Phillies. It certainly doesn’t help when the players are dropping like flies. Shane Victorino was the latest Phillie to succumb to injury, colliding with Raul Ibanez in the outfield during the fifth inning of yesterday’s 4-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox. The official diagnosis was a bruised left eye and a sore jaw. Victorino joins Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, and Brad Lidge on the list of injured Phillies.

Perhaps 2011 is going to be even harder than the previous year for the Phils. Maybe the offense will decline significantly, their players succumbing to old age and injury. Maybe the pessimists were right after all.

I offer one comparison that may help assuage some concerns about the Phillies going forward: the 2005 Houston Astros. That team was led not by the Killer B’s, but by an elite starting rotation that included Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, and Roger Clemens. Each of the three crossed the 200-inning plateau, posting ERA’s at 2.94, 2.39, and 1.87 respectively. The Astros overall led the league, allowing only 3.74 runs per game compared to the 4.51 league average.

Those Astros also had an impressive late-innings corps in the bullpen: right-handers Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls, and Dan Wheeler. Each threw 70 or more innings, and posted respective ERA’s at 2.29, 3.28, and 2.21. The offense was uninspiring at best, averaging 4.25 runs per game, with only four regulars posting a wOBA over .305.

The Astros won 89 games (under-performing their Pythagorean expected record by two games) and the National League Wild Card. They lost the NL Central title to the St. Louis Cardinals, who won 100 games, but advanced to the World Series where they were vanquished by the Chicago White Sox in four games.

Final results aside, don’t the 2005 Astros sound a lot like the Phillies? Declining offense, elite pitching staff, elite back-end bullpen. Let’s compare, using VORP from Baseball Prospectus.

In ’05, Clemens, Pettitte, and Oswalt finished with respective VORP’s at 80.4, 72.3, and 65.2 for a total of about 218 VORP, or 22 wins. Brandon Backe added 10.3 more VORP, while Wandy Rodriguez and Ezequiel Astacio subtracted 1.5 and 5.6 from pitching poorly. Overall the starting rotation was worth about 221 VORP.

The 2010 Phillies starters’ VORP:

Overall, that’s 165 VORP. Prorating Oswalt’s 31.1 VORP in 82.2 innings to a normal workload (200 innings), we can theoretically bring him up to 75, adding another 44 VORP and bringing the Phillies up to 210. For the sake of completion, remove the contributions of Kendrick and Moyer, barely a blip on the radar.

What does PECOTA expect of the Phillies’ rotation going forward? That was discussed here last week and I established skepticism over PECOTA’s pessimism with regard to Halladay and Hamels. Halladay is expected to drop to 51.4 and Hamels 31.1. By itself, that represents a loss of 43.5 VORP or more than four wins. Additionally, I’m not so sure PECOTA fully grasps Hamels’ improvement last year thanks to a cut fastball and a much higher strikeout rate.

Let’s assume Halladay and Hamels are about as good as they were last year, and use PECOTA’s projections for the rest of the rotation. How do they compare?

  • Halladay: 75 VORP
  • Hamels: 50
  • Cliff Lee: 47
  • Oswalt: 36
  • Blanton: 9

The five combine for 217 VORP, or about 22 wins, better than last year and very close to the 2005 Astros. Not bad. How about the offense?

As mentioned, the Astros’ offense was nothing to write home about. Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg were in their own stratosphere (.399 and .395 wOBA, respectively), Jason Lane and Craig Biggio were slightly above average, and not much else. Overall, they averaged 0.2 runs per game less than the NL average, good for the 11th-best offense in the league. Among the eight regulars with 350+ plate appearances, they combined for 160 VORP.

Last year, the Phillies had nine players come to the plate at least 350 times. They combined for 246 VORP — vastly superior to the ’05 Astros. PECOTA is expecting the Phillies’ offense, sans Jayson Werth and with reduced playing time for Chase Utley and Domonic Brown, to post 187 VORP — still better than the ’05 Astros.

Finally, let’s look at the seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-inning guys in the bullpen. In ’05, Lidge, Qualls, and Wheeler combined for 64.5 VORP. Lidge, Ryan Madson, and Jose Contreras combined for 36 VORP last year. PECOTA sees the three combining for significantly less this year (below 10 VORP). I don’t buy it, but let’s roll with it.

For those keeping score at home, here’s what the scoreboard looks like:

  • 2005 Astros: Starting pitching (221), Offense (160), Bullpen (65); TOTAL 446
  • 2010 Phillies: Starting pitching (210), Offense (246), Bullpen (36); TOTAL 492
  • 2011 Phillies (projected): Starting pitching (217), Offense (187), Bullpen (10); TOTAL 414

Not bad. The 2011 Phillies project to be about three wins worse than the ’05 Astros, but I think the Phillies can easily make up that ground with the bullpen and some upward regression from some of the players who struggled last year, namely Jimmy Rollins. (Also note that the VORP calculations above did not include the rest of the bullpen or the benches.)

The ’05 Astros proved, in an era of extremely potent offenses, that you can still win with pitching. The Phillies may not be the offensive powerhouse they have been over the past five years, but with four of the best starters in baseball, they can match up with anybody. The Phillies’ current bout with old age and injury shouldn’t deter you from expecting good things going forward.

Reenactment: Luis Castillo Leaving Mets Camp

Via Andy McCullough:

This spring, he did not win the favor of the new regime. Before Castillo arrived, Terry Collins chided him publicly for not reaching camp early. Earlier this month, Collins scolded Castillo for not taking pregame ground balls when he was a designated hitter.

Castillo kept working. He lost 12 pounds during the offseason, begging his wife to feed him smaller portions, desperate to prove that “I can still play,” he said.

It was in vain. A player with his past had little place in the Mets’ future.

NSFW (language)

Luis Castillo Could Help the Phillies

The New York Mets released second baseman Luis Castillo yesterday, ending his tumultuous three and a half-year tenure in Queens.

Over the last few years, Castillo dealt with a slew of lower-body injuries, as detailed on his Baseball Injury Tool page. Last year, he spent 47 days on the disabled list with a left foot contusion. His poor offensive showing only added to the growing displeasure of Mets fans. Per Steve Popper:

Castillo and Oliver Perez entered camp as the albatrosses in the payroll, totaling $18 million this year between them and facing the anger of the fan base as symbols of the Mets’ troubles. Whether it was the too-big, too-long contract or simply the dropped pop-up in Yankee Stadium that did it, Castillo was booed at every turn by the home fans. [General manager Sandy] Alderson admitted the off-field perception factored into this decision.

The Phillies are dealing with some injury problems of their own. The future of Chase Utley is unknown and the Phillies must create contingency plans. Currently, they are auditioning largely unproven, relatively inexperienced infielders in Rule-5 pick Michael Martinez, Pete Orr, Josh Barfield, and Delwyn Young. None of the four players have had much success at the Major League level.

Also in the mix, of course, is Wilson Valdez. Valdez endeared himself to Phillies fans last year, filling in admirably as the Phillies’ infield succumbed to the injury bug. Overall, he finished with a .294 wOBA and played slightly above-average defense. Valdez and Castillo are very similar players in terms of general offensive output, but Castillo has better on-base skills, a factor the Phillies need to consider.

PECOTA projects Utley to post a .376 OBP. The second-highest among starters is Ryan Howard at .351. The Phillies simply do not have many players with good on-base skills. Valdez is projected at .309 and Castillo at .335.

Despite his injuries, Castillo set a career-high walk rate at 13 percent last year. Additionally, from 2002-09, he never finished with a wOBA lower than .315. Even in a dismal 2010, Castillo’s wOBA was at .285. In 732 Major League at-bats, Valdez has a paltry .271 career wOBA. Going forward, Castillo will be the better hitter even considering his age.

The Phillies can pick up Castillo for the Major League minimum (about $400,000) and use him in Utley’s stead if needed, with Valdez behind him on the depth chart. Castillo is not without risk, but for his cheap price, it is a risk worth taking. The combination of Castillo and Valdez is much better than Valdez and the winner of Martinez/Orr/Barfield/Young. And in the event that Utley is healthy, Castillo would serve as a useful pinch-hitter and pinch-runner.