Lucky vs. Good

Ian Riccaboni (@IanRiccaboni) of Phillies Nation wrote a piece examining past World Series participants and the connection between their success and the talent in the starting rotation. His finding?

What does this mean? Well adjusting starters’ WAR against the total number or regular season wins paints an even more confusing picture: teams with great starting pitching are just as susceptible as teams with pitching that carriers less of the load for their team. While great pitching will get you into the playoffs, it isn’t guaranteed to get you anywhere.

You’ve no doubt heard the axiom “pitching wins in the post-season”. It is a phrase repeated ad nauseam at the beginning of every October as teams set their short-series rotation, knocking some poor soul from the back of the rotation into the bullpen. The 2008 Phillies, 2010 Giants, and 2011 Cardinals showed us that a team need not excel in any one particular area to win it all; rather, a team must have a distribution of talent across all areas and the appearance of good timing. The Phillies were superior in every way to the Giants in 2010, but lost to them in the NLCS because short series produce a lot of variance, and most of it fell in favor of the Giants. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “so it goes”.

Ian contacted me and asked if I had any thoughts on what other factors could be influencing his findings and if randomness isn’t the only answer. I don’t think using WAR for pitchers, particularly fWAR, is the best statistic to use for this investigation. For one, pitcher WAR is influenced by innings pitched. Teams that bring up the stud pitcher in late June and ride him into the post-season (e.g. Madison Bumgarner) will have less pitcher WAR than the team who used the slightly above-average veteran since the start of the season (e.g. Joe Blanton). Additionally, eating innings makes a big difference over the course of 33 regular season starts, but when one ace is going up against another ace, the difference between the two will be minimal at best. Pitcher WAR will exaggerate the difference between two aces in one post-season game by accounting for regular season innings.

On a related note, Ian found that the American League seems to have much better results than the National League — roughly 4 WAR. Innings pitched comes into account here again because AL teams can leave their pitchers in longer as they are not forced to pinch-hit to attempt to score a crucial run late in the game. Last year, starting pitchers accounted for 67.8 percent of all innings in the AL and 66.9 percent in the NL. While this doesn’t seem like a lot, over the span of 20,000 innings (14 teams * 162 games * 9 innings per game), the 0.9 percent difference accounts for nearly 200 innings. Essentially, the AL is getting an extra pitcher every year when compared to the NL like this. When you account for survivor bias (better pitchers stay in the rotation longer, appear in more games, and stay in games longer), you have your 4 WAR difference.

Secondly, FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) uses FIP rather than straight runs allowed, so it is retrodictive rather than descriptive. A team with a large fWAR-ERA disparity will not be accounted for properly. For instance, the 2011 Chicago White Sox had an impressive 3.66 FIP but a 4.10 ERA. They finished second in fWAR to the Phillies, 26.4 to 27.5, even though the Phillies’ ERA was more than a full run per nine innings lower.

Since we’re interested in finding out how important pitching is in a particular post-season, we should use runs allowed to answer that question. Another method is a post-season only retrodictor, compared to the regular season ERA or its retrodictor. For instance, in the 2011 World Series, the Cardinals had a 3.86 ERA but a 5.45 FIP while the Rangers had a 4.65 ERA and a 4.64 FIP. During the regular season, the Cardinals had a 3.79 ERA and 3.75 FIP; the Rangers were at 3.79 in ERA and 3.98 in FIP. Were the Cardinals luckier than the Rangers in last year’s World Series? This particular method would say so.

Still, to Ian’s conclusion that it is better to be lucky than good, I would phrase it differently. It is better to be talented than lucky because talent will always give you more chances to capitalize on that luck. Sure, the 2011 Cardinals were an afterthought going into the post-season, but Albert Pujols did hit three home runs in the World Series while Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia — their two best pitchers — were phenomenal in the five combined starts they made in the World Series. For as unlucky as it seems like the Phillies were, they were still one run away from advancing to the NLCS because Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley produced offensively while Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels nailed things down in their three starts.

The post-season is absolutely a crapshoot. When you place eight teams into a scenario where a champion is crowned in a minimum of 11 games and a maximum of 19 games, variance takes over as commanding officer. That’s less than three weeks of games. The spread in talent between teams is already small enough — Rangers position players posted 4 WAR more than those of the Cardinals during the regular season — where luck has more of an impact. I would compare post-season baseball to Texas Hold’em, where baseball talent is the poker player’s stack of chips. Every player has the same chance of getting lucky, but if you have more chips, you can make luck pay off more for you than for others. To put it more bluntly, if you were entering the post-season, which rotation would you rather have while trying to strike lightning in a bottle: Halladay-Lee-Hamels or Carpenter-Garcia-Jackson?

As it pertains to the 2012 Phillies, their best shot at post-season success is to simply have their most talented players ready to go if and when they reach the NLDS in October. From there, they simply let the chips fall where they may.

Talking Belt and Brown with Wendy Thurm

There is an odd parallel between two prospects one wouldn’t have thought would be paired together: Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants and the Phillies’ Domonic Brown. Both were very highly-regarded prospects, but have had trouble finding full-time work at the Major League level, and not for a lack of skill. I caught up with Wendy Thurm, a Giants fan and fantastic baseball writer, to investigate some of the similarities between the two players. Wendy is a contributing writer at FanGraphs and Baseball Nation. She founded HangingSliders.com, a baseball blog with analysis, commentary, poetry and humor. You can follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

. . .

1. Tell us a little bit about Brandon Belt the prospect. What was his ceiling expected to be, and where did he find himself in prospect rankings?

The Giants selected Belt in the fifth round of the 2009 amateur draft out of the University of Texas (Austin). A natural first baseman, Belt dominated the minor leagues in 2010, his first season of professional baseball. He hit .352/.455/.620 in 136 games from A+ to AAA. Baseball America ranked Belt 23rd on its Top 100 prospects list for 2011. He also was the Giants’ top prospect heading into the 2011 season.

2. What factors have contributed to his inability to obtain a job as a MLB regular?

The Giants added Belt as a non-roster invitee to their 2011 spring-training camp, with no expectation he’d make the big-league club. Then Belt batted .306 with five doubles and three home runs in 25 games, and outfielder Cody Ross sustained a calf injury, opening a roster spot.

In his first seventeen games, Belt supplanted veteran Aubrey Huff at first base, forcing Huff to play out of position in the outfield, with often disastrous consequences for the Giants. And while Huff struggled at the plate, Belt was worse, hitting only .192/.300/.269. With Cody Ross ready to return from the disabled list, the Giants optioned Belt to Triple-A on April 21. Again, Belt dominated AAA pitching.

When Buster Posey suffered a season-ending injury in late May, Belt returned to San Francisco. That visit, too, was short-lived, after Cardinals pitcher Trever Miller hit Belt on the wrist with fastball in early June, resulting in a hairline fracture. With his wrist healed, Belt returned to action, but at Triple-A. Again, he dominated. Again, the Giants recalled Belt, but only to take the spot of an injured player. Again, he struggled, was optioned, and then recalled. He ended the season with an unremarkable 225/.306/.412 line.

The Giants stuck with Huff at first base for most of 2011, in large part owing to his two-year, $20 million contract. The team also trusted Huff would eventually get his offense going. He didn’t, ending the season with a .246/.306/.370.

3. How would you have handled the situation differently, in terms of personnel?

Like many prospects who dominate at Triple-A, Belt struggled initially at the big-league level. What he needed most was regular playing time. What he got was a lot of skepticism from manager Bruce Bochy and general manager Brian Sabean. I wouldn’t have given Huff nearly as much time to get his game going. I wouldn’t have given outfielders Andres Torres and Aaron Rowand nearly as much time to get their games going. I would have found a way to play Belt, either at first base or in the outfield, nearly every day.

4. Do you think Belt’s career is redeemable, and if so, can it be done as a Giant?

Yes. Belt is still a top prospect with the potential to be a special player at the plate (and a decent one in the field). He performed well in winter ball in the Dominican League and has had a productive spring. And yet, there is still debate within the Giants’ front office about whether Belt will make the Opening Day roster. So it’s unclear to me whether he can succeed as a Giant.

I would have penciled in Belt as the everyday left fielder for 2012, leaving Brett Pill as Huff’s backup at first, and a nice lefty-righty platoon partner. Pill is a career minor- leaguer. In 53 plate appearances last September, he hit .320/.321/.560 while playing first base for a bit more than 110 innings. That would have given Belt the regular playing time both he and the Giants need, and set him up to take over first base when Huff’s contract expires after this season.

Instead, the Giants traded for Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan slotting Cabrera for left field and Pagan for center. Nate Schierholtz won the right-field job last season with outstanding defense and consistent hitting and was expected to be the everyday right fielder heading into spring training.

This spring, non-roster invitee Gregor Blanco is hitting the leather off the ball and running the bases like a gazelle. At 28, Blanco’s been playing professional baseball since 2006, but only has one full season in the majors. In 2008, Blanco played left and center field for the Braves and hit .251/.366/.309. Since then, he’s bounced around with the Braves, Nationals, and Royals seeing only 317 major-league plate appearances. His career line is .258/.358/.324.

From what’s been reported, it appears that Belt, Pill and Blanco are fighting for two roster spots. If it were my decision, based on what we know now, I would send Pill to Triple-A, make Blanco the fouth outfielder and give Belt most of the playing time at first base. Huff would see some action at first and in left field, leaving Bruce Bochy to juggle the remaining outfield playing time among Cabrera, Pagan, Schierholtz and Blanco.

5. Who do you see having the more productive career when all is said and done, Belt or Domonic Brown?

I hear about the parallels often in that both Belt and Brown are highly-regarded prospects who have not been giving the opportunities to prove themselves in the majors. I’m not as familiar with Brown, obviously, so it’s difficult to say who will have the “more productive” career, even just looking at past performance and projections. Belt has more power potential; Brown more speed. Each needs regular playing time at the big-league level in order to develop their skills fully and to play well consistently. My hope is that it happens – and happens soon – for both players.

. . .

Thanks again to Wendy for taking the time to share her insight on Belt and the Giants. Make sure to read her stuff at FanGraphsBaseball Nation, and Hanging Sliders, as well as on Twitter @hangingsliders. Let’s hope her optimism about Belt’s future applies equally to that of Brown. The success of the Phillies in 2013 and beyond — some would even argue 2012 — has a lot to do with Brown’s ability to contribute.

Crashburn Roundtable: More IF Candidates

Paul Boye, Michael Baumann, and Ryan Sommers put together some thoughts on some more potentially-available infielders around the league. The Phillies are reportedly very interested in acquiring an infielder from outside the organization, and the list of names seems endless. Here are a few that weren’t covered by me in last week’s post.

Mark Reynolds

Paul: You know what you’re getting with Mark Reynolds: a whole lot of power and not a whole lot of contact. To be sure, Reynolds seems a likely candidate to park a ball or two out on Ashburn Alley at some point, but with fairly significant detractions at the same time. His defense is below average at its peak and borderline unwatchable at its nadir, so he only really plays third base in theory. He does have good plate discipline in spite of his shaky contact skills, so each plate appearance is not necessarily boom or bust, but something tells me the frustration of his fielding and nearly 68 percent of his PAs resulting in outs will outweigh the appetizing power.

Ryan: Reynolds is the most appealing of all of our options here. He’s 27 years old, he’s not terribly expensive this year and can be cheaply bought out next season, and hey, it’s Dan Duquette. A trade couldn’t be that hard to swing. There’s no need to worry about drastic BABIP swings with him either, since contact has never been a part of his game. For his career, 50.12% of Reynolds’ plate appearances have ended in either a walk, strikeout, or homerun. In the post-integration era, minimum 1000 plate appearances, that’s fourth among all hitters. Sure, strikeouts comprise an unfortunate portion of that trio, but his walk rate has been well above average too, and his HR/FB% would play mighty well at the Bank. Let’s be honest: if you’re reading this, you probably share my fetish for dingers and walks, and they’re sorely lacking in the Phillies infield as it’s currently projected, Jim Thome notwithstanding. Reynolds is the tonic.

Michael: I’ve always liked Mark Reynolds. I always found something endearing about the uncompromising nature of his game–swing as hard as you can and let the chips fall where they may. But here’s the thing about Mark Reynolds–you can be quite a valuable third baseman even if you strike out 200+ times in a season and play awful defense, so long as you make up for it in other areas. In 2009, Reynolds struck out 223 times and was more than 10 runs below average in the field. But thanks to 44 home runs, 30 doubles, 24 stolen bases, and a .260 batting average, FanGraphs credited him with 3.5 WAR.

But if those totals drop significantly, Reynolds goes from posting a .260/.349/.543 (his 2009) to a .210/.322/.459 (his combined 2010 and 2011). The power numbers and patience are still quite good, but that’s about all Reynolds can do anymore. But given his ability to play either corner infield position (not particularly well, I’ll concede, but still), odds are he’d be a useful player under the right circumstances. In fact, given the rapidly-eroding skills of Placido Polanco, the argument could be made that Reynolds (who is eight years younger than Polanco) would be a superior third base option.
So if Reynolds can be had without giving up anything the Phillies can’t replace (Joe Blanton straight-up, for instance), and if Polanco can still play second, and if he can keep his batting average, walk rate, and power numbers up, and if his strikeout rate is only stratospheric and no worse, then I’d absolutely support a Reynolds trade. But a lot of conditions have to be satisfied first.

Ryan Theriot

Paul: Now that we’re all intimately familiar with the pest that is Theriot following his 6-for-10 NLDS last year, how would he fit as an addition to this club? His defense at short could leave something to be desired, but he’s a capable glove and bat at second base. By “capable,” of course, I mean more along the lines of “palatable” and “acceptable,” which is the world we now live in with a post-prime Chase Utley likely incapable of reliving his best days. If a contact bat is what you want, you could do worse than Theriot. Just don’t expect more than three or four homers, even in CBP. Take the slap singles and be placated.

Ryan:

Michael: The good news: Theriot has experience at second, short, and third, and hardly ever strikes out. The bad news: Theriot is a dreadful defender, and about as bad a baserunner as you’d ever want to see. In fact, there’s been a baseball term, TOOTBLAN, created specifically for him. TOOTBLAN is an acronym for “Thrown Out On The Bases Like A Nincompoop.” That’s not the worst thing in the world, in a vacuum. Hunter Pence, for instance, runs into outs on the bases all the time. The difference between him and Theriot, however, is that Thunderpants is good at other aspects of the game. Like hitting. And defense. Theriot blows.

Kelly Johnson

Paul: Wrist tendinitis nearly derailed a promising start to Johnson’s career. His 2007 and ’08 seasons with Atlanta were quite good, but he’s been up-and-down since. Part of that could be pinned to the injury, while some other part could be partially explained with a wildly fluctuating BABIP. At his best, Johnson is a more-than-viable asset with the bat who can also hold his own at second. He’s scheduled to make nearly $6.5M with the Blue Jays this year, so salary could be a sticking point. Among these candidates, however, he’s my top choice.

Ryan: In 481 PA last season, Johnson looked positively awful with the stick in an exceedingly hitter-friendly park. Toronto looked fondly enough on his prior accomplishments (2010 and 2007 in particular) to avoid arbitration for 2012 with a $6.375 million deal, so Anthopoulos seems committed to him starting every day for the Blue Jays. In fact, it appears they’re making somewhat of a project of it, directing him to focus on an on-base oriented approach in the hopes that he’ll return to form. That seems like a great idea, but, for one thing, it makes it unlikely that the Jays will want to deal him, and, for another, can anyone honestly imagine the Phillies trying that approach?

Michael: Can’t play short or third, struck out 163 times last season, walks some, but enough to be a particularly productive offensive player with a .222 batting average, which he had last season. The one thing Johnson adds is more power than anyone on this list except for Reynolds–a .212 ISO in 2010 and a .191 ISO in 2011. The real questions with Johnson are 1) Is he the guy who put up 5.9 fWAR in 2010 and had a 110 OPS+ with Toronto last season or the guy who had a .287 OBP with Arizona before his August trade and 2) How much would it take to get Johnson? Toronto just re-upped with the guy this offseason and traded two major-league infielders (bad ones, I’ll grant you) to get him last August, so odds are he’ll cost more than Ryan Theriot. But he did design the U-2 and the stealth fighter, so he’s versatile.

Casey Blake

Paul: Blake probably deserves a better epilogue to his Major League career than the one he’ll probably be saddled with: the guy the Dodgers traded Carlos Santana for (he was also drafted by the Phillies in 1992, but didn’t sign with the club). He gave the Dodgers some good-value play, but he’s 38 now (39 in August) and has seen his power numbers drop steeply in the last handful of years. Counting on Coors Field to revitalize his bat’s pop may not go as well as hoped, either. The Phillies already have an aging, low-power third baseman on their roster; a second would be redundant.

Ryan: A very old, just-barely-league-average third-baseman with good contact skills but no power to speak of; Blake is basically a new name for the very problem the Phillies need to solve. Simply put, there is a reason that, two days ago, the Rockies decided they’d be better off leaning on the likes of Chris Nelson and Jordan Pacheco at the hot corner. If history is instructive here, the neck injury that hampered him in camp will likely not be his last this season. The Phillies need to add productivity to the lineup, not groundouts and DL-bait.

Michael: Blake can still draw a walk, but the Phillies already have one mid-30s third baseman with limited power. Pass.

 

Victory or Death

Writer’s note: This post is kind of backwards. If you want the point, skip to the last break and start there. If you want to know how I got to that point, read the whole thing.

This has been a rough offseason for Phillies fans. We’ve been put through another year of crushing playoff disappointment, for starters. And considering the astronomical expectations going into the playoffs, the smug, cheeky punchability of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the most crushing final visual of any season I can remember (Ryan Howard on the ground, in the fetal position a few feet up the first base line), I’d say that the playoff disappointment of 2011 was more crushing than any in recent memory.

Where spring brings hope for most baseball teams, spring brings to Philadelphia a new (and excellent) closer, whose lunatic contract may cost the Phillies Cole Hamels or a free-agent bat (David Wright?) in the offseason. And speaking of lunatic contracts, Ryan Howard starts his fielding ground balls from a stool.

Whatever, though, Howard (when healthy) and Papelbon are both pretty good, even if they’re both being paid way too much.

But 12 months have offered no comfort of any kind on two of the most important storylines for the Phillies this season: Chase Utley‘s rapidly degenerating joints and the never-ending purgatory that is Domonic Brown‘s ascent from the top prospect in the minor leagues to…well, whatever he is now.

I truly believe this is the last year of the Phillies’ “window,” such as it is, unless there is a major institutional change on the horizon. By this time next year, the Braves, Marlins, and (perhaps) Nationals will have reeled in the Phillies, and the overwhelming advantage in the division that we’ve taken for granted for the past four years will be gone. This makes me sad, because, to paraphrase Orson Scott Card, I don’t like competitive imbalance in baseball, unless it means my team wins all the time.

But it also makes me unspeakably angry, because the current front office management in Philadelphia has built, barring the Bobby Cox Braves, one of the most consistently excellent National League teams in recent memory. They did so by building a core of homegrown talent in the early-to-mid 2000s (Utley, Howard, Madson, Hamels, Rollins, Burrell, Myers) with which it’s difficult not to contend, then aggressively pursuing top-level parts to complement the homegrown core (Halladay, Lee, Blanton, Oswalt, Lidge, Pence) and hitting the jackpot with a couple of scrap heap pickups (Moyer, Werth, Victorino).

But yeah, you all know that. But we’re teetering on the edge of collapse. The Phillies are a gerontocracy, one more Laynce Nix or Ty Wigginton in the lineup from ruin on a Roman scale. How a team could build an empire on the basis of shrewd scouting and bold pursuit of the best talent in the game, then abandon that strategy when it would pay off most confounds me. I feel betrayed. Incensed. There’s a constant low boil of anger at Ruben Amaro in the pit of my stomach. And we haven’t even played a meaningful game this season.

***

I spent seven weeks on a study abroad program in May, June, and July 2008, and as a side effect of not having Comcast in Brussels, Belgium, I didn’t watch a minute of baseball while I was there. I immersed myself in soccer, watching (this is not an exaggeration) 23 of the 31 matches of Euro 2008 with Dutch commentary from my apartment and various pubs, bars, and restaurants across Western Europe.

So when I came back home, baseball was weird to me. I knew the Phillies were pretty decent in 2008, and that they’d bet relatively big on Brad Lidge‘s return to full physical and mental health. But having missed most of the season, I sat down to watch the 2008 All-Star Game knowing relatively little about what had transpired when I was in Europe.

I kept up my tradition that summer of keeping score at home while watching on TV, perhaps the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done. Scoring the All-Star Game presents an interesting set of challenges–while it’s unusual for a regular-season game to see more than five or six substitutions (unless it’s being managed by Tony La Russa), both All-Star teams carry about 30 players and try to use all of them. Your score sheet fills up really quickly, particularly if the game goes 15 innings. But we’ll get to that later.

On the night of the game, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley was the subject of quite a bit of buzz after he’d had the defining moment of his career in the Home Run Derby. But that changed after Utley singled in the top of the sixth, moving Hanley Ramirez to third. A sacrifice fly by Lance Berkman plated Ramirez, giving the National League a 2-0 lead going into the bottom of the sixth. Utley, after being stranded on second, was lifted for then-Florida Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla.

Uggla was playing in his second All-Star game, and fulfilling his father’s lifelong dream by playing in Yankee Stadium. In the bottom of the sixth, he fielded a pop fly cleanly and wasn’t heard from again until he struck out against Jonathan Papelbon in the eighth. In the meantime, J.D. Drew had tied the game with a home run off Edinson Volquez. The first batter after Uggla, Adrian Gonzalez, watched Miguel Tejada steal second and advance to third on a throwing error. Gonzalez then put the National League back on top with a sacrifice fly. Billy Wagner gave the run back in the bottom of the inning.

If you remember the game, you know where this is going.

In the top of the 10th, Russell Martin and Tejada knocked back-to-back singles off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera to bring Uggla to the plate with one out and the go-ahead run on third. Uggla grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Colorado’s Aaron Cook, a ground ball pitcher by reputation, started the 10th for the National League. Michael Young grounded Cook’s first pitch to Uggla. Uggla booted it, putting Young on third. Carlos Quentin grounded Cook’s second pitch to Uggla. He got crossed up on that, too.

As ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick wrote, “In a span of three pitches, he had a GIDP and two errors to his credit.” In those three pitches, the American League’s win expectancy had shot up from 32 percent to 94 percent. And Uggla looked like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world than manning second base at Yankee Stadium.

Of course, the next ball put in play went to Uggla, too. Cook intentionally walked Carlos Guillen, then Grady Sizemore, like Young and Quentin, grounded to Uggla. This time, he made the pickup and got the out at home. After two more groundouts, Cook had danced through Uggla’s mess.

The next inning was no easier. The first five batters Cook faced in the bottom of the 11th reached, but two of them were put out on the bases. Again, no score.

In the 12th, with his dad and a national television audience watching, Uggla came to the plate with the bases loaded, one out, and the look on his face of a man in dire need of the restroom. Uggla struck out on three pitches. Then committed another error–an All-Star Game record third–in the bottom of the 13th. Then struck out again to lead off the 15th. The National League, winless since 1996 in the All-Star Game, remained so when Lidge finally capitulated in the bottom of that inning.

Uggla, that night: 0-for-4, 3 strikeouts, one GIDP, three errors, and a WPA of -0.637, more than enough, in a vacuum, to lose the game by himself.

***

The reason I’m recounting this lengthy, sad, and not-particularly relevant story to you now is because it was a fascinating experience. I had the opportunity to watch a man unravel before my very eyes, on live television, in front of millions. I don’t particularly like Dan Uggla as a player. He’s slow, he’s terrible in the field, he strikes out a lot, and his home run totals tend to inflate his value even if he doesn’t do anything else particularly well.

But Fox kept cutting to his face, and I’ll never forget the look. He looked like he was about to cry, or at least he would have looked that way if not for the stoic expression of shock. It would not have surprised me if, at any point during the extra innings of that game, Uggla had started weeping, run away, walked over to Adrian Gonzalez and asked for a hug, swapped uniforms with Utley and run for Canada, or broken his bat over his knee.

It’s unlikely that the 2008 All-Star Game had some sort of scarring emotional effect on Uggla. He’s certainly been just fine since then, and besides, he’s a professional. Professional baseball players don’t go to pieces because they play poorly in an exhibition game. Not good ones, at any rate. But in the moment, watching Dan Uggla was compelling human drama. I can’t say watching him sleepwalk through about as bad a game as one could imagine was fun, but it was compelling. I empathized with him. I felt sorry for him. I wanted to hug him, pat him on the back, and tell him it would be okay.

***

Maybe it’s been too long since I’ve seen meaningful baseball. I’ve had too much time to think and not enough to enjoy. There’s nothing to get excited about with this Phillies team, from where I’m sitting. Sure, they’re going to be very good, and the pitching is going to be great, but there’s no reason to expect them to be better than (or even as good as) they were last year. And it’s not because the team couldn’t have been constructed better. I’m not optimistic. And you shouldn’t be either.

I’ll be honest, I’ve watched maybe two hours of spring training baseball, of which maybe 20 minutes involved the Phillies. If there’s news, if a player looks good or bad, or gets hurt, I’ll hear about it on Twitter or on Baseball Today. I’ve spent far more time this spring watching college baseball than spring training, because it’s more fun to get hyped about Joey Pankake and Michael Roth than it is to worry about Chase Utley and Antonio Bastardo.

I put far too much energy and emotional investment into watching and writing about baseball for this to be an acceptable state of affairs. I’m tired of being unable to think about the Phillies without being overcome with rage. It’s exhausting. I want to feel other things, like joy or empathy or excitement. Baseball used to make me feel that way. But now the Phillies are in decline, and I get the feeling there isn’t going to be anything quick, easy, painless, or unexpected about it.

I’d just as soon get it over with.

 

Terrifying Thought Experiment #1

Earlier today, Ryan Lawrence posted his best guess at the Phillies’ opening day roster. Everything about the offense, including the starting lineup, looks pretty grim:

C Carlos Ruiz
1B Ty Wigginton
2B Freddy Galvis
SS Jimmy Rollins
3B Placido Polanco
LF John Mayberry, Jr.
CF Shane Victorino
RF Hunter Pence

BN Jim Thome
BN Laynce Nix
BN Brian Schneider
BN Pete Orr
BN Juan Pierre

SP Roy Halladay
SP Cliff Lee
SP Cole Hamels
SP Vance Worley
SP Joe Blanton

RP Jonathan Papelbon
RP Chad Qualls
RP Antonio Bastardo
RP Mike Stutes
RP Kyle Kendrick
RP Jose Contreras
RP David Herndon

(I took out Lou Montanez and subbed in David Herndon, as Lawrence was planning for 6 relievers instead of 7 only because a fifth starter won’t be needed until April.)

Last season, the pitching staff allowed 529 runs, which is very good. Historically good, in fact. If you put every team since 1947 in the same 4.5 runs per game environment, the 2011 Phillies staff ranks 18th out of 1550 post-integration pitching staffs in runs allowed. And that’s without a park adjustment; 14 of the teams ahead of the Phillies had pitcher-friendly park factors on their side. The brightest beacon of hope for 2012 is that the pitching staff will still be extremely good, but it probably won’t be as good as it was last season. The simplest reason is that it is very difficult, even in the more pitcher-friendly environment of late, to allow as few as 529 runs. Beyond that, there are a few candidates for regression, like Cole Hamels and Vance Worley.

If you take the ZiPS projections for the pitching staff that Lawrence came up with and adjust it to fill, say, 1450 innings (this is about what most teams needed last year), you get a runs allowed total of 606. On the one hand, ZiPS is probably a bit bearish with regards to some of the best pitchers on the staff, but, on the other, we’re assuming no injuries or bad fortune will take their toll. So 606 is a reasonable enough estimate. Assume, furthermore, that the National League run environment will be the same as it was last year: 4.13 runs per game. With these two numbers, we can use the Pythagenpat formula to get a picture of what is needed from the Phillies offense in 2012 (click for large):

The upshot is, in a tougher NL East, the Phillies need to score around 730 runs to be in the 95 win ballpark and be reasonably certain of winning the division. Keep in mind: last season they scored 713 runs, and, thanks to an inordinate amount of success with runners in scoring position, that total was probably higher than their team OPS of .717 portended. Without delving deeply into hitter projections, the opening day offense predicted by Ryan Lawrence above is not nearly as good as the sum contributions that the Phillies got last season. Per Fangraphs, Ryan Howard produced 92 weighted runs created last season, and has not yet even resumed baseball activities since the setback with his surgery wound; his ETA right now is indeterminate, as is his 2012 effectiveness. Chase Utley, missing to begin 2011, produced 61 weighted runs created. He returned on May 23rd last season, and I think most people would count that as an optimistic projection for 2012 given the tone of the updates we’re being given on him.

This is to say nothing of the potential for regression facing John Mayberry, Jr., the likely ineffectiveness of Ty Wigginton, and the fact that Juan Pierre, who by wRC+ was the 10th worst qualified hitter in baseball last season, is penciled in as a bench contributor. The offense above is likely to score significantly less runs than in 2011, which could put the Phillies in the 92 win range or worse. Particularly now that two wildcard spots are available, this will probably still be enough to make the playoffs. But with the substantial improvements made by the Marlins and the Nationals, and with the Braves still being a contender, the division is by no means the guarantee that it was in the last two seasons. The Phillies, who know the sting of a short series so very well, may be facing a single game win-or-go-home proposition if they don’t look outside the organization for reinforcement.

Nothing Wrong with Blanton’s Spring

Joe Blanton allowed five runs on seven hits in yesterday’s start against the Boston Red Sox in Clearwater, contributing to a spring ERA of 4.80. He allowed two home runs to Dustin Pedroia and Cody Ross (no-doubters), bringing his hits allowed total to 17 in 15 innings. The Phillies were hoping Blanton might have a great spring to inflate his trade value as the right-hander is entering the final year of his three-year contract. The Phillies are searching for an infielder and a way to clear some or all of his remaining $8.5 million salary.

If you have been watching Blanton, he has been one of the least enthralling pitchers in camp thus far. His fastball frequently sat in the mid-80’s, as opposed to the high-80’s and low-90’s where it has been in the past. The home runs he allowed yesterday were crushed: Pedroia’s opposite-field blast cleared the wall with plenty to spare, and Ross crushed a letter-high fastball so much he decided to do his patented trot, much to the chagrin of the Phillies fan base.

You need not have the spring stats warning repeated. Players often use the exhibition setting to work on pitches or pace themselves. It is not so much about getting outs as getting in the proper amount of reps and not putting oneself in any injury danger. There are a couple stats that are surprising, however: Blanton has struck out 13 and walked only one in his 15 spring training innings. His 13/1 ratio is best among the members of the Phillies’ vaunted rotation, ahead of Vance Worley (18/2), Roy Halladay (24/3), Cliff Lee (16/2), and Cole Hamels (10/2) . There is some preliminary evidence that spring training strikeout and walk rates have predictive power, so this is at the very least encouraging. Blanton has good marks in the two areas in which a pitcher has the most control: he is not granting runners free access to first base, and he is missing bats regularly.

While no front office is guided solely by statistical principles, you will be hard-pressed to find a GM that will make sea change in player opinion based on 15-20 spring training innings. Blanton’s spring so far may look unimpressive, but his trade value remains more or less the same and the Phillies will continue to use him as a potential trade chip in their quest to fill the Chase Utley void.

Most of the Phillies’ bargain-bin grabs have not done enough to win favor in the hearts and minds of the Phillies’ brass. Joel Pineiro was released after six snooze-inducing innings. Dave Bush and Scott Elarton will be used as Triple-A filler following uninspiring spring performances. Kyle Kendrick has looked sharp, but the Phillies continue to value his ability to switch between the rotation and the bullpen. As a result, the Phillies have become less motivated to pursue a trade involving Blanton. In the event that Blanton is a regular part of the rotation going forward, he should be more than adequate. PECOTA projects a 4.29 ERA with a 6.3 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 in 144 innings. It assumes both a .309 BABIP and that Blanton may be unhealthier than he has looked.

Many teams would kill to have a pitcher post a 4.29 ERA out of the #5 spot in the rotation. Jeff Sackmann’s research from 2007 showed that the average team’s #5 starter was good for a 4.96 ERA. So, the Phillies are in a good position: if Blanton stays, he will be significantly better than the average #5 starter; if he goes, the Phillies will gain an infielder better than Freddy Galvis and they may even get some salary relief.

Still Hate You, Cody Ross

Via Scott Lewis over at Getting Blanked:

That was what Cody Ross did after hitting a home run off of Joe Blanton in the fifth inning of today’s spring training game at Bright House Field. That immediately drew the ire of Phillies fans on Twitter, including myself:

twitter.com/CrashburnAlley/status/184327410228011009

twitter.com/CrashburnAlley/status/184343779694743552

twitter.com/DatDudeJD/status/184343490120007681

twitter.com/lizroscher/status/184347543709298689

twitter.com/tonyisdynamic/status/184355468834123777

No, we haven’t forgotten, nor have we forgiven.

Series Date Tm Opp Rslt PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO OPS aLI WPA
2010 NLCS g1 Oct 16 SFG PHI W,4-3 4 2 2 0 0 2 2 1 0 1.362 .87 0.249
2010 NLCS g2 Oct 17 SFG PHI L,1-6 4 1 1 0 0 1 1 1 1 1.435 .69 0.121
2010 NLCS g3 Oct 19 SFG PHI W,3-0 3 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 1 1.336 .97 0.119
2010 NLCS g4 Oct 20 SFG PHI W,6-5 4 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1.318 1.37 0.248
2010 NLCS g5 Oct 21 SFG PHI L,2-4 4 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 3 1.245 1.42 0.024
2010 NLCS g6 Oct 23 SFG PHI W,3-2 4 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1.189 1.25 -0.076
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/26/2012.

Ryan Madson to Miss 2012 Season

Bad news for former Phillie Ryan Madson:

Following an examination in Cincinnati Saturday morning, the club said that Madson’s elbow ligament had torn off of the bone. He will need season-ending Tommy John surgery.

Phillies fans feel fortunate for missing this bullet. If Madson had actually been signed to the proposed four-year, $44 million deal during the off-season, the Phillies would have been put in a precarious situation given their other injury problems. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the off-season would have followed this specific route, but all else being equal, it would have been one more catastrophic problem to add to the pile.

There isn’t too much to add to the discussion other than that we should feel terrible for Madson. He signed with the Reds on a one-year, $8.5 million deal months after the four-year, $44 million deal with the Phillies fell through. Boras suggested Madson take a “pillow contract” — a short-term deal that adds to his client’s market value so that a longer, more lucrative deal can get had in the next free agency period. With Tommy John surgery on the horizon, Madson may never again be offered a multi-year contract, and will likely never see anything close to $44 million. I chronicled the rather subpar off-season Boras clients were having, but no one had it worse than Madson.

In response to the news, I saw two reactions from Phillies fans that I would like to address as well. The first is that Madson’s injury justifies the four-year, $50 million contract given to Jonathan Papelbon. The two aren’t related; the Papelbon contract is just as ill-advised whether Madson has a 7.50 ERA, misses the season, or calls upon the spirit of Mariano Rivera circa 2008. If anything, the Madson injury should make Phillies fans feel more apprehensive about Papelbon. Pitchers are very injury prone as the act of throwing a baseball overhand is an unnatural motion for the human body, just ask Johan Santana, Stephen Strasburg, J.J. Putz, or Tim Hudson. Locked up with Papelbon for four years, the Phillies must hope their new right-handed closer avoids the randomness of the universe and the frailties of his own body.

The second thing I’m hearing is that Madson’s injury and the Phillies’ sudden avoidance during the off-season insinuates that they knew he was injury-prone. If that were true, the Phillies wouldn’t have pursued him as heavily as they did, nearly committing four years and $44 million.

To say that the Phillies had knowledge of Madson’s declining elbow health assumes one of two things: the Phillies had a sudden change of heart between the time they were negotiating with Madson and when they sidled up next to Papelbon, which was not a lot of time. The other possibility is that the Phillies were overtly bluffing to the rest of the league or to Papelbon. However, that clearly didn’t work as they ended up paying slightly more, rather than less, for Papelbon.

The Madson/Papelbon situation is just an illustration of the power of randomness. The Phillies — and the rest of the league, for that matter — should learn from Madson’s situation by being more hesitant in offering long-term contracts and large sums of money to players in a fungible position. Since relievers, by and large, are dependent on rolls of the dice, it is often prudent to have as little money riding on them as possible.

Crashburn Adds A New Slugger

I’m pleased to announce that a fifth writer has joined the Crashburn team. Bradley Ankrom will be providing weekly coverage of the Phillies’ Minor League system throughout the season. Prospect coverage was this blog’s weak point, so he will definitely put some shine on that area for us, and most importantly, for you. He has been contributing to Baseball Prospectus (and will continue). Please kindly welcome him to the Crashburn confines. Give him a follow on Twitter while you’re at it.

If you’d like to follow the other four of us: