Phillies Dominating, Time to Take It Easy?

Much has been written recently about the greatness of the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies. From the historically great starting rotation to the revival of the offense and all of the individual narratives in between, it has been an easy ride. Their lead in the NL East has been no less than four games since July 20 and now sits at 8.5 games.

As the New York Mets will tell you, such a large lead doesn’t mean anything until everyone has been mathematically eliminated. The Mets led the NL East by seven games on September 12, 2007, but went 5-12 over their final 17 games to finish one game behind the Phillies. Similarly, in 2008, the Mets led the NL East by 3.5 games on September 10, but the Mets finished out the season playing .500 baseball while the Phillies went on a hot streak (13-3) to win the division by three games.

You can take nothing for granted in the game of baseball, not even a team as great as the Phillies. However, they are a lock for the playoffs according to the Playoff Odds Report at Baseball Prospectus, the only such team at the moment. Colin Wyers, BP’s Director of Research, says the POR uses…

a computer simulation to play out the rest of the season a couple of thousand of times, using a combination of PECOTA projections and a team’s current-season record to establish an estimate of each team’s quality.

The Braves are projected to take the Wild Card with a 92-70 record. For the Phillies to finish worse than that, they would have to play worse than .333 baseball over their remaining 45 games (15-30). So, while the Phillies haven’t mathematically clinched a playoff berth yet, it would take some incredibly improbable simultaneous occurrences to keep the Phillies from October baseball.

That gives us an interesting scenario: should the Phillies start taking it easy this early in August? They learned the hard way over the last two years just how much of an impact injuries can play on the outcome of a season. Although there are only two players on the disabled list (Joe Blanton, Jose Contreras) and one who could potentially be (Placido Polanco), the threat of an injury is always there for previously-injured players like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Raul Ibanez. And, of course, there are random injuries that can take out otherwise 100% healthy players, like Ryan Howard rounding second base last year during a game against the Washington Nationals.

Similarly, limiting the innings of the aces can help keep their arms fresh for October. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels are on pace for 243, 238, and 231 innings, respectively. Since 2005, only 18 different pitchers have thrown 230 or more innings in a season (Halladay and Lee, of course, are two of those 18). The Phillies, in 2011, could make up rougly 16% of that list. Of those 19 pitchers, Adam Wainwright, Brandon Webb, Chris Carpenter, Joe Blanton, and Johan Santana have suffered serious injuries to their throwing arm. Injuries are very hard to predict, but there is a reason why teams have imposed limits on innings in recent years, and it’s why, overall, starters are throwing fewer innings than their predecessors.

Earlier in the season, I was critical of Charlie Manuel for leaving his starters in late in games when the Phillies stood to gain relatively little or even nothing. Leverage Index (LI) shows us the importance of any given situation within a game based on score, inning, out, and base runner states. After one particular start by Lee, I used LI to show how unnecessary his presence on the mound was:

In the fifth inning until he was pulled in the seventh inning, Lee faced sub-1.00 leverage index situations with seven of ten batters, and of course the other three situations were his own doing — a result of his lack of stuff. Going into the seventh, the Phillies were facing four-to-one odds to win the game. Manuel either has a remarkable lack of confidence in his bullpen or was not cognizant of how much he was asking from his starting pitcher.

The average leverage index, for the games in which Phillies starters accrued 110 or more pitches, was 1.04. As the FanGraphs Saber Library explains, an average LI is 1.00, so it isn’t as if these starters are in super-important situations. And, lest we forget, it is May — we are just now arriving at the one-quarter mark.

Even when we look at the peak leverage index, the decision-making isn’t justified. The average max-LI for the 11 110-plus-pitch games is 3.07, with a max of 7.13 in Halladay’s start against the Washington Nationals on April 13. The rest fell under 4.00, with four registering under 2.00. The two most egregious over-uses both involved Halladay: on April 7 against the Mets, when Halladay pitched seven innings as the Phillies won 11-0; and April 19 against the Milwaukee Brewers, when Halladay went six and two-thirds innings as the Phillies lost 9-0.

In this situation, however, rather than looking at LI, we should be looking at the Phillies’ odds of clinching a playoff berth. As discussed above, it is about as close to 100% as mathematically possible without actually being 100%. Thus, any further use reaps the Phillies no rewards and forces the Phillies to take a risk (injury) with each of their players. What if Halladay suffers an arm injury while trying to win a meaningless game on August 14 and cannot pitch in the playoffs? Even if that event has a one percent probability of occurring, the Phillies don’t gain anything the other 99% of the time to make it worth it.

There is the thought that a team going into October with momentum has an edge on the competition. Some teams have rested their players (though not nearly as early as August 11) and then put them back into their normal roles about a week or so before the end of the regular season to get them back into the swing of things, hoping to build up some momentum along the way. The Phillies could follow a similar path: rest their important players between now and, say, September 20 (the start of their final homestand before a six-game road trip), then put everybody back into their normal spots and play out the rest of the season before the NLDS starts on September 30.

Financially, there may be a reason to hesitate pulling the regulars for so long. The Phillies have 12 home games remaining in August and 10 more in September. Will Citizens Bank Park still sell out when the starting lineup consists of Wilson Valdez, Michael Martinez, Ben Francisco, Brian Schneider, and Kyle Kendrick? If the average person spends $35 at a Phillies game, and their attendance declines from 45,000 to 40,000, then they are losing $175,000 per night. Over 22 home games, that is nearly $4 million dollars, or nearly $1.5 million more than Kendrick won in arbitration back in January.

If fans do show up in the same record numbers, will they stay long enough to pay for parking, consume hot dogs and alcohol, and buy shirts and hats? If attendance declines, or the answer to that question is no (which only the Phillies’ front office can answer based on their own internal research), then the Phillies have to bite the bullet and risk further injury for at least the next month. Otherwise, there is no reason not to give the important guys a well-earned vacation — even if it means finishing with fewer than 100 wins or winning the division by fewer than 10 games.