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.