The Halcyon Days

Not too long ago, the page was turned on a dark era of Phillies baseball. They bet the future of the franchise on top prospects Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Little did they know they would re-brand the club as an offensive powerhouse.

In 2005, the Phillies hit 167 home runs, just six more than the National League average. In ’06, thanks to Howard, Utley, and Pat Burrell, they hit 216 round-trippers in total, with that fearsome trio accounting for 119 of them. The Phillies tagged 213 in ’07 en route to ending a playoff drought, a league-best 214 in ’08 when they won it all, and another league-best 224 in ’09 when they attempted to repeat as champions.

Last year, an injury-plagued season, the Phillies only managed to hit 166 home runs, just 16 more than the league average. They allotted Wilson Valdez 363 plate appearances as well as 136 for Greg Dobbs, who OPS’ed .583, and 136 for Juan Castro, who OPS’ed .475. Only two regulars finished with a slugging percentage above .500 (Howard and Jayson Werth), compared to five on the 2007 roster.

The news hasn’t gotten any better for the Phillies in 2011. They are without Utley for at least “a while” forcing Valdez into an everyday role, Werth moved on to another team, and Ben Francisco is the everyday right fielder. This is without mentioning that Jimmy Rollins‘ potential is still unknown after two poor, injury-plagued seasons, and Carlos Ruiz is expected to regress offensively. The days of the Phillies posting prodigious power numbers may be over.

While some of the offensive regression is related to a league-wide drop, the Phillies have tumbled faster than one would expect. The following two graphs display the hitters’ fly ball rate and their home run per fly ball rate.

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I included the 2011 numbers just for illustrative purposes. The sample size for this year is still small, so we can’t make any legitimate inferences yet.

However, there is reason to believe the Phillies can fall further. Utley has averaged 42 percent fly balls over his career; Valdez 20 percent; Werth 41 percent; Francisco 45 percent. And in terms of HR/FB%, Utley averaged 14 percent; Valdez four percent; Werth 16 percent; Francisco 10 percent.

Rollins has evolved into a more frequent ground ball hitter as well, averaging over 58 percent this year and nearly 46 percent in 2010. Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, Ruiz, Brian Schneider, and Placido Polanco each hit ground balls at a 45 percent rate last year.

To make matters worse, the Phillies’ plate discipline leaves a lot to be desired. At the time of this writing, the Phillies are tied for last in the National League in walks with just 24 in 390 plate appearances (6.2 percent). The bulk of the Phillies’ offense thus far has come from an unsustainably-high BABIP.

To summarize:

  • The Phillies have been excessively fortunate on balls in play not being converted into outs by opposing pitchers and defenses
  • The Phillies are not drawing walks, or even seeing many pitches relative to the league average
  • The Phillies do not have the same type of power in the lineup that they had relied on in previous years

The Phillies will miss Utley more than many people realize, and the drop-off from Werth to Francisco (and, later, Domonic Brown) cannot be discounted. It’s a good thing GM Ruben Amaro stocked up on starting pitching, because the Phillies will need to win more low-scoring games than they’re used to going forward.

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18 comments

  1. Taco

    April 14, 2011 07:42 AM

    I have a hard timme calling ‘halcyon’ any era in which kyle kendrick and jamie moyer are getting a combined 70 starts a year.

  2. charles

    April 14, 2011 07:54 AM

    some of the power drop-off has to do with howard’s hr/fb which has slowly been dipping since the astronomically high 39.5% in 2006. Sure we’d like to go back to those days, but is it just me or does it seem that ryan is swinging and missing less? he’s only had 49 PAs thus far, but his contact rate is 10% higher than his career rates. Likewise, his K rate is 10% lower than usual.

  3. hunterfan

    April 14, 2011 08:17 AM

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but Rollins getting more ground balls as opposed to fly balls is actually good for the offense, since unless the fly balls are HRs (and most of his weren’t) ground ball have a higher BABIP than fly balls.

  4. Shawn

    April 14, 2011 08:18 AM

    @Alex – no.

    The Phillies organization would likely agree with you that with the injuries to both Domonic Brown, Utley, and increase in age of all players that your data and conclusions are correct.

    If you were the Phillies, how would you approach the lack of power problem? I think the major gaping hole is LF, but Ibanez isn’t really going anywhere, esp with trade clause. CF and RF are pretty much locked, the entire INF and C spots are full with Utley holding the spot for the next 5 years. SS isn’t a spot where you’re going to get a lot of power. We’re pretty much locked in, and I think RAJ realized this, and knew he had to go to battle with power pitching – something that wins in the playoffs time and time again.

  5. Evan

    April 14, 2011 08:23 AM

    The upside of these numbers is that seeing any member of the Phillies take a walk is hugely exciting. Walks are the new home run.

  6. leroyquimby

    April 14, 2011 08:26 AM

    So this is another guy saying if hits were outs then Phillies would be worse. This is just reiterating that as Phillies fans we should expect to suck because we won’t have utley/werth to be ruth/gehrig.

  7. MplsPhilsFan

    April 14, 2011 09:04 AM

    Bill,

    I think the title of your article is a bit misleading. The days of power up and down the lineup are certainly gone, but those were not the halcyon days, these are.

    The Phillies now have 4 pitchers who could contend for a Cy Young in 2011, there is no other team that can make a similar claim.

    While it is true that the Phillies have a completely unsustainable BABIP, one could make a similar argument that the pitching has not performed nearly as well as it is capable and one could reasonable expect an uptick in those numbers (Halladay’s game last night notwithstanding)

    This team is in a transition phase, as the move more towards a hitting approach that emphasizes contact over power. The lack of walks does worry me, but when Utley returns, probably by early summer, that will improve the OBP numbers significantly.

  8. Bill Baer

    April 14, 2011 09:07 AM

    @ MplsPhilsFan

    The original title had “of the Phillies Offense” at the end, but I felt it was too clunky and distracting.

    ^ Not a fan of article titles. :-P

    You’re a lot more optimistic about Chase Utley’s return than I am.

  9. Css228

    April 14, 2011 09:37 AM

    @ Bill – I’ve personally had Utley’s injury multiple times (at least the patellar tendinitis part) and I’m completely baffled as to why it is taking so long for him to come back. One its an injury that rarely even requires surgery (and surgery is risky and often backfires). Two with PT and stretching this usually is an injury that lasts a month to two months tops, especially for non-runners. The worst case I ever had lasted far longer, but only because it morphed into a far worse injury known as IT Band Syndrome, which is a completely different story. However, I am stumped as to why he wouldn’t be able to return until next year. Unless they’re really hiding a serious complication, I expect he’ll be back by the All Star break. Rant over.

  10. MplsPhilsFan

    April 14, 2011 10:21 AM

    Bill,

    You may not be a fan of article titles, but as a general rule, you do pretty well on them.

    As for Utley, I read an interview with a doctor familiar with his type of injury on I believe a the Delaware Courier website. The doctor had not treated Utley, but from what he had read about the injury (again with a caveat that a serious complication could be there and unrevealed), that he should be back before the All Star break.

    I do not think any rational fan is under the illusion that Utley will not need regular rest and his days of a 6-7+ WAR player are probably over. However, his plate discipline, his defense, and smart baserunning would still mean he would be a huge upgrade over Wilson Valdez.

  11. COAL HAMLETS

    April 14, 2011 10:51 AM

    While it may be unreasonable to expect the Phillies to stay the offensive powerhouse they used to be, I still think there’s fair chance that it will still be above average. Now exactly how much ‘above average’ it will be depends on a lot of different factors, including how long it will take Utley and Brown to return, and also if any players can step up beyond their expected level.

    The lack of walks so far is certainly concerning, but again we are still only 11 games into the season and things could still change for the better in that regard. Do I expect them to lead the league in walks? Not really, but I still think they’ll do a bit better over a full season than they currently are.

  12. hunterfan

    April 14, 2011 01:56 PM

    After these quotes, I’d make a point of walking up to her husband if I ever see him in public and asking for a picture and an autograph.

  13. Jake

    April 15, 2011 06:43 AM

    Bill-

    Aren’t BABIP called “hits”? This is where I think advanced metrics leave something to be desired. The phillies are getting singles instead of homers and power numbers. So sure their BABIP is high but why is that “luck.” They aren’t getting as many walks and while pitch counts are important, so is hitting good pitches early in the at-bat.

  14. MplsPhilsFan

    April 15, 2011 07:56 AM

    Jake,

    BABIP takes into account more than hits. Basically, it is a measure of when a batter swings the bat what is the percentage that a hit results. That could be a lazy fly ball caught for an out, that could be a bloop hit that goes over the third baseman for a double, or it could be an infield popup.

    This is one of the main factors that a pitcher can control, and why strikeout pitchers, despite what the MN Twins say, are often more valuable. If you ain’t making contact, then you cannot put the ball in play.

    Think of the baseball games you have seen where a batter smashes the ball but the defense is positioned perfectly and the defender makes a play to get the hitter out. Conversely, let’s say there is a routine ball to left field and the fielder, let’s call him Paul, is playing in way too far and cannot make the play, allowing the batter to reach second base.

    BABIP is a factor in both scenarios. The average BABIP is about .300 for a pitcher and it varies wildly for hitters. One of the reasons I expect Rollins to have a better year this year is his BABIP the past two years was absurdly low, meaning that when he was hitting the ball it just kept finding defenders.

  15. Bill Baer

    April 15, 2011 08:38 AM

    The phillies are getting singles instead of homers and power numbers. So sure their BABIP is high but why is that “luck.”

    In addition to what MplsPhilsFan said, which was great, there is a statistical concept called the central limit theorem. In layman’s terms, it says that as we acquire more and more samples of data, the data will cluster closer and closer to its true mean, making it much more reliable.

    Consider coin-flipping. You may flip a coin five times and get five heads in a row, but that doesn’t mean that the probability of flipping heads is 100%. As you flip the coin more and more, your heads “average” should fall back to 50%.

    With the Phillies, they’ve been flipping a lot of coins and getting heads (which, for the purposes of this analogy, is a good thing). However, as the season goes on, they’ll start to get a lot of tails as well, and in the end, their BABIP will end up closer to where it should be, rather than where it is now.

  16. Jay

    April 15, 2011 12:33 PM

    It is now obvious that instead of turning on the TV when the Phillies are on, you just constantly hit the refresh button for the ESPN box score of the game. If you watch Carlos Ruiz’s at bats, you can easily see how he has evolved as a hitter from prior years. His plate discipline and pitch recognition is much improved. His stats prior to last year are irrelevant. There is little support that he will regress as a hitter. His BABIP is not higher because of luck, he is making more contact and hitting the ball harder.

  17. MplsPhilsFan

    April 15, 2011 01:10 PM

    You know, I have had a conversation simikar to this a number of times in the past. Let me be clear, jay, I love watching the Phillies and especially enjoy watching Chooch (my kids newest favorite ball player).

    Just because I like looking at statistics does not take away from my enjoyment of the game; rather it enhances it because I can watch something rare happen and recognize it for what it is.

    Conversely, I can watch someone like Chooch bat and say, “Hmmm, a lot of those balls he is hitting are finding holes, is that likely to last?” Then I can, to continue using BABIP as a metric, look at his BABIP for 2010 and see that it is MUCH higher than any of his previous years in the majors or minors.

    That gives me more appreciation for what he is doing because I know there will be a regression to the mean (stats term, basically means those numbers is gonna come down soon to approximately his career average) and it most likely will not last

    You don’t want to follow SABR-metrics, that is cool. Just don’t try to pain others who do as ones who don’t enjoy the game, cause that ain’t fair or correct

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