Breaking Down David Schoenfield’s Phillies Prediction

Note: Skip down to the bolded text if you’d like to avoid a rant. That’s where the real Phillies-related stuff begins.

ESPN’s David Schoenfield recently wrote an article about the Phillies that evoked some very negative reactions from Phillies fans. It’s titled, “Why the Phillies won’t make the playoffs“. Making that statement about the Phillies, who have reached the post-season in every season since 2007 and have assembled arguably the greatest starting rotation in baseball history, is going to generate some, uh, conversation. Accuscore gives the Phillies a 76 percent chance to make the playoffs, by far the largest in baseball, beating the Boston Red Sox at 67 percent.

Schoenfield definitely went out on a limb, but he did a good job of explaining his thought process that led him to such a conclusion. I haven’t seen his detractors provide much of a counter-argument. The majority of the commenters on his article left me feeling very disappointed, and I’ve seen many others dismiss him outright on Twitter, which is completely undeserved. Unfortunately, this is the downside of giving everybody a platform to make themselves heard. ESPN, of course, appeals to a much more mainstream demographic and Schoenfield’s heavy use of Sabermetrics and rational reasoning seems foreign.

I don’t agree with everything Schoenfield wrote. However, just because I disagree with him and he disparaged my favorite team doesn’t give me the right to question his integrity. A rational discussion between two people who disagree shouldn’t go like this:

  • Person 1: The Phillies will not make the playoffs. Here’s why.
  • Person 2: YOU HATE MY FAVORITE TEAM! YOU ARE BIASED AND COMPLETELY UNDESERVING OF A PAYCHECK!

This post from Tango (as do the rest of the posts on his blog) shows the way a rational discussion should take place.

  • Person 1: The Phillies will not make the playoffs. Here’s why.
  • Person 2: I disagree with your claim because your Reason 1 is based on a faulty premise; you are relying too heavily on one piece of information; your evidence is lacking.
  • Person 1: Here are more reasons that support my claim. (Or: You are right. I will amend my position.)
  • Person 2: Interesting. Those reasons support your claim and make a convincing argument. I will amend my position. (Or: Repeat skeptical argumentation.)

That type of formulaic conversation seems dull to many people, but that is the basic structure of conversations people have every day — it’s just not as obvious as above. I think that, in general, people need to do a better job of being open-minded and willing to have these rational discussions. People are far too quick to bury their heads in the sand or plug their fingers in their ears because they are unwilling or unable to participate in such discourse.

Now that I have that rant out of my system, let’s actually examine Schoenfield’s claims and see how they pan out. I suggest you read his article first. I am not going to do a lot of quoting; instead, I will just highlight his main bullet points and refer to his arguments, assuming you’ve already read the material.

1. Roy Oswalt is around for a full season.

Schoenfield starts out at 95 wins for the Phillies since that was their Pythagorean W-L expectation last year. I don’t agree with that method. Instead, I’d have preferred he base the starting figure on projections. For instance, PECOTA has the Phillies at 89 wins. Given that Schoenfield started at 95 and ended up at 92, that would actually bring the Phillies down to 86 wins given the rest of his logic and that would have enraged tens of thousands more. However, it’s better to base a 2011 win projection on 2011 projections rather than 2010 runs scored and runs allowed totals.

As for Oswalt, Schoenfield correctly notes that a full season — rather than a half-season — of Oswalt is a good thing. He uses pitcher WAR from FanGraphs to derive Oswalt’s value. FanGraphs bases pitcher WAR on Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). In other words, their pitcher valuation comes from what should have happened rather than what actually happened. This is why I have rarely (never?) used fWAR for pitchers. Value should be based on what happened, not what should have happened. As a projection for 2011, however, using FIP (or xFIP or SIERA) is totally fine.

Baseball Prospectus has Oswalt at 4.6 WARP in 2010 (2.5 with the Phillies), and projects 3.6 WARP this season. Their win metric is based on results, not retrodiction. Schoenfield’s addition of two wins for the Phillies was actually a bit generous, since Prospectus has Oswalt adding only one more win with a full season compared to his half-season.

2. Cliff Lee in, Jayson Werth out.

Schoenfield doesn’t state which projection system he’s using. It’s an important distinction to make because not all projection systems are alike. Bill James’ projections (which you can find at FanGraphs), for example, tend to be overly optimistic about hitters. In fact, analysts say that James’ projections, taken as a whole, are untenable.

In this post, I examined PECOTA’s projections for the Phillies and made my own adjustments as I thought they were a bit too pessimistic with regard to Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels. Last year, Phillies starters combined for 165 VORP, which includes 50 starts from Kyle Kendrick and Jamie Moyer. With my adjustments, PECOTA projects the 2011 starters at 217 VORP, or an increase of about five wins better. Schoenfield again was generous, citing the addition of Lee as a six-win gain.

Werth has averaged about five wins over the last three years. Calling for another five wins in 2011 is not in any way unrealistic. PECOTA has him at 3.7 WARP, which I think is too pessimistic. Schoenfield cites Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown as combined 1-WAR players, which PECOTA agrees with. Generously, that’s a three-win drop. Realistically, it’s four wins.

3. Chase Utley out.

Given the uncertainty around Utley’s condition, I’m not comfortable with any playing time projections at the moment. Schoenfield takes two wins away from Utley, who averaged about 6 WARP from 2005-09. PECOTA has him at 3 WARP in just under 400 PA, which means Utley misses a little over one-third of the season (basically, he’s back in mid-June). If you buy it, that’s a loss of three wins, which is more severe than Schoenfield anticipates.

4. Decline from Carlos Ruiz and Raul Ibanez.

I’ve covered both Ruiz and Ibanez during the off-season. Here, I explained that a lot of Ruiz’s offensive success in 2010 was fluky, based on an unsustainable BABIP. PECOTA sees Ruiz dropping from a .400 OBP and .447 SLG last year to a .347 OBP and .388 SLG in 2011. The OBP drop makes sense because of the BABIP luck, and the SLG drop makes sense for the same reason, but also because his isolaTed Power actually dropped from .171 in ’09 to .146.

PECOTA has Ruiz dropping from 3.5 WARP to 2.3. Schoenfield was in that vicinity.

As for Ibanez, here I discussed why he is likely going to fall around the league average for National League left fielders (~.770 OPS). The arguments against Ibanez usually focus on age and proneness to injury, but no one who uses those arguments ever quantifies exactly how that will affect his production. In the last three years, Ibanez has missed only 28 days due to injury and has had only one stint on the 15-day disabled list.

PECOTA has Ibanez being slightly worse in 2011, going from 1 WARP to 0.7. Schoenfield took a way one whole win. Given the uncertainty with projections, that’s not a big deal.

5. Jimmy Rollins is healthy and will play better.

Schoenfield credits the Phillies with another win with a healthy and better-performing Rollins. PECOTA projects a gain of 0.7 WARP. Personally, I’m more optimistic. FanGraphs valued Rollins at about 5 WAR on average from 2004-08, before injuries and bad luck derailed his past two seasons. He was at 2.7 and 2.3 WAR in ’09 and ’10 respectively. The difference between FanGraphs and Prospectus is defense. Prospectus has him at -18 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA). FanGraphs, which uses UZR among other metrics, disagrees. His Aggregate Defensive Rating (ADR), which is a composite of all of the various metrics, had him at +8 last year and +3 the year before.

When the statistics disagree, that’s when it’s a good idea to bring your own eyes and ears into the picture (not before!). I’m sure 99 percent of Phillies fans who have religiously watched most or all of the Phillies games over the past two years will agree that there has been no noticeable decline in Rollins’ defense, injuries aside. When healthy, he is a well above-average defender. So I have Rollins being as many as 2.5 wins better in 2011. Honestly, none of us have a high level of certainty around our expectations of Rollins.

6. Bullpen Issues

Schoenfield says that Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras are unlikely to be as good in 2011 as they were the year before, but he doesn’t provide any reasoning here. SIERA, which does a good job of predicting next-year performance based on current-year information, put Madson at 2.49 (actually only shades lower than his 2.55 ERA) and Contreras at 3.19. Strikeout and walk rates are the best predictors of pitcher performance, and Madson hit a career high 10.9 K/9 and a career low 2.2 BB/9. Contreras posted a 9.1 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9.

PECOTA is particularly harsh to Madson, predicting a 3.64 ERA with an 8.0 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9. I completely disagree with that. Contreras is at a 4.36 ERA with a 6.0 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9. Needless to say, I’m not sold. If there are reasons to expect Madson and Contreras to be considerably worse in 2011 than they were last year, I haven’t seen them.

Additionally, I disagree that the rest of the bullpen will be an issue. The best arms — Madson and Contreras — will be pitching the highest-leverage innings. I’m not comfortable with Danys Baez, David Herndon, and Kyle Kendrick, but given the amount of innings the Phillies’ starters will pitch, they’re just about insignificant. J.C. Romero is very effective when he faces left-handed hitters, which should be a majority of the time.

Schoenfield subtracts two wins because of the supposedly bad bullpen and calls that “conservative”. Actually, Madson-Contreras in the eighth and ninth compared to Madson-Lidge can be considered an upgrade, accounting for leverage. But I’ll call it a push.

That ends the Phillies-specific line of Schoenfield’s reasoning. He winds up at 94 wins, then subtracts two more wins because of the perceived improvement of the rest of the National League East. The decision to take away two wins seems arbitrary, especially since he didn’t do the same line of reasoning for the rest of the teams (which, admittedly, is very time-consuming). Additionally, using a WAR-to-wins conversion isn’t a flawless method. At FanGraphs, Dave Cameron says that the standard deviation between WAR and actual record is about six wins. In other words, if you put the Phillies at 92 wins, they will fall somewhere between 86 and 98 wins about 68 percent of the time. 95 percent of the time, they’ll fall between 80 and 104 wins. In other words, there’s actually a lot of uncertainty, even with WAR.

While I disagree with Schoenfield on some points and with some of his methods, the real takeaway from all of this is that I am not any more sure than he is (and neither are the people who so menacingly disparaged Schoenfield’s writing). People always say that the beauty of baseball lies in its randomness, and nowhere is that more evident than in that standard deviation of six “wins”. Breakout and breakdown seasons, batted ball flukes, and many more factors bring a lot of uncertainty to the table. If you are going to discredit someone else’s projections, especially when they put a lot of time and effort into producing and explaining them, then you need to reciprocate — show your work, then we can move towards a middle ground.

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21 comments

  1. Kyle

    April 02, 2011 08:07 AM

    The whole reason that I hated this article, was because he basically pointed out every flaw of the Phillies and then just knocked wins off of the record, then said the Braves were better and gave them a random record and said they’d beat the Phillies. The thought process of just “pointing out flaws and knocking wins off ” is nothing but a “well if all this bad stuff I just mentioned keeps up with this team, then theyre gonna lose” was completely idiotic.

  2. Larry M

    April 02, 2011 08:46 AM

    “it’s better to base a 2011 win projection on 2011 projections rather than 2010 runs scored and runs allowed totals.”

    No. I feel a bit odd making this point, since for other reasons (see, Utley, Chase) I’m a little pessimistic about the team. But you’re wrong because the 2011 projections already take into account some of Schoenfield’s claims. In a sense using the 2011 projections as a starting point double counts some of the bad news (and good news as well, but Schoenfield’s premise is that there is more bad news than good news).

  3. Kevin S.

    April 02, 2011 09:03 AM

    Bill, I have to disagree with something you said about FIP – it isn’t a record of what “should have happened,” it merely weights the relative contributions of the three true outcomes. It’s scaled to ERA (or RA, not sure which) because that’s the scale we’re used to judging pitchers on. As for fWAR, it uses FIP because it feels a pitcher shouldn’t be rewarded or penalized for the contributions of defense or randomness – only what the pitcher can actually control. Incidentally, that was the same idea that gave us earned runs in the first place. Would you disregard ERA because it’s a measure of what “should have happened?”

    And yes, it’s not entirely true that a pitcher has no control over what happens once a ball is put in play (enter xFIP and tERA), but that doesn’t really invalidate the usefulness of fWAR for pitchers. I actually prefer Fangraphs’ methodology to B-R’s, which I believe involves giving the pitcher full credit for his RA and then trying to separate out the contributions of his defense based on their metrics. I’d prefer a valuation based on the three true outcomes to one that’s a residual of defensive metric adjustment to RA, personally.

  4. Bill Baer

    April 02, 2011 09:07 AM

    Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I love FIP/xFIP/SIERA as an evaluative tool, but when Josh Beckett posts a 5.78 ERA with a 3.86 xFIP, you can’t really make the argument that he helped the team.

    I do agree that BR’s method isn’t without fault either, but I like it better than ignoring happenstance entirely.

  5. Kevin S.

    April 02, 2011 09:38 AM

    but when Josh Beckett posts a 5.78 ERA with a 3.86 xFIP, you can’t really make the argument that he helped the team

    Sure you can. ERA still contains the contributions of defense. The Red Sox were one of the worst teams in baseball by DRS last season, and they were solidly below-average in UZR and RZR. Let’s go off his 4.54 FIP instead, because that 14.2% HR/FB has nothing to do with his defense. Is it really so hard to believe that a bad defense made a pitcher who had an average season look awful?

  6. hk

    April 02, 2011 09:56 AM

    The thing that bothered me about Schoenfield’s piece is that he seemed to use fWAR when convenient to his argument and to use ERA when fWAR or other more advanced stats weren’t convenient. For instance, he claimed that “Hamels could repeat his 2009, when he had a 4.32 ERA” as a reason why the Phils could win fewer games than expected when his fWAR only increased by 0.2 from 2009 to 2010. In addition, to knock “the rest of the ‘pen” (especially Bastardo and to a lesser extent Herndon) one must be looking more at their ERA’s than their FIP’s.

  7. rico

    April 02, 2011 11:54 AM

    The problem I had with Schoenfield’s article, and I think the problem many had, had nothing to to with a seeming bias and it doesn’t bother me if he says they won’t make the playoffs(I have some doubts myself), but he seemed to go through scientific and mathematical formula and then simply assign a random number. There seemed to be a breakdown between his formulas and the final answer, maybe he didn’t expain the result well enough but that’s the way it seemed to me.

  8. Nik

    April 02, 2011 11:57 AM

    I also liked the fact that he decided to throw in the tie-breaker game on a whim after doing his ‘scientific reasoning routine’, basically confirming that the entire article is a POS.

  9. Css228

    April 02, 2011 12:58 PM

    The Hamels claim bothered me. For all we know 2009 was due to Hamels never really getting his arm strength under him. And last year’s W/L record was due to a lack of run support. Futhermore, I would love to hear his explanations as to why the Giants etc. are going to win more games. He just kind of throws those claims out there after explaining his reasons the Phillies aren’t going to be in the playoffs

  10. Philsfan

    April 02, 2011 03:36 PM

    From my post in the ESPN comments that refutes Hamels and Oswalt:

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    Not going to comment on the rest of the claims because it’s either unknown or I agree with Bill’s assessment.

  11. Philsfan

    April 02, 2011 03:37 PM

    For some reason it took out my quote above.

    From my post in the ESPN comments that refutes Hamels and Oswalt:

    [RE: Hamels could repeat 2009.
    Maybe you missed it, but Cole Hamels got better last year because of his new cutter. Google ESPN Insider article “Cole Hamels was a great pitcher before, but a new pitch makes him an ace” by Fangraphs Dave Allen from Sept last year. The suggestion that Hamels could repeat his horrible 2009 is just illogical: Hamels has more firepower/experience after 2009 and isn’t even in his prime yet.

    RE: Oswalt not having as good a season this year as last is just as illogical and here’s why: His K/BB ratio was still under his career average in 2010. His 2010 ERA+ was only 6% above his career avg and not even close to the best of his career. Yes, he had a career high in WHIP but that is easily explained: Houston hasn’t given Oswalt a postive RDef (defensive runs) since 2006. Look at any Phillies pitcher and they have had positive RDef since 2006. Walks/9, they were barely above his career avg. So no, Oswalt pitched nowhere near his career best last year and his sparkling WHIP was a function of his new team’s defense. There’s no reason to expect a decline from him.]

    Not going to comment on the rest of the claims because it’s either unknown or I agree with Bill’s assessment.

  12. Dan

    April 02, 2011 05:45 PM

    I commented on the article, but only said that:

    “For a guy who is trying to use a scientific method to back up your theory, you sure are making a lot of assumptions.”

    My qualm was not his opinion, or his “scientific” method. It was that he DID make a lot of assumptions with no real basis. I.E. the bullpen.

  13. David

    April 03, 2011 09:08 PM

    What I pointed out over on ESPN: if we’re going off of his 2010 assumptions and then add a tougher National League into the mix, 92 wins should be plenty for the wild card.

    /shrug

  14. Corey Seidman

    April 03, 2011 09:51 PM

    Really good job, Bill. Based on your example of a rational argument, I’d be curious to see Dave Schoenfield’s counter-claims.

    But neither of you factor in the splendor that is Pete Orr, so all of these premises are obsolete.

  15. kmart

    April 03, 2011 11:24 PM

    The one thing I kinda wonder about is that he’s saying that Ruiz should regress, but doesn’t make an assumption that someone else may have an unexpected good year (Francisco maybe?). I mean doesn’t it seem likely that that will happen?

  16. Win

    April 04, 2011 04:01 AM

    I don’t completely disagree with the concepts used for the ratings. However I really like what we really can’t do with statistics, because we have no idea what 4 top flights starters and a mid range starter is like for statistics. We have it from other eras but we don’t necessarily know what it means. More to the point the offensive efficiency of the Phillies is no different then its ever been its almost entirely based on OBP.

  17. TomK

    April 04, 2011 09:17 AM

    The reason I reacted negatively to the original piece, and did not finish reading is that it was I call a “troll”.

    It wasn’t really intended to inform, it was set up to get page hits, and I was left wondering what the point was.

    There will come a time when Phillies aren’t so good. It may even be this year. But it won’t come about because of reasons that you and I can predict at the moment. It will be something unexpected.

    The bottom line for this year is that the pitching should be good enough to paper over the loss of Utley, and the injection of young from Valdez & Francisco, along with more disciplined hitting by Rollins might turn out to be all right.

  18. KH

    April 04, 2011 12:25 PM

    Shoenfield might have done a decent job in most of it but when he took away wins for the division getting better, without looking at how it could effect other teams in the division, he ruined the whole piece as far as I am concerned. The funny thing is I’m not sure the division is better over-all.

  19. Cutter

    April 04, 2011 02:10 PM

    To me, the whole argument falls apart at the start by basing the win total on 95 rather than 97.

    Yes, according to the numbers, the Phillies “should have” won 95 games. But they won 97 games.

    Any good scientist – and isn’t this all a form of science? – wouldn’t continue to formulate an argument over what should have happened, but rather what did happen.

    He also seems to be looking at worst case scenarios: Utley out for entire season, Ibanez, Ruiz, and bullpen all get worse.

    No mention that there could easily be improvement by Howard, Victorino, and Ibanez.

    I guess ESPN.com got tired of running “The Phillies rotation is amazing” articles, and needed to find some sort of counter.

  20. dan

    April 04, 2011 05:09 PM

    Picking up off what Cutter said about Howard:
    I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Ryan Howard to have a 3-4 win season again. Last year, the defensive metrics that fangraphs uses really killed him on his defense (-12.6). Looking at his previous years, I don’t think you’re going out on a limb and thinking he will be improved in the -1.0-1.0 range. I’m guessing the ankle really hurt his mobility around the bag. All of these guys picking the Phillies to miss the playoffs is kinda silly when you think about it. Could they lose the East? Sure. Who out of the other NL teams is as good though? I can’t see the Brewers or Rox being on the same level as them just yet.

  21. FC

    August 09, 2011 04:12 PM

    Soooo… how did those predictions turn out? Is David enjoying his crow Bill? I like how contributions from unknowns were never factored in (and honestly could never have). That’s why SABR folks constantly have egg on their face.

    Baseball can surprise you, players will have hot streaks. Contributions will come from an unexpected corner. Worley has been a boon. Bastardo and Stutes have stepped up when every SABR stat would have had them having mediocre seasons. Werth is nowhere near his projected value. The Phillies have acquired Hunter Pence, where were the variables to predict that?

    Kind of like how that stat-geeks were saying Bautista’s season was a fluke.

    Stats are useful, but when you use them to claim absolutes, my friend you are living on the edge of disaster…

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