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.