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.

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12 comments

  1. Scott G

    March 22, 2011 11:53 AM

    The projected VORP fell short by 32. The Astros won the wild card. I don’t see how you can say this is encouraging. Btw, you decided the keep the starters VORPs pretty high as well. If any of them pitch worse, or God forbid get hurt, will that be significant enough to you to be a cause for concern?

  2. Bill Baer

    March 22, 2011 12:01 PM

    The projected VORP fell short by 32.

    “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.”

    Btw, you decided the keep the starters VORPs pretty high as well.

    I don’t think that was unreasonable. I think PECOTA is unreasonably pessimistic w/r/t Halladay and Hamels. For Halladay, I don’t think it fully accounts for the drastic change in environment (AL East is much more offensively-friendly than the NL East) and for Hamels, I don’t think it accounts for his legitimate improvement.

    If any of them pitch worse, or God forbid get hurt, will that be significant enough to you to be a cause for concern?

    Depends on who and for how long.

  3. Scott G

    March 22, 2011 12:30 PM

    Bill,

    I know you addressed the “three wins worse”. The Astros finished with 89 wins. Three wins worse would make them 86 (yes I know they undershot their pythagorean W/L), but I don’t feel good about 86 wins.

    Yes, you kept the bullpen projections low, and Rollins COULD overperform. Regardless, the title of this post is “Encouraging Comparison”. I don’t even think 89 wins is encouraging (assuming they come out with exactly the same VORP as the ’05 Astros). This team had 97 wins last year, and everyone thought that getting Cliff Lee was the answer. Everyone LOVED it. Well, I’m pretty sure they underestimated the loss of Jayson Werth.

    These comments aren’t necessarily saying that I’m predicting the Phillies will struggle (although I’ve said it here before), I’m just merely stating that 89 Ws isn’t what I would expect the FO to be shooting for at this point in time.

  4. Bill Baer

    March 22, 2011 12:32 PM

    I think people were off-base in expecting 95+ wins after the Lee signing and before the Utley news. I went on Steve Keane’s podcast a while ago and said that I would conservatively put the Phillies at 91-ish wins IIRC.

    The comparison to the 2005 Astros isn’t encouraging if you had unrealistic expectations of the Phillies going in.

  5. Gaël

    March 22, 2011 12:41 PM

    Something I’ve been wondering for a while (and I could be way off with this, but bear with me): doesn’t having a #1 starter in your 4th spot add more wins than having the same starter in your 1st spot (provided of course that you have aces in your 1-3 spots as well)?

    What I mean by that is that having Hamels perform like a #1 or #1a starter in the 4th spot should lead to more wins because he should be facing actual #4 starters most of the time, which means he should be getting more run support than if he were facing a #1 starter. Of course after a while, because of differences in schedules, that’s all shot to hell, but having four aces means you’re more likely to have an ace facing off against the opponent’s ace AND to have an ace facing off against their #4 starter.

    I’m not sure I’m being entirely clear here, sadly. Does that make sense at all? Is that worth mentioning, or do we think the effect would be so negligible and unpredictable that we shouldn’t consider it? I don’t think that’s something to which you can actually give a specific value, but should we take that into account when discussing the upcoming season, even if it’s just to say, “well, there’s no way to actually quantify this stuff, but it’s worth keeping in mind?”

  6. Scott G

    March 22, 2011 12:57 PM

    How is 89 wins when expecting 91 encouraging? I’m sorry, I must be missing something. Unless you’re saying that since they undershot the Pyt W/L by 2, then it’s exactly the same expectation.

    I guess my qualm is: Why sign Lee to an enormous contract (instead of Werth) if it’s going to decrease the team’s success so much. No the Phillies weren’t going to come anywhere close to the 7/$147 the Nats gave Werth, but that offer only surfaced because the Phillies spit on Werth with 3/$45 (I THINK that was the offer). If the Phillies offered him 5/$100, you don’t think he would have taken it before the Nats offered so much?

  7. Bill Baer

    March 22, 2011 01:00 PM

    Gael, because of off-days and such, the schedules rarely align past the first couple weeks. Your #1 will infrequently match up against the other team’s #1. So Hamels as a #4 rather than a #1 is good because it means the Phillies have three similarly-skilled or better starters ahead of him.

    Scott, I’m not expecting the Phillies to win 97 games again. It seems like you are, and that’s why you’re not buying the comparison. I’m suggesting that the 97-win expectation was unrealistic. I’m completely fine with the current team being around a 90-win team. That’s not bad, you know.

  8. Gaël

    March 22, 2011 01:10 PM

    Bill: Yeah, we’re on the same page about that. My question, if you will, had more to do with the way a pitcher’s VORP is calculated (not at all familiar with the formula, sorry). Is it calculated in a vacuum, meaning that it would give Hamels the same score whether he pitched first or fourth in the rotation? Or does it take into account the fact that, thanks to having four #1 and #1a guys on their rotation, the Phillies will generally have a #1 guy facing both the opponent’s #1 and #4 starters?

    I’m asking because, much like Rebecca Black, I can’t make up my mind whether that’s something that would have so limited an impact that it isn’t worth taking into account (or is somehow included in VORP already, perhaps because of that very reason) or if it’s something that can’t be quantified and thus can’t be included in the stats but should be kept in mind.

  9. Scott G

    March 22, 2011 01:44 PM

    Sorry for all the lengthy questions, but thank you for the continued responses.

    Why though? Was 97 a fluke? They too overshot their Pyth W/L by 2. If expectations should be lower, then shouldn’t the FO also know that this team would drop off, and choose to keep Werth? I think I’m just confused. What did the projections say about the 2010 Phillies? and I just went back and realized that this staff is expected to have 7 more VORP than the 2010 Phillies. Even with Cliff Lee. I definitely agree that the projection is low in that realm, but offensively, the loss of Werth is where this team really takes a hit.

    90 Ws is bad if we want to be the best team in baseball, which should be the goal.

    Looking at that ’05 Astros team. They had two guys with wOBAs that won’t be approached by anyone on the Phillies team this year (even if Utley were healthy). Howard is your best option around .350. Ibanez should hover around there. Utley should as well. The rest of the team hovers around average (some slightly higher some slightly lower). Would you rather have 3 mid range (Utley, Howard, and Ibanez) and the rest average, or 2 studs, a couple above average, and the rest below average?

  10. Richard

    March 22, 2011 02:22 PM

    “Looking at that ’05 Astros team. They had two guys with wOBAs that won’t be approached by anyone on the Phillies team this year (even if Utley were healthy). Howard is your best option around .350. Ibanez should hover around there. Utley should as well. The rest of the team hovers around average (some slightly higher some slightly lower).”

    Scott, in 2009, both Utley and Howard were in the same stratosphere as those two Astros guys. Even last year, down years for both, they were both well above .350.

    Projections tend to be conservative. Last year, the Phillies beat both their overall projection and their pythag expectation. (I think they were projected to win 90-91, and pythag’d at 95.) Teams very rarely project to more than 94 wins or so.

    Werth is gone. Replacing him is difficult, no doubt, and I’d love to have him back, too. But he’s gone.

    I think Bill’s point is, in part, that run prevention is more reliable than run production.

  11. Dan

    March 22, 2011 03:19 PM

    Bill, Gael actually brings up a good point. You’re absolutely right that as the season progresses Hamels will probably stop matching up against #4 pitchers… but one of our pitchers will be. In every series at least ONE of our four aces will benefit from this (shall we call it) “slot system.” And that’s assuming Blanton starts against the #5 (which is also beneficial), Halladay starts against their #1, and then Lee gets the #2. For most clubs, Lee against the #2 is a mismatch in our favor. For all clubs (save, perhaps, the Giants) Blanton vs. a #5 is a mismatch in our favor.

    Anyways, what I’m getting at is this; perhaps our glut of pitching will give us more wins than their solo stats would suggest. In a vacuum, we can measure the success of pitchers, but what about when we take into account that they are genuinely affected by their teammates (in this case facing off against a “lesser” pitcher)?

    Who knows how much effect this will actually have, but it could result in another 95+ win season (knocks on wood).

  12. JB Allen

    March 23, 2011 01:48 PM

    Shouldn’t teams that rely more on pitching suffer more the whims of fortune? I mean, pitching-reliant teams will have more one-run games, right?

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