Last week, I fired a salvo of questions at David Schoenfield, asking for his thoughts on what the Phillies have done already and what they can still accomplish yet in 2011. However, I thought it would be fun to ask the same questions to Paul Boye and Ryan Sommers to see where there is mutual agreement and stark disagreement. So, below are their responses to the same questions given to Schoenfield last week.
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1. The Phillies are on pace for a 106-win season [ed. note: now 105]. Meanwhile the Yankees, with the second-best record, are on pace for 98 wins. Are the Phillies eight wins better than the Yankees, or is the National League just that much worse than the American League?
Paul: It’s usually pretty tough to compare teams across leagues, but I think my answer to this falls somewhere in the gray area between those two possibilities. The Phillies don’t have an offense that stacks up to the Yankees, but no one has a pitching staff that matches up to the Phils. Plus, regular season records can usually go out the window when the playoffs roll around, especially in the LDS. The Phillies outclass the NL, but I think the Yankees have enough big bats to make things interesting, should they meet.
Ryan: Well, they’re certainly not eight wins better. The AL has been a much stronger offensive environment for yet another year, so it’s difficult to contextualize what the Phillies have accomplished across leagues. If you fancy Baseball Prospectus’ Adjusted Standings, the Phillies sit squarely between the Red Sox and Yankees in third order run differential, which purports to account for things like strength of opponent. Then again, they’re all behind the Rangers by that metric. I would estimate that, once you adjust for league, they’re all on roughly equal footing. That being said, in the playoffs I would prefer a team with the Phillies’ tendencies. Sure, they lack the tremendously potent offenses of the Red Sox and Yankees, but they’re well built to survive a game wherein they only score one or two runs, and I’m not sure you can say the same for the other two. I’ll take the miles-better pitching rotation every time.
2. As we wrap up the regular season, what do you see as the Phillies’ biggest weakness entering post-season play?
Paul: It’s the offense. Chase Utley, Shane Victorino and Ryan Howard aren’t hitting well this month, and having those three guys right would go a long way toward making things easier on the pitchers. Hunter Pence has been hitting very well, but he’s been the only one doing so, of late. Antonio Bastardo‘s recent struggles call lack of bullpen depth into play, but chances are good that, if anyone other than he or Ryan Madson are in the game, other things might have already gone wrong.
Ryan: Definitely the bullpen. They have the 6th best ERA of major league pens, but also the 5th worst xFIP. I think that highlights some significant over-performance that has masked potential problems which have only recently reared their heads. In particular, Mike Stutes has started to feel the inevitable results of his high walk and high flyball tendencies. Michael Schwimer, in a very small sample, has opened his MLB career exhibiting those same habits. Add to all this Charlie’s penchant for making reliever choices late in games that are just plain bizarre, and that don’t really sync with situational leverage. Having Blanton at the ready, if he can be the 18.5% strikeout rate Blanton of 2009-2010, would certainly help in the depth department. So too would the starters going very deep into games, which is really not an unreasonable expectation given the talent in question. Outside of that though, the Phillies have to hope that Madson and Bastardo see most of the relief innings.
3. Of the possible NLDS match-ups, which team has the best chance of beating the Phillies in a five-game series — the Brewers or Diamondbacks?
Paul: The Brewers. Arizona could get hot, for sure, but Milwaukee’s rotation depth, quality end of the bullpen and the one-two of Ryan Braun/Prince Fielder scare me more than Arizona’s complementary submissions in those categories. They’d be an even tougher match in a seven-game series, where Arizona’s lack of depth would be a bit more evident.
Ryan: Definitely the Brewers. They have a better offense (103 wRC+ to the Diamondbacks’ 95), and their front three of Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, and Yovani Gallardo can certainly hold its own against that of the Phils. The bullpen is quite impressive also, ranking 3rd in SIERA the MLB. Don’t be fooled by the Phillies taking 3 out of 4 against the Brewers earlier this month; Milwaukee is a formidable contender in a short series.
4. You unwrap a candy bar to find a golden ticket inside. The ticket allows you to set the Phillies’ post-season rotation. Assuming you’ll roll with a top-three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, who wins the #4 spot — Roy Oswalt or Vance Worley?
Paul: Worley has continued to pitch better than I had expected him to. I figured him to be more like a decent regular season No. 4 option, and instead he’s pitched better and better as the season has gone on. Oswalt has the experience that Charlie Manuel values so dearly, and so he’d likely draw the assignment. But I’m not sure I wouldn’t take Worley in that game instead.
Ryan: Oswalt. The only thing that could call into question whether or not he is a better pitcher than Vance Worley is his health, and he showed signs in the clincher on Saturday that he may be putting some of those issues behind him. He flashed a better average and range on his fastball velocity that night than he has in all but one start since his injury problems began. He walks less batters and induces more groundballs than Worley. If the velocity is truly back and his strikeout rate returns, than it’s even less of a question.
5. Should the Phillies be at all worried about meeting up with the Braves in the NLCS?
Paul: Sure. They’d only have 7 innings to get a lead in every game, because the likelihood of getting anything against Venters and Kimbrel seems awfully slim these days. The Atlanta offense has been even less potent than Philly’s, though, so while I think they should absolutely be taken seriously, Milwaukee still seems the bigger threat in the end.
Ryan: Somewhat worried, but less so than with any other of the potential opponents, I think. Jair Jurrjens won’t throw off a mound until later today, and Tommy Hanson will take the mound in the Instructional League with a 35 pitch limit. Neither have thrown since August 15th, and it remains to be seen how soon they can return and how effective they will be when they do. The Braves can survive without them, but I don’t think they match up very well against the Brewers or Diamondbacks in that diminished state. Their x-factor of ignominy is Fredi Gonzalez, who is probably the worst manager you could have in a short playoff series — always looking to insert himself into the game in the dumbest and most counter-productive ways.
6. Which AL team would match up best against the Phillies in a World Series meeting?
Paul: The Yankees. Throwing CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova (a pitcher the Phils haven’t seen) and Bartolo Colon (a junkballer) is a combination of things the Phils’ bats just do not fare well against. Plus, as mentioned earlier, the Yankees have an offense that could hit Halladay, Lee and Hamels. They’re not a superpower this season, but they’re an excellent team that would surely cause some problems.
Ryan: Probably the Yankees. I don’t read much into the recent struggles of the Red Sox, and their offense outpaces that of the Yankees, but the Yankees appear more balanced. New York’s rotation certainly has some problem spots, but they’ve still managed to post a 119 ERA+ in the AL, as well as that league’s second best SIERA. They could easily string together some strong starts against the Phillies, who can be hit or miss with the bats. The Yankee offense has, strangely, been near the bottom of the AL in runs per game, despite being one point of wRC+ behind the Red Sox, who lead the MLB with a mark of 117. I don’t really have an explanation for that, since, as a team, they do just fine with runners in scoring position. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that combining Granderson, Cano, Rodriguez, Swisher, and Teixeira into one lineup makes them one of the few teams that could do some damage against the Phillies’ top three starters. And anyway, who wants to try and mount a late inning playoff comeback against Mariano Rivera?
7. Which player has the most potential to be a playoff series-changer for the Phillies? Call him an X-factor, if you will.
Paul: Ryan Howard and Anotnio Bastardo. I say Howard because he’ won’t see any right-handed pitching past the sixth inning, and having him come through against lefties would be an excellent asset. Bastardo, who has looked wild and tired over the past couple of weeks, could be tasked with facing these hitters late in games: Fielder, Brian McCann, Miguel Montero. Those are just key lefties; Bastardo has proven very effective against righties, and may also be called on to stay in and keep Braun, Chipper Jones and Justin Upton off the bases. He’s the neutralizer, and he’ll need to be his unhittable self.
Ryan: John Bowker.
Just kidding. I’m going to go with Chase Utley. He started the season strong coming back from injury, but has floundered recently, posting just a .613 OPS since August 10th. Remember his offensive explosion in the 2009 postseason? When his bat is up to its usual standard, that is the kind of series-altering punch he can deliver. At any time, he can let loose the kind of defensive wizardry that saves innings and games. We already know we’re going to get something magical from the pitching rotation. If he can find his offense again before the postseason, Utley can be the playoff X-factor.
8. As you look back on the season, which Phillies player surprised you the most? Who was the most disappointing?
Paul: There have been a bunch of surprises. Worley and Bastardo have been the most surprising, with a nod to Shane Victorino’s big improvement and a bunch of power hitting from John Mayberry in limited action. Cliff Lee also continues to improve, so while everyone expected him to be good, I think that him being this good has still surprised me, even a little.
Ryan: Shane Victorino raising his OPS by 122 points has to be my biggest surprise of the season. His 2010 was league average, but disappointing for just about everyone, and I think there were substantial questions entering this season about whether he’d be able to reprise his 2008-2009. He’s done that, and much more. As a left-handed batter, not much changed from 2010 to 2011 besides his BABIP (a 54 point uptick); his batted ball profile and plate discipline remained essentially the same. That added fortune, though, was enough to boost his wOBA against right-handed pitching by 50 points. The biggest surprise, of course, was his dramatic improvement against left-handed pitching. It’s odd, too — his line drive rate in that split plummeted to 10.1%, almost entirely in favor of flyballs (59.6%), which he happens to be hitting a lot further; almost half of his hits against right-handed pitching are for extra bases. He has almost twice as many walks as strikeouts against righties. He’s hitting a Bautistian .327/.444/.645 against right-handers. Hopefully he can sustain some of those improvements.
The most disappointing, I suppose, has been Oswalt. The Phillies had to know, though, that his history of back issues would eventually come back and rear its head.
9. Does a Phillie walk away with Cy Young hardware? What about Worley and the Rookie of the Year award?
Paul: This is the most fascinating race remaining. Every time Halladay, Lee or Clayton Kershaw takes the hill, it seems like they toss gems, and have been trading masterpieces for two months. Even though Lee has – arguably, of course – been the best of the three, Kershaw seems like he’s still the favorite. Call it a hunch. Worley, I think, has already lost the RoY to either Freddie Freeman or Kimbrel from the Braves. Not to say he isn’t somewhat deserving.
Ryan: This question involves weighing two competing tendencies of BBWAA writers. Kershaw currently leads both Phillies starters in the pitching “triple crown” — wins, strikeouts, and ERA. If that doesn’t change, I have a feeling the writers will stick with their bread and butter and pick Kershaw. On the other hand, if they weigh certain silly things that they sometimes pay undue attention to, like complete games, shutouts, success of the pitcher’s team, etc., that may prompt them to make other choices. I think the former will prevail though. And really, each pitcher is close enough in almost every metric, so I don’t think I could get upset about them choosing any of them. Halladay and Lee each have hardware, and Kershaw hasn’t quite gotten the attention and praise he’s due. Why not give him one?
As for Worley, I don’t think he’ll take the RoY, but you never know. They’ll probably be tempted to give it to Kimbrel. Cory Luebke has, in my opinion, a very strong case, and will probably get less of a look than he deserves. The same is the case with Padres infielder Jesus Guzman.
10. Do you have any bold predictions for the playoffs? (Doesn’t have to be Phillies-related.)
Paul: Justin Verlander will not win a game this postseason (though his team certainly still might).
Ryan: Ryan Madson won’t surrender an earned run. Cliff Lee will strike out 30% of the batters he faces. Ryan Howard will post a slugging percentage of .550 or greater.
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Thanks to Paul and Ryan for providing some additional insight on these pressing matters. Feel free to provide your own answers in the comments below.