“The Nerds Are Winning”

The quote in the title can be found in the latest article from one of FOXSports.com‘s most popular writers, Jason Whitlock. Whitlock’s article deals with the rise in popularity of Sabermetrics and how he thinks baseball’s science is ruining the sport. As expected, a lot of the feedback I saw was negative and Whitlock was roundly mocked as the article made its way around the Internet. I am not going to link to it here, but you can find it easily if you are interested in rewarding him with pageviews and ad revenue.

I am also not going to offer a rebuttal to his article. I imagine most of you who are reading this right now expected me to do a thorough fisking, but I’m not interested in doing that. Instead, I want to get on my soapbox for a bit.

Sabermetrics has made big strides over the past few years. Whitlock’s opinion used to be the majority opinion, but now, you’d be hard-pressed to walk into a press box and not see FanGraphs or Baseball Reference on most laptop screens. Whitlock said “the nerds are winning”, but he should have written that in the past tense. The nerds have already won.

If we have already won, why are we fighting? On Twitter, I saw many a comment calling Whitlock’s credibility into question. Others called him names, others mocked his intellectually-dishonest arguments. It’s the Internet, so that’s par for the course, but I just don’t see a need for it anymore. Saberists used to have to fight back with the bullies just to stay on the playground, but it’s our playground now.

I realize I’m not the best candidate to be offering this revelation, as I have engaged in more than my share of spats with writers over the validity of Sabermetrics. Some of them I felt were valid battles to fight, but in retrospect, there were a lot of pointless ones as well. In fact, even as recently as a year ago, you could invert Whitlock’s article and it would read like something I’d have written. “Traditionalists are ruining baseball. They take all of the critical thinking out of the game.”

Recently, though, I’ve done some thinking. The genesis of my worldview shift came with my other passion, Starcraft. When I’m not nerding it out with Sabermetrics, I’m nerding it out with Starcraft, whether I’m playing myself or following the competitive scenes in Korea and elsewhere. Like Sabermetrics, Starcraft has had to deal with its share of detractors, especially in the U.S. where the common view on video games is that they’re reserved only for loser nerds and that they are a waste of time. The Starcraft community has made strides in making their game palatable to the general population.

One of the biggest strides came when the IGN Pro League signed Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward. This signing was to Starcraft as Moneyball the movie was to Sabermetrics: it was a full-blown legitimization directly in the public eye, too big to be ignored. In both cases it was a validation of everything everyone involved in both parties had worked so hard to achieve. Naturally, though, there were still some detractors. Ben Golliver of CBS Sports wrote a condescending response to the Hayward news:

Well, not to go all Charles Barkley on you, but we have officially reached the point where we know for a 100 percent fact that the NBA is too soft. When a 21-year-old, 207 pound forward doesn’t immediately recoil in horror when asked to compare the stress and rigors of the NBA to a freaking science fiction video game we know that the NBA game has been cleaned up too much.  If a Zerg attack really gets his blood pumping as much as a game-winning shot, that’s a terrible look. We don’t want to live in a world where this can be true, do we?

The reaction within the Starcraft community was swift. Team Liquid, the largest non-Korean Starcraft website and forum, has a thread with over 350 replies and 27,000 views. The Reddit thread had over 350 comments with nearly 2,000 up- and down-votes. The Starcraft community even mobilized, responding to Golliver on Twitter. The overall response was eerily similar to every Sabermetric-to-traditionalist rebuttal. Some people made the effort to make point-by-point rebuttals, others resorted to name-calling and mockery.

Recently, though, I listened to this clip from Sean “Day[9]” Plott, one of the figureheads in the Starcraft community. To make a Sabermetric analogy, he is Starcraft’s Rob Neyer. Plott was asked how he responds to people who view Starcraft negatively. Plott said,

A big thing is to never, never be argumentative… just to be so happy about it.

If someone came up to me and was like “Starcraft is a dumb game. Do you have no friends or something?”

It’s easy to be like “What do you mean, it’s great. I have friends, here look at my Facebook account, I have 600 of them!”

But instead, if someone’s like “Ulgh, you play Starcraft.”

“Dude Starcraft is such a sweet game, do you play?” Like to like literally sidestep whatever terrible intro they did and go straight to the heart of it and be like “This game is awesome, do you play? It’s the greatest thing ever.” And to relentlessly hold that standpoint. [That’s] kick ass.

This was a great thing to hear for me, personally. By nature, I’m an argumentative person, so when someone makes flawed arguments like Whitlock did in his article, it is very hard for me to resist the urge to argue with or correct them. But what Plott said resonated with me and it prompted a shift in my worldview.

As this blog became more and more popular, I became a spokesperson for Sabermetrics, at least within the Phillies community. In retrospect, I feel like I have failed in some ways in being a good spokesperson because I am too argumentative and, by nature, negative. In the future, I want to argue less and have conversations more. I want Sabermetrics to be inclusive rather than exclusive. I would like my fellow writers in the Sabermetric community to join me. Instead of calling out Whitlock and telling him how ignorant and close-minded he is, tell him what he’s missing with Sabermetrics. Tell him what you like about it, rather than telling him the reasons he doesn’t like it are invalid. And apply this to any Sabermetric detractors you encounter whether in real life or on the Internet. Support the Saberists doing yeoman’s work (ex. Colin Wyers, Mike Fast, Tom Tango, etc.) by helping to promote their research. Conversely, don’t reward detractors with pageviews and ad revenue by drawing attention to what they’re saying.

The nerds have already won. We no longer need to fight, we just need to maintain possession of the position we have now. Bring more people into the field. Give them reasons to see why Sabermetrics is so great. Run a positive campaign.

Help Tango: Phillies Fans Scouting Report

Tango needs your help. He needs Phillies fans to submit evaluations for each Phillie individually. You don’t need to have any knowledge of Sabermetrics at all to do this; you just need to have a general knowledge of the current Phillies squad. Click here to read the details and the “rules”, go down to find the Phillies, and click the “Submit Evaluation” link.

The Myth of Hunter Pence’s Protection

You’ve heard it a million times by now: Hunter Pence has given Ryan Howard some much-needed protection in the lineup, that’s why the slugger has posted a .955 OPS in September despite chronic foot problems. The concept of lineup protection has been studied rather extensively and none of the studies have shown “protection” to exist in any meaningful fashion. In fact, Baseball Between the Numbers (written by the Baseball Prospectus staff) did the most extensive study I’ve seen yet, concluding, “There’s no evidence that having a superior batter behind another batter provides the initial batter with better pitches to hit; if it does, those batters see no improvement in performance as a result.”

I decided to dig into the data for Howard, though. Let’s take a look at overall pitch selection before and after Pence’s arrival:

Note: Due to the inconsistency in fastball-labeling (there are about 10 different labels), I lumped all fastballs together in both sets. Intentional balls, pitch-outs, and knuckleballs were removed from both sets as well, so the overall pitch totals may vary slightly from other data sources.

Change-Ups Curve Balls Fast Balls Sliders TOTAL
Pre-Pence 210 12.2% 183 10.7% 909 52.9% 415 24.2% 1717
Post-Pence 93 12.9% 79 11.0% 369 51.3% 179 24.9% 720

Needless to say, the overall pitch selection numbers aren’t all that different. If anything, having Pence behind him has given Howard slightly more slop from opposing pitchers.

What about quality of contact?

Ground Balls Fly Balls Line Drives TOTAL
Pre-Pence 105 41.3% 93 36.6% 56 22.0% 254
Post-Pence 35 38.9% 34 37.8% 21 23.3% 90

Again, hardly any difference. Before Pence, Howard hit 20 home runs in 390 at-bats (one HR for every 20 AB) while he has hit 13 home runs in 149 at-bats after Pence joined the team (one HR for every 11 AB). On a per-fly ball basis, the rates are 22 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Howard’s overall career HR/FB rate is 29 percent, roughly halfway between the two totals, so it is reasonable to say Howard may have been a bit unlucky before Pence and a bit lucky after Pence. Additionally, it goes without saying that we are dealing with small samples. If Howard had 12 HR instead of 13, his HR/FB drops by a whopping three percent.

Adding to the disparity, Howard has hit in more hitter-friendly parks since the end of July. Below is a list of away games that have been played before and after Pence’s arrival. Park factor refers to each stadium’s wOBA park factor for left-handed hitters only, via StatCorner.

Before:

Pre-Pence Avg. PF Count
ARI 106 3
ATL 97 6
CHC 104 3
FLA 100 6
NYM 99 6
PIT 100 3
SDP 90 4
SEA 96 3
STL 97 5
TOR 100 3
WSN 103 6
TOTAL 99 48

After:

Post-Pence Avg. PF Count
CIN 103 4
COL 108 3
FLA 100 3
HOU 102 3
LAD 98 3
MIL 100 4
SFG 100 4
WSN 103 3
TOTAL 102 27

Most notably, Howard has played in just one pitcher-friendly park since Pence joined the team: Dodger Stadium. Compare that to before, when eight of 11 road parks are average or worse for hitters.

Finally, with regards to Howard’s 35 RBI since Pence arrived, as mentioned here, there are a lot of factors that go into RBI, particularly the quality and skills of the hitters ahead of the RBI-gatherer. Recall that Utley did not enter the lineup until May 23, missing the first 46 games of the season. In his stead, Wilson Valdez got the lion’s share of the playing time, with the remainder being split between Pete Orr and Michael Martinez. In right field, the Phillies were using a combination of under-performers Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown. And, lest we forget, John Mayberry, Jr. didn’t start getting hot until August — he had a .774 OPS at the end of July and has posted a .998 OPS since. So, yes, Howard’s RBI total is higher but that’s because the quality of the other hitters in the lineup has improved.

All told, there is no reason to conclude that Pence has provided protection to Howard in the lineup. Howard’s numbers are slightly better as a result of small sample variance, the improvement of his lineup, and visiting ballpark “friendliness”.

That Domonic Brown Fellow

A few days ago, I discussed the post-season roster, lamenting that Domonic Brown likely wouldn’t be included. On Twitter, @9John_Adams9 linked me to this video on YouTube featuring one of Brown’s memorable at-bats from spring training 2010. Brown faced Justin Verlander, working the count very well and eventually tagging a fastball for a very long home run to right-center. Seems like that skill set might be kind of useful in the post-season, no?

What’s more is that the at-bat captured above is not your run-of-the-mill, “who cares?” spring training at-bat. Verlander threw Brown everything he had in his arsenal and Brown handled him admirably. Do you trust John Bowker or Ben Francisco to do the same?

Phillies Q&A with the Crashburn Staff

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.

. . .

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.

RyanJohn 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.)

PaulJustin 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.

. . .

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.

Appreciation

The Phillies won another NL East title last night, as expected. The celebration was notably muted, especially when compared to when they won the crown in 2007. All of this success has become commonplace for the Phillies, having reached the post-season five years running. Only the 1991-2005 Atlanta Braves and 1995-2007 New York Yankees have had a longer run of pure dominance in recent memory. As for the Phillies as a franchise, the previous high was three consecutive playoff berths from 1976-78. If you need a reminder of just how good you have it as a Phillies fan right now, click here and look at all of the white in the “playoffs” column prior to 2007.

Some are saying that the Phillies need to win the World Series for their great season to be validated, but given just how much variance plays a role in the final three playoff series, I don’t think that’s the case. It would certainly be disappointing if they got the boot early, but the 2011 Phillies have overcome a lot of adversity, batting nary an eyelash while lapping the rest of baseball. On pace for 106 wins, the Phillies have passed every test with flying colors; being victimized by a few bad rolls of the die in the post-season cannot and will not negate that.

For the next two weeks, the Phillies will — or, at least, should — take it easy, giving their everyday players some much-needed rest and aligning the rotation in the correct order. After that, it’s off to the battlefields. Godspeed.

Revisiting the Michael Young Rumors

During the off-season, the Phillies were rumored to be very interested in acquiring right-handed infielder Michael Young from the Texas Rangers. At the time, Young was being hip-checked out of a starting spot in the Rangers’ lineup, adding to the likelihood of his departure. The Phillies, of course, did not yet know what to expect from Jimmy Rollins and could not have seen Chase Utley returning to the lineup as quickly as he did, so adding a legitimate right-handed infielder was right up their alley. The Phillies and Rangers never got past the inquisition phase, and so Young remained in Texas as a DH and super-utility player (prior to Friday’s games, he logged 68 games at DH, 38 at third base, 30 at first base, and 13 at second base) and the Phillies went into the season hoping their infield could tread water.

Without Utley, the Phillies were generously a league-average offense, averaging 3.8 runs per game between the start of the season and May 22, the last game before Utley’s return. At that time, the Phillies were 28-18 and 1.5 games up in the division. Impressive, yes, but the Phillies felt they were even better than that. Utley returned and the Phillies’ offense was resuscitated as a result. From May 23 until July 29, they averaged 4.7 runs per game.

Still, the Phillies felt incomplete. Right fielder Domonic Brown had not panned out as expected — partially due to a broken hamate bone — while Ben Francisco was completely underwhelming and the Phillies were not yet sold on John Mayberry, Jr. (he had a .774 OPS after the game on July 29). Additionally, the Phillies lacked right-handed power in a very lefty-heavy lineup. It was at the time and still is the case now that the Phillies’ worst match-up is lefty-on-lefty, sporting a .584 OPS, roughly 90 points worse than their second-worst match-up, RH/RH (.671).

As has become tradition, Ruben Amaro performed his usual magic, making Hunter Pence appear in Philadelphia in time for the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 30. Pence has, by all accounts, been an excellent addition to the club even if his price was considered expensive. Since joining the Phillies, Pence has posted a .404 wOBA (league average is around .312) and his team has averaged 4.8 runs per game. Most importantly, Pence has been incredibly productive against southpaws, posting a 1.019 OPS on the season. The Phillies have won 11 of 12 games against lefties since Pence joined the team, compared to 19 of 29 prior to the trade.

Everyone has since forgotten about what could have been with Michael Young despite the eerie similarities between the two players. In retrospect, it is better that the Phillies went after Pence (assuming trade packages would have been comparable) as Young is owed $16 million annually through 2013 while Pence earns $6.9 million this year (the Phillies received $2 million from Houston, thus they only owe Pence about $650,000) and is arbitration-eligible through 2013. Assuming $3 million raises for Pence, the Phillies will pay Pence about $25 million less than Young will earn over the same period of time for similar production.

Just how similar are the two players? Young has a .368 wOBA on the year while Pence sits at .375. Over their careers, Young trails Pence by only eight points. Going by WAR (FanGraphs), Young has been worth about 3.1 WAR per season on average, while Pence comes in around 3.7 (given the error bars around UZR, which is much, much kinder to Pence, this difference is virtually nothing). Batted balls have fallen in for hits at a .364 clip for Young; .361 for Pence, with just a 10-point gap (favoring Young) between the two over their careers. Pence has more power (a 45-point lead in career ISO over Young), and walks and strikes out at a slightly higher clip.

Young has better batted ball skills, hitting line drives consistently around a 25 percent rate over his long career. Pence lags well behind with a 16 percent career line drive rate. The weaker contact is backed up by Pence’s 11 percent infield fly ball rate, well above Young’s five percent career rate. Pence, however, hits ground balls about six percent more often and turns them into hits five percent more often than Young, accounting for the only meaningful BABIP difference between the two — illustrating the specific control hitters have over their own BABIP. Most importantly, though, Young does not have a vast improvement in production against lefties the way Pence does, at least this year.

By passing on Young in February and waiting until the end of July to make a move, the Phillies got a younger player of relatively equivalent skill at an overall price of $25 million cheaper. Yes, Pence lacks Young’s versatility, but that was only an asset the Phillies desperately needed when their middle infield was in flux. With Utley and Rollins both in better shape than expected, the Phillies were able to patch their only remaining offensive hole in right field. Hindsight is 20/20, they say, but little did the Phillies know just how smart they were for passing on the critically-acclaimed super-utility man in Texas.

Phillies Q&A with David Schoenfield

On most days, you can catch David Schoenfield tearing it up on ESPN’s Sweet Spot blog, offering his take on anything that happens in Major League Baseball. You may recall that Schoenfield said, before the season, that the Phillies wouldn’t make the playoffs. He has since posted a mea culpa. With the Phillies recently clinching a playoff berth and well on their way towards clinching the division and home field advantage, I wanted to get his take as the regular season is wrapped up.

. . .

1. The Phillies are on pace for a 106-win season. 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?

I would argue that the Phillies and Yankees are certainly more equal than their records would suggest. As I write this, both teams have a Pythagorean W-L record of 94-50, but the Yankees have “underperformed” by four wins while the Phillies have “overperformed” by one win. If you factor in that the Yankees have played 69 games against teams over .500 while the Phillies have played 49 such games (the Phillies do have a better winning percentage. 571 to .551), it seems more clear that the teams are pretty even, although I’m sure the Phillies will head into the postseason as the favorite by a large margin.

2. As we wrap up the regular season, what do you see as the Phillies’ biggest weakness entering post-season play?

The first inclination may be to say “the offense,” but since acquiring Hunter Pence, the Phillies are averaging 5.0 runs per game while hitting .262/.328/.427, up from 4.3 runs per game and a .249/.322/.388 line before acquiring Pence. Sure, Raul Ibanez is a big defensive liability when he plays, but I guess my major concern would be the bullpen depth outside of Ryan Madson and Antonio Bastardo. If the starters can pitch deep into games like they have all season, it’s not an issue, but avoiding the middle relief will be key (even if it has been better than expected).

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?

As hot as the Diamondbacks have been, and as good as Ian Kennedy has been, I’d still prefer to face them than the Brewers. Their rotation goes four-deep and all four starters are capable of a shutdown performance. John Axford has converted 39 consecutive saves and Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are MVP candidates for a reason.

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?

You have to go Worley, no? And I say that as a big Oswalt fan. But isn’t Worley the team’s good-luck charm? Plus he’s been better. Yes, Oswalt has a good track record in the postseason, but this is about 2011.

5. Should the Phillies be at all worried about meeting up with the Braves in the NLCS?

Let’s see: Phillies lead the season series 9-6, have outscored the Braves by 25 runs, we don’t know the status yet of Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens. I just don’t see the Braves winning a seven-game series, but this is baseball and anything can happen in October.

6. Which AL team would match up best against the Phillies in a World Series meeting?

I think the Yankees are the best club in the AL right now. CC Sabathia can pitch on three days’ rest, the bullpen is excellent and they can certainly score runs. The interesting thing is that none of the AL contenders really has much in the way of left-handed relief pitching (the Yankees do have Boone Logan; the Tigers have Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth), so Ryan Howard may still face right-handers late in the game.

7. Which player has the most potential to be a playoff series-changer for the Phillies? Call him an X-factor, if you will.

Aside from the obvious – Cliff Lee certainly appears pretty locked in right now – I’ll go with Ryan Howard. After a homerless postseason a year ago, maybe he’s due for a few longballs. Plus, whether the Phillies play the Brewers or D-backs, he’ll be playing in a good hitter’s park and facing some pitchers who can serve up some home runs (Shaun Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, Joe Saunders).

8. As you look back on the season, which Phillies player surprised you the most? Who was the most disappointing?

Besides Worley? Antonio Bastardo has held opponents to a .119 average – that’s the lowest ever for a pitcher with at least 50 innings. Yeah, that surprised me. No Phillies player performed below expectations this year other than Oswalt (and Blanton, but he got injured).

9. Does a Phillie walk away with Cy Young hardware? What about Worley and the Rookie of the Year award?

Man, I think it’s still too close to call. Clayton Kershaw has a chance at the pitching Triple Crown (wins, ERA, strikeouts), so he’ll be hard to beat if he leads all three categories. But voters love shutouts and Lee has six of them. And Halladay deserves it. Can we split it three ways and give part to Cole Hamels as well? As great as Worley has been, Craig Kimbrel wins the Rookie award pretty easily, I think Worley’s case is much better than most are saying.

10. Do you have any bold predictions for the playoffs? (Doesn’t have to be Phillies-related.)

No bold predictions, although Phillies fans may be aware of this note: No NL team with the best record in the majors has won the World Series since the 1986 Mets. Maybe that means the odds are in Philly’s favor.

. . .

Thanks, as always, to Schoenfield for taking time out of his very busy schedule to provide his thoughts on the Phillies from an outsider’s perspective. Keep up with the whole Sweet Spot crew — including Christina Kahrl, Steve Berthiaume, Eric Karabell, Mark Simon, and more — throughout the playoffs. They’ll have you covered from every angle.

Setting the Post-Season Roster

Matt Gelb gives his best guess as to what the Phillies’ 25-man roster will look like heading into the NLDS. There isn’t much that should surprise you, but the absence of Domonic Brown is quite noticeable. The Phillies protected him in four blockbuster trades (Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Hunter Pence), but he seems to have fallen out of favor with the club with his pre-season hamate bone injury and his poor performance in 209 regular season plate appearances.

Gelb suggests the Phillies will take six outfielders: the five you would expect and John Bowker. For as bad as people think Brown has been, Bowker has been worse at the Major League level. The former Giant and Pirate has a career .291 wOBA compared to Brown’s .307, and let’s not forget that Bowker has had 335 more trips to the plate. Furthermore, Brown shows better skills in the areas we know indicate legitimate skill. Brown has a great idea of the strike zone, striking out in just 16 percent of his PA and walking in 12 percent of them this year. Meanwhile, Bowker’s BB% and K% are six percent and 22 percent, respectively, for his career. Both have shown similar power, with Brown posting a .147 ISO (isolated power, or slugging percentage minus batting average) and Bowker at .152.

So, Brown would be slightly better overall, But is it worth getting flustered about? Not really. Gelb writes:

And in all honesty, this spot probably has little effect on the postseason. There are three pinch-hitters ahead of Bowker — Ross Gload, John Mayberry Jr. and Ben Francisco. If the Phillies need four pinch-hitters in a postseason game, they’re in trouble (or playing a long game).

It is, however, interesting  how the Phillies are choosing to handle Brown. They seem to be sending out different messages about Brown than they were sending going into spring training in March.

DVD Contest Winners

Last week, I introduced a contest in which five lucky contestants would each win a “Baseball’s Greatest Games: Wrigley Field Slugfest” DVD, which features this memorable 23-22 game between the Phillies and Cubs on May 17, 1979. The contest entailed predicting the performance of the Phillies’ starting rotation over the next seven days using Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP).

Here are the results, followed by the winners.

Date Name HR BB K IP FIP
8-Sep Hamels 2 2 2 9.0 6.31
9-Sep Halladay 0 3 9 8.0 2.08
10-Sep Lee 0 2 7 7.0 2.06
11-Sep Worley 0 1 7 6.7 1.55
12-Sep Oswalt 1 2 2 7.0 5.34
13-Sep Hamels 1 1 6 5.0 4.00
14-Sep Halladay 0 1 7 9.0 1.98
TOTAL 4 12 40 51.7 3.35

The winners (closest without going over):

  1. Nick M., 3.34 FIP
  2. Nick M., 3.33 FIP
  3. Radu, 3.31 FIP
  4. Max B, 3.29 FIP
  5. Santos, 3.24 FIP

(It is quite the coincidence that two Nick M’s placed in the top-two, but I’ve traced the IP addresses of both to vastly different locations and can verify that they are not duplicate entrants.)

I have sent emails to the five of you. Reply back to me with your mailing address and I will immediately forward it to the representative from A+E Home Entertainment. For the rest of you, if you didn’t win, you can still purchase a copy of the DVD by clicking here.

For fun, let’s look at the tie-breaker, which was the number of wins the Phillies would won against the Brewers and Astros. They took four of seven, with the average of all entrants coming out to 4.6 and the mode (most common entry) was 5. The average FIP, by the way, was 3.11 (just adding up all of the entries and dividing them by the sample size).

I would like to give a big “thank you!” to A+E Home Entertainment for being kind enough to offer me a few DVDs to hand out to you guys. Hopefully in the future, we’ll be able to come up with some more contests — I’ll try to be more creative in the future.