Shane Victorino, Backbone of Phillies’ Offense

As Paul Boye pointed out in yesterday’s column, the All-Star break is fast approaching. The Phillies must complete six three-game sets before they are able to take that mid-July rest. In the time leading up to the midsummer festivities, the rest of us will start speculating on All-Star snubs. Or, if you’re like me, you will start petitioning for the inclusion of Adam Dunn in the Home Run Derby (even if he hasn’t been so great this year).

Once the All-Star rosters take shape, columnists will start campaigning in favor of the snubs, hoping to help them earn a last-minute online election to their league’s respective roster. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports has already created a list of players he thinks will be snubbed. It’s a fairly comprehensive list, and quite reasonable. The factors that cause a player to be snubbed include the popularity of the team (e.g. Phillies vs. Marlins), the strength of the league at a particular position (e.g. the National League is quite strong at first base), and a player’s individual popularity (e.g. Tommy Hanson vs. Ryan Vogelsong).

One surprising inclusion on Passan’s list was Shane Victorino. Victorino certainly does not suffer from the same environmental detriments since the Phillies are and have been the class of the National League. The Phillies sold out the ballpark at the last home game for the umpteenth time, so they have had fans sending in ballots more than just about everyone else. However, Passan notes that the National League has a glut of worthy outfielders. Currently, 12 NL outfielders have a WAR of 2.0 or more — certainly some worthy names will be left off the roster.

But Victorino? He actually sits with the second-highest WAR (FanGraphs version) in the league at 3.7, just a hair behind Matt Kemp at 3.8. Of course, defensive data goes into WAR, which is less than reliable just 70 or so games into the season. Still, Victorino has the second-highest defensive marks with eight runs added (or saved, if you prefer). The only outfielder with a better mark is Gerardo Parra of the Arizona Diamondbacks at 11.0. Victorino also benefits from the newly-implemented base running runs (which differs from Equivalent Base Running Runs, or EqBRR, from Baseball Prospectus), earning an additional 2.4 runs, or roughly one-fourth of a win.

Then you look at the offensive stats and find the most surprising result of them all: Victorino has the fifth-best weighted on-base average (wOBA) among NL outfielders, at .392. Kemp, Lance Berkman, and Ryan Braun are the clear-cut leaders as all are above .400, but Victorino is not far behind them. Of the components of WAR that he directly controls (a.k.a. not league or positional adjustments), which are batting, fielding, and base running runs, Victorino’s offense accounts for over 58 percent.

Of Phillies with at least 110 plate appearances, only Victorino and Ryan Howard have an above-average OPS+, at 143 and 128 respectively. Per FanGraphs, the Phillies have been below average with -14 batting runs. To say the Phillies’ offense would be stagnant without Victorino would be a huge understatement. The following chart should drive that point home (click to enlarge):

Passan thinks Victorino will be an All-Star snub as voting concludes in the coming weeks. That very well may the case, but it would be unjust. Not only has Victorino been the backbone of the Phillies’ offense, he has been one of the most productive outfielders in the league, and he does it in a plethora of ways: with the bat, with his glove, and with his legs.

Cole Hamels: All-Star Starter?

As we’re now about three weeks away from the 2011 All-Star Game in Arizona, it feels about time for the focus on potential all-star pitchers to intensify a bit.

Assuming health, most starters should see another four starts before the festivities begin, so there’s still plenty of time for moving and shaking. As such, I’m not exactly stumping for Cole Hamels to be the first man on the mound come July 12. Yet. But his candidacy to be the first Phillies all-star starter since Curt Schilling in 1999 is a compelling one.

On the year, prior to Sunday’s start in Seattle, Hamels has logged 97.2 IP over 14 starts, striking out 97 and unintentionally walking 17 along the way. Striking out a bunch of batters is not new territory for Hamels, but the diminished walk rate (down 0.8 BB/9 from ’10 and 0.5 from his career rate) and greatly reduced home run rate – something Hamels has always struggled with prior to this season – have helped keep runs off the board more than ever.

Great. I’m sure this isn’t news to you, distinguished reader. Where, then, does Hamels rank among National League starters right now? Do his impressive numbers really merit starter consideration? Let’s take a preliminary look at some starting contenders and where Cole ranks among them. Again, being three weeks out means we’re bound to see some movement. Consider this an electoral primary of sorts, then.

Here’s Cole’s campaign platform within the National League Party:

  • Durability: His 97.2 IP is ninth in the N.L., and the most of anyone with 14 starts. With 6.2 innings Sunday, he could move into second place behind Roy Halladay.
  • Power: Those aforementioned 97 punch-outs are good for fifth, with an 8.94 K/9 that leaves him 10th.
  • Control: Cole’s 1.75 BB/9 is fifth in the N.L.
  • Unhittablenessosity: A new term I’ve coined for trademarking. Hamels is allowing just 6.54 hits per nine (third in the league) on a .260 BABIP, but a huge spike in ground balls induced could keep that from rising much higher. Cole has allowed just 27 hits in his last 44 IP, and only one home run in his past seven starts.
  • Peripheral Vision: Beyond his impressive 2.49 ERA, Hamels also resides among the leaders in xFIP and SIERA, solidifying his numbers as genuine. With a minimum of 60 IP, Hamels’s 2.51 xFIP ranks second in the league, and his 2.71 SIERA likewise ranks second. He’s also second in the league in both major versions of WAR.

Cole does still have some work to do. He trails Halladay in a number of the listed categories, but what fun is making a post for Doc’s starting candidacy? Well, actually, probably a bunch of fun. But I digress and harp on things too-obvious.

Cole Hamels is off to a flying start. He’s improved nearly every aspect of his game, from stuff to results, and looks to be on track to have a serious shot at starting the All-Star Game come mid-July.

Mariners Series Preview with Pro Ball NW

The Phillies travel to the West coast for some late-night baseball against the Seattle Mariners. The series will kick off at 10:10 PM ET with Roy Oswalt facing rookie phenom Michael Pineda. I caught up with two of the guys from Sweet Spot blog Pro Ball NW, Conor Dowley and Tayler Halperin, to shed some light on the M’s, who currently sit just a half-game out of first place in the AL West.

. . .

1. The Mariners have one of the few rotations in baseball that can go toe-to-toe with the Phillies’. In particular, people are fascinated with Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda. Can you give us a brief scouting report on those two?

Conor: Felix’s scouting report is pretty well known at this point. His fastball velocity isn’t what it was, but it’s still excellent and his command is fantastic when he’s on. Even when he’s not on, his curve and change are so good that those two pitches can get him through.
Pineda doesn’t have Felix’s polish, but his fastball is lethal, and the break on his slider only makes it harder to sit on. His changeup is still developing, but he had two distinct versions of it. The one he’s largely used this year is a power change not unlike Felix’s power change, sitting in the upper 80’s. Pineda’s version of the pitch is much straighter than Felix’s, however, and is not in my opinion as effective as the split-change he showed last year that was a devastating pitch at times. He doesn’t throw it as often as he did last year, but it’s drawn whiffs most of the time when he does.

Taylor: Felix Hernandez (he of the 2.6 WAR through 15 starts) is possibly the best pitcher in baseball.  He can throw his fastball, curve, change, and slider all for strikes (almost) all the time.  Excellent control and impeccable command.  He racks up groundballs, induces plenty of weak contact, and is 5th in all of baseball with 103 strikeouts.  He almost never gets flustered on the mound, and limits damage exceptionally well.  Oh, and he can throw up to 97 miles an hour when he wants to.  Despite having posted a lower ERA than Felix, Michael Pineda is not at his level.  Pineda throws a flaming heater and a nasty slider, but that’s about it.  Occasionally, he’ll throw his change, but that pitch is a work in progress.  Nonetheless, he’s been baseball’s best rookie hurler by an arguably wide margin (3.07 FIP) throwing only two pitches.  If his changeup develops nicely, Pineda will cement himself alongside Felix as one of the top 10 pitchers in baseball.

2. When will Erik Bedard break down again? He’s been great thus far, but do you anticipate more misfortune for the lefty? He seems to have always had a black cloud hovering over him.

Conor: I’m honestly a little bit surprised that Bedard hasn’t met with more difficulty. With how good he has been so far this season, e could break down tomorrow and I’d consider it to be a successful year for him. Bedard did have a rough go at the start of the year while he was still rebuilding his velocity and command, but he’s been awesome since he “found himself” in late April.

Taylor: Bedard appears to be healthy, as far as I can tell.  He even seems to be getting more dominant with every start.  He’s actually on pace to be worth over 3 wins above replacement, which is absolutely phenomenal for a fifth starter.  In any case, the French Canadian’s mechanics seem fine and he might net the M’s a sweet return should they decide to deal him at the deadline.

3. Ichiro, of the career .328 average, is hitting .258. Has he noticeably declined, or is it just a fluke?

Conor: Ichiro has visibly lost a step speed-wise, and it’s really shown up in the field. At the plate, however, I think it’s largely been poor luck. His BABIP on line drives has been far off his career rate, and he lives on those liners that drop in just past the infielders. He’s been coming around of late, with five straight multi-hit games, so hopefully the Ichiro of old is back to stay.

Taylor: Ichiro admittedly has looked lost at times this season.  He’s slugging only .325 and he has yet to club his first long ball of the season, but things are looking up for the Mariners’ beloved right-fielder.  He’s been hitting the ball superbly in the last 6-8 games, and I imagine his batting average will return to .300 by season’s end.  Sure, he’s getting older, but I don’t think Ichiro would just fall off a metaphorical/statistical cliff.

4. The Mariners’ home ballpark, unlike the Phillies’, is known for being pitcher-friendly. Do you expect the spacious confines of Safeco Field to provide a home-field advantage in this series?

Conor: While SafeCo limits right-handed power, it’s much friendlier to lefties. The Phillies have hitters that I think can really take advantage of that, so it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if they put on a power show in this series.

Taylor: Honestly both the M’s and Phillies haven’t hit as well as they should be hitting in 2011.  I foresee three low-scoring games, and Safeco’s dimensions can only serve to further that.

5. Dustin Ackley was recently called up. What are your expectations for him at the Major League level in 2011?

Conor: I’m much more bearish than most M’s fans are. Where many seem to expect an impact bat right away, I’d expect a line more like .265/.385/.390 for the remainder of this season.

Too many people ate expecting Utley-like power from him, and that’s just not the kind of hitter that Ackley is. He is going to hit homers now and then, but they’re most often going to be the result of his patience. Every now and then, he’ll get just the right pitch that he can turn on and crank, but his natural strength and swing limit him to mostly just those. While pitches like that can be plentiful in AAA, they’re much harder to come by in the majors.

Taylor: I’d expect something around .250/.340/.390 with decent glove-work.  It’s not fancy, but getting on base 34 percent of the time is nothing to scoff at.  As for power, Ackley has the potential to hit 20 homers a year, but I really doubt he’ll tap into that potential in his first season.

6. Chone Figgins is dead-last in baseball with -1.1 WAR. Ichiro is right behind at -0.8 (tied with Raul Ibanez, oddly enough). How would you go about fixing the Mariners’ outfield?

Conor: The Mariners’ outfield is mostly fixing itself right now. With Ichiro finally coming around and Gutierrez returning to full health, that gives them a lot of leeway for the left field situation. Carlos Peguero gives them some thump and occasional clutch hits, but his defense and consistency leave much to be desired right now. Frankly, he’d be best served playing every day in AAA Tacoma right now.

Among current roster options, a platoon of Mike Carp and Greg Halman would probably be the M’s best bet right now. Both offer above-average power, and while Carp gives a better approach at the plate, Halman is the far better defender.  If the M’s were to upgrade any position on the trade market, it would be left field.

Taylor: Though I reference WAR in one of my previous answers, I’ll caution the reader by mentioning that WAR is screwed up by small sample sizes of UZR data.  Ichiro is not really a -0.8 WAR player.  He just isn’t.  Small sample sizes of UZR can wreak havoc on WAR tallies.  Now then, the Mariners’ outfield doesn’t necessarily need fixing.  I certainly wouldn’t mind if the team acquired a big bat with an average glove to play left, but Carlos Peguero has actually done a decent job so far.  If I were Jack Zduriencik (which I’m not, for the record), I would demote Peguero and let Halman platoon in left with Mike Carp for the time being, and if the team is still contending on July 15th, trade for the Orioles’ Luke Scott.  Then again, Halman still appears to have pitch recognition deficiencies, but he appears to be the best choice for the righty in the left field platoon.  As for center field and right field, Gutierrez and Ichiro will be fine (I think).  It’s best to let those two play every day.  Gutierrez is possibly the best defensive center fielder in the majors, and he hit 32 homers over the last two seasons, and Ichiro has racked up 200+ hits literally every season he’s been in the majors.

7. Grab your crystal ball and give us a prediction for this series? Who wins?

Conor: The M’s have played exceedingly well of late, but if they have to face Cole Hamels and Roy Osawalt, it’ll be hard to scratch out wins against them if they’re on. I see this going 2-1 in favor of the Phillies.

Taylor: I’ll go out on a limb and say the M’s win the series 2 games to 1, despite only scoring 7 total runs.

. . .

Thanks to Conor and Taylor for taking the time to talk about the Mariners. Make sure to stop by Pro Ball NW to see what they have to say throughout the series, and also check out Mariners Farm Review if you have the time. You can follow the PBNW crew on Twitter as well: @ProBallNW@C_Dowley, and @TaylorRobot.

Radical Pitcher-Usage Theory

The title is exaggerating, but in the discussion that ensued on my finger-wagging article about the misuse of Cole Hamels, reader and commenter Pete got the hamster wheel a-spinnin’. If you haven’t read the article, click here, or perhaps the following synopsis will suffice.

My argument was that Charlie Manuel was wrong to use Hamels with an eight-run lead going into the eighth inning, when the Phillies had a 99.7 percent chance to win. Many counter-arguments were made in the comments, such as that there was a double-header coming up where the bullpen would presumably be needed (the bullpen pitched a combined five innings in both games), or that Hamels needed to be “conditioned to throw more pitches”.

In reality, though, there is no counter-argument to the claim that using Hamels in that situation was unnecessary (sparing the obvious semantic debate about the definition of “necessary”). With two innings of regulation left and an eight-run lead, to abstain from using the bullpen implies that they were worse than a 36.00 ERA pitcher. I’m not exactly confident in David Herndon, but I trust him and his bullpen compatriots to not allow eight runs in two innings.

In the comments, Pete wrote:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems you are a step away from advocating for having pitchers pitch towards a certain expected win percentage? What percentage would that be? 99%? 95%? X%? Any way you fixed it, it would be a minor revolution in the game if managers started following this line of thinking (and probably the last straw for those people who already hate pitch counts and pitching towards anything other than a win). I can imagine a scenario where the Phillies score 10 runs in the top of the 1st inning and a newly Baer-schooled Charlie Manuel doesn’t send Hamels out to pitch the bottom of the 1st. I am imagining also that Charlie’s decision would be a misinterpretation of the Baer rule, but we better start preparing now to see Charlie muck it up.

I like that way of thinking. Not so static, but the overall principle makes a lot of sense. Contract stipulations (money, years, incentives, etc.) should — and do — play a huge role in player usage; this is one such case. Hamels has one more year of arbitration before he is eligible for free agency, and the Phillies will want to lock up a player of his caliber before he is able to test the open market. As much as it may pain the traditionalists, Hamels should absolutely be pampered, as should anyone else to whom the Phillies do or could owe a lot of money over many years (e.g. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, etc.). Protecting investments is one big factor in the current and continued success of a franchise.

As for specifics on when to yank a starter, it should be a case-by-case decision. The manager will need to assess a lot of details. By how many runs does my team lead? What inning is it? Do I trust my bullpen? Which relievers will I use? What are the long-term effects of employing this strategy? (e.g. does my bullpen need more time to recover?) How many runs can I expect my team to tack on before the end of the game?

As an example, according to Tom Tango’s “The Book”, the home team has a 16.7 percent chance to win if it is behind four runs entering the top of the second inning. The road manager should expect his team to score more runs, making things worse for the home team. After all, the average National League team averages 4.1 runs per nine innings, and even the worst team in the league averages 3.3 runs per nine.

The biggest problem here is the uncertainty. With the thousands of innings of data we have from the current season, we can make fairly accurate assessments about what to expect in the big picture. Unfortunately, in the span of eight innings, our ability to make correct predictions drops precipitously. In a vacuum, where average players play on average teams and they face similarly average players on similarly average teams, we can improve our odds, but since — as the traditionalists will tell you — baseball is not played in a vacuum, those eight innings are highly prone to all of the variables that makes it such a great sport. Temperature, wind, strength of the opponent, the lineups that are being employed, the opposing pitchers, etc.

In that first inning scenario, I am much more confident pulling Homer Bailey of the Cincinnati Reds since they are more likely to tack on more runs (4.9 per game) than the Atlanta Braves (3.3). I am much more confident pulling Hamels if I am playing the Houston Astros (allow 5.0 runs per game) than if I am playing the Braves (allow 3.3). If it is cold and the wind is blowing in, I would expect to score fewer runs, so I would be hesitant to pull my starter again. If my bullpen is bad like the Los Angeles Dodgers (4.84 ERA), I would lean on my starters, but if my bullpen is great like the San Diego Padres (2.44 ERA), I would be quicker to make a call to the ‘pen. Those are just the broad strokes; we haven’t even gotten into the specifics, such as pitcher batted ball splits, or batter/pitcher platoon match-ups.

So, you can see the initial problems with this practical use of starting and relief pitching. Many situations will not be as cut-and-dried as the Hamels situation, where you have just 0.3 percent left to ensure a victory. However, this would be a gigantic step in the right direction. It would, undoubtedly, reduce the number of superfluous injuries that occur to pitchers throughout the course of the season.

Maybe Hamels doesn’t finish off the last two innings of that game, but he also doesn’t leave the game with a back injury. If the injury had been more serious, he lands on the disabled list and the Phillies have to rely more on Kyle Kendrick, as well as Vance Worley. A rotation of Halladay/Lee/Oswalt/Hamels/Kendrick leads to fewer losses than Halladay/Lee/Oswalt/Kendrick/Worley. Theoretically, being highly risk-averse leads to more wins. With players to whom you are paying many millions of dollars over the course of many years, more wins over many years means a more successful franchise, happier fans, and increased revenue.

In summation, the above was a long way of saying, “Don’t use your starting pitching superfluously, especially if they’re important.” Want to run Kendrick out there with an eight-run lead in the eighth inning? Knock yourself out. But Hamels, or Halladay, or Lee? Protect them! The implementation doesn’t have to be nearly as scientific as I have described it; all that is required is a broad recognition of your team’s chances to win the current game, the side-effects of your decisions on games in the immediate future, and the overall health of your team in the big picture. Yes, it’s so easy, even a Charlie Manuel could do it.

Raul Failbanez (Alternate Title: .gifs!)

Yesterday was a good day for the Phillies. They swept both games of a day-night doubleheader against the Florida Marlins, which included a dramatic comeback in the ninth inning of the nightcap. To break up the run of super-serious analytic posts recently, enjoy some lol-worthy .gifs from Raul Ibanez and Ryan Howard.

Warning: lots of .gifs after the jump. If you’re on a slow computer, it may explode.

Continue reading…

Hamels Scare Should Provide A Lesson

I don’t brag about being right often; I prefer to let words speak for themselves. But I want to bring up the topic of unnecessary overuse of the starting pitching again to reinforce a point, because it’s very important* — at least, I think it is. Several times this year, Charlie Manuel has been criticized on this blog for some questionable decisions regarding the pitching staff. He redeemed himself recently, but I once again took umbrage with a Manuel decision during last night’s game against the Florida Marlins.

* Important inasmuch as anything about baseball can be deemed important.

The start of the game was delayed an hour and 15 minutes due to rain, meaning starters Cole Hamels and Chris Volstad had to make sure they stayed loose enough to take the mound later than they expected. Hamels was brilliant, holding the Marlins to one run and three hits through seven innings. Of the 99 pitches he threw, 17 of them caused batters to swing and miss (17 percent, a season-high), according to Brooks Baseball. Overall, he struck out six and walked one, while lowering his ERA to 2.49 and earning his ninth victory of the season.

Along with Hamels’ stellar performance came a surge of offense. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Domonic Brown combined for five home runs. The Phillies scored in every inning except the second and eighth. After the seventh, the Phillies were up 9-1. FanGraphs gave them a 0.3 percent chance to lose the game. The game was so over that the Marlins hadn’t faced a situation with a leverage index greater than 0.65 since the top of the fourth inning, when Logan Morrison led off with the score at 4-1.

Situations like that — eighth inning, up by eight runs — are why you have David Herndon on your roster. It is the typical spot for a mop-up reliever. In fact, if the Phillies had a slightly larger lead, using an infielder to pitch (ahem, Wilson Valdez) would have been justified.

A few weeks ago, I joined Spike Eskin and Chris Johnson on “What’s the Word?” on Phillies 24/7 HD radio. (You can listen to the entire segment here.) At the time, I had written two consecutive articles criticizing Manuel, so that was the basis of much of the discussion that morning. They asked for my thoughts on the risk-reward of pulling a pitcher too soon, to which I said, “I think you always err on the side of safety.”

Manuel did not err on the side of safety last night, as he sent Hamels back out to the mound for the eighth inning, to cinch that last 0.3 percent. On most nights, Hamels gets through the inning with little effort, and I look like a grouch on Twitter for whining about it. Unfortunately, the lack of caution last night came back to bite the Phillies. After walking Wes Helms to lead off the eighth, Hamels conferred with catcher Carlos Ruiz, then left the game with what would later be diagnosed as tightness in the middle of his back.

The good news is that Hamels is confident that he will make his next start — it is not a serious injury. It easily could have been, though, and it is a lesson to be learned for Manuel and anyone out there in the “rub some dirt on it” crowd. There is no reason to take unnecessary risks in mid-June with a division lead, and certainly not in the eighth inning of a game in which your team leads by eight runs.

Andrew Carnegie once said, “The wise man puts all his eggs in one basket and watches the basket.” The Phillies, who are paying a combined $67 million to their Opening Day starting rotation (40 percent of the team’s payroll), would be wise to watch their basket closely.

Hamels photo courtesy Ted Berg’s amazing “Embarrassing photos of Cole Hamels” gallery.

Josh Willingham: Proceed With Caution

The following is a guest post from Jeff Barnes. I consider him a must-follow on Twitter.

Ever since Jayson Werth took his talents to D.C., the Phillies have been rumored to be interested in a host of right-handed outfielders.   From offseason rumors of Michael Morse, Manny Ramirez, Magglio Ordonez and (my favorite) Jeff Francoeur, there was no shortage of possible fill-ins for the bearded one.  The Phillies ultimately decided those options were tempting enough, and decided to stay inhouse with Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown.

Now we are 66 games into the 2011 season, and the Phils rank 7th in the NL in runs scored.  Their outfield production looks like this:

Given this production (excluding Shane Victorino), it’s no surprise the Phillies are rumored to be back in the market for an outfielder.  According to this tweet from Buster Olney, the new target is Josh Willingham of the Oakland A’s.  Ruben Amaro should absolutely go get Willingham on one condition, Charlie Manuel passes a “how to use Willingham” test.

Its been mentioned in this blog as well as others, how much proper usage impacts a players value.  J.C. Romero has all the ability to be a perfectly fine LOOGY out of the Phillies pen, but by facing right-handed batters too often (45 RH Batters faced vs 27 LH), he has become the source of a ton of fan frustration.  The same risk applies with Willingham.

With Shane Victorino firmly entrenched in center, Raul and his 11.5 million dollar contract in left, the fear is Willingham’s at-bats will come at the expense of Domonic Brown.  This is concerning for a few reasons.  For starters, Dom’s development is possibly the Phillies best hope at improving their offense.  Allowing him to get 500 PAs this year, could turn the former #1 in all of baseball prospect into a huge weapon come October.

The second, and more urgent issue is outfield defense.   Willingham is undoubtedly a good hitter, as his career .833 OPS suggests.  He is unfortunately not quite as gifted with the glove.  There are varying opinion about advanced defensive stats, but whether you use them or prefer the ol’ eyeball test, there is little debate he’s a below average fielder.

Willingham’s UZR (theoretical runs above or below an average fielder) has been -5.7, -1.9, -4.0 the last three years.  The -4.0 this year is admittedly a small sample size, but its still not a great sign.  Even worse, this negative opinion on his defense has formed while Josh spent his whole career in left field.  One can only imagine the fielding would get worse moving to the more difficult right field.

To complicate the issue, the Phillies already employ one of the worst defensive left fielders in the league.  Running Willingham-Victorino-Ibanez out there may be enough for Roy Halladay to demand a trade back to Toronto.  This is simply not a sustainable defensive team, even with the Phab Four’s excellent ground ball rate.

Brought in as a platoon partner for Raul, and a power bat off the bench, Willingham could provide good value over the next 100 games and hopefully 3 playoff series.  Using him as the new RF at the expense of Domonic Brown’s development and our pitcher’s sanity, and Willingham is a stone better left unturned.  So go ahead Ruben, make the call, right after Charlie tells you what he’d do with him.

Time to Give Roy Oswalt a Breather

Something’s wrong with Roy Oswalt. Everyone can see it, including those in both the traditional and Sabermetric crowds. Ever since he took a short leave of absence in late April (which was followed by a stint on the 15-day disabled list), Oswalt has not been the same. In his five starts prior to leaving, he had a 7.0 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, and induced swings-and-misses at a nine percent rate. In his five starts after returning, he had a 3.7 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, and induced swings-and-misses at a six percent rate.

The velocity on Oswalt’s fastball declined precipitously as well, even prior to his short time away from the team. Take a look at this chart from FanGraphs (click to enlarge).

Aside from the fastball, Oswalt’s other pitches are slower across the board as well. His average slider is down 0.7 MPH from last year; the curve is down 2.7 MPH; and the change-up is down 0.9 MPH.

Despite the discouraging trends, Oswalt was getting results. Going into yesterday’s game against the Chicago Cubs, Oswalt had a 3.05 ERA, tied for 21st in baseball among pitchers with 50 or more innings pitched. Meanwhile, his SIERA was less enthusiastic, at 4.27, good for 77th in baseball.

The disparity between performance and results continued in Oswalts’ start yesterday. While his fastball barely topped 90 MPH, Oswalt worked around three first-inning runs, shutting the Cubs out in the subsequent six innings. Between the second and fifth innings, Oswalt did not strike out a batter, adding to the concern. In the final two innings, Oswalt got four of his six outs on strikeouts, but that is hardly sustainable and nor does it make up for the overall lack of strikeouts over the past six weeks.

Oswalt needed time to deal with back problems in late April and throughout the second-half of the 2009 season as well. It is possible that his back is still bothering him, and it could be causing him to overcompensate in other areas. It could be a completely new injury, or the return of another chronic injury. Whatever the case, the continued use of Oswalt puts him at a much higher risk of serious injury.

It is in the team’s best interest to give Oswalt some time off. That would mean Kyle Kendrick stays in the rotation and Vance Worley returns, but the Phillies cannot afford to lose Oswalt to a serious injury later in the season when he could be a vital key to post-season berth. Should the Phillies reach the promised land, Oswalt would give the Phillies additional firepower in the playoffs.

Bullpen Management

Every year, I seem to pick up a pet cause. In 2009, it was Cole Hamels; last year, it was Ryan Madson. This year, that cause is bullpen management. I’ve made no secret that I think Charlie Manuel‘s bullpen management leaves a lot to be desired. In particular, I’ve stressed that J.C. Romero needs to be used exclusively against left-handed hitters as there is such a disparity in performance depending on the handedness of the batter. Additionally, I have been critical of Manuel’s willingness to leave his starters in the game unnecessarily (particularly Roy Halladay).

The last two days have seen some bullpen meltdowns, both literally and figuratively. If you recall, a “meltdown” is a statistic that goes hand-in-hand with a “shutdown”, measuring the effect a reliever had on his team’s chances to win the game. From FanGraphs:

In short, if a player increased his team’s win probability by 6% (0.06 WPA), then they get a Shutdown. If a player made his team 6% more likely to lose (-0.06), they get a Meltdown.

The Phillies entered tonight’s game with the second-fewest meltdowns in baseball with 18, trailing the Cleveland Indians by two. They also had the ninth-most shutdowns with 54. On the whole, the bullpen had been doing a great job in the relatively few innings required of them thanks to the impressive starting rotation.

The last two games, however, have been a different story. After Kyle Kendrick was removed from the game following a rain delay, the Phillies bullpen slowly brought the game back to the Cubs. Eventually, the Cubs would tie the game at 3-3 on a Geovany Soto ninth-inning home run against Ryan Madson. They very nearly took the lead when Tyler Colvin hit a fly ball to right field that was touched by a fan. Initially, it was ruled a home run but was overturned upon video review. David Herndon allowed the fourth and game-winning run in the 11th when Placido Polanco made a poor throw to first base. Herndon and Madson earned meltdowns with -.172 and -.208 WPA, respectively.

Tonight, the Phillies staked Roy Halladay to a 7-0 lead and it looked like smooth sailing going into the eighth. Manuel removed Halladay for pinch-hitter Ben Francisco, figuring his bullpen was adequate for the job. The combination of a not-quite-right Jose Contreras and J.C. Romero (who faced two right-handed hitters) allowed five runs in the eighth inning and were lucky that was the extent of the damage. Michael Stutes came in to get two outs in the eighth and two outs in the ninth before Bastardo finished the game with a strikeout.

In the last two games, the bullpen has pitched ten innings and allowed nine runs. Yet, despite the results, I was mostly pleased with Manuel’s bullpen management. Let’s take a look at the specifics:

Thursday

– Used Danys Baez after the rain delay. Conservative; smart. Asking Kendrick to go back out after a 77-minute rain delay would have been completely unnecessary.

– Used Romero (LH) to face Carlos Pena (LH) in the sixth inning with a runner on second base and two outs in a 3-1 game. This is how you use Romero properly.

– Used Stutes to pitch the seventh inning. Nothing wrong with that.

– Used Bastardo to pitch to the left-handed pinch-hitter Brad Snyder. Cubs manager Mike Quade countered with right-handed pinch-hitter Lou Montanez. Nothing you can do about that, since the manager of the batting team gets the last “move”. Besides, Bastardo is somewhat good against right-handed hitters, unlike Romero. Manuel left Bastardo in to start the eighth inning against Kosuke Fukudome. Smart.

– Used Contreras to finish out the eighth, as three of the Cubs’ next four hitters were right-handed. Unfortunately, Contreras didn’t have his best stuff and allowed a run on two consecutive two-out doubles.

– Used Madson in the ninth. It sucks that he allowed the tying run and almost allowed the go-ahead run, but Madson had been lights out up to this point. Absolutely nothing to complain about here.

– Used Herndon, his last reliever in the bullpen, to pitch the 10th and 11th innings. You manage the game assuming regulation. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have additional depth going into extra innings, but if you manage in anticipation of going extra innings, you will unnecessarily lose more games in regulation. This is essentially what I was asking for when I criticized Manuel earlier in the season when Madson was left sitting on the bench against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Friday

– Took Halladay out after seven innings and 107 pitches. Smart move. No need to leave Halladay in there with such a high pitch count in a game that the Phillies were 95% to win. To leave Halladay in there would imply that the Phillies’ bullpen has the collective skill level of a 31.50 ERA pitcher (seven runs in two innings) or worse. I will take selective match-ups in the final two innings than Halladay after 107 pitches, with all due respect.

– Used Contreras to start the eighth inning. Again, he didn’t look sharp. Fortunately, it was a low-leverage situation — he started the inning with a 0.06 leverage index — so he had room to work through his struggles. He faced five batters, four of them reached base on two walks and two hits; two of them scored.

– Manuel went to Romero to face Blake DeWitt (LH). Romero walked DeWitt. That should have been the end of his night right there, as the Cubs had the right-handed Geovany Soto (career .407 wOBA vs. LHP) due up. The Cubs had the bases loaded and one out, and were clearly not going to pinch-hit for Soto. Perfect opportunity to use Michael Stutes. However, Romero stayed out there and promptly allowed an RBI single. Quade pinch-hit for Tyler Colvin (LH) with Montanez (RH), who sliced a two-run single to right field, bringing the score to 7-5.

– Finally, Stutes was brought in and the game was calmed down. He recorded the next four outs. Bastardo (LH) was brought in to face Pena (LH) and struck him out to end the game.

Overall, the bullpen was managed optimally by Manuel. The only hiccup was leaving Romero in the game against Soto. It is unfortunate that Manuel’s good decision-making was punished, as it may deter him from making these decisions as often in the future. Despite the results, I was encouraged as it shows an evolution in Manuel’s managing style. Of course, it could also be completely random, but I’m betting on someone — maybe even Charlie himself — influencing his bullpen management.

Phillies Just Aren’t Clutch!

Last night’s extra-innings loss to the Chicago Cubs was about as frustrating as they come. The offense once again did not contribute — a Raul Ibanez hit in the 10th inning was the team’s first since the fourth inning — while the bullpen finally had a meltdown. Adding to the frustration was a rain delay lasting longer than an hour and the prospect of having to use another position player on the mound as the Phillies were ill-prepared for a long extra-innings game. At the Good Phight, FuquaManuel recaps the game about as well as one can expect after that sordid affair.

While tweeting during the game, I came across an interesting stat on Baseball Reference. Also depressing, but interesting.

Coming into tonight, the Phillies had managed just a .452 OPS in extra innings, worst in the NL. League average is .701.

With two walks and two singles in the 10th and 11th innings last night, the Phillies actually raised that OPS all the way up to .473, still last in the league.

Team G PA BA OBP SLG OPS
LAD 5 46 .417 .512 .667 1.178
HOU 2 16 .333 .500 .583 1.083
WSN 10 82 .304 .380 .565 .945
CIN 7 87 .260 .372 .425 .797
NYM 5 49 .279 .354 .395 .750
ARI 7 68 .298 .385 .351 .735
ATL 13 110 .266 .355 .362 .717
MIL 6 50 .179 .292 .410 .702
SFG 10 84 .257 .329 .338 .667
SDP 10 83 .217 .341 .304 .646
PIT 5 51 .222 .300 .333 .633
STL 9 70 .161 .319 .304 .622
FLA 11 72 .265 .292 .309 .600
CHC 4 21 .150 .190 .350 .540
COL 4 58 .173 .246 .250 .496
PHI 6 94 .171 .242 .232 .473

* Phillies stats updated for last night’s game; other teams were not updated.

The Phillies also rank last in the league in OPS in situations deemed “late and close”. They have a .573 OPS, well under the league average .693 and still well behind the 15th-place Washington Nationals at .627.

In tie games, the Phillies have posted a .634 OPS, which ranks 15th out of 16 in the NL, under the .710 league average.

They are great front-runners: when they are ahead, they have the league’s best OPS at .770, more than 70 points higher than the .699 league average. When they’re behind, they leave no hope as their .645 OPS is 14th out of 16.

While the stats would indicate to a layperson that the Phillies aren’t clutch, the real problem lies with the personnel. As mentioned several times here on the blog, Ryan Howard is the team’s only legitimate power hitter left now that Jayson Werth is gone and Chase Utley is on the mend from patellar tendinitis. Few players have a significant on-base skill, such as hitting for a high average or drawing a lot of walks. Most of the players are slow; Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino have accounted for more than half of the team’s stolen bases just by themselves.

The goal in baseball, in terms of offense, is to get on base and to advance around the bases as efficiently as possible. In the past, the Phillies had the personnel to do this. In 2007, when the Phillies paced the National League with 892 runs scored, four of eight regulars had an on-base percentage at .370 or higher. Five of them had a slugging percentage at .500 or higher. The Phillies’ current on-base percentage leaders are Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz at .362 and .361, respectively. The slugging percentage leaders are Ryan Howard at .479 and Shane Victorino at .472.

If the Phillies want to start scoring runs again, they need to make personnel changes. Whether that involves making a call to Lehigh Valley or making a trade for a bat remains to be seen. We do know, however, that if the Phillies stand pat, they will continue to struggle to score runs. They are currently on pace to score 640 runs. With the great starting rotation, that may just be enough, but it’s a risky proposition.