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.