Do the Phillies Need to Bunt?

Tip of the cap to reader LTG, who brought this to my attention. Manager Charlie Manuel told reporters he wants to see his team bunt more often in 2012.

“I was talking [to our coaches] today,” Manuel said Monday. “We’re going to do more bunting sessions. We’re going to get [Shane Victorino] and Jimmy [Rollins] and [Juan] Pierre and [Michael] Martinez. … If Victorino bunted 15-20 times a year and got both of the corners up, the balls he slices and hits hard, there are more ground balls that go through the infield.”

Bunting isn’t correlated with higher run scoring. Using team data from 2007-11, a team’s total bunt hits had a negative correlation (-0.1) with runs scored, meaning that the more bunt hits a team had, the less runs they scored. In fact, bunt hits correlated negatively with almost every offensive statistic, for obvious reasons. The lone positive correlation was with BABIP (0.16), but bunt hits only explained 2.5 percent of BABIP and considering the selection bias (players that tend to bunt also tend to be faster and to hit more ground balls), it isn’t meaningful in the least.

Additionally, there aren’t many situations in which a bunt is more favorable than swinging away. Using 2011 data in the Run Expectancy Matrix from Baseball Prospectus, let’s examine the effect of a sacrifice bunt, without accounting for the skill of the hitter:

  • Runner on first, 0 out -> Runner on second, 1 out
  • 0.85 runs -> 0.65 runs (-0.20)
  • Runner on second, 0 out -> Runner on third, 1 out
    • 1.06 runs -> 0.90 runs (-0.16)
  • Runners on first and second, 0 out -> Runners on second and third, 1 out
    • 1.43 runs -> 1.29 runs (-0.14)
  • Runners on first and second, 0 out -> Runners on first and third, 1 out
    • 1.43 runs -> 1.14 runs (-0.29)
  • Runners on first and third, 0 out -> Runners on second and third, 1 out
    • 1.68 runs -> 1.29 runs (-0.39)
  • Runner on first, 1 out -> Runner on second, 2 out
    • 0.50 runs -> 0.31 runs (-0.19)
  • Runner on second, 1 out -> Runner on third, 2 out
    • 0.65 runs -> 0.34 runs (-0.31)
  • Runners on first and second, 1 out -> Runners on second and third, 2 out
    • 0.89 runs -> 0.57 runs (-0.32)
  • Runners on first and second, 1 out -> Runners on first and third, 2 out
    • 0.89 runs -> 0.48 runs (-0.41)
  • Runners on first and third, 1 out -> Runners on second and third, 2 out
    • 1.14 runs -> 0.57 runs (-0.57)

    In each situation, the run expectancy goes down after a bunt. Obviously, there are some situations where a bunt does make sense, such as when you have a pitcher or an otherwise weak hitter at the plate (i.e. Michael Martinez). But for the most part, you want to swing away instead of bunt.

    Specifically, Manuel said that Victorino would be able to squeak out a few extra hits if he bunts more and pressures the defense into playing him honest (e.g. not deep, expecting him to swing away every time). However, looking at Victorino’s spray charts from 2011 (courtesy ESPN Stats & Info), it doesn’t look like such a practice would have given him many more hits, if any.

    Victorino against LHP

    Victorino against RHP

    In situations with a runner on first base and less than two outs, Victorino’s propensity (or lackthereof) to bunt will be less of an issue when he is batting left-handed, since the first baseman will most likely be playing on the bag anyway. By bunting an extra 15-20 times, the Phillies assure themselves of proportionally fewer extra-base hits (13 percent of Victorino’s 456 batted balls went for extra bases last year). If Victorino loses 3 extra-base hits (all doubles, for argument’s sake) by attempting to bunt 20 times, he would need roughly five extra singles (whether by successfully reaching base on a bunt, or by causing the defense to play shallower in future at-bats) to make up for it.

    Adding bunting to the Phillies’ offensive repertoire is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Not that the Phillies’ offense is sinking — they had the best offense in the National League once Chase Utley returned to the lineup on May 23 (3.8 runs per game before; 4.6 runs per game after) last year. If the Phillies are interested in scoring more runs, they should make more meaningful changes, such as platooning Domonic Brown and John Mayberry in left field — or giving Brown the job outright — or assuring Utley’s freshness in August and September by giving him scheduled rest throughout the season.

    Cole Hamels’ Cutter, Graphically

    Friend of the blog and fellow esports enthusiast Dan Brooks (@BrooksBaseball) has owned and operated the go-to site for Pitch F/X data for quite some time. Over this off-season, he somehow managed to make some significant improvements to his site. There’s even more data and you are able to permute the data to your heart’s content. During the season, Brooks Baseball will be a must-have in your browser’s bookmarks, right next to Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and FanGraphs.

    To get a feel for the usefulness of the data, I wanted to investigate Cole Hamels‘ spike in ground balls from 2010 to 2011, when he induced them at a 45 and 52 percent rate, respectively. On Hamels’ player card, you can see the chart pictured to the right, one of many such charts.

    The cluster of red dots are Hamels’ cut fastballs and the cluster of black dots are his four-seam fastballs. The chart shows that his cutter has more concentrated horizontal movement and less “rise”. You can see the difference in the following two animated .gifs.

    Four-seam fastball

    Cut Fastball

    The cut fastball is a pitch Hamels added in 2010, but it took him a while to get a feel for it. Brooks Baseball shows us that Hamels threw the cutter for a ball 39 percent of the time in 2010, but only 33 percent of the time last year. Additionally, the rate at which he induced ground balls with the pitch changed as well, from 41 of 88 in 2010 (47%) to 91 of 147 (62%) in 2011.

    Not only did Hamels increase his use of the cutter last season from 14 percent to 21 percent, but he threw it lower and further away from the middle of the plate. These heat maps, courtesy ESPN Stats & Info, show us the location of his cutters to left-handed hitters in 2010 and 2011.

    Obviously, as you go lower and further away from the hitter, the likelihood of a ground ball being hit increases and the quality of contact decreases. As a result, Hamels improved his ground ball rate, and his fly ball rate changed in that he doubled the rate at which he induced infield pop-ups (six percent in 2010 to 12 percent last year) and deflated his HR/FB rate by about five percent.

    Hamels set a career-low with a 2.79 ERA last season, partially due to a .255 BABIP. Some — not all — of that is explained by the refinement of his cut fastball, particularly against left-handed hitters. His 2.96 xFIP against lefties was his best since 2007. If Hamels can continue to expertly utilize his cut fastball, then he should be able to maintain a lower-than-expected BABIP going forward. Don’t forget, the cutter is not even Hamels’ best pitch — that honor goes to his change-up, arguably the best in baseball. These two pitches make him plenty valuable not just to the Phillies, but to many other teams praying he will be eligible for free agency after the season.

    Howard, Thome, and the 2012 Offense

    On Saturday, Ryan Lawrence asked Charlie Manuel for the most he hoped to get out of Jim Thome at first base this season; his reply was “20 starts.” He further elaborated that he expected “180-200″ total at-bats.

    The latter is not an unreasonable expectation, as Thome has managed an average of 305 at bats per season from 2009-2011. It could well be a problem, however, if Manuel will attempt to make the former come true. In his last stint with the Phillies, surrendering the bulk of the playing time to Ryan Howard, Thome played 52 games at first base, at age 34. Thereafter, from 2006 through 2011, Thome logged just 4 games at first base, spending the rest of his time as a DH. This was due in part to being traded to the White Sox, who had a DH spot to work with, and a first base position occupied by Paul Konerko. Certainly, though, questions about his lower body, his back, and the fragility that accompanies aging played a role in keeping him off the field. In 2009, when the White Sox dealt him to the Dodgers, general manager Ned Colletti talked about how first base was not an option for Thome:

    In fact, the night before the deadline he called me. … He just said: “I just want to be honest with you. I’d love to come. I want to help you guys any way I can. But playing first base is not something I’m going to be able to do — maybe in an emergency situation, perhaps.”

    That was two seasons ago, when Thome had just turned 39, and he was warning the team ahead of time that he could play first only as a last resort. Now, two seasons later, he turns 42 in August, and the Phillies hope to give him 20 starts at the position while Ryan Howard is on the mend. To his credit, Thome now seems upbeat, and fully engaged with what figures to be a huge undertaking. He told Buster Olney that he relishes the challenge. But along with that quote come a few others, as well as observations by Olney, that are cause for concern:

    When Wigginton came out to join [Jim Thome and Sam Perlozzo for first base fielding drills], the comfort in his movements helped to define how much more work Thome needs at first in the weeks ahead.

    But Thome’s greatest challenge in playing the position will be in how his body reacts to the innings bent over at the position, particularly his back, which has caused him pain in the past. After Thome finished the day’s work, he sat at a picnic table with padding strapped to his back, treatment that is part of his daily regimen.

    “I don’t go to the park thinking, ‘Is my back going to break down?’” he said. “I do the things I need to do to get ready. I’m at a stage in my career where you do this and roll the dice to try to win a championship.”

    It is, to say the least, a very high risk proposition, not from a financial standpoint (Thome will only make $1.25 million this season), but in terms of on-field production. With Thome lies all hope of passable offensive production from the first base position while Howard is out.

    Ty Wigginton is the other primary option to start the season. He has some positional flexibility, having logged time at almost every place on the field, but has primarily been a third baseman. This means he could spot Placido Polanco, who struggled last season with both injury and overall production, but he will also split time with Thome at first base, and is likely the full time backup if Thome can’t handle the load. Wigginton’s best season, one that put him on the map as a utility or power bat option for many teams, was his 2008 tour with the Astros. In 429 plate appearances, he hit .285/.350/.526 with 23 home runs, spending time at third base and left field and accruing 2.5 rWAR. Since then, he has not managed to hit at or above league average, posting an OPS+ of 86 in 2009, 98 in 2010, and 87 in 2011. As career years go, his 2008 is a bit strange. It wasn’t built on batted ball luck or a surge in line drive rate (or playing in Denver); it appears to be purely a one year power surge. Wigginton swung at more pitches inside and outside the zone, did not make any better contact than in previous years, but posted a HR/FB% that was 6 points greater than what he had done in his career up to that point, raising his isolated power by 60 points over his 2007 mark.

    In any case, Wigginton leaves us no reason to believe he’ll ever be able to approach that performance again. Even in the hitter’s paradise of Coors Field last year, he managed just a .242/.315/.416 line, and was a full win beneath replacement level by rWAR (this was the third season in which he’s been at least a win below replacement, the others being 2009 and 2003). Granted, he was merely replacement level with the bat, and most of his negative defensive value came at third base and in the outfield, positions where he (hopefully) will not see much time this season. But this is probably more than really needs to be said for Wigginton. ZiPS projects Wigginton to hit .249/.312/.399 next season. Even Bill James’ projections, typically the most optimistic of the models, predicts just a .249/.314/.420 line. In Howard’s absence, the Phillies will be fighting on two fronts for first base production — Thome’s health and Wigginton’s ineffectiveness.

    The greater context to all this is that the Phillies may well lose output in 2012 for reasons beyond Howard’s unavailability. The 2011 offense, while extremely frustrating at times, was actually significantly above both the NL and MLB averages in terms of run scoring, putting up 4.4 runs per game. But this seems out of tune with their team OPS, which, at .717, was a tick below the MLB average of .720. One reason for this is that they were significantly more productive at the plate when there were runners in scoring position — 14% more productive compared to their overall OPS, to be exact. With runners at 2nd and 3rd, they were 18% more productive than their overall OPS, and with runners at 1st and 3rd, 35%.1

    One could speculate on a few reasons why hitters would be more productive with runners on base: in many such situations, the opposing pitcher could be having problems with control or effectiveness, and the opposing defense is often forced into alignments that are not optimal for keeping balls in the infield, etc. But the league as a whole only raised its collective OPS by 4% with runners in scoring position, and the Phillies had not demonstrated this RISP boost to the same degree in previous seasons. Whether or not you want to call it “luck” (worth noting: the Phillies raised their BABIP by 26 points with runners in scoring position, while the league as a whole saw no significant change), it’s far from a given that this form of success is repeatable. It’s likely in 2012 that the offense’s runs per game will track more closely with the team OPS.

    Perhaps more importantly, the Phillies have not made any significant offensive additions, and they possess some serious candidates for regression. Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino are the two readiest examples of this, although it’s not out of the question that either of them could repeat the new level of productivity they each established in 2011. John Mayberry, Jr., while presenting no obvious red flags for regression, carries with him the usual questions attendant to a previously marginal player having a small sample break out performance; his hopes ride on a classic “fixed mechanics” tale coming true, and they don’t typically do. If the franchise stays their puzzling course with Domonic Brown, Mayberry and the abortive bat of Laynce Nix will be relied upon for production in left field. It’s difficult not to imagine Chase Utley improving on last season’s performance, but both he and Placido Polanco represent significant injury risks in the starting infield.

    The upshot is that Ryan Howard missing substantial time in 2012 would make a dicey situation dicier still. It was worrisome, therefore, to see Matt Gelb report on Saturday that Howard suffered a “minor setback” in his rehabilitation process, and would leave camp to have his Achilles tendon checked out in Baltimore. Ruben Amaro characterized it as a routine check-up, and, typically as of late, the contrasting accounts and noticeable downplaying made things difficult to decipher. There’s not necessarily any reason to panic about it; it’s possible, even likely, that it’s just as minor as Amaro makes it out to be. On the other hand, Manuel noted that the problem was an infection at the site of the surgical incision, a complication that can be nagging and seriously inhibitory to the recovery process. The more time he misses as a result, the more time the Phillies will be forced to rely on the risk-laden duo of Thome and Wigginton, and the higher the chance they find themselves out of options at first base. Funnily enough, this could be liberating for Domonic Brown, if the Phillies elect to install him in left and have Mayberry carry the load at first, but even then, they’ll be scraping around for offense from wherever they can find it, and that’s assuming none of the other injury concerns in the starting lineup blow up on them. The runs may not come nearly as easily as they did in 2011, putting yet more pressure on the pitching staff.

    ___

    1It’s interesting to note that this phenomenon went mostly unheralded last season, when, in the past few seasons before it, the lack of “situational hitting” was one of the most common fan complaints.

    2012 Predictions with the Crashburn Staff

    It’s the most fun time of the year. Oh, did I say fun? I meant excruciatingly painful. Televised baseball is still weeks away and meaningful televised baseball even further. Those of you, like me, suffering from pangs of withdrawal will be forced to cope for a little while longer. To distract ourselves from the painful reminder of “no baseball”, I gathered Paul, Ryan, and Michael, and we put together some predictions for the upcoming season.

    Over/Under

    Using the over/unders posted at Vegas Watch.

    Team Wins Bill Ryan Paul Michael
    PHI 95.5 Over Over Under Under
    TEX 94.0 Under Over Over Over
    DET 94.0 Under Over Over Under
    NYY 93.0 Over Over Over Over
    LAA 89.5 Under Under Over Over
    TBR 87.5 Over Over Over Over
    BOS 87.5 Over Over Over Over
    SFG 87.5 Under Under Under Under
    STL 87.0 Over Under Under Under
    CIN 87.0 Over Over Over Over
    ATL 85.5 Over Under Under Under
    ARI 84.5 Over Over Over Over
    MIA 82.5 Under Over Over Under
    MIL 81.5 Under Under Under Under
    LAD 81.5 Under Under Under Under
    TOR 81.5 Under Over Over Over
    COL 81.5 Under Under Under Under
    WSN 81.0 Over Over Over Over
    KCR 78.5 Over Under Over Over
    CHW 77.5 Under Under Under Under
    CLE 75.5 Over Under Over Under
    NYM 74.5 Under Under Under Under
    MIN 74.0 Under Over Under Over
    CHC 73.5 Over Over Under Over
    OAK 73.0 Over Over Over Over
    PIT 73.0 Over Over Over Under
    SEA 72.5 Under Under Over Under
    BAL 71.0 Under Over Under Under
    SDP 70.5 Over Over Over Under
    HOU 62.5 Over Over Over Over

    The four of us are in complete agreement with 14 teams: eight on the over (NYY, BOS, TBR, CIN, ARI, WSN, OAK, HOU) and six on the under (SFG, MIL, LAD, COL, CHW, NYM). Ryan and I expect the Phillies to reach at least 96 wins while Paul and Michael expect the Phillies to come in at 95 or under.

    Division Finishes

    Let’s start with the National League.

    NL East Bill Ryan Paul Michael
    1 Phillies Phillies Phillies Phillies
    2 Braves Marlins Marlins Nationals
    3 Nationals Braves Braves Braves
    4 Marlins Nationals Nationals Marlins
    5 Mets Mets Mets Mets
    NL Central Bill Ryan Paul Michael
    1 Cardinals Reds Reds Reds
    2 Reds Cardinals Cardinals Cardinals
    3 Brewers Brewers Brewers Cubs
    4 Cubs Cubs Pirates Brewers
    5 Pirates Pirates Cubs Pirates
    6 Astros Astros Astros Astros
    NL West Bill Ryan Paul Michael
    1 Diamondbacks Diamondbacks Diamondbacks Diamondbacks
    2 Giants Giants Rockies Dodgers
    3 Rockies Rockies Giants Giants
    4 Dodgers Dodgers Padres Rockies
    5 Padres Padres Dodgers Padres

    We’re in total agreement on the top and bottom of the NL East, with the Phillies and Mets, respectively. We disagree on the meat between the bread, so to speak. We are all optimistic about the Reds, though I am the only one who doesn’t see them winning the NL Central outright. That division is essentially three tiers: Reds/Cardinals, Brewers/Cubs, and Pirates/Astros. And in the NL West, we all think the Diamondbacks will take the top spot with the rest of the division being more or less insignificant.

    The American League:

    AL East Bill Ryan Paul Michael
    1 Yankees Yankees Rays Yankees
    2 Red Sox Rays Yankees Rays
    3 Rays Red Sox Red Sox Red Sox
    4 Blue Jays Blue Jays Blue Jays Blue Jays
    5 Orioles Orioles Orioles Orioles
    AL Central Bill Ryan Paul Michael
    1 Tigers Tigers Tigers Tigers
    2 Royals White Sox Royals Twins
    3 Indians Twins Indians Royals
    4 Twins Indians White Sox Indians
    5 White Sox Royals Twins White Sox
    AL West Bill Ryan Paul Michael
    1 Rangers Rangers Rangers Rangers
    2 Angels Angels Angels Angels
    3 Athletics Athletics Mariners Athletics
    4 Mariners Mariners Athletics Mariners

    All of us like the Yankees in some capacity in the AL East. Paul is very optimistic about the Rays, and I’m the only one wearing rose-colored glasses with the Red Sox. We each think that the Tigers’ off-season was more than enough to make them favorites in the AL Central, while both Paul and I think the Royals will take big strides in 2012. The AL West was pretty easy to predict, with the Rangers taking first, the Angels second, and the final two spots going to the unimpressive Athletics and Mariners.

    Awards

    Bill Ryan Paul Michael
    AL NL AL NL AL NL AL NL
    MVP Cabrera Votto Bautista Votto Cabrera Upton Cabrera Upton
    CY Weaver Hamels Sabathia Halladay Price Hamels Verlander Halladay
    ROY Moore Harper Moore Alonso Moore Mesoraco Moore Mesoraco

    Miguel Cabrera got three of the four AL MVP picks, with Ryan the lone dissenter. The NL side was split between Joey Votto and Justin Upton, with last year’s winner nowhere to be found. Each of us chose a different pitcher for the AL Cy Young, and each of us chose a Phillie to win the NL Cy Young, split between Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay. We were all in agreement that Matt Moore takes home the AL Rookie of the Year award. The NL side is much murkier, but Paul and Michael both think the winner will be Devin Mesoraco.

    Let us know in the comments which of our predictions you like and which you think we will get completely wrong, and feel free to leave your own as well. You can use Twitter to shout at me (@CrashburnAlley), Ryan (@Phylan), Paul (@Phrontiersman), and Michael (@atomicruckus) if you so desire.

    Must-Watch Video: Steve Carlton’s Slider

    Last night, @erhudy brought this to my attention on Twitter. Phillies fans are well aware of Steve Carlton‘s pitching prowess, but he played roughly 25 years before the advent of baseball clips on-demand. Thus, this video is a real gem.

    A couple of my favorite quotes from the video:

    This is an important question — it’s the most important question anyone should ask themselves in life: why do you think you were put on this Earth?

    Carlton: Teach the world how to throw a slider.

    .

    John Vukovich: I remember one day Dick Ruthven asking him how he threw that slider. So, Lefty very simply picked the ball out of the bag and said, “I hold it like this and I throw the shit out of it.”

    Kitschy Kyle Kendrick

    Surprisingly, Kyle Kendrick has been in the news quite frequently over the last two months. First, the Phillies paid him $3.585 million to avoid arbitration, then the news of his recent contract extension arrived on Sunday. I was surprised by the amount of support for both transactions, and I noticed some common themes among the pro-Kendrick crowd:

    • He is versatile
    • He is cheap
    • He is a proven veteran
    • He has a good work ethic
    • He is unable to be properly accounted for by DIPS

    I’d like to address the first four bullet points quickly because they imply uniqueness. Yes, Kendrick is versatile, but Joel Pineiro would be versatile as well and he is simply signed to a Minor League deal. Yes, Kendrick is cheap relative to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, but he is very expensive relative to his production, and his expected production is not impressive. Yes, Kendrick is technically a proven veteran, but he wasn’t in 2007 when the Phillies called upon him to substitute in a pinch, so why couldn’t the same be done with Austin Hyatt? Yes, Kendrick has a good work ethic (at least as much as we know based on media reports), but if you give me a 4.00 xFIP pitcher with a bad work ethic and a 4.65 xFIP pitcher with a great work ethic (Kendrick), I would take the 4.00 xFIP pitcher every time and twice on Sunday.

    Finally, Kendrick has the reputation for being DIPS-defiant like Matt Cain. In case you’re not familiar, Cain has been something of a head-scratcher for Saberists for quite a few years. At Baseball Prospectus last year, I inspected Cain and concluded that his defiance of DIPS was due to three factors: a spacious home ballpark in San Francisco, an above-average infield defense, and a propensity to induce weak infield fly balls and opposite-field fly balls. Unlike Kendrick, though, Cain has the ability to miss bats on a consistent basis. Cain has posted a K/9 of at least 7.0 in each of his six full seasons dating back to 2006. As Matt Swartz said in a similarly-titled post at FanGraphs, “Pitchers with high strikeouts have low BABIPs.”

    Kendrick, in his four full seasons, has mustered a 4.1 K/9. If both pitchers face 40 batters in a nine-inning game, Kendrick will allow three more balls in play (three less strikeouts). Over 200 innings, that amounts to 67 more balls in play. Even if both had an identical .286 BABIP, Kendrick would allow 19 more hits simply because of his inability to miss bats. To see examples of the kind of company Kendrick has kept given his strikeout and walk rates, peruse this list.

    A career .286 BABIP over roughly 600 innings is interesting because it is below the .300 area around which most pitchers cluster. However, of the 105 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings in the last five seasons, Kendrick’s BABIP is the 30th-lowest — not exactly the 99th percentile. Kendrick’s batted ball profile isn’t even that interesting: his career 46 percent ground ball rate is pedestrian and his 21 percent line drive rate is a hair above the league average. Unlike Cain, Kendrick does not induce infield fly balls (eight percent compared to Cain’s 13 percent).

    A look at Kendrick’s BABIP on batted ball types compared to the NL average shines a little light into what, specifically, is deflating his BABIP.

    Career NL
    Ground .196 .237
    Fly .120 .138
    Line .708 .708

    In 2011, Kendrick allowed 168 grounders and 133 fly balls. Given those rates, he has allowed seven fewer ground ball hits and two more fly ball hits than would the league average. Obviously, over four full seasons, you can quadruple those numbers for a general feel on the BABIP discrepancy.

    Although defensive data is much less reliable than offensive data, they all seem to agree that the Phillies’ infield has been elite over the years. Between 2007-11, the Phillies have the highest UZR/150 (4.8) in the National League and second-best in all of baseball. Individually, they grade out as follows (min. 1,000 defensive innings):

    The infield is weighted heavily towards those who not only contribute positively defensively, but immensely so. Utley has been the best defensive second baseman in the league in this time span. Polanco has been second-best at third base, Feliz fourth-best. Jimmy Rollins has been the fourth-best at shortstop. Looking at individual components of their UZR, they have great range: Utley vastly exceeds second-place Brandon Phillips in that department (61.2 range runs to 36.7); Feliz ranks fifth among third basemen while Polanco is not too far behind despite 2.5 times fewer defensive innings; Rollins isn’t quite there with the rest of them; and Howard is Howard.

    The conundrum here is that other pitchers have played in front of the same great infield defense, but only two pitchers (min. 300 IP) have posted a lower BABIP than Kendrick: Jamie Moyer (.283) and Cole Hamels (.279). Kendrick, though, induced more ground balls than both, by four and two percent, respectively. Moyer and Hamels made their living on not allowing line drives and getting weak infield pop-ups, similar to Cain.

    Given the increasing age and declining durability of the Phillies’ infield, it would be wrong to expect them to continue corralling ground balls like a baseball vacuum. Howard is recovering from an Achilles injury and we don’t know how that specifically will affect his mobility when he returns. Utley has had knee problems and shouldn’t be expected to take the field as regularly as he has in the past. Rollins has dealt with calf, hamstring, and groin injuries in the last couple of seasons, cutting severely into his mobility. And, of course, Polanco has been the victim of chronic elbow and back problems and fought through a sports hernia last year. Any BABIP advantage the infield has given him over the years should not be nearly as strong moving forward.

    The Kendrick situation is par for the course. Every fan base has a player they rally behind and support despite his obvious shortcomings. It is easy to identify with Kendrick and he is one of the most likable players in baseball. That’s all well and good, but then the character traits that make him popular get conflated with those that make him valuable. A similar situation occurred with J.A. Happ: he filled in admirably amid low expectations and he displayed only good character traits (hard work ethic, honest, humble, etc.). Then fans and writers let that color their perception of his value, which resulted in some unrealistic expectations and explanations for his otherwise unsustainable success to date.

    When you look at Kendrick, you should see a great person, a guy who has gone the extra mile on more than one occasion without one complaint. You should see a great teammate, someone who can take a joke, accept criticism, and arrives to work every day with a good attitude. You shouldn’t see someone who is likely to continue posting sub-3.50 ERAs nor be worth his near-$4 million salary.

    Kyle Kendrick receives 2 year, $7.5 million extension

    Per Jim Salisbury, the Phillies have signed a two year extension with fringe starter/reliever and burgeoning fashion model Kyle Kendrick, covering 2012 and 2013, for $7.5 million. Absent this extension, Kendrick was headed for his first arbitration hearing in his second year of eligibility, having settled with the team in 2011 for $2.45 million. Matt Swartz, via his salary arbitration projection model, had estimated the value of Kendrick’s case to be $3.2 million, so the right-hander beat expectations slightly and tacked on another year of job security.

    Traditionally, Ruben Amaro and the Phillies have been loathe to let arbitration cases go all the way to hearing, so in that sense this doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise — the Phillies have reached a pre-hearing settlement with all of their arbitration cases this season, and did the same with all of their cases in the previous off-season. On the other hand, for a team historically wary of the arbitration process, their fixation on a player whom the system is seemingly tailor-made to overpay is perplexing to say the least.

    Kendrick has all the right attributes for extracting money from arbitration without being especially talented. He can start games in the rotation or in a spot role, and, via the generosity of Charlie Manuel, has plenty of relief opportunities, so he tends to rack up a lot of innings. In 2011, making only 15 starts, he still managed to log 114 and 2/3rds innings pitched. Joe Blanton, the putative fifth starter for 2012, has significant health and durability questions surrounding him, so Kendrick is likely to play that dual role once again. He’s also managed to accumulate wins even when his actual pitching left plenty to be desired — in 2008, with an ERA north of 5, he notched 11 victories, and added 11 more in 2010, with an ERA that was 14% below league average. These counting stats he’s managed to accrue give Kyle and his representation a service record to boast about in arbitration and compare favorably to other pitchers, even if the quality of that service hasn’t been very good — and it hasn’t.

    Kendrick is the type of pitcher that requires a ton of variables to work in his favor to be successful. He has one of the more pitiful strikeout rates currently found in the MLB. In fact, of pitchers with at least 300 innings pitched in the last 4 seasons, he has the absolute lowest at 4.26, sharing the bottom of the barrel with such luminaries as Nick Blackburn, Aaron Cook, Aaron Laffey, and Jeff Suppan. Nominally, because his primary pitch is a sinker, Kendrick is a “ground ball pitcher.” And it’s true that, lacking the ability to miss bats, inducing grounders is his only real route to success. Kendrick’s career ground ball rate, however, is right around league average, at 45.6%, and the only single season in which he was substantially above average was in 2009, when he only faced 112 big league hitters.

    For a pitcher that can’t strike hitters out, doesn’t have any particular ground ball ability, and who makes a living in a hitter’s park, the only savior is luck. Kendrick has had plenty of it, both good and bad. It was probably a foregone conclusion that the Phillies would tender him a contract after a 2011 season that was certainly the best of his career, but one has to wonder if anybody checked on how he put that season together. His strikeout rate last season was as woeful as ever, at 12.3% compared to the league average 18.6%. His ground ball rate was still decidedly mediocre — 45.3% compared to the league average 44.4%. Kendrick’s BABIP, however, bottomed out at .261. Both his ground balls and fly balls fell in for hits at significantly less than the league rate, amounting to batted ball fortune to an extent that Kendrick had not previously seen in his career. A lot of that luck came with runners in scoring position, a scenario in which his BABIP was just .256, helping to suppress his ERA. These figures, plus an inflated strand rate of 76.1%, helped him build a season that superficially looked great (and that the Phillies were happy to have), but did not bode any better for his future production than the previous four.

    Pitchers who can be helpful when they get all of the right breaks are plentiful, and are a dicey proposition on anything more than a one year, low-risk deal. Pitchers like Joel Piñeiro and Dontrelle Willis are about equally as likely as Kendrick to have success next season. But in each opportunity that the Phillies have had to non-tender Kendrick and move on to the next slot machine arm, they have elected not to do so, instead entangling themselves further with a pitcher whose cost will continue to increase regardless of contribution, thanks to the arbitration process. Indeed, the Phillies already had Kendrick signed to an expensive but single-season deal for 2012, inked back in January, but decided to give him a boost in average annual value and contract duration.

    As a “Super Two,” Kyle Kendrick is allotted four years of arbitration instead of only three, and his final will come in 2014, after this extension expires. It’s impossible to project Kendrick with absolute certainty, but whether or not he manages another luck-fueled successful season in the next two, his case in 2014 will likely be even more expensive (since arbitration disallows the team from offering less than a set amount relative to the player’s previous salary), and his profile will probably be the same mix of unimpressive ground ball rates and dismal strikeout abilities. How the Phillies deal with him in the offseason following this extension’s expiration will be especially telling. For a team so supposedly concerned with the looming luxury tax threshold, which will remain in place with the new collective bargaining agreement, the Phillies seem to have no reservations about handing out money to their most fungible, replaceable components.

    What the Phillies’ Interest in A.J. Burnett Means

    ESPN’s Buster Olney dropped this interesting piece of information on Twitter:

    The other team involved in the A.J. Burnett talks was the Philadelphia Phillies. Obviously would’ve had to clear Blanton to make it work.

    The New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates are very close to finalizing a deal that would send Burnett to the Pirates in exchange for prospects Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones. The Yankees would pay $20 million of the $33 million remaining on the right-hander’s contract. The news about the Phillies’ involvement is only interesting for drawing inferences.

    The first thing we can draw from it is that the Phillies are intent on dealing soon-to-be free agent Joe Blanton before the end of spring. That is obvious from Buster’s tweet, but even if his salary didn’t need to be cleared, he would have to be moved anyway. With the other four rotation slots locked up (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Vance Worley), Burnett would have had to take over Blanton’s spot.

    Blanton made eight starts last year before succumbing to an elbow injury in May, and remains an enigma going into spring training. Owed $8.5 million, the Phillies will use spring training to show off Blanton’s health and ability. In the event Blanton draws interest, the Phillies would prefer that they be relieved of some or all of his salary, which means a straight salary dump is the most likely scenario.

    Secondly, the interest in A.J. Burnett means that the Phillies prefer Kendrick as insurance or as a swing-man rather than a de facto fifth starter. It has been no secret that the Phillies are very appreciative of Kendrick’s services over the years, but even the team that willingly decided to pay him close to $3.6 million this season realizes his applicability in the rotation is limited at best. Kendrick has a career 4.65 xFIP, including 4.42 last year, despite a 3.22 ERA. Of course, the Phillies would gladly move Kendrick to the #5 spot if it results in significant salary relief, but those scenarios are few and far between.

    Acquiring Burnett would have been superfluous, but he would have provided an upgrade in the back of the rotation. The oft-criticized Yankee posted a 3.86 xFIP last year, although his 5.15 ERA was due to two big factors: a lackluster walk rate (nearly four per nine innings) and a skyrocketing home run rate (17 percent of fly balls). Furthermore, Burnett would have been under team control through 2013. Hamels aside, the Phillies would have had cost certainty for the most important elements of their 25-man roster going into next season.