Hamels and Harper: The Rematch

For all the hand-wringing about Cole Hamels hitting Nationals wunderkind Bryce Harper in the small of his back a few weeks ago, the reunion between the polarizing, arrogant, potentially franchise-saving prospect and a man who was once a polarizing, arrogant, franchise-saving prospect went largely without incident. Harper went 1-for-3 with a walk, and Hamels took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, eventually winding up pitching eight shutout innings, striking out eight, walking three, and allowing four hits, including Harper’s single. No one mouthed off, no one stole home, and no one got his feelings hurt.

Despite both Hamels and Harper having a reputation for being temperamental from time to time, in addition to being outstanding baseball players, neither really seemed interested in starting a second donnybrook, which is probably best for everyone. Harper reached base twice, Hamels pitched very well, becoming the first major league pitcher to win seven games this season (for whatever that’s worth), and the Phillies won the game, while the Nats took two of three on the road. Everyone goes home happy.

Sources close to the organization, however, say that Hamels seriously considered throwing inside on Harper once more, if not to hit him, then at least to get him to move his feet and back off the inside corner. What dissuaded him from doing this was not the meaningless five-game suspension laid down by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, but a conversation with his agent, John Boggs.

Boggs’ argument was that Hamels might damage his value as a free agent by continuing to throw at batters. If he hit Harper again, Boggs said, the Los Angeles Dodgers, expected to shell out big money for Hamels this offseason, might lose interest in pairing the left-hander with their own No. 1 starter, Clayton Kershaw, and look elsewhere for a pitcher to partner with, or even supersede Kershaw.

Or, as Boggs put it, “You won’t be the main ace in South Central while plunking your Bryce in the head.”

Crash Bag Vol. 3 runs tomorrow, questions permitting. Submit those to crashbaumann@gmail.com, or on Twitter with the hashtag #crashbag.

Some Reason for Optimism

It’s May 24 and the Phillies are in last place. They are barely scoring more runs than they allow, their two best hitters are injured, their bullpen is among the worst in the league, and their starting lineups have included spring training cast-offs (Juan Pierre) and other teams’ scrap (Mike Fontenot). It is quite easy to feel pessimistic about the season. Please, allow me the opportunity to turn your frown upside-down.

The Phillies are .500 and only 4.5 games behind the division leader while in last place. Other teams in last place include the Red Sox at 5.5 GB (in a similar situation as the Phillies), the Angels at 7 GB, the Cubs and Twins at 10 GB, and the Padres are 14.5 games out. On this date last year, the division leaders included only three teams that went on to clinch their division. The Brewers were in third place at 3.5 games out on May 24 last year, and went on to win the NL Central.

Due to many reasons, the Phillies have traditionally been a second-half team. We need only go back to the 2007 and ’08 seasons when the Phillies surged in September to overtake the then-division-leading New York Mets. In ’07, they were seven games out of first place on September 12, but went 13-4 the rest of the way to clinch the NL East on the last day of the season. Likewise in ’08, the Phillies were 3.5 games behind on September 10, but finished the season 13-3 to win the division by three games.

Here’s a look at how the Phillies fared through 45 games, and how they performed afterwards from 2006 through last year.

First 45 Games Rest of Season
 Year Win % Run Diff Win % Run Diff
2006 .511 -7 .530 100
2007 .489 6 .573 65
2008 .533 17 .581 102
2009 .556 20 .581 127
2010 .578 56 .607 122
2011 .622 32 .632 152
2012 .489 3

The Phillies never outscored the opposition by more than 60 runs through 45 games. In fact, they were +30 or better in only two seasons. Meanwhile, they outscored their opponents by 100 runs or more in the final 117 games in five of the previous six seasons.

Does this mean the 2012 Phillies are definitely going to continue the trend? No, not at all. But the potential is there and the division is, as they say, “very winnable”. The Phillies have plenty of opportunities for upward momentum when Chase Utley and Ryan Howard come back, when Jimmy Rollins finds his swing, and when the bullpen regresses up to its mean. Who knows, maybe Ruben Amaro acquires a star player at the deadline for a fourth consecutive year and that helps spur the Phillies to another successful second half. With May almost over, the Phillies’ season-to-date may have been disappointing, but it is far too early to abandon ship.

Roy Halladay Is Fine

Roy Halladay allowed five runs in six innings to the new division rival Washington Nationals, ballooning his ERA to 3.58. It was his second mediocre start in the month of May. For most pitchers, it’s business as usual, but Halladay has earned a reputation as baseball’s most consistently elite pitcher over the years. As a result, last night combined with his 5.1 IP, 8 ER start against the Atlanta Braves on May 2, people are panicking, wondering what’s wrong with Halladay.

Myself, Paul Boye, and Ryan Sommers have covered his season in exhaustive detail, so I won’t bother you with another treatise on the subject. However, I would like to point out some stats that indicate to me that Halladay’s season shouldn’t cause worry.

  • Strikeout rate as a percentage of batters faced
  • 2012: 19.7%
  • Career: 18.7%
  • Note: His strikeout rate had been higher in the last four seasons, two with the Blue Jays and two with the Phillies. In 2003, when Halladay won his first Cy Young award, his strikeout rate was 19.1%, however.
  • Walk rate as a percentage of batters faced
    • 2012: 4.6%
    • Career: 5.0%
    • Note: Converse to his strikeout rate, Halladay is walking more batters than he had in the previous four seasons, but he still has a K-BB ratio in excess of four-to-one. Only 17 qualified starting pitchers have an equal or better ratio (including three of his teammates).
  • Batting average on balls in play.
    • 2012: .290
    • Career: .292
    • Note: His BABIP is interesting. This year, his BABIP on ground balls and line drives are .296 and .677, respectively, compared to .202 and .749 over his career. It’s a very small sample, so there’s a ton of variance here. Still, it’s interesting and something to monitor going forward. At the very least, we know he isn’t getting hit hard.
  • Home run rate as a percentage of fly balls induced
    • 2012: 7.6%
    • Career: 9.7%
    • Note: His overall fly ball rate is also in line with his career average (30%, 26%).
  • ERA/xFIP/SIERA
    • 2012: 3.58/3.30/3.37
    • Career: 3.24/3.16/3.26
    • Note: Rather self-explanatory. xFIP is an ERA retrodictor that uses a pitcher’s fly ball rate, while SIERA accounts for the interaction between a pitcher’s batted ball profile and his strikeout and walk rates.

    Basically, if you’re unhappy with Halladay’s performance thus far, then you’re unhappy with his career to date. No, he isn’t as dominant as he was during the last two years, but they are at the far right of the bell curve. His 2012 performance is right in the middle of his Hall of Fame bell curve, and that’s plenty good enough atop the starting rotation.

    twitter.com/Sky_Kalkman/status/205269388243374080

    Much A-Chooch About Umping

    Considering that Carlos Ruiz was thrown out of tonight’s game without ever seeming to lose his cool, I was interested to know what, exactly, Chooch said to home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom to warrant, as they say in soccer, a booking for dissent. I imagine the exchange went something like this:

    Carlos Ruiz: I wonder that you will still be calling balls, Signior Cederstrom: nobody marks you.
    Gary Cederstrom: What, my dear Catcher Disdain! Are you yet living?
    Ruiz: Is it possible disdain should die while he hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Cederstrom? Srikedom itself must convert to balldom, if you come in his presence.
    Cederstrom: Then is strikedom a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all catchers, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.
    Ruiz: A dear happiness to catchers: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious umpire. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than an umpire swear he saw a strike.
    Cederstrom: God keep your catchership still in that mind! So some umpire or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.
    Ruiz: Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.
    Cederstrom: Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
    Ruiz: A bird of my strike zone judgment is better than a beast of yours.
    Cederstrom: I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s name; I eject thee.
    Ruiz: You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.

    Feedback Needed: Game Threads

    Going into the season, we decided adding game threads for every game would be a great way to get more of you involved. There appeared to be a good amount of interest in April, but as the season went on, the participation waned. Last night’s game thread had less than ten responses, perhaps the ultimate justification of the 90-9-1 rule. However, The Good Phight’s thread had over 500 responses for the same game. Not that we’re competing, but 534-10 is very imbalanced and indicates that we could be doing better. The threads tend to have life when I am participating, but I can’t always be in front of my laptop while watching the game, and they should be self-sustaining anyway.

    As a result, we are discontinuing the game threads and Cover It Live chats until further notice.  However, we want your feedback on what you liked and didn’t like about the game threads. What would get you to participate on a regular basis? Feel free to leave feedback on anything else about the blog as well. We can’t improve without your constructive criticism.

    Nationals-Phillies Game Thread 5/18/12

    The battle for first place begins! Or whatever place the Phillies and Nationals are battling for nowadays. Either way, we get three games against a division rival, one of which will be the Wednesday night game on ESPN, so you out-of-market folks can take in Cole Hamels and Edwin Jackson. Apparently the Phillies and Nationals are bitter enemies now, so everyone’s going to throw batteries at Bryce Harper, who, I’m told, has done something to anger Phillies fans. Or something.

    But tonight has its own big news–Jimmy Rollins had a baby last night, so he won’t be in the lineup tonight while doctors struggle to solve that little bit of procreational weirdness. No doubt the Phillies will shoot the baby full of cortisone and then shoo Bob Brookover out of the hospital like a drunken recluse chasing the neighbors’ kids out of his backyard. The resulting lineup shuffling moves Freddy Galvis over to short and gives Mike Fontenot his first start with the Phillies. Given how much folks around here seem to like dudes with French last names and uniform numbers ending in 8, Fontenot should do fine.

    Lineups

    Washington

    Phillies

    The First Pitch

    The Phillies are much improved in the month of May in terms of offense, but they are still lacking in some areas. They still have the second-worst walk rate in all of baseball at 6.5 percent. Among players with at least 40 PA, only Ty Wigginton and Laynce Nix have a double-digit walk rate while five of the ten qualified Phillies are below six percent.

    As the saying goes, a leopard cannot change its spots. The Phillies, based on who made the 25-man roster out of spring training, were never going to have an offensive that exemplified great plate discipline. Nevertheless, it has been frustrating at times to watch them hit with easy-to-get runs on the bases, only to pop-up weakly or go down swinging on three strikes. In particular, one of the most frequent complaints I have seen has been the Phillies’ propensity to swing at the first pitch.

    Saturday’s game against the Boston Red Sox is a good recent example. In the bottom of the eighth, Jimmy Rollins had brought the score to 7-5 with an RBI infield single against Alfredo Aceves. Rollins then stole second base and Aceves walked John Mayberry on four pitches. Shane Victorino stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and a chance to be a hero, if he could find a spot for a single to the outfield. Aceves was laboring and showed a lack of control, so it might have been a good idea to take the first pitch. Most hitters would have done that, but Victorino swung at the first pitch and popped it up in the infield to end the inning.

    Here is one example of many afterwards on Twitter:

    twitter.com/MichaelRadano/status/204032314072772609

    (I don’t mean to single out Mr. Radano, by the way. There are plenty more examples here.)

    The Phillies see the sixth-fewest first-pitch strikes in all of baseball (58 percent). Victorino sees the fewest on the team (54.6 percent) and the 44th fewest among 175 qualified players. However, over his career (393 PA), Victorino has a .905 OPS on the first pitch, which is much greater than his .779 career average. Obviously, he’s been doing something right.

    The average player sees a fastball on the first pitch 57 percent of the time. This year, Victorino has seen them at a 65 percent clip, the 49th-highest rate out of 178 players*. Victorino likes fastballs: since 2009, he has a .374 wOBA against first-pitch fastballs. The following heat maps show where they’ve tended to cluster:

    *Data comes from a different source, which explains the disparity in qualified players.

    Additionally, Aceves had thrown fastballs 61 percent of the time, which is at about the league average among relief pitchers. Batters posted a sub-.300 wOBA against his first-pitch fastballs. Here’s where they’ve typically been:

    The bases were also loaded and Aceves just walked Mayberry on four pitches. The odds of Aceves throwing a fastball over the plate were quite good, about as good as they’d ever be, save if Victorino had managed to get to 3-0. As baseball is a mixed strategy game, hitters are always trying to predict (imperfectly) what the pitcher will throw. As players fall into patterns and the rest of the league gains of knowledge of those patterns, adjustments will be made. For instance, if Victorino ends up swinging at a significantly larger portion of first pitches this year, he will get even less to hit on the first pitch later in the season and into next year. Likewise, if Aceves starts throwing more sliders on the first pitch, then hitters like Victorino will be less likely to assume a fastball is coming.

    This was the end result:

    The key word is “result”. When analyzing the validity of a strategy, the result is completely meaningless. In Blackjack, I can hit with 20. It’s a very stupid idea, because the only cards that don’t ruin me are aces. If I hit and happen to spike an ace anyway, it doesn’t mean hitting on 20 was therefore smart.

    Victorino swung at the first pitch (which might have been a few inches further inside than he anticipated), popped up, and ended the rally. It was certainly frustrating to watch, but Victorino’s strategy cannot be faulted. Victorino himself did not fault the strategy:

    Damn right. I would swing at that every single time. He just beat me. I went up there looking for a cutter. I faced him in spring training and went up there looking first-pitch cutter*. I got the pitch I wanted and he just beat me. I tip my hat. He got me. It is what it is. I’m not going to sit here and question what I did.

    *For clarification: my data source lumps cutters in with all fastballs.

    This is just one example; there are plenty more throughout the first 42 games. Not all of them are justified, but some are. One cannot make a blanket statement such as “swinging at the first pitch is always bad.” The concept, rather, is fluid — you have to weigh each situation individually according to its unique set of variables.

    The Phillies as a team have the third-lowest OPS in the National League when swinging at the first pitch. Victorino is not part of the problem, however.

    Player Pitches OPS
    Hunter Pence 23 .870
    Jimmy Rollins 21 .211
    Shane Victorino 19 .895
    Freddy Galvis 15 .500
    Carlos Ruiz 13 1.122
    Ty Wigginton 13 .769
    Placido Polanco 10 .222
    Brian Schneider 7 1.714
    Juan Pierre 4 1.417
    John Mayberry 4 .500
    Pete Orr 3 .667
    Jim Thome 3 .000
    Laynce Nix 2 3.500
    Mike Fontenot 1 .000

    The biggest offender is Rollins, who has swung at 21 first pitches to the tune of a .211 OPS. Galvis and Polanco have also not had the greatest fortune swinging at the first pitch. Just because Rollins has performed so poorly, though, doesn’t mean that he should altogether stop swinging at the first pitch. Part of the fun in being a fan is being emotionally invested in each and every pitch, but when the dust settles, let’s not fault the players’ strategies without giving them due diligence.

    What We Know: 40 Games In

    Remember how much fun it was to watch a winning team? Well, the past week and change has been a fun trip back to those days, even if key components are still missing. The Phillies are 21-19, winners of six straight and seven of their last eight. They’re still in last in the division and four games back of the top spot, so things aren’t all rosy, but this has been the best week of a thus-far-mediocre season. All I really want to do is glow about what a monstrously good start to the season Carlos Ruiz has had.

    Games 33-40 Recap

    • Record: 7-1
    • RS: 49; RA: 34
    • Notes: Vance Worley hit the 15-day DL, but avoided surgery. Joe Savery was recalled.
    • Ruiz hit .560/.621/.840 in these eight games, with two stolen bases.
    • And speaking of Chooch
    How about this Ruiz fellow, eh? A .371/.415/.621 slash on the season to date puts him among the top hitters in baseball. Right now, he’s even outslugging Ryan Braun and David Ortiz. Is he going to stay on this level all year? Almost certainly not. His .360 BABIP figures to take a couple steps down, but even when it does, he’ll be posting a line that’s more than respectable for as good a defensive catcher as he is, to boot.Ruiz is doing big time damage on pitches over the heart of the plate – as you’d want every hitter to do – but is also feasting on pitches in the upper half of the zone. A popular talking point on Chooch in those handy-dandy “scouting report” broadcast graphics is that he loves to hit the fastball. It’s easy to say that about the majority of Major Leaguers, but it really has been particularly true of Ruiz to date. Carlos has been thrown 244 fastballs in 2012, of which he has only swung on and missed four times. He’s batting .446 with a 1.222 OPS when he puts a fastball in play.
    I really don’t have much else to say in this update, so I’ll just let this one belong to Chooch. He’s certainly earned it.

    Bobby Valentine’s Hilarious Tirade

    The ninth inning was plenty entertaining last night as the Phillies defeated the Boston Red Sox 6-4. In what could have been a sticky situation, a nice defensive play by Jimmy Rollins and a correct ruling from first base umpire Gary Darling helped the Phillies prevent the floodgates from opening and prompted Bobby Valentine to have one of the funnier temper tantrums in recent memory. No, he was no Lloyd McClendon, but you’ll see what I mean after the jump.

    There are a lot of .gifs, so don’t click through unless your browser can handle it.

    Continue reading…

    Red Sox-Phillies Game Thread 5/18/12

    Inter-league play is back, rejoice, rejoice. It’s a battle of Eastern division cellar-dwellers as the 18-20 glass cannon Red Sox have arrived in Philadelphia for a three-game set. The Phillies are on a roll, having won their last five games, surpassing the .500 mark for the first time since Opening Day. The Red Sox had a five-game winning streak recently come to an end, but they’ve won six of seven after losing eight of nine.

    Calling the Red Sox a “glass cannon” refers to their wholly offensive approach — they rank second in the American League, averaging 5.4 runs per game, and they also rank second-last with 5.1 runs allowed per game. As a result, they play a lot of high-scoring games, which couldn’t be any more the opposite for the Phillies. Although the offense has come alive recently, they have scored three or fewer runs in 18 of 39 games. Tonight’s pitching match-up epitomizes the two teams completely: reliever-turned-starter Daniel Bard (4.91 xFIP) opposes Cy Young candidate Cole Hamels (2.89).

    Lineups

    Red Sox

    Phillies