Playoffs: Oswalt or Worley?

Over the past two weeks or so, the Phillies’ #4 starter in the playoffs has been the topic of discussion. Roy Oswalt has the tenure and the track record, but Vance Worley has been incredibly successful in his 19 starts this year. I don’t want to rehash all of the arguments (on the topic, David Hale does a nice dissection here), but I’d like to add one viewpoint that I haven’t seen presented yet.

Earlier this morning, I went into Philly to tape today’s episode of Stathead on Phillies 24/7 HD radio. Our topics of conversation for the hour focused entirely on pitching, with Oswalt/Worley leading off the show. I expected to simply praise the hell out of Worley and end the segment on that note, but my co-host Jeff Sottolano made what I think is an excellent argument in favor of starting Oswalt #4 in the playoffs, and it has nothing to do with stats.

Oswalt is an 11-year MLB veteran, so he’s certainly “earned it”, as they say. Previously, Oswalt hinted at retiring after the season, so this could be his final shot at a championship. Out of simple respect for the 2,000-plus innings Oswalt has thrown in the Majors, it makes sense to defer to him in lieu of Worley. Additionally, if Oswalt were to be bumped for Worley, wouldn’t that be insulting? Does Charlie Manuel seem like the type of manager who would want anything to do with explaining that to Oswalt? I can’t see it happening. Meanwhile, it’s a relatively easy job to tell Worley he’s going to the ‘pen — he’s not an established Major Leaguer yet, what can he do about it, y’know?

Furthermore, Oswalt has been used out of the bullpen exactly four times since 2003. Worley was used as a reliever as recently as May 13 of this season. Of course, he went on to struggle as a result of his bouncing around between the rotation, the bullpen, and Triple-A Lehigh Valley, but that won’t be an issue in the playoffs. Practically speaking, it makes more sense to enter the playoffs with Worley in the ‘pen.

Finally, the #4 spot is mostly a formality anyway. The Phillies have two well-qualified pitchers for one very small role (one start per series). Let’s say Oswalt has a rough go of things in Game 4 of the NLCS (assuming they get there, of course) — they can have Worley stretched out and ready to go, so both end up pitching in the game anyway. Or maybe Oswalt is just fine and it doesn’t matter.

If we’re weighing the pros and cons of the matter, with the agreement that the decision is merely a formality anyway, then it makes sense to give Oswalt the nod even if the stats show Worley to be slightly better (most ERA retrodictors have Worley ahead by about 0.40). That this is even a debate tells you just how good the Phillies are running right now.

Phillies: Good at Baseball

You’ve no doubt been inundated with articles telling you just how good the 2011 Phillies starting rotation is. The combination of the severe decline in offense across baseball (lowest since 1992) and the four (five?) aces led to some impressive pitching numbers. Prior to yesterday’s games, the Phillies’ rotation had the lowest FIP, xFIP, and SIERA in all of baseball, beating the second-best rotation by 0.41 (Giants), 0.48 (Braves), and 0.49 (Giants), respectively.

In previous years, there has never been a FIP as low as the Phillies’ 2.95, and rarely has a team had such a dominating lead. Dating back to 1990, only the 1996-98 Braves rotations had a larger lead over the second-best FIP.

Year #1 FIP DIFF
1996 Braves -0.48
1997 Braves -0.47
1998 Braves -0.42
2011 Phillies -0.41
1994 Braves -0.33
1995 Braves -0.29
1991 Mets -0.20
2000 Braves -0.19
2007 Padres -0.19
2005 Marlins -0.18
2001 Red Sox -0.13
2002 Diamondbacks -0.11
2006 Angels -0.11
1999 Astros -0.10
2003 Yankees -0.08
2004 Cubs -0.07
2009 Cardinals -0.07
1992 Braves -0.06
2008 Diamondbacks -0.05
2010 Cardinals -0.04
1993 Braves -0.02

Even more impressively, since 1990, the Phillies have the lowest FIP and FIP-, which is a FIP index similar to OPS+ (in this case, lower is better; 100 is the league average).

Team Year FIP- FIP 
Phillies 2011 75 2.95
Braves 1997 78 3.30
Braves 1996 78 3.41
Diamondbacks 2002 79 3.49
Braves 1998 79 3.38
Yankees 2003 81 3.56
Red Sox 2002 81 3.60
Braves 1995 81 3.45
Red Sox 1990 81 3.32

The Phillies’ indefatigable starting rotation has contributed greatly to the team’s greatest run differential through 142 games in franchise history.

Start W-L WP RS RA Diff Tot W-L Div Postseason
4/1/2011 94-48 .662 651 461 190 94-48 1 TBD
4/10/1976 87-55 .613 679 497 182 101-61 1 Division Champ
4/9/1977 89-53 .627 738 583 155 101-61 1 Division Champ
4/5/1993 87-55 .613 792 650 142 97-65 1 NL Pennant
4/14/1915 82-59 .582 539 426 113 90-62 1 NL Pennant
4/18/1950 86-53 .619 667 555 112 91-63 1 NL Pennant
4/7/1978 78-64 .549 622 519 103 90-72 1 Division Champ
3/31/2008 78-64 .549 685 587 98 92-70 1 WS Champ
4/5/2009 82-60 .577 715 620 95 93-69 1 NL Pennant

“The Phillies are good” articles are rote now, but it’s still fun to look through the numbers and see just how good they really are. Not only are the 2011 Phillies likely to finish as the greatest team in franchise history, but they may just become the greatest team in National League history, at least in the live ball era. The 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds may have something to say about that, but there is at least a debate.

Ryan Howard’s RBI Opportunities

At Beyond the Box Score, Jacob Peterson (@JunkStats) did some outstanding work digging into Ryan Howard‘s RBI opportunities. Howard, of course, has been the subject of debate for the last year and a half since he signed his five-year, $125 million contract and the RBI stat has been caught in the crossfire. Peterson finds out where Howard stands amongst his peers.

As for the remaining 10 or so RBIs above average, Howard has also almost certainly benefitted from fortunate sequencing this season. His OPS+ is 30% higher than average when he hits with runners in scoring position, but that is not sustainable.

For his career, Howard’s OPS+ is 13% higher with RISP, markedly lower than this year’s 30% mark. Once you take away Howard’s huge number of intentional walks in these situations (almost half his total walks), his career OPS+ drops to only 7% better than normal with RISP. That’s almost identical to the leaguewide figures, which this year are 6% higher with RISP.

So Howard does not seem to have the ability to hit notably better with RISP, indicating that this year’s performance in that situation has been a fortunate fluke.

.gifs at TheScore.com

I’ve been recruited by theScore.com to do some .gif work on the weekends with the Getting Blanked blog. I’ve already got quite a few posts up, some of them Phillies-related, so here’s a run-down of what’s been posted so far:

  • Reds change their signs against the Phillies [Link]
  • Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper swindles a kettle corn vendor [Link]
  • Chicago Cubs fail at baseball [Link]
  • Josh Hamilton gets phantom-tagged to end the game [Link]
  • Josh Bard is thankful for the invention of the facemask [Link]
  • Fan interference in Florida [Link]
  • Roy Oswalt’s showmanship with the Phillies [Link]
  • Juan Samuel gets a kiss, Pete Orr ruins the sausage race [Link]
  • Alex Presley pulls a Jason Michaels [Link]

If you are watching a game and see something you think is .gif-worthy, let me know. You can contact me via email (CrashburnAlley [at] gmail.com), Twitter, Facebook, and even by leaving a comment on this here blog as well as Getting Blanked. It helps if you include information that can help me find the event quickly when I go back through the archives. Information such as…

  • A description of what happened
  • Team broadcast (e.g. Phillies CSN or Pirates ROOT)
  • Inning
  • Outs
  • Batter at the plate
  • Pitch Number

… is very helpful in allowing me to quickly find and create the .gifs. The more information you provide, the more likely it is that I will use your suggestion in a post.

So, look for me at Getting Blanked every Saturday and Sunday between now and at least the end of the post-season. I’m part of a team with quite a few great bloggers as well who each do excellent work in their own right, so I highly recommend making it a part of your web-surfing routine.

MLB and Doublethink

In his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell coined the term “doublethink”, which is “the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct”.

Recently, the Phillies joined the numerous other teams in baseball that have participated in the ItGetsBetter.org anti-bullying campaign, which is aimed at LGBT youth in America. You can watch the video below:

Throughout most of the season, Michael Stutes has been on the receiving end of a rookie hazing ritual. As he goes to the bullpen before the start of a game, he must walk with a pink backpack carrying nourishing goodies for his ‘pen mates, seen below:

Doesn’t this seem hypocritical to anyone else? The Phillies participate in the ItGetsBetter.org campaign and also allow their players to pull a prank that marginalizes a player’s masculinity by associating it with a feminine color? Dan Savage thinks so:

Yeah, yeah: I’m playing the role model card. But when pink backbacks and feather boas trickle down to Little League and high school teams, as they inevitably will (if they haven’t already), boys who have yet develop the ability to laugh this kind of teasing off—boys who aren’t as secure in their sexualities and masculinities as these professional athletes are—will be subjected to the same humiliating treatment. For boys who are still going through puberty, for boys who are still developing a sense of what it means to be a man, for boys who have yet to realize that they get to define manhood for themselves, being called a girl or a fag can be devastating. And while it may be rookie relievers who come in for this playful teasing in the major leagues, on high school and Little League teams it’s going to be those boys who are already under suspicion for being queer—boys who are perceived to be sissies—who are going to be abused.

To the Phillies, and any other forward-thinking MLB teams, put the kibosh on the pink backpack prank. It’s not as harmless as you think.

(Tip of the cap to Rob Neyer, who directed me to the Savage article in his Friday Filberts.)

Best Rotation of All Time?

Back in February, in an article I wrote for ESPN, I pondered the historical possibilities for the 2011 Phillies starting rotation. Last year, the four aces each finished the season with at least four Wins Above Replacement per Baseball Reference. Cliff Lee, of course, spent his time between Seattle and Texas while Roy Oswalt played with Houston and Philadelphia. With all four in the same starting rotation in 2011, though, they had the potential to become the third starting rotation with four pitchers posting individual seasons with four or more WAR.

How have they fared thus far in 2011? Roy Halladay has 6.2 rWAR; Lee, 6.1; Cole Hamels, 5.2. Due to time missed due to injury, Oswalt is only at 1.3. In nearly as many innings, though (about 110), Vance Worley is at 2.5. While the Phillies didn’t quite meet the stringent criteria used in my article from February, I still think you can make an argument that the starting rotation rivals that of the 1991 and ’97 Atlanta Braves.

In 1991, Tom Glavine posted 7.4 rWAR, followed by John Smoltz at 4.7, Steve Avery at 4.5, and Charlie Liebrandt at 4.3. In 1997, Greg Maddux led the way at 7.3, followed by Glavine at 5.0, Smoltz at 4.5, and Denny Neagle at 4.1. As yet, no Phillie is better than the Braves’ best starter in either year, but their #2 and 3 starters rate better.

On average, the Braves rotations were about a fifth of a win (0.2) better than the ’11 Phillies but if you combine Oswalt and Worley’s contributions (only about 20 innings more than Halladay has pitched), then the Phillies’ rotation comes out on top slightly, on average.

Going by defense-independent metrics, the Phillies sprint ahead. Their top three starters each have a strikeout-to-walk ratio at 4.0 or greater. All of the ’91 Braves’ starters were below 3.0. In ’97, Maddux had an amazing K/BB approaching 9.0, but Smoltz and Neagle were below 4.0. Per FanGraphs, this year’s squad has a 2.93 FIP, which is lower than the ’97 Braves (3.30) and ’91 Braves (3.55) by a significant margin. The 1971 Baltimore Orioles’ starting rotation, which had four — four! — 20-game winners, had a collective FIP of 3.60.

There is no way to definitively prove that one starting rotation was better than another, but the deeper you go with Sabermetrics, the more the 2011 Phillies’ rotation looks like the greatest of all time. With three starts left apiece, the Phillies’ starters still have time to move further and further ahead, and you know the Braves, Brewers, and Diamondbacks are watching, paralyzed in fear.

DVD Contest: May 17, 1979 PHI @ CHC

A representative of A+E Home Entertainment contacted me and was kind enough to offer a few DVDs to give away to Crashburn Alley readers. The DVD, which you can purchase here, chronicles a wacky 23-22 game between the Phillies and Cubs at Wrigley Field in 1979.

BASEBALL’S GREATEST GAMES WRIGLEY FIELD SLUGFEST DVD
MAY 17, 1979 THE PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES WIN THIS WRIGLEY FIELD CLASSIC FEATURING THE POWER OF DAVE KINGMAN AND MIKE SCHMIDT

The Phillies, having won the prior day’s game at Wrigley 13-0, jumped out on top 21-9. With the Chicago faithful straining for hope–lo’ and behold, in one of the wildest Wrigley Field slugfests of all time–the Cubbies stormed back to knot the score at 22! The stage for this scoreboard jamming contest was set in the first stanza. The Cubs starting pitcher recorded only one out, allowing six runs, while the Phillies starter–who homered in the first inning, also exited after recording only one out and allowing five runs! The two lineups were filled with stars: Mike Schmidt (2 home runs), Larry Bowa (5 hits), Bob Boone (5 RBI), Bill Buckner (7 RBI), and Dave Kingman (3 home runs). Yes, the wind was blowing out that day at Wrigley. Direct from the Major League Baseball archives, this rare and extraordinary television broadcast includes the quintessential making of a Wrigley classic, mind-boggling offense and one unforgettable baseball game. A special DVD audio feature allows fans to watch the television broadcast and listen to the radio play-by-play!

What is the contest? Simply predict the performance of the Phillies’ starting pitchers over the next seven games, which include four in Milwaukee against the Brewers and three in Houston against the Astros. Leave a comment below with your prediction of the starting rotation’s collective FIP. For your convenience, the formula for FIP I will be using is:

( ( (13 * HR) + (3 * BB) – (2 * K) ) / IP ) + 3.20

Apologies in advance for those of you who don’t like math. This works easiest with a spreadsheet but as long as you know the order of operations, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty coming up with a reasonable figure. Or you can just guess without putting too much thought into it — to each his own.

The three entries closest to the actual results without going over will be the winners.

Lastly, in the event of a tie, also leave your prediction for the Phillies’ aggregate win total in both the Brewers series (four games) and Astros series (three games). To clarify, the wins reference the team as a whole, not pitcher decisions.

An example of a clean entry would look like:

FIP: 3.75

Wins: 3

Make sure you leave a valid e-mail address with your comment as I will be using that to contact you in the event you win. After I contact you, you will provide me an address to ship to, which I will forward to the A+E Home Entertainment representative.

Any contest entries sent to me in any other format other than in the comments below will be ignored. I will be monitoring the comments for multiple entries from one person, but you can make my job easier by playing honorably. The deadline for entry is 7:00 PM ET tonight (Thursday).

Three Five lucky — or prescient — people will take home a DVD. But if you don’t win, remember you can still purchase them on the A+E website.

UPDATE: The A+E rep contacted me again and agreed to send me a couple extra DVDs. So there will now be five winners.

Please Stop Calling Cliff Lee Streaky

A week after I wrote that the NL Cy Young might be a two man race, Cliff Lee appears to have pitched himself back into contention. The night after that post went live, Lee capped off a brilliant August with 8 and 2/3rds shut out innings against the Reds, and, on Monday, followed that up with his league-leading 6th complete game shutout of the year against the Braves. His numbers now fall right in line with those of Halladay and Kershaw, and it’s impossible to exclude him from any discussion about the NL’s best pitcher in 2011.

Lee’s dominance this season, at least to me, has seemed under-advertised by media and fans. It’s understandable, to an extent. Everyone breathlessly waits to see what Roy Halladay can do next, and for good reason. Cole Hamels is presently filling in the zeroes on his next contract with each gem of a start, and, anticipating that he’ll stick around, we want to feel out just how devastating his new repertoire can be, as if 2010 wasn’t evidence enough. Vance Worley is the new rookie surprise story, on a staff that was hardly wanting for reasons to watch. Added to all that, Lee began the season with some starts that were a strange mix of high strikeout and earned run totals, just when the expectations for the new mega-rotation were fresh and uncompromising.

All of these factors have contributed to a strange notion that I’ve seen in more than a few places: Cliff Lee is “streaky,” or “inconsistent.” I’m not making this up:

Dare to say it; Lee has been somewhat inconsistent this season, with two historic months of dominance surrounded by some fairly modest months of performance.

He is at times the best pitcher in the world, and during others he’s just another pitcher. If you look at his monthly splits this season, Lee has put in two months of ridiculous, epic and historic work.

I want to stress here that this is not meant as a dig at Philadelphia Sports Daily or Jim McCormick. He’s a very good beat writer — one of the best, and one of my favorites, actually. This was just the easiest example to cite. Bill Petti, a writer at Beyond the Boxscore whose work I also enjoy, wrote about it too. They’re simply elaborating on something that a lot of other people on blogs, twitter, radio, newspapers, and in broadcasts have said at some point or other this season. In most cases they’ve said it because of this:

It’s easy to see why someone would look at this data and conclude that Cliff has had, at the very least, a strange year. The June through August stretch is particularly schizophrenic, at least when measured by ERA. Of course, ERA never tells the whole story. His BABIP fluctuated wildly over that period, from .191 to .359 to .237. His strikeout rate was actually at its lowest during his incredible June, and was lower in his 0.45 ERA August than it was in his 4.18 ERA April. A simple results-based evaluation is insufficient; it’s much more complicated than the number of earned runs he has allowed from one month to the next. If we fade ERA out a bit, and add FIP and xFIP to the above graph, this becomes all the more obvious:

That smoothes things out quite a bit, doesn’t it? For one thing, the big split between his FIP and xFIP in July indicates that home runs allowed per fly ball was the source of his outcome woes that month, and indeed that metric was severely inflated, at 18.8%. If his ERA had fallen in line with his FIP or xFIP, no one would seriously accuse him of streakiness. The first graph now looks like a superficial take, at best. We can’t say for sure that there weren’t some perfectly good reasons for his BABIP and HR/FB fluctuations month-to-month (in particular his pop-up rate spiked heartily in his low-BABIP August), but, really, isn’t that the point? When you chunk data out into such small samples, you’ll end up with the murkiest of portraits no matter what brushes you use.

This is especially true when the criteria for that chunking is as entirely arbitrary as calendar months. The Gregorian calendar was rolled out by the head of the Catholic Church almost 500 years ago, primarily because the previous calendar had a nasty habit of shifting the Spring equinox further out of alignment with Easter each year. Baseball evolved gradually in 19th century America from a variety of ancestral stick-and-ball games. The two have nothing to do with one another. There is no reason that Cliff Lee’s pitching ability should have anything to do with the ambitions of Pope Gregory XIII, or the orbital mechanics of the Moon. As Twitterati member @Everybody_Hits noted a while back, you can redefine the calendar months and Cliff Lee’s “consistency” problem disappears. What if each month began on the 25th instead of the 1st?

Now, instead of the wild month-to-month sine wave, Cliff has had a great 4 month stretch from April 25th to August 24th, bookended by a decent March/April and two fantastic August/September starts. It’s impossible to call this an up-and-down season. Even in moving the endpoints, though, we are still submitting to the tyranny of the Moon, sticking with 30-day periods to define our months. Again, there is no reason why we should do this. It has just as much to do with baseball as migratory bird patterns and seasonal wheat harvests. So, hey, let’s break out Lee’s performance according to the rotation of Lambda Andromedae, a G-type giant binary star located approximately 84 light years from Earth. It happens to have a rotational period of 54 days.

Now, if I were to claim that Cliff Lee draws his pitching abilities from the machinations of a distant star, strengthening his powers with each full rotation, I’d have just as strong a set of empirical legs to stand on as those that would look at his monthly splits and call him streaky. In analyzing baseball, we’re constantly limited by the fuzziness introduced by small sample size even when working with a full season of data (especially for pitchers). Splitting it up further only amplifies the problem. Anyone who chooses endpoints, be it a fan, writer, or broadcaster, does so with a certain agenda in mind, whether they know it or not. Even from those endpoints that seem perfectly natural on their face — monthly splits being an excellent example — there can emerge great thickets of coincidence that masquerade as narratives. If we fail to apply the utmost scrutiny to these, we may allow single season gems like Cliff Lee’s 2011 to be muddied with baseless criticisms, and that would be a true shame.

WAR Back in the News

At fellow Sweet Spot blog It Is About the Money, Stupid, Hippeaux has a post up critiquing the Sabermetric statistic Wins Above Replacement and its widespread use (or, in his estimation, misuse). Naturally, this spurred a lot of debate on the Internet. Among many others, Rob Neyer and Tom Tango have rebutted the IIATMS article.

I don’t want to rehash the debate as most of it has been said before. However, I read a comment on the Baseball Think Factory thread that I’d like to share, as I thought it was quite good, written by the user named “PreBeaneAsFan”.

I think this is a problem that I see a lot not just in relatively unimportant venues like sports, but also in more important arenas (popular discussions of science, economics, etc.) People correctly point out that we don’t have precise answers and that our best quantifications have error bars that are [larger] than the number of decimal places reported. That’s a valuable insight and worth discussing, but then people take it a step further and use that as an excuse to remain completely agnostic on things. By denigrating the best efforts of others to quantify difficult questions and insisting that “I don’t need all that fancy stuff, just give me the basics and I’ll take my own guess since no one knows” they give themselves a feeling of smugness and superiority to those bookish nerds vainly searching for answers they can’t pin down, but they also throw away valuable information that the effort to quantify those things tells us and in most cases behave as though the uncertainty is much greater than it actually is.