Homegrown Talents: Utley and Howard

Over at Yahoo! Sports, Andrew Simon (@HitTheCutoff) posted the top-ten position-player tandems. It’s a great list, but I couldn’t help but wonder where Chase Utley and Ryan Howard ranked. Simon’s criteria was that both players must have debuted with the same team and must have become regulars within a year of each other. Utley debuted in 2003 and became a regular in ’05 while Howard debuted in ’04 and became a regular in ’06, so they qualify. (Technically, Howard became a regular in ’05, but he didn’t play the full season as the starting first baseman.)

Without giving too much of the list away, Will Clark and Robby Thompson ranked tenth on the list with a combined 68.5 WAR (Baseball Reference version, or rWAR). Jim Rice and Fred Lynn were ninth at 71.2 rWAR. Utley and Howard, each with lots of baseball left in them, sit at 62.3 combined rWAR, putting them just outside the top-ten. In FanGraphs WAR (fWAR), they have 70.5, so they are at least in the same company as those on the back end of the top-ten.

This season, Utley has already posted 1 rWAR in 132 plate appearances. If he gets 300 more PA over the rest of the season, he will finish with about 2.3 more rWAR. Howard is at 1.4 with 345 PA, which puts him on pace for about 700 PA and thus projects about 1.4 more rWAR. An additional 3.7 rWAR would bring the duo to 66 rWAR. They would crack the top-ten easily in 2012 and could make a run at the top-seven. It will be hard to crack #6 as the duo of Reggie Jackson and Sal Bando combined for 101.7 rWAR, about 24 ahead of the pair in seventh place.

The big key to ranking highly on this list, aside from having lots of talent, is longevity. Utley became a regular in ’05 at the age of 26 while Howard earned an everyday job in ’06 also at the age of 26. By comparison, Clark and Thompson were playing everyday at the ages of 22 and 24. Jackson debuted at 21 and earned an everyday job at 22; Bando, 22 and 24, respectively. Additionally, Jackson and Bando finished their careers at the ages of 41 and 37. Utley and Howard didn’t have the benefit of their early-20′s, but they can finish near the top of the list by having long, productive careers, which requires a lot of luck and a lot of hard work, the latter certainly not an unknown trait to the Phillies’ right-side pairing.

Cliff Lee: Where Are the Strikeouts?

As Cliff Lee put the finishing touches on his third consecutive complete game shut-out last night, writers professional and amateur alike took to the laptops to consolidate all of the trivia. First, of course, there is the matter of his CG SHO’s:

Cliff Lee is the first Phillies pitcher to throw 3 consecutive shutouts since Robin Roberts in 1950. [Todd Zolecki]

Lee is up to 4 shutouts for the season. 7 teams haven’t thrown that many. [Jayson Stark]

Nobody has thrown 4 straight shutouts since Hershiser ran off 5 in ’88. Lee is 6th w/ 3 in row since [Jayson Stark]

And then there’s his 32-inning scoreless streak:

Cliff Lee is 3rd Phillies starter in history to run up 30+-IP scoreless streak. Joins Robin Roberts (32.2) & Grover C Alexander (30 & 41.2) [Jayson Stark]

He is more than halfway to Orel Hershiser‘s MLB record 59 and one-third consecutive scoreless innings, a record that doesn’t get approached very often.

How about his month of June?

Since 1950, Cliff Lee has the lowest ERA in the month of June amongst pitchers w/ 40 or more IP. [Corey Seidman]

Cliff Lee’s final June stats: 5 GS, 5-0, 42 IP, 21 H, 1 ER (0.21 ERA), 29 K, 8 BB, 3 CGSHO [@xochristinaxo]

Other ancillary trivia:

Cliff Lee has more wins (5) in June than the Marlins (3) [@Rebeccapbp]

In his 5th start of the month, Cliff Lee has more RBI than runs allowed. [Paul Boye]

There will be more trivia as people play with the parameters, but that’s the bulk of it for now. It’s quite a lot to digest — what Lee has done recently is truly historic, especially considering the more pitcher-friendly eras; Hershiser’s record came in the era directly before the so-called “steroid era” in Major League Baseball, for example.

However, in the wake of Lee’s tremendous run of success, I find myself… I don’t want to say worried… but quizzical, perhaps?… at Lee’s path to greatness. He started off June with a ten-strikeout performance against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but then the strikeouts started to drop precipitously: seven against the Chicago Cubs, four against the Florida Marlins, three against the St. Louis Cardinals, and five against the Boston Red Sox last night. For those last four starts, that’s a K/9 under 4.9.

There are many possible explanations for the drop in strikeouts, and any, all, or none of them could be true simultaneously. He could have made a conscious effort to induce more contact in an attempt to lower his pitch counts. (It hasn’t worked as his five June starts rank in the top-eight in terms of average pitches per batter faced.) Second, the lower strikeout rate could be a statistical fluke. After all, 35 innings isn’t nearly a large enough sample size. Finally, it could be indicative of injury as it was with Roy Oswalt — in his eight starts from May 17 to June 23, Oswalt struck out 21 batters in 44 and one-third innings, a K/9 of just 4.3. The good news is that, unlike Oswalt, Lee hasn’t shown a decline in velocity with any of his pitches.

This is not to say that Lee hasn’t been able to miss bats this year; in fact, he has done that at a higher rate than at any point in his Major League career. His career high K/9 coming into 2011 was 8.1 set in 2004 with the Cleveland Indians. This year, despite his last four starts, his K/9 sits at 8.8. Six of his 17 starts have seen double-digit strikeouts, a feat he had accomplished just nine times coming into the season. His overall swinging strike rate, at 9.4 percent, is also a career-high among seasons in which he made 10 or more starts. To say he hasn’t been able to miss bats would be disingenuous.

That’s why I’m a bit quizzical. It doesn’t appear that Lee made a conscious effort to induce more contact and it doesn’t appear likely that he’s pitching hurt like Oswalt. So what we’re left with is a statistical fluke, which also happens to be the most reasonable explanation. However, that also applies to his recent run of success. In June, he has a .191 BABIP while inducing ground balls at a 46 percent rate. The line drive rate is low at 12 percent as well. And, of course, the strand rate: 21 hits and eight walks should yield more than one run, even if Lee benefited from six ground ball double plays.

DIPS theory has taught us that a pitcher has the most control over strikeouts, walks, and whether a batted ball is on the ground or in the air. In a single season, pitchers tend not to have much control on the rate at which batted balls are turned into outs (relative to other factors such as his defense and simple randomness), which is why we expect pitcher BABIP to regress to around .300. The best case scenario is that Lee’s strikeouts return, thereby reducing the overall number of batted balls in play. When Lee’s BABIP normalizes, it won’t be nearly as painful — after all, a .300 BABIP on 20 batted balls (six hits) is preferable to 30 (nine hits). It could be the difference between challenging Hershiser’s scoreless innings streak and going up in flames.