STL/PHI NLDS Series Preview

Bill Petti (@BillPetti) of Amazin’ Avenue and Beyond the Box Score was nice enough to share his Saber-stat series preview graphic. It’s pretty snazzy. Click on the image to view a much larger version.

The graphic shows that the Cardinals are a better offensive team than the Phillies in, well, every facet. But it should be no surprise that the tables are flipped when it comes to pitching. The Cardinals are 7% better than the Phillies when it comes to scoring runs, but the Phillies are 27% better at preventing runs. That is why the Cardinals finished with just a +70 run differential while the Phillies finished at +184.

As for individual offensive contributors, let’s compare them using wOBA.

The Cardinals have the edge at five of eight positions; the Phillies lead at second base (Chase Utley), shortstop (Jimmy Rollins), and center field (Shane Victorino).

Now, a look at the pitchers using SIERA.

The Phillies have the overwhelming advantage in Games One and Two, and a slight advantage in Game Three. Should the series go to a fourth game, the Cardinals plan to use Phillie-killer Jaime Garcia, who has a 1.20 ERA against the Phillies — lowest among opponents with 20+ innings pitched.

The Phillies and Platoon Splits

After the Phillies won the NL East and clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, fans began to play matchmaker. Would the Phillies rather play the lefty-heavy Arizona Diamondbacks, or the Milwaukee Brewers’ wealth of right-handed hitters? The Phillies will enter the post-season with the potential of just one lefty out of the bullpen (Antonio Bastardo), so maybe you bite the bullet and roll the dice against NL MVP candidate Ryan Braun and the Brewers’ flock of right-handers.

What is interesting about the Phillies’ pitching staff, though, is that the platoon match-ups do not work the way they do with most pitchers. Pitchers tend to perform better against same-handed hitters because they can hide the ball slightly longer and the ball appears to come from a more favorable angle. That has not been the case for the Phillies this year.

Two starters and four key relievers have performed better against opposite-handed hitters, surprisingly. With talk of the Phillies potentially adding lefty Joe Savery to the roster, that now looks superfluous after perusing this information. In a late-innings situation where the Phillies need to get a crucial lefty out — say, Prince Fielder — they can instead call upon Vance Worley and expect him to get the job done.

This is an important distinction to make because it allows the Phillies the flexibility of entering the playoffs with an 11-man pitching staff. With the questionable durability of the Phillies’ entire infield, bringing an extra infielder rather than an extra fielder can make or break the Phillies’ late-game decision-making. The debate then revolves around carrying five or six outfielders (and conversely seven or six infielders). Ben Francisco could be left off in favor of Pete Orr if the Phillies want to be very safe against any potential injuries to their infielders.

Ultimately, some people may say it is an irrelevant discussion, but each roster spot should be treated as if it matters the same as any other. And, as the Phillies experienced in 2008, you never know who is going to be a key contributor. Would you have expected Eric Bruntlett, Geoff Jenkins, and Pedro Feliz to have played big roles in the Phillies’ Game Five win over the Tampa Bay Rays? Do the best you can at maximizing each roster spot and you can safeguard against being wronged by Baseba’al.

Baseball Is Awesome

If you missed last’s action around the league, let’s let the win probability graphs from FanGraphs do the talking:

Starting with Phillies-Braves…

The St. Louis Cardinals, vying with the Braves for the NL Wild Card, beat the pulp out of the Houston Astros 8-0. As a result, the Braves needed to win to force a one-game playoff on Thursday, their only hopes for the post-season. The Braves were up 3-1 going into the seventh, but the Phillies started to chip away. They scored once in the seventh and tied the game against Craig Kimbrel in the ninth. Hunter Pence broke the tie in the 13th with a BABIP-fueled RBI infield single in the hole between first and second. David Herndon nailed down the bottom-half for the save, dashing the Braves’ playoff hopes.

At one point in mid-August, the Braves had 26 more wins than losses and appeared to be locks for the post-season. In September, the Braves lost 18 of 27 games while the Cardinals won 18 of 26. Simply put, the Braves ran out of gas — and healthy players. The Braves’ loss was the Phillies’ 102nd win of the season, setting a new franchise record for wins in the regular season, beating the 101 wins of the 1976 and ’77 Phillies.

Meanwhile, the Yankees-Rays game wasn’t too interesting. The Yankees took a 7-0 lead, putting the Rays’ fate firmly in the hands of the Boston Red Sox, who were playing the Baltimore Orioles. In the eighth inning, Yankees relievers Boone Logan and Luis Ayala had complete meltdowns. Logan allowed all three hitters he faced to reach base, departing with the bases loaded. Ayala forced in two runs with a walk and a hit batter, followed by one more on a sacrifice fly. With two outs, Evan Longoria capped the inning with a three-run home run to bring the Rays within one run at 7-6. Suddenly, it was a game. The reset button was pushed with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when Dan Johnson — who hadn’t reached base via a hit since April 27 — hit a home run down the left field line to tie the game and breathe life back into the Rays’ playoff hopes.

Over in Baltimore, the Red Sox had gone up 3-2 thanks to a Dustin Pedroia solo home run in the fifth. The score held going into the bottom of the ninth inning as the Orioles attempted to rally against closer Jonathan Papelbon. At the same time, the Rays and Yankees were going back and forth, the score holding at seven apiece as the game went deeper and deeper into extra innings. Papelbon retired the first two Orioles he faced on strikeouts, giving Red Sox Nation confidence that they would at least have the opportunity to have a direct fight with the Rays for post-season rights.

The 68-93 Orioles weren’t going down without a fight. Chris Davis doubled on a line drive down the right field line. Nolan Reimold promptly doubled to right-center, tying the game at threes. The Rays fans in Tropicana Field went nuts when they heard the news. Moments later, Robert Andino singled to left. The ball was misplayed by Carl Crawford, allowing Reimold to score the winning run uncontested.

How did that feel? Have a look at the graph:

No more than three minutes later in Tampa with Scott Proctor on the bump, Longoria hit a solo home run down the left field line to clinch the AL Wild Card for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Like the Braves with the NL Wild Card, the Red Sox at one point appeared to be locks for the AL Wild Card. In fact, the Sox were in first place in the AL East as recently as September 1. However, their September was even worse than the Braves’, winning just seven of 27 games. The Rays won 17 of 27, including their last five games to finish out the season. If you thought the Mets’ collapse in 2007 was bad, the Braves and Red Sox arguably exceeded that — in the same season.

One night after we saw this dramatic comeback…

… we were treated to three. On the same night. As it pertains to the AL Wild Card, within minutes of each other. Each game had drastic playoff implications.

I don’t think it would be outrageous to say that Wednesday, September 28, 2011 was the wildest day of baseball in history, all things considered. Cherish what you witnessed on that day; you will go a long time before witnessing something like that again.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

Over at the Sweet Spot blog, David Schoenfield takes a stab at how the post-season rotations will line up. The Phillies will need to wait until the end of the day to be assigned an opponent, but regardless of which team it is, the Phillies will enter the playoffs with the best starting rotation, bar none. Here’s a graphical look at how the Phillies compare with the other two known playoff entrants in the National League, going by SIERA.

With Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, the Phillies have the best starter by far in the #1 and 2 spots, and have a slight edge at #4 with Roy Oswalt. The Brewers beat the Phillies at #3 because they’re using Zack Greinke behind Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum, even though Greinke has been significantly better by defense-independent metrics. He has been significantly worse with runners on base: batters are hitting for a .908 OPS against him when runners are on, compared to .695 when the bases are empty.

The Phillies are slightly behind the Brewers and D-Backs in offense, but make up for it with their elite starting rotation. While anything can happen in the post-season, as last year’s San Francisco Giants can attest, there is no reason to bet against the Phillies going into October. It will be a real treat to see how this much-heralded rotation fares in the playoffs.

The Cost of Loyalty

The graph below takes Raul Ibanez and John Mayberry, Jr.’s performances in favorable (vs. opposite-handed pitching) and unfavorable (vs. same-handed pitching) platoon scenarios and compares them to an average NL batter in those same splits.

Notes: wXB/H is “Weighted Extra Bases per Hit,” a contact skill-neutral measure of power that I Frankenstein’d together here. Strikeout rate is inverted, so that lower strikeout rates are higher above league average.

As you would expect, Mayberry bests Ibanez in every category except for walk rate versus opposite-handed pitchers. His overall output, plate discipline, and power are all superior to those of Ibanez. The best thing that can be said for Raul Ibanez is that he has streaks of passable to good performance. When you stop creating generous endpoints for him, he is just a corner outfielder with poor defense who is hitting 10% below league average at the moment by wRC+. On many other teams he would be a bench bat — and blessed to hold on even to that role. Front offices less prone to considerations of loyalty and character, on teams whose fates were less assured, would have looked elsewhere for production weeks ago.

Still, we’re a few days away from the official submission of playoff rosters, and I can say with reasonable certainty that Charlie Manuel will start Raul Ibanez in left field for every playoff game. Granted, it’s more complicated than the above graph makes it seem. Ibanez has nearly twice as many plate appearances as Mayberry, and it will be a while before we can be certain that Mayberry’s improvements are the real deal. It’s also questionable how much their skill differential will really matter in the playoff rat race, where a good four or five plate appearances can turn an entire series.

But suppose the Phillies are knocked out shy of their ultimate goal. While we’re sitting around building narratives after the fact, as FuquaManuel detailed, will we at least consider this, a decision predicated entirely on non-baseball factors that objectively lowers the team’s offensive potential? Or will we brush it aside, credit Charlie Manuel again for being the “player’s manager,” and turn our attention to some other scapegoat?

On Worrying

The Phillies ended an eight-game losing streak yesterday, running over the Mets 9-4. The city of Philadelphia let out a collective sigh of relief as the Phillies may actually get to 100 wins after all. Over the course of the losing streak, the Phillies averaged just two runs per game. The offense’s collective slash line was a depressing .225/.284/.285.

At some point during the slide, around the fifth game or so, you had two parties within the Phillies fan camp: worriers and non-worriers. The worriers cited things like the team’s health, the recent lack of offense, and the bullpen struggles. The non-worriers negated those claims by referencing the small sample sizes and the fact that recent teams have won the World Series despite a mediocre finish to the regular season (e.g. the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals).

It’s in our nature to tie a narrative to what we see. In baseball, you will never read the literary equivalent of a shoulder shrug after an eight-game losing streak in late September because we perceive the games to have more importance. In 2008, the year the Phillies won a championship, they lost their sixth game in a row on June 24. They had just six more wins than losses and held on to first place by a game in the standings. But there was no panic because we don’t perceive the middle of the season to have as much importance as the beginning or end of the season.

Compare that to the 2-10 start the Boston Red Sox had to start the 2011 season. The same people who, before the season, predicted the Red Sox to become one of the greatest teams of all time were ready to write them off as dead after just 12 games. At that time, the Sox were in fifth place, five games out in the division. They were in the same spot at the end of April, only reinforcing the narrative. By the end of May, the Red Sox were back in first place where they were predicted to be all along. The narrative changed to casting the Red Sox as resilient, rather than simply playing up to their true talent level.

The Phillies have now lost eight out of their last nine games. Do you think we would be seeing nearly as much worrying if the Phillies lost four in a row, won a game, then lost another four in a row? I doubt it because the latter feels better than losing eight consecutively. As you watch the team lose again and again, you become more cognizant of their flaws. Eventually, you start looking specifically for flaws, ignoring any positives or putting the flaws in their proper perspective. This doesn’t make you stupid and irrational, as many would have you think; it just makes you human.

Half of the Phillies losses were by a margin of one or two runs. A couple extra bounces their way, whether as hitters or pitchers, and we may be talking about a completely different narrative.

Having said that, there are some unsettling trends and we do not have the luxury of waiting around for the sample size to become sufficient. Antonio Bastardo has walked eight of the last 37 batters he has faced, while posting a 6.75 ERA. Chase Utley has six hits in his last 52 at-bats against left-handed pitching (h/t Mark Simon @msimonespn). Cole Hamels has allowed ten home runs in his last nine starts after allowing just eight in his first 22 starts. Shane Victorino‘s OPS sat at .926 on September 2, but is now down to .845 (prior to yesterday afternoon’s game).

Worrying is fine. It is your right as a fan to be concerned with the well-being of your team, whether rational or irrational. Just be cognizant of the limitations of the information on which you are basing these worries, and your limitations as a human being. The Phillies still enter the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to win it all. If the Phillies don’t walk out with the trophy, it may or may not be because of these recent story lines; sometimes, a team just comes out of nowhere to steal the prize. To win it all, the Phillies need to have plenty of favorable dice rolls, regardless of the team’s talent.

Technical Difficulties

Last night around 4 AM ET, Crashburn Alley, along with several other websites hosted by InMotion Hosting, was hacked. It looked something similar to what is shown in this video:

The blog has been restored and everything should be good to go now, but you may have contracted a virus if you tried to access the blog while it was compromised. One of my followers on Twitter says his virus scanner caught four copies of “downloader”, so run a scan on your computer to make sure you haven’t been compromised as well.

I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused. Additionally, thank you to InMotion Hosting for their immediate response to this issue and pain-free resolution.

The Davey Lopes Effect Redux

Prior to the 2010 season, in a season preview for The Hardball Times, I examined how first base coach Davey Lopes helped improve the Phillies’ running game. Specifically, he helped in three ways: overall aggressiveness, increased aggression in stealing third base, and overall efficiency. When it became known that the Phillies weren’t bringing him back for the 2011 season, I was disappointed because he meant a lot to the team. Lopes eventually signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

While the Dodgers’ season overall has been disappointing, center fielder Matt Kemp has broken out and is a front-runner for the National League Most Valuable Player award. His numbers, both traditional and Sabermetric, speak highly to the now-27-year-old’s improvement. Last year, Kemp had a .760 OPS and barely crossed 50 percent in his stolen base success rate. This year, his OPS is a shade under 1.000 and is stealing bases with a 78 percent success rate.

On Twitter, I saw some Dodgers fans talking about Kemp’s great season. In particular, @Dingersblog noted that Kemp could not only win the Triple Crown (AVG/HR/RBI) but also join the exclusive 40/40 Club. Just out of curiosity, I tweeted to him, “Any idea what impact Davey Lopes has had on Kemp? I know Lopes was a godsend to the Phillies.” Both @MikeSciosciasTI and @truebluela joined the conversation as well. It was very enlightening, so I’ve screencapped it for your enjoyment below (read bottom to top):

@Dingersblog wanted me to add these tweets, in addendum to what you read above:

Giving Kemp an insular environment to succeed, and allowing his game to speak for itself, was for the best in a lot of ways.

I obv. don’t want it to come off like I’m saying Kemp is a hermit and a-hole for not speaking to me or something stupid

I feel like Lopes didn’t get enough credit for what he did while he was in Philadelphia. Now that he’s doing the same in Los Angeles, I think we can gain more of an appreciation for just how much of an effect a coach can have on his players. In particular, Shane Victorino seemed to benefit the most. In his age 22-24 seasons in the Minors, Victorino attempted 75 steals with a 65 percent success rate. In a full season with the Phillies in 2006, the year prior to Lopes’ arrival, Victorino attempted only seven steals in 462 plate appearances, succeeding only four times. Since 2007, he has attempted 183 steals with a success rate of 82.5 percent.

As the base running runs on FanGraphs indicates, the gap between the best and worst teams accounts for only three and a half wins over the course of a full season, but it can turn a good player into a great player. In Kemp’s case (and perhaps Victorino’s), not only did Lopes make him a better runner, but he helped him in ways that don’t show up in the statistics.

Thanks again to @DingersBlog, @MikeSciosciasTI, and @truebluela for helping inspire this post. Make sure to follow them on Twitter for insightful commentary on baseball. And follow me as well.

The Decline of Chase Utley

As the Phillies’ B-team continues to slide, currently on a six-game losing streak after clinching the NL East, fans are beginning to worry if the Phillies will have what it takes to win 11 games in post-season baseball. A week ago, fans were hard-pressed to find things to worry about with the Phillies, but now, we have Chase Utley‘s decline, the well-being of Ryan Howard and Hunter Pence, the two Roy Oswalts, Cole Hamelshome run tendencies, and many  more.

Todd Zolecki described Utley’s decline a few days ago:

Since Utley reached a season-high .290 average on Aug. 1, he has hit just .221 with a .280 on-base percentage and a .329 slugging percentage. He has just nine RBIs in 36 games, which is alarming considering he has been hitting third in a lineup that is tied for second in the National League in scoring in that stretch.

Zolecki also has a quote from Manuel, who worries about Utley’s health. The second baseman has a history of fading in the second-half, perhaps a result of his all-out style of play.

With that in mind, I wanted to examine the data to see if he could pinpoint any specific areas for concern.

Perusing FanGraphs, the first thing that worries me is Utley’s walk rate. At the moment, it sits at eight percent, more than four percent lower than it had been in both 2009 and ’10. Walking is a big part of Utley’s value as his on-base percentage has been above .375 since he took over at second base in 2005. A decline in walk rate usually coincides with other declining plate discipline attributes, but that isn’t the case with Utley. He’s swinging and missing at the fewest percentage of pitches of his career, just over five percent compared to his 6.5 percent career average. His overall strikeout rate is also the lowest of his career at 10.5 percent, below his 15 percent career average. The plate discipline stats at FanGraphs don’t reveal any noteworthy changes otherwise.

The second item that caught my attention was his batted ball profile. While his ground ball rate has stayed constant in both 2010 and ’11, it appears that Utley is making much weaker contact, hitting line drives at a 20 percent clip last year but only 13 percent this year. As a result, Utley is hitting more fly balls — his 46 percent rate is up from 39 percent last year. Utley was more of a fly ball hitter before his hip injury, but he also hit more line drives as well, with a rate ranging from 18.5 percent to 24 percent from 2005-09. In other words, prior to his hip injury, Utley hit fewer grounders and more fly balls; after the hip injury, Utley is hitting the same amount of grounders, but has reduced his line drives in favor of fly balls. This indicates weaker contact.

His BABIP on ground and fly balls doesn’t stray far from his career averages, but line drives have become hits four percent less this year than they have over the course of his career. With a sample of just 40 line drives, this could just be simple variance, but given the other data, at least some of it is explained by making weaker contact.

This is backed up by his decline in power. Utley’s isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) is .164, the lowest mark of his career and the third consecutive year in which it has dropped. He has 26 home runs in 2010-11 combined, which — if a full season — would be the second-lowest mark of his career among his full seasons. Additionally, his rate of turning fly balls into home runs has traditionally been in the 11-15 percent range over his career. This year, however, that rate is only 6.5 percent. With 143 outfield fly balls, the difference between his career rate of 12.8 percent and this year’s rate is nine home runs. If Utley had nine extra home runs instead of nine extra outs, his wOBA would increase by 41 points.

As Zolecki noted, the biggest change has come in Utley’s performance against lefties. Utley has a career .381 wOBA against southpaws, nearly equivalent with his performance against right-handers at .379. This year, however, he’s at .279 against lefties. Nearly all of the changes discussed already are even more prominent when you break it down into platoon splits.

  • 2010 vs. LHP: 13.3 BB%, .287 ISO, .300 BABIP, 20.0 HR/FB%
  • 2011 vs. LHP: 6.6 BB%, .123 ISO, .217 BABIP, 6.7 HR/FB%

That’s just decline across the board. Interestingly, though, there’s a reversal of batted balls with both types of pitchers. Compared to his career averages, Utley is hitting eight percent more ground balls and 10 percent fewer fly balls against lefties this year. The decline in quality of contact helps explain the precipitous drop in his HR/FB rate. Conversely, against right-handers, Utley is hitting 10 percent fewer line drives, the same amount of ground balls, and seven percent more fly balls with a HR/FB rate currently at half his career average rate.

Whether it’s his hip, knee, or recent concussion, it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of his decline without a direct, honest quote from the man himself, or from others in the know within the organization. We can say, though, that the trends are not at all encouraging heading into the post-season. With a .341 wOBA, though, he is still at least the fourth-best hitter on the team and is capable of being productive no matter the situation. Since returning from a concussion suffered on September 7, Utley has had one day off. Perhaps Charlie Manuel should give his second baseman the final six games off to catch his breath and mend his wounds before returning to battle in October for the Division Series.

Why I Love This Game

In the summer of 2006, I didn’t know any better.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I thought I knew better. I thought what I knew about baseball was all there was to know. I figured a hitter was probably best judged by his average, home run and RBI totals. I figured pitchers were probably best judged by their records, ERA, saves and strikeouts. These things were all I knew and all I counted on to tell me what I wanted to know about baseball players.

About a year prior, I had stumbled upon a site called SomethingAwful. Longing to entertain the geek in me, I found a lot of their articles funny, the weekly Photoshop showcase sublime and the occasional animations to be pretty good in their own right. The site featured a forum, one that required a one-time, $10 charge to register and post (reading was free). I thought the concept insane – pay to post on a forum, when the rest of the Internet is basically free…no thanks – and resisted even examining what I was refusing to pay for.

Until the summer of ’06.

Continue reading…