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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?

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:

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.