Phillies and Braves Strength of Schedule

Peter Hjort of Capitol Avenue Club was analyzing the Braves’ remaining schedule on Twitter, eventually concluding that it was a “cake walk” for the Braves. That made me a little angry. I went to Baseball Reference and pulled both the Braves’ and the Phillies’ remaining opponents and their winning percentages, and found an aggregate strength of schedule. The results are surprising.

Win%

.533

3

3

.587

-

6

.402

7

3

.489

3

4

.473

4

3

.473

12

6

.326

-

3

.446

3

3

.533

-

4

.505

9

9

.626

6

-

.522

4

3

.435

-

4

.565

4

7

.533

3

4

.500

12

9

TOTAL

70

71

AVG OPP WIN%

.500

.499

The Braves play the NL East 39 times over their remaining 70 games (56%) while the Phillies play within the division 30 times over their final 71 (42%). Removing the Braves and the Phillies from the equation yields an aggregate .489 opponent winning percentage for the Braves and .491 for the Phillies. Over 65 games, it doesn’t even mean the difference of one game. If the remaining schedule is a “cake walk” for the Braves, then it’s equally so for the Phillies, which should make for an intriguing push for the NL East division crown.

The Phillies and the Second Half

The group projects keep rolling along. ESPN asked a representative from each of the Sweet Spot blogs to discuss their team and what to expect in the second half. You can read my answers here, but you can also catch them and the responses of others over at ESPN. I wanted to see what Paul and Jeff had to say, though, so I emailed them to get their thoughts.

What’s the most important thing that needs to be fixed or accomplished in the second half?

Bill: Although the Phillies finished off the first half on a high note, scoring 14 runs against the Atlanta Braves, the offense will need to pick up if the Phillies want to create more distance between themselves and the Braves in the NL East race. The Phillies averaged a bit over 4.1 runs per game, which is right around the league average, and the team overall had an OPS+ below 100 (below 100 is below-average). The rotation is great, but run-scoring is as important as run-prevention.

Paul: Call this a toss-up between (1) get healthy and (2) improve the offense. It’s not as apocalyptically bad as some of us might have feared for a while, but it’s still not exactly 2007, either. I’d rank the need to find a capable left fielder above strengthening the bullpen, although both could certainly be used, especially if arms continue to get injured. Starting pitching, it appears, will not be an area of need in this deadline season.

Jeff: Continue Domonic Brown’s Development.  The young outfielder has shown flashes of the potential that made him our one untouchable prospect over the past few years.  Heading into the stretch run, his development in the Phillies best chance to add a weapon to the lineup.  With continued trust from Charlie, and the at bats that come with it, Dom could really be hitting his stride come October.

Top item on trade deadline shopping list

Bill: A right-handed bat, ideally. The Phillies have been linked to names such as Josh Willingham and Michael Cuddyer, but they have to worry about hitting the luxury tax. Most likely, any moves the Phillies make will be small in nature. Otherwise, they will be looking at relief pitchers, but that’s a distant second priority.

Paul: See above: improve the offense. Really, the search shouldn’t be limited to a corner outfielder. With Placido Polanco slumping miserably and now coming up lame, adding a player who could provide some pop and passable defense at the hot corner could be good insurance. Adding on the the bullpen is less of a luxury now with so many arms hurt – despite the emergence of so many previously unheralded hurlers – so that could also be considered an area to target. Really, I believe the calls of financial restrictions this year; I don’t think the Phils have much payroll flexibility to work with, so unless they can find cheap options at every turn, they may have to settle for picking one improvement and living with it.

JeffCarlos Beltran.  It’s going to be hard to convince the Mets to send him within the division, but he’s a perfect target for the Phillies.  Beltran has put up a .878 OPS while playing average defense in right field this season.  The switch hitter doesn’t struggle from either side of the plate, and his defense would likely be above average in left field.  The Mets also lack leverage due to Beltran’s full no trade clause and since they are contractually obligated to not offer him arbitration (that would net them draft picks when he leaves).  The Phils may need to convince the Mets to pay some of his salary to avoid the luxury tax.  But this is the one possible trade piece I see that could greatly enhance the Phils World Series chances.  It’s a “swing for the fences” move, and we have just the GM to do it.

Player to watch in the second half

Bill: Domonic Brown. Recently on the blog, I wrote about Brown’s surprisingly productive first half and why there is reason for optimism with the highly-touted rookie. The outfield corners have been an offensive black hole for the Phillies, so if they can get Brown to take it to the next level, they should be just fine.

PaulRyan Howard, for better or for worse. He’s made a reputation of being a hot second-half hitter, and if he can provide power along 2007 or ’09 lines, the Phils could be in even better shape. He may or may not continue this trend of explosive Augusts and Septembers, no one can really say for sure. Facing weaker, expanded-roster pitchers in September could be a boost for everyone, and I’m sure the pitchers wouldn’t complain about not having to pitch in a tight game every start. Who knows? An extra run here or there could mean the difference between using a starter for another inning or saving pitches for deeper in the stretch run and into the playoffs. Maybe.

Jeff: Ryan Howard. Philly’s most debated player could be incredibly important in the second half.  The Phillies’ lineup is a completely different beast when Howard is on a hot streak.  He’s known for being better after the All Star break.  If that’s true again, it could go a long way into reestablishing the Phils as one of the NL’s best offensive teams.

Feel free to provide your own answers to the three prompts in the comments.

You can follow Bill on Twitter @CrashburnAlley, as well as Paul (@Phrontiersman) and Jeff (@Utley4God).

Crashburn Alley First Half Awards

At the end of June, myself, Paul Boye, and Jeff Barnes dished out awards to the Phillies we felt were most deserving. Due to some interest on Twitter, I felt that issuing MLB-wide awards would be appropriate as well, so the three of us hunkered down in our basements, crunched some numbers, and handed out some awards. Drumroll, please…

National League

  • Most Valuable Player Award

Bill: Jose Reyes, New York Mets

Reyes is the NL leader in Fangraphs WAR (5.2), has been average to slightly above-average defensively, has successfully stolen 30 bases in 36 attempts (83%), and is a big reason why the Mets are at .500.

Runners-up: Matt Kemp, Andrew McCutchen

Paul: Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers

I had Kemp pegged as my preseason MVP…in 2010. That didn’t exactly work out so well, but the Bison has come out smoking this year. He’s 20/20 by the All-Star break, slugging .584 and has seen a bounce-back in his walk rate with a drop in his K rate. Sure, he plays for a bad team in a whole mess of financial issues, but that’s not his fault.

Runners-up: Jose Reyes, Andrew McCutchen

Jeff: Jose Reyes, New York Mets

Reyes is getting on base 40% of the time and slugging .529.  Oh yeah, he also plays an above average shortstop and has stolen 30 bags (on 36 tries) by the All Star break.  He’s one leg injury away from putting up one of the greatest walk years in recent memory.

  • Cy Young Award

Bill: Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves

Many Saberists discredit his work thus far because of perceived luckiness, and I don’t disagree, but I give the award based on results. I’m an awards literalist. Jurrjens’ 1.86 ERA is a league-best and nearly 60 points lower than Roy Halladay‘s. Halladay has pitched 33 more innings, but it doesn’t make up for such a large gap in run-prevention. Yes, Halladay will most likely be the much better pitcher going forward, but for the first-half, I have to go with Jurrjens.

Runners-up: Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels

Paul: Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies

Things Jair Jurrjens has on Halladay: ERA and one more win. Things Halladay has on Jurrjens: 30 IP, K/9, BB/9 (and K:BB), CG and WAR. Plus, Doc’s peripherals have more insulation against regression – note Jurrjens with a 5.3 K/9 and .260 BABIP. Good defense or not, he shouldn’t be allowing so few hits forever.

Runners-up: Jair Jurrjens, Cole Hamels

Jeff: Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies

I really wanted to pick Cole Hamels for this, but there’s a minor issue.  One of the game’s greatest players, is having his best season.  Doc has already put up 5.1 fWAR, on pace to blow past the 6.6 he put up in his 2010 Cy Young campaign.   He’s striking out more, walking (slightly) less, getting more groundballs, and allowing less homeruns.  He’s been better in every way from 2010, and that’s a scary thought for the National League.

Runners-up: Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw

  • Rookie of the Year Award

Bill: Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals

Espinosa has the second-best wOBA in the National League (.352) and leads all rookies in fWAR by far, 3.3 to teammate Wilson Ramos‘ second-best 1.8 fWAR. He is hitting for a lot of power (.218 ISO) at a position that doesn’t have much power (NL average 2B: .120 ISO).

Runners-up: Freddie Freeman, Wilson Ramos

Paul: Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

A hot finish before the break propels him past Danny Espinosa. If he can carry that production over, it should help make up for the loss of Chipper Jones and the reduced production of Jason Heyward.

Runners-up: Danny Espinosa, Craig Kimbrel

Jeff: Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals

Not the strongest class. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone off the radar makes a run at this in the 2nd half (*looks at Domonic Brown*). Espinosa has put up a solid season, mixing a .792 OPS with above average defense at 2nd base.

Runners-up: Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel

American League

  • Most Valuable Player Award

Bill: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

Not even a contest. Bautista is walking more than he is striking out (20% to 14%) and hitting for insane power (.368 ISO). His .487 wOBA and 6.6 WAR are Bondsian, and he is on pace for 57 home runs… when offense has plummeted league-wide over the past two seasons.

Runners-up: Adrian Gonzalez, Boston Red Sox; Curtis Granderson, New York Yankees

Paul: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

I had about the same reaction as everyone else when, during the All-Star Game telecast, there was some positing that Adrian Gonzalez was the “hands-down” MVP so far. Mmm, yeah, not really. Bautista’s slash line is currently .334/.468/.702 with 31 HR, and any world in which that line is not deemed superior to .354/.414/.591 with 17 HR is one I’m not sure I want to know.

Runners-up: Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera

Jeff: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

This is a two horse race against Adrian Gonzalez, in that a two horse race is more interesting than a one horse race.  Bautista has been the best player in the American League and its not that close.  In fact, Bautista could go hitless in his next 49 plate apperances and still have a higher on base percentage than Gonzo.

Runners-up: Adrian Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson

  • Cy Young Award

Bill: Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

His 1.86 ERA is MLB-best among pitchers with 100+ innings, slightly ahead of Jurrjens’ 1.87. Not sustainable in the least, but great so far.

Runners-up: Justin Verlander, James Shields

Paul: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

This race is probably a bit closer than it appears. Verlander has had a stretch of dominant starts that seems to have given him some separation for the time being, though, so he gets the nod at this point. With so many viable candidates, though, we might even see three completely different names on this list at the end of the season.

Runners-up: Jered Weaver, James Shields

Jeff: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

JV has done just about everything you can do to lock up a Cy Young award.  He’s won 12 games already, has a 2.15 ERA, and has a career best 4.74 K/BB.

Runners-up: Jered Weaver, James Shields

  • Rookie of the Year

Bill: Mark Trumbo, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Trumbo leads all AL rookies with 1.7 WAR and has shown tremendous power with AL-rookie-best .223 ISO. The AL ROY contest is not particularly enthralling, but Trumbo emerges at the top of an underwhelming list.

Runners-up: J.P. Arencibia, Michael Pineda

Paul: Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners

Talk about hitting the ground running. Right out of the chute, Pineda has dominated. Playing in Safeco helps, sure, but there really aren’t any smoke and mirrors to this guy. He attacks, he gets Ks and gets results. He’ll be cheap for a while, too. He’s absolutely one to hold on to.

Runners-up: Jeremy Hellickson, Jordan Walden

Jeff: Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners

Striking out a batter per inning and keeping your ERA around 3 is a good way to become rookie of the year.  Pineda has done just about everything right since his promotion and is the clear front-runner for this award.

Runners-up: Mark Trumbo, Dustin Ackley

Recap

Let us know in the comments which picks you think we got right and wrong.

You can follow Bill on Twitter @CrashburnAlley, as well as Paul (@Phrontiersman) and Jeff (@Utley4God).

This Debate Again?

So, Bill Conlin wrote an interesting article. He stood up for Ryan Howard — again — against a slew of bloodthirsty email commenters who can only be defeated by a newspaper column refuting their claims. It’s been a while since I gave the FJM treatment to an article, so let’s jump in. His words in bold; my responses in normal text.

ON THE DAY AFTER the All-Star Game was played in Phoenix without Ryan Howard, this column is directed at the haters and bashers who have been coming out of the woodwork in larger numbers than usual.

This is the number one issue for Phillies fans at the All-Star break? This is what fans are screaming about? Perhaps Conlin’s inbox is different than mine, but from my experience, hardly anyone talks about Howard or his contract anymore. I reference it snarkily on Twitter, perhaps Conlin’s been following me?

They are predictable as smog in a heat wave. They pretend to be knowledgable baseball fans, but trip themselves up every time because they are dead wrong. And egregiously stupid.

Coming from someone who once said, “The only positive thing I can think of about Hitler’s time on earth–I’m sure he would have eliminated all bloggers,” I don’t think Conlin has the right to call anyone “egregiously stupid.”

I hear the reason why he was not voted into the All-Star Game by the fans – and Phillies fans basically ignored him while stuffing the ballot box for an injured Shane Victorino – is because the National League has all these great first basemen. And RH is no longer one of them . . .

It’s true. Ryan Howard’s .830 OPS is only 48 points higher than the NL average at first base. Among qualified first basemen, Howard’s OPS ranks 14th of 26. He is behind such luminaries as Mike Morse and Gaby Sanchez, while slightly ahead the likes of Mitch Moreland and Daniel Murphy.

Howard is a productive first baseman; above-average, for sure. But he is not the top-five player in Major League Baseball he has been depicted as over the years. He might generously rank in the top-50. No, Howard is not a great first baseman. He’s merely good.

I also don’t get the need to bash Victorino in defending Howard. As written here recently, Victorino has been a very important player for the Phillies this year — more so than Howard.

So, chew on this: Prince Fielder went to the All-Star Game and captained a Home Run Derby team that was blown out of the water by a couple of real hitters named Adrian Gonzalez and Robinson Cano, who put on one hell of a show.

Not that Fielder is chopped liver. He is, after all, tied for the league RBI lead with some slipping, already over-the-hill guy named Ryan Howard. Each had 72 at the break. Oh, and Prince did rule last night, with a three-run homer that helped the National League win, 5-1.

But let me mention that Howard bats cleanup for a first-place team that leads the majors in wins and has the biggest division lead at the break in either league.

Again, bashing another player to sing the praises of Howard. Why is this necessary? If Howard really were as good as Conlin thinks, there should be no need to knock other players down to make Howard appear more attractive.

Prince Fielder’s OPS is — sit down, Bill — 162 points higher than Howard’s. To focus on their RBI totals is an obvious cherry-pick, even for a traditionalist like Conlin. There is no possible argument, traditional or Sabermetric, that can equate the two players let alone paint Howard as the more productive player this year.

Yeah, Howard’s team has eight more wins. It’s irrelevant because Conlin can’t show how many of them are due specifically to Howard as opposed to the great starting rotation, or the bullpen, or other offensive players. There is a stat that could do that, but as we’ll see shortly, Conlin dismisses such a wacky endeavor.

Oh, but he’s a butcher with the glove (all of four errors), clogs up the bases (as if Fielder is Michael Bourn) and is not providing close to acceptable return for the $125 million salary. (And since that contract just kicked in and he’s on pace for 140 RBI, maybe you should wait a while on that.)

Who, besides mouth-breathing WIP callers, claims that Howard is a “butcher with the glove”? Even Saberists have given Howard credit for becoming an adequate defender at first base.

The more important question is, “Why are sportswriters overreacting to a cherry-picked, non-representative portion of the Phillies’ fan base?” Ryan Lawrence did this on Twitter a couple weeks ago and Conlin is doing it now.

By the way, Bill should be advised that Howard’s contract extension doesn’t kick in until next season.

At this point, Conlin publicizes some emails and responds to them (badly). Ironically, something he cried about back in 2007.

This was the generic chant from the Tab-and-Scrapple Choir. He doesn’t hit for high enough average, he never hits in the clutch (See Mike Schmidt abuse files from the 1970s). He needs to bunt or slap the ball to left against the shift. Yada, yada, yada . . .

One guy even invoked the despicable, undecipherable WAR stat. That’s a totally bogus acronym for “Wins Above Replacement.” It presents a patentedly unsupported hypothesis that measures the “projected” performance of an “average” Triple A player called up to replace Major League regular A . . .

This post from TangoTiger is very relevant here. The title is “Everyone has their own WAR”, meaning that everybody has their own criteria for measuring players that ends up in the same place as WAR, even if they took the more scenic routes.

We all come up with our “single number”, even though we kick and scream that we shouldn’t come up with a single number.  If one guy argues that Felix is better than Lincecum, and the other argues the opposite, then guess what: they’ve each “smushed” a bunch of parameters, considerations and gut feelings to get to their final opinion.

[...]

The one good thing about the case-by-case basis is that it forces you to think about parameters.  You’d like to ding Manny Ramirez a little, you’d like to up Jeter a little.  So, you have to create a “heart” parameter.  And that’s perfectly fine!  Just spell it out that that’s what you are doing.  And tell us how much you are giving to each player for heart.  I have no problem with giving out wins for heart, over-and-above whatever his actual performance tells us.  Just spell it out and be consistent.

Anyone who tries to ascribe value to a player actually creates their own WAR. What Conlin should be screeching at is not the WAR stats themselves, but the criteria behind them.

I’m laughing too hard to continue. You saw what happened last season when Howard missed 19 games with an ankle sprain and was off-form the rest of the season, yet still managed 31 homers and 108 RBI.

The case has been made many times by now, but it is worth repeating since Howard gets so much credit for RBI: RBI is a bad statistic because it reflects more on the players batting ahead of Howard than Howard himself. If Howard has a bunch of players with .300 on-base percentages batting ahead of him, is he going to be anywhere near the league lead in RBI? Absolutely not. If Howard has players who get on base at a .350 clip batting in front of him, he will absolutely be at or near the top of the RBI list.

Howard hits for power, which is conducive to driving in runs. Other than that, though, Howard does not have a magical ability that allows other players to round the bases faster. I don’t point this out to be derisive to Conlin; it’s to be helpful — using RBI to ascribe value is like trying to eat soup with a fork: you’re using the least-efficient tool!

Conlin closes out his article by comparing Howard to Chuck Klein. It’s not the most outrageous comparison: Howard has a career 139 OPS+ while Klein finished at 137. But it doesn’t bolster any of Conlin’s points and only serves to beat down a straw man.

People who criticize Howard don’t do so because he’s unproductive; he is clearly still a productive player. The criticism comes from his being awarded a five-year, $125 million contract extension that pays him like one of the best players in the league*, but he is 31 years old and is clearly not anywhere near the top of the list. It is also a commensurate counter to the deification of Howard from traditionalists such as Conlin.

* The current value of one win above replacement (FanGraphs) is about $4.5 million. Howard would need to be better than a 4.4 WAR player in 2012 and ’13, and better than a 5.5 WAR player in each of 2014-16, assuming that value stays constant (it won’t, but it’s close enough). Howard has finished a season with 4.4 or more WAR exactly twice in his career (2006 and ’09).

There’s a way to give Howard his proper credit without deifying him. Doing so involves admitting both his flaws and the flaws of traditional statistics. Unfortunately, some people are too stubborn to admit that the Phillies’ first baseman may not be perfect.