Crashburn Alley Podcast Ep.6: A Hill of Beans

The whole gang is back and ESPN 97.3’s Ryan Petzar (@Petzrawr) joins us to talk about the Phillies. We cover the return of Chase Utley and his Hall of Fame chances, the struggling bullpen, and the outlook over the next month before heading into Twitter Q&A.

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The next time we’re ready to do a podcast, we’ll let you know on Twitter so you can use the hashtag #crashpod to send in questions.

Crash Bag, Vol. 8: POW Garret Anderson

I had a dream earlier this week in which I was a retired baseball player working in sports media. In this dream, I was hanging out with a  bunch of baseball bloggers when we were rounded up by some Gestapo-like force and taken to an internment camp that resembled a minigolf course near my house. There we sat and exchanged cutting banter with the guards while, one by one, we were taken into another room and tortured. By the end of that dream, I had escaped from my captors, who wanted God only knows what, and was reunited with my old manager, Mike Scioscia. At some point I was shown my Baseball Reference page, and it showed I came up with the Angels in the early 1990s and played in the outfield corners in the majors for at least a decade. Which means that my unconscious mind thinks I’m a POW and either Tim Salmon or Garret Anderson.

I bring this up because if someone (either a psychiatrist or a witch doctor) knows what it means when Mike Scioscia shows up in your prison dream, I’d very much like to know precisely what it means.

To your questions:

@_Scuba_: “Who would win in a prison fight, Lenny Dykstra or Ugueth Urbina?”

Urbina. We haven’t seen Urbina since the curious incident of the ranch hands in the night time, but I’d bet a million dollars that Urbina would take Dykstra to the cleaners in Former Phillies Prison Bloodsport. I believe this for three reasons. First: Urbina is a decade younger than Dykstra. Second, ten years away from the game have not been good to Dykstra. Urbina, who has spent the past five years in a Venezuelan prison that probably resembles nothing so much as the Turkish prison hell in Midnight Express, is probably a hardened ball of hate and muscle. Finally, consider the crimes of which both men were accused. Dykstra had the worst series of business ideas ever conceived of by man, then tried to bilk his friends and business partners out of absurd amounts of money.

Urbina attempted to kill several men with machetes and set them on fire. This is not a peaceful or kind person we’re dealing with here. This is the kind of person who does live-action recreations of grindhouse films on his farm. Not only would Urbina beat Dykstra within an inch of his life, I don’t think Nails gets a decent shot in.

@mscratcher: “Has any actress in history aged worse than Kelly McGillis?”

Apparently Kelly McGillis lives in the area, because she came into my friend’s place of business and he made a similar comment to the one @mscratcher made. And boy, you don’t know the half of it.

Now, I think she’s had the deck stacked against her for several reasons. First, the last time anyone saw her, in Top Gun, not only was it 25 years ago, but Tom Cruise was throwing himself at her, which means that we’ve got nothing to do but compare her aging patterns to Cruise. First of all, that’s so unfair, because no one aged better than Tom Cruise. Plus she’s five years older than Cruise anyway, and we’ve seen him morph from cute kid to handsome naval officer to striking fortysomething man. We went to sleep one night and Kelly McGillis was hot enough to inspire the adoration of Tom Cruise in a movie where Anthony Edwards won the hand of the young Meg Ryan for God’s sake. And when we woke up–surprise!–she looked like our parents. So I can understand the shock.

But if you want to consider someone falling more quickly from a higher height, you might want to turn your attention to a younger actress. Time has definitely not been kind to Lindsay Lohan, for instance. But Kelly McGillis might be a good place to start.

@4Who4What: “how comewhen they play holosuite baseball in DS9, its always old timey, early 20th century baseball? are we to assume that baseball never has another reniassance between the 20th and 24th century?”

Well, there are a couple possible explanations. First, it’s easier to teach an actor to slap a single than to crank one over the fence. Second, baseball is at its most entertaining with fewer walks and strikeouts and more aggressive baserunning. Maybe in the 24th Century, in a society that’s evolved to the point where it’s eliminated money and racism would move to the point where winning is less important than putting on a good show.

And besides, we’re already nostalgic about old timey early 20th Century baseball. There are groups of men who dress up in period costume and play by ancient rules today. I have seen such men playing baseball in Cooperstown, and leagues exist across North America, harkening back to a time where men were men, and you had to dig your toilet in the backyard.

Anyway, it stands to reason that Commander Sisko, who is the only remaining baseball fan in the universe at the time he takes over the station, would feel similarly nostalgic about the early days of the organized game.

@LonettoMB: “What Is Best In Life?”

To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

At least, that’s the case if your tastes align with those of a warrior in a loin cloth played by an Austrian bodybuilder. For me, what is Best in Life? I might go with Frank’s Red Hot sauce. I put that on just about everything.

@DashTreyhorn: “You ever see that movie with the guy from ‘Speed?’ “

Do you mean Jeff Daniels, Dennis Hopper, or Keanu Reeves?

“No, the other guy”

Oh, you must mean Alan Ruck. You know, I thought he was just unbelievably fantastic as Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and I always wondered why he never got more work. But, yeah, I saw that movie. I also saw that movie with the other guy from Speed, Joe Morton, who plays the police captain who stands on the flatbed truck and yells at Keanu across the highway. If you want to talk about outstanding performances, let’s start with Joe Morton as Dr. Miles Dyson in Terminator 2. I know it’s not particularly difficult to blow the other actors in a film out of the water when your co-stars are Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward Furlong (when he was in his Jake Lloyd-as-Anakin Skywaler phase), but Morton played Dyson with severity and nuance, and I don’t think he ever got the praise he deserved for that role.

@JakePavorsky: “Ruben Amaro Jr. gives you $150 million, and you can’t spend it on Cole Hamels. How do you use it?”

Okay, so I’ve got $150 million, and I can’t spend it on Cole Hamels. Well, the first thing I’m going to do is buy a penthouse in Nashville, fill it with high-end electronics and liquor, and drive down there in my new Aston Martin. Then I’ll take a couple million and open up a magazine like The Blizzard or Play, you know, a thinking man’s sports magazine that gets top-notch writers to write interesting and in-depth long-form features that don’t dumb the game, and sports journalism, down to a level YouTube commenters can understand.

I’d probably give some of it away, because it’s kind of uncouth to have nine figures’ worth of cash and not spread it around. I’d probably donate some of it to inner-city charter schools, maybe endow a chair at a university. But we can get to that later.

The point is, if Ruben Amaro Jr. just up and gave me $150 million, the last thing I’d spend it on is the Phillies. They’ve proven to be bad stewards of their financial gifts. If I passed up the opportunity to live a life of opulence and vulgar luxury to they could sign David Wright, I’d be the dumbest person alive.

@Estebomb: “Is retired John Smoltz a better bullpen option than Chad Qualls?”

Probably not. In all seriousness, Qualls wasn’t particularly awful this season–he just had a few really high-profile meltdowns, which eventually got him run out of town on a rail. He had a HR/FB rate that was about twice his career average. Though the more I look at the numbers, the closer I think it is. In Smoltz’s last season, 2009, he went 3-8 with a .635 ERA for the Red Sox and Cardinals, but his K/BB ratio was 4.08 and his FIP was 3.87. Not bad, if you ask me. And that was as a starter. If you had him go back to the bullpen full-time and let him crank the dials up, it’s not inconceivable that Smoltz could come back and pitch better than Qualls.

But if my life were on the line, I’d take the guy who’s pitched in the major leagues in the past three years.

@_Scuba_: “If the 2012 Phillies were an original Power Ranger, which one would they be?”

We’re getting a little greedy here, I see, asking multiple questions. But unfortunately, I can’t answer that one, having never seen an episode of the Power Rangers in my life. Luckily, I know a man who can. Allow me to introduce Ryan Petzar of Philly.com, 97.3 ESPN in Atlantic City, and special guest panelist on the forthcoming episode of the Crashburn Alley Podcast. Take it away, Ryan:

It’d be Billy, the Blue Ranger, and it’s not even close. Why? Because Billy sucks.  I mean, look at this guy:
Yeah. Look him. Take a good look. That guy is the human embodiment of “trying to decide between using Mike Fontenot, Michael Martinez, or Juan Pierre as a pinch hitter with the winning run on second”.
See, the Blue Ranger was a joke. II mean, one of this dude’s major character attributes was that he was deathly afraid of fish because, as a child, he was bitten by a fish. A fish bit him and that scared him. First, I didn’t know even could bite. Second, how much of a literal-sack-of-shit do you have to be to even be in a situation in which a fish can bite you?
Also, his dinosaur was a triceratops which is universally regarded as the dumbest of all the dinosaurs. [citation needed] So, in summation, I forgot the question I was supposed to be answering but Billy was the worst of all the Power Rangers.

@Wildvulture: “if you could reconstruct Ryan Howard, would you make him more like Cmdr Shepard from Mass Effect, or Adam from Deus Ex? would you give him mechanical upgrades like Adam, (robot bat arm?) Or keep him as he was, just healthier like Shepard?”

I’ve never played Mass Effect, and I played Deus Ex once, at a friend’s house when I was in middle school. Let’s see if Ryan’s still around…RYAN. Stop eating all my popcorn and answer the question.

This is an excellent question. And, seeing as how I haven’t played either of the newest Deux Ex or Mass Effect games, I feel that I’m in a perfect position to answer this.

Shepard is just a dude (unless you decided to make Shepard a lady which you could totally do. In fact, the game’s whole selling point was that you could make Lady-Shepard fall in love with another woman in the game and then during a cutscene they’d totally have red-hot lady-sex that you never got to actually see.) and as such doesn’t really have any real powers other than being “healthier than Ryan Howard.” We don’t even know if Shepard can hit!
Now, if it turns out that Shepard can hit, there’s no way in hell he’d be more expensive to sign than Ryan Howard, amirite?

Adam from Deus Ex, however, is a goddamned cyborg. And as a goddamned cyborg if one of his goddamned cyborg legs breaks, you can just bolt another goddamned cyborg leg on. If his OPS drops, you can just install another stick of RAM or something. I guarantee you that a goddamned cyborg would be able to poke a ball through the shift.

The only problem with this is that Ruben Amaro would take one look at Adam and immediately give him a cap-busting contract that’s waaaaaaaay over market value the absolute first nanosecond of Adam’s free agency. So the Phillies would sign Adam but then there’d be no money leftover to do anything else so we’d end up with Johnnie 5 playing third.

@makarov__: “How far back would the Phillies have to be at the deadline to be ‘sellers’? Also, how secure is RAJ’s job? Charlie’s?”

Ah, a serious baseball question. I don’t know for sure, but given that the Phillies are letting a couple American League teams kick the tires on Jim Thome, maybe not that far back at all. Going into today’s games, they’re nine games out of the division lead and 5 1/2 out of the second Wild Card. Currently, there are four teams tied for the two Wild Card spots, with three more teams between the Phillies and that four-way tie. At this point, the issue might not be making up 5 1/2 games on any one of those teams, but having to leapfrog so many other clubs to get into playoff position. I don’t think they’re out of it completely, but if they go into the break down ten in the division and, say, eight in the Wild Card, it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest to see Shane Victorino get floated in trade rumors. But we shall see.

To answer your second question, allow me to offer, for your consideration, the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. This is the highest-security prison in the United States, housing such luminaries as Zacarias Moussaoui, 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, the Unabomber, FBI mole Robert Hanssen and, for a time, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Prisoners are kept in a poured concrete cell with concrete furniture and only a four-inch-wide window to the outside. That’s the prison they put people in who either 1) have committed the most heinous crimes or 2) have a history of escaping from prison.

Amaro and Manuel’s jobs, I think, are even more secure than that.

Thanks for writing in, as always, and if you want your questions featured on a future Crash Bag, write to me either on Twitter via #crashbag or by email at crashbaumann@gmail.com. Thanks to guest contributor Ryan Petzar (@petzrawr on Twitter), and keep your ears open for the next episode of the Crash Pod, coming out sometime this weekend.

 

Ruben Amaro Teaches Chad Qualls to Miss Bats

Bill wrote earlier today about Chad Qualls being designated for assignment. I know that many of you have taken comfort and joy from being rid of Qualls, but none more so than Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. I know many of you do as well, even though, as I write this, Kyle Kendrick has just given up back-to-back home runs to Casey McGehee and Pedro Alvarez in the first inning, so I have a feeling the public anger may not have abated quite so much.

Therefore, it is with great pride I submit to you the transcript of the conversation that took place between Qualls, Amaro, and Phillies assistant GM Benny Looper. As you’ll see, Amaro cashiered Qualls in quite an interesting fashion.

(Chad Qualls gives up home run)

Qualls: For the blood of the Phillies!
Looper: Ruben! Get down! (Looper tackles Qualls as home run ball hits Amaro in the shoulder. Amaro falls over.)
Scott Proefrock: Somebody’s popped the general manager!
Amaro: AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGHHH! (Looper wrestles baseball away from Qualls and hits him with it. Amaro struggles to his feet.)
Amaro: Whose pitcher are you? Speak smart and speak up.
Qualls: (mumbling)
Amaro: What’s he saying, boy?
Looper: I think he’s making his peace with his agent.
Amaro: To hell with that. He makes his peace with me. (Amaro crouches over Qualls and draws a piece of paper from his briefcase.) I’m making the phone calls around here tonight, you gopher-balling, washed-up reliever. Whose pitcher are you? We miss bats in this bullpen–whose pitcher are you? Do you see this release order? I’m going to teach you to miss bats with this release order. Whose pitcher are you? WHOSE PITCHER ARE YOU?
(Qualls slumps back, dead. Amaro stands.)
Amaro: Well that didn’t help us win very many games. Fine bullpen arm. Shame about it, I don’t think it can be mended.

 

 

 

The End of the Chad Qualls Era

twitter.com/HighCheese/status/218363797885292544

The much-ballyhooed end of the Chad Qualls era is upon us, as the Phillies have designated the right-handed reliever for assignment. Qualls had a disastrous time in Philly, posting a 4.60 ERA that is, somehow, far too kind to him. He surrendered one home run per every four fly balls, an obnoxiously-high rate — the second-highest among relievers (min. 30 IP), in fact, behind Hisashi Iwakuma of the Seattle Mariners.

At the end of January, when the Phillies signed Qualls, Paul Boye warned of Qualls’ declining K-rate. In 2012, it is nearly half the rate it was in 2008 (13.6%, 23.7%). Not much else had changed in the time between ’08 and ’12: he still surrendered walks at an infrequent rate (between 6 and 7%) and allowed home runs at his normal pace (between 11 and 14% of fly balls). It all went haywire this year, though, as he became nothing more than a piñata for opposing hitters.

The obvious struggles occurred against left-handed batters, who posted a staggering .480 wOBA against him in 60 plate appearances, compared to the .282 of right-handed hitters in 80 PA. You can see the difference in the heat maps here:

In the past, I have argued that the Phillies should be able to identify these weaknesses and utilize their relievers accordingly. Last year, for example, I saw potential for J.C. Romero to have utility as a LOOGY (a left-handed, one-out guy), but Charlie Manuel gave him the handedness advantage against fewer than two out of every five batters. Likewise, Qualls could have had value as a ROOGY but likely nothing beyond that.

Qualls was a relatively cheap ($1.15 million) gamble that didn’t pay off in the end. Fortunately, the Phillies didn’t commit multiple years and multiple millions of dollars to Qualls the way they have in the past with Romero, Jose Contreras, and Danys Baez, among others, so it’s no big deal. Soon, another team will, like the Phillies, pick up Qualls only to ignore all of the warning signs and fail to utilize him correctly, giving up tens of unnecessary runs. Then, they will release him soon thereafter in frustration. The baseball world, she never stops turning.

The Mysterious Appearing Utley

Somewhere around December of last year, the Phillies changed the name of the franchise for the first time in nearly 130 years of existence. Since the New Year, they’ve been officially known in the future tense as “The Phillies, Once Utley and Howard are Healthy.”

Literature is littered with stories whose action is driven by a character who either never shows up or is only introduced at the very end. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, for instance, or Gogol’s The Inspector General. I was beginning to have that feeling about the 2012 Phillies, that their story would be written in large part about the absence of Chase Utley. In the shroud of secrecy that characterizes the Phillies’ media department, it was beginning to look like Utley was not the character we’d wait all year to have introduced, but rather the one who, while absent from the storytelling itself, would drive many of the events of the story, like Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984. Every action, it seemed, was driven to compensate for Utley’s absence.

We’ve lived in a virtual purgatory all season, watching a revolving door of second basemen. Mike Fontenot, who can hit but can’t field. Freddy Galvis, who could field but couldn’t hit. Pete Orr, who couldn’t do either. And most recently, Michael Martinez, who not only can neither hit nor field, but fails to do so with a lack of self-awareness matched only by the douchebag who brings his acoustic guitar to a party, then plays Oasis’s “Wonderwall” until the only people left in the room are waiting for him to stop bogarting the guitar so they can play something not included in the “Teenager’s first open mic night” book of sheet music.

Billy Graham once said: “Have you ever seen God? I’ve never seen God… I’ve never seen the wind. I’ve seen the effects of the wind… but I’ve never seen the wind.” We could say the same about Utley. He wasn’t up to his usual standards last season, but he was still worth 3.9 fWAR in only 2/3 of a season. And with Utley back in the lineup, Hunter Pence moves back down to fourth or fifth, and maybe there’ll finally be someone on base for Carlos Ruiz to drive in. Suddenly, the pieces start to fit back together as bench players are taken out of the starting lineup and returned to their original and appropriate uses.

A friend of mine once explained how he eats at Five Guys every six months or so. Every time he eats there, he marvels at how tasty their burgers and fries are, and then spends the rest of the evening on the toilet as a pound and change of greasy, beefy glory result in crippling gastrointestinal distress. But a few months later, you forget about the aftereffects and begin to crave Five Guys again. Six months is just enough time to forget about the full Five Guys experience and go back again, more out of curiosity than anything else.

So too with Utley. It’s been so long since we’ve seen a truly great position player in a Phillies uniform that I’m starting to forget what one looks like. Utley says he’s in better physical condition now than he’s been in a while, but even so, we shouldn’t expect too much from him too quickly. If Utley comes back and is even a shadow of his 2007 self, I’ll be thrilled. If he’s anything more, I’ll be so happy you won’t hear from me again until the state troopers are chasing a man playing an accordion and riding a unicycle the wrong way down I-295. Because that’ll be me.

But with Utley back in the lineup, it feels like we’re at least a little closer to being whole, that things are at least a little closer to being okay again. And, most importantly, it means that Charlie Manuel can nail Michael Martinez’s ass to the bench and never think about him again.

We’ve missed you, Chase. It’s good to have you back.

Happy Chase Utley Day!

Like a young child impatiently waiting for December 25, we have been X-ing out days on the calendar anticipating the return of Chase Utley. The Phillies have grimaced through 76 games in which the impotent bats of Freddy Galvis, Pete Orr, Michael Martinez, and Mike Fontenot have been not only utilized but relied upon in Utley’s absence, resulting in the third-lowest OPS by second basemen in the league. With all due credit to Galvis, of course, who played outstanding defense before suffering a back injury and testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

But there’s nothing quite like Chase Utley, a once-in-a-generation player who can do it all: hit for average (.290 career), hit for power (.215 career ISO), steal bases (27-for-29 in 2010-11), and play outstanding defense (best UZR/150 among second basemen since 2005). Despite a late start to his career — he was first promoted at the age of 24 — and having his last two years tarnished by injuries, Utley remains a fringe Hall of Fame candidate as well. With 50.2 career rWAR, he is one of only 17 second basemen to have accomplished the feat:

Player rWAR From To Age
Rogers Hornsby 124.6 1915 1937 19-41
Eddie Collins 118.5 1906 1930 19-43
Joe Morgan 97.1 1963 1984 19-40
Nap Lajoie 85.6 1901 1916 26-41
Charlie Gehringer 76.6 1924 1942 21-39
Lou Whitaker 71.4 1977 1995 20-38
Frankie Frisch 68.0 1919 1937 20-38
Bobby Grich 67.3 1970 1986 21-37
Ryne Sandberg 64.9 1981 1997 21-37
Roberto Alomar 63.1 1988 2004 20-36
Willie Randolph 63.0 1975 1992 20-37
Craig Biggio 62.6 1988 2007 22-41
Jackie Robinson 58.7 1947 1956 28-37
Joe Gordon 54.0 1938 1950 23-35
Jeff Kent 53.9 1992 2008 24-40
Billy Herman 52.5 1931 1947 21-37
Chase Utley 50.2 2003 2011 24-32
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/27/2012.

11 of the 17 are either in the Hall of Fame or on the ballot, so perhaps with a productive second-half of 2012, Utley can revive his historically-great career.

What can the Phillies expect out of Utley right now, though? Utley himself feels great:

“So far, so good,” he said. “It felt pretty good out there. … I’m feeling pretty confident out there. I felt a little bit more comfortable out there on the field and in the batter’s box and hopefully I’ll move forward from here.”

Utley stopped short of saying he expects to be activated for Wednesday’s game, saying he has to talk to general manager Ruben Amaro first.

“I’ll talk to Ruben tonight and tell him how I feel and go from there,” he said. “Right now I feel good. Everything so far has been pretty good.”

Even while battling injuries in 2010 and ’11, he compiled a combined 9.3 fWAR and 9.4 rWAR, so if everything goes as planned, the Phillies could still get two or three wins above replacement if Utley is able to stay healthy and productive throughout the second-half of the season. Though his power is waning, it would be a welcome addition to the lineup as his .169 and .166 ISO in the past two years would be the third-highest on the team, behind Carlos Ruiz and Hunter Pence. Short of making a trade for an impact player, something that has become commonplace over the last three years, activating Utley from the disabled list is the biggest improvement the Phillies could have made. It’s great to have him back.

(Not familiar with the stats cited in this article? Check out the Stats page full of links and resources!)

Just Say No to Former Phils

Between the time 49-year-old Jamie Moyer requested his release from the Baltimore Orioles and recently signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, there was some buzz that the former Phillie could return for one last hurrah. Moyer, of course, spent time with the Phillies between 2006-10, posting a 4.55 ERA. Moyer missed all of 2011 before signing with the Colorado Rockies in January. The veteran never found his groove, making ten starts to the tune of a 5.70 ERA before he was released.

Even when he was healthy, he was never all that productive. Sure, his 3.71 ERA in 2008 was great, but it was an obvious outlier as it was the first time since 2003 he had posted an ERA below 4.25. That ’08 season was sandwiched by a 5.01 ERA in ’07 and 4.94 in ’09. Moyer is, more than almost anyone else in baseball, very reliant on the defenders behind him converting batted balls into outs. Between 2007-12 among pitchers with at least 700 innings pitched (starting in at least 95% of appearances), only 12 pitchers have struck out fewer batters per nine innings than Moyer.

Player SO/9 IP ERA+
Aaron Cook 4.04 767.2 103
John Lannan 4.71 751.0 103
Jon Garland 4.81 863.0 103
Mark Buehrle 4.85 1147.2 118
Joe Saunders 4.99 987.2 106
Jason Marquis 5.01 825.2 95
Carl Pavano 5.01 751.0 91
Mike Pelfrey 5.07 875.0 92
Brad Penny 5.10 713.1 96
Roberto Hernandez 5.31 860.0 92
Kyle Lohse 5.46 885.1 98
Paul Maholm 5.49 1001.2 92
Jamie Moyer 5.59 723.0 93
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/26/2012.

That is not a list of names that gets you excited about baseball. Perhaps most importantly, though, is that Moyer’s production is easily replicated by the veterans in Triple-A such as Scott Elarton, or the younger players like Tyler Cloyd and Austin Hyatt. Since you know what you’re going to get out of Moyer, why not roll the dice with someone who has paid his dues in the system? The best case scenario is that you get rewarded with a breakout like Kyle Kendrick in 2007; the worst case scenario is that you get a Moyer-esque performance anyway.

The other former Phillie that has appeared on the radar is Brad Lidge, recently designated for assignment by the Washington Nationals. As he often did with the Phillies, Lidge battled injuries and ineffectiveness in his short stint with the Nats, appearing in only 11 games and posting a 9.64 ERA. In his 9.1 innings, he struck out 10 but also walked 11. He has never been a maven of control, walking about 12 percent of the batters he faced while with the Phillies between 2008-11.

For as bad as the Phillies’ bullpen has been, the one thing they have been doing right is avoiding the free passes. Their combined 8.9 percent walk rate is tied with the San Francisco Giants for the fourth-lowest rate in the National League. As they also have the fourth-highest fly ball rate at 36.7 percent, adding Lidge’s lack of control to the mix would make for some disastrous scenarios (13 of the 23 home runs Phillies relievers have allowed have been with the bases empty). And, as with Moyer, Lidge doesn’t add anything that the Phillies can’t already get from within their Minor League system. Lidge’s high-strikeout, high-walk approach can be replicated by Phillippe Aumont, for instance.

Moyer and Lidge were certainly big pieces of the puzzle back in 2008 as they helped the Phillies end their 28-year playoff drought, but they both individually had fluky outstanding seasons that year. In the time since, they have shown that when they are able to consistently stay on the 25-man roster, they are merely replacement-level players. As old and injury-prone former Phillies come back through town looking for work, the only response necessary is a simple “no, thank you”.

Raul Valdes Now An Important Part of Phillies Bullpen

The Phillies bullpen has been a source of complete insanity over the past three months. Whether it’s been Jonathan Papelbon being too clutch, the young guys getting injured (David Herndon and Michael Stutes), or Chad Qualls knocking over a vat of gasoline in every appearance, it has been very stressful in the late innings. One reliever, however, has been bucking the trend for most of the last two months: 34-year-old journeyman lefty Raul Valdes.

Valdes agreed to a Minor League contract with the Phillies back in November, spending April and the first half of May with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. In 27 innings, he posted a 3.00 ERA with 36 strikeouts and two walks. As the Phillies’ bullpen surrendered to dysfunction, the Phillies promoted Valdes along with fellow lefty Jake Diekman in an attempt to bring some calmness back into the late innings.

Given his age, previous Major League experience (70.2 innings), and lack of success (4.58 ERA), the expectations weren’t high for Valdes. He was simply the latest exterminator asked to poke a hornet’s nest with a stick. The results, though, were surprising. In his first stint with the Phillies between May 16 and June 7, Valdes allowed only three runs (all in one appearance) in 12.2 innings while striking out 13 and walking one. He was demoted to make room for right-handed reliever B.J. Rosenberg, but was quickly brought back, making his next appearance on June 23 against the Tampa Bay Rays. In two frames, Valdes struck out four, walked none, and allowed only one hit.

Valdes has struck out at least one batter in 10 of 12 appearances, including five multi-strikeout outings. He has dominated right-handed hitters (.339 OPS) more than lefties (.524), using a fastball-slider combination with the occasional change-up. His fastball location charts are quite funny and help explain why he has had success thus far:

Valdes has been effective enough among an under-performing bunch and is deserving of being trusted in more important situations. Valdes has only entered a game to face a situation with a leverage index of 1.00 or greater three times. He could share the eighth-inning role with Antonio Bastardo, who has been under a heavy workload in June, throwing 20 or more pitches in seven of nine appearances with a 6.75 ERA.

After spending time with the Chicago Cubs, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, and New York Yankees, it appears that Valdes is finally seeing the success he envisioned when he signed as an amateur free agent out of Cuba in 2004. For the Phillies, he couldn’t have picked a better time to be the rock among an avalanche of failure. Now, we simply hope that the Phillies’ 4.48 bullpen ERA isn’t contagious.

Cliff Lee: Counting Up From Zero

twitter.com/alexrolfe/status/217058748890488833

Above is a very interesting question Alex Rolfe asked me on Twitter during last night’s Cliff Lee start. Lee went seven innings, allowing five runs and once again failing to pick up his first win of the season. Lee has now allowed 14 runs in his last three starts spanning 20 innings, bumping his ERA all the way up to 3.72. Now all of Philadelphia is wondering: what’s wrong with Cliff Lee?

Amazingly, Cole Hamels — who started the other game in yesterday’s double-header — was in an eerily similar position as Lee back in 2009. Fans said many of the same things and asked many of the same questions of Hamels that are now surrounding Lee. Hamels had, in 2008, put himself on the map with a 3.09 regular season ERA and a World Series MVP award as the Phillies defeated the Tampa Bay Rays in five games for their first championship in 28 years. However, Hamels abruptly fell from grace, posting a 4.32 ERA and famously saying after a disastrous Game Three start against the New York Yankees in the World Series that he “can’t wait for it to end”. It, of course, referring to his terrible year. The Phillies lost in six games. Fans and media types spent time in the off-season dissecting Hamels’ season and wondering how they could ship him to Toronto for Roy Halladay.

At the same time, the stat-savvy among us pleaded for caution, claiming that Hamels’ ’09 was merely a fluke and his 2010 season would likely be much better. Myself, Matt Swartz, Paul Boye, and many more penned articles expressing this sentiment. These articles were met with skepticism (as any topic should) and disapproval, many claiming that the player we had written about was not the same player fans and media types had watched. To briefly recap the main points in favor of a Hamels rebound: the only difference between his 2008 and ’09 seasons was BABIP. His strikeout and walk rates were nearly identical, as were his batted ball splits, and he wasn’t allowing any more home runs. However, Hamels’ .259 BABIP in ’08 had risen to .317 in ’09, explaining much of the discrepancy.

As expected, Hamels rebounded in a big way in 2010. In fact, he not only regressed back to his mean, but he improved significantly. Hamels struck out more batters and induced more ground balls than ever before, and he added another pitch to his arsenal: a cut fastball. He finished the year with a 3.06 ERA, reestablishing himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball and giving the Phillies a daunting starting rotation that also included Halladay, Lee, and Roy Oswalt. Fans who had once stormed the castle with torches in hand in protest of Hamels’ continued presence had grown to love and accept him as one of their own.

On June 25, 2012, Philadelphia is on the verge of repeating  history. Lee is having a season not unlike Hamels’ 2009. Prior to his last two starts — both seven-inning, 5 ER affairs — a legitimate non-Sabermetric case could have been made placing Lee in a very preliminary Cy Young discussion. Despite having zero wins to his name, he had a 3.18 ERA, quality starts in seven of nine starts, and one memorable no decision against the San Francisco Giants. He had struck out 66 and walked merely 11 in 64.2 innings of work.

Then came the narrative train. No wins and three bad starts makes Phillies fans something something. Go crazy? Don’t mind if they do! Repeating the same cliches foisted upon Hamels back in ’09, the narrative has centered on Cliff Lee’s “struggles”. And yet, when you look at the stats — the same ones that controversially told us Hamels would rebound in 2010 — Lee is actually pitching quite well.

K% BB% GB% xFIP SIERA
2011 25.9% 4.6% 46.3% 2.68 2.72
2012 25.5% 4.6% 49.3% 2.88 2.75

There is one difference between Hamels and Lee, however: home runs. For Hamels, there was no jump in long balls surrendered, but for Lee, he has allowed nine home runs in 77.2 innings compared to 18 in 232.2 innings last year. On a per-fly ball basis, Lee jumped from nine percent last year and eight percent over his career to 13 percent so far in 2012, excluding yesterday’s start. If there are more home runs, then Lee has to be struggling with location, right? Doesn’t seem like that’s the case.

What about just fly balls? Again, not really a difference.

Let’s narrow it down to just home runs.

He is not being punished in any one particular area and, as the charts above show, he isn’t peppering a specific location where he shouldn’t be. Eight of his ten home runs allowed have been hit by right-handed hitters, compared to 79 percent over his career. And Lee’s pitches have been accessory to a home run in nearly equal portions: three fastballs, two cutters, two change-ups, and one curve. By the way, there has also been no meaningful change in his pitch usage.

We can narrow down the damage to Lee’s fastballs: sinkers and cutters. Opposing batters have mustered a meager .234 wOBA against his “soft” stuff this year and right-handed hitters are doing most of the damage (.341 wOBA compared to lefties’ .292 on “hard” stuff). Yet Lee is still doing his job against them as his 3.14 xFIP and 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio illustrate (career averages: 3.93, 3.2) and there is no pattern. Surprisingly, lefties have a .367 BABIP compared to the .301 of right-handers, including .356 on “hard” stuff. The distribution of hits, though, doesn’t scream “this guy is getting shelled!”

There is not one performance-based metric that is alarming regarding Cliff Lee. Yes, it is June 25 and he has zero wins and his ERA is just under 4.00, but such is life in small samples. Two weeks ago, there was nothing wrong with him and the narrative simply focused on his zero wins to date. As a fan, there is no fault in being frustrated with Lee’s last three starts, but when the irrationality of being a fan mixes with objective analysis, there is a problem, and it’s the same problem that arose in ’09 with Hamels. Performance and results are not always related. In some cases, like Roy Halladay in 2010, they match up perfectly, but other times, like Hamels in ’09, James Shields in ’10, and Lee this year, they are at odds.

Maybe, instead of hyper-analyzing Lee, we should be hyper-analyzing the traditional stats with which we evaluate him and others. Even if Lee’s 3.72 ERA was indicative of his performance thus far, his 0-4 record into late June should give us pause as to exactly why we continue to include this statistic in our conversations. Lee is the only pitcher this year to have thrown 50 innings and not earn a win. Is he the worst pitcher in baseball? Is he anywhere close to it? No. Then why use W-L ever, at all? Lower the threshold to 40 innings and Chris Volstad joins the party with his stunning 7.46 ERA. That tells you all you need to know about traditional statistics and their place in the conversation, especially when narratives are involved.

Cliff Lee has been really, really good this year and it’s important that Phillies fans realize this in what has otherwise been a very disappointing season.

The Victorino Power Outage

There was a time last season when Shane Victorino was having more than just a good season; he was a legitimate MVP candidate. The argument can probably be made that, until a rough, ragged September diminished his season numbers, Victorino’s chances were way better than non-zero at taking the award. A centerfielder hitting .314/.389/.551 as late as August 23 certainly merits that consideration, even though a .179/.257/.321 line from thereon sabotaged those hopes and Shane finished 13th in the voting.

Regardless, it seemed like Victorino had tapped into something latent, a subterranean vein of offensive skill that outclassed what he had previously been known for or expected to produce. Much like John Mayberry Jr.’s second half last year, there were plenty of reasons to think Victorino could carry this newfound production into his walk year and help hold down the fort as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley made their way back.

Suffice to say that hasn’t happened.

Victorino enters game action Saturday with a rather paltry .252/.319/.399 slash line to his name, his .718 OPS good for a 95 OPS+ but feeling like a disappointment in the shadow of 2011’s promise. In his six prior full seasons in Philadelphia, Shane has never slugged lower than .414, and his average SLG has been even higher at .443. Shane’s calling card remains his prowess as a right-handed bat; his .333/.389/.652 split against southpaws is right in line with what we’ve come to expect, but those gaudy figures come in just 72 of Shane’s 306 PA. You can begin to brace yourselves, than, for his current split as a lefty: .226/.299/.322.

The concept of Shane struggling from the left side is nothing new. His career splits feature a gulf of more than .140 in OPS between left and right, although that’s obviously dwarfed by this season’s .400-plus-point spread.

To the right, we see a comparison of Shane’s SLG on balls in play, first from the 2011 regular season (top) and the 2012 season-to-date (bottom). What pops out immediately is that the heart of the plate is actually one of Shane’s coldest zones so far this season. Pitches belt-high and in, as well as those over the middle and down, still seem to let Shane drive the ball with some authority, but a vast and unsettling portion of the plate is that troubling royal blue.

Swinging and missing isn’t the problem – Shane’s whiff rate on pitches in the strike zone is down from 9.3 percent in 2011 to 7.3 percent so far this season, and his chase rate has seen only a very modest increase, from 30.1 percent to 31.2 percent.

On raw numbers, little seems to have changed in terms of approach for Victorino, but the results are obviously lacking. The .050-point drop in BABIP from the previous year seems tied in to a similar drop in well-hit average.

Another area of interest is the outer edge of the plate, away from Victorino. In the past, Shane had been able to slap pitches away to left or left-center. Ten of Shane’s 42 extra-base hits last season as a lefty went left of center. The rate has increased this year, but the volume isn’t there: four of 12 have been earned going the other way, and only one of those was down the line.

To the left, we see a comparison of Shane’s extra-base hit locations. Now, we’re comparing a full season with not-quite-half a season, so 2012 will obviously look barren in comparison. But something resembling a trend seems to be appearing, at least to my eye. Is the lack of hits the other way ties to a diminished amount of plate coverage? Weaker contact on pitches farther away? Good leftfield play? Or some combination of all of the above?

No matter the precise symptoms – I’m not here to offer a diagnosis or provide an answer – it seems the thing to look for in Shane moving forward is an uptick in hard-hit balls the other way when he’s batting left-handed. Batting righty remains no issue at all, but if Shane is to rebuild the value he had stored up with his excellent 5/6ths of a season in 2011, it seems that would be one thing that needs to return.

Think of this as something allegorical to Ryan Howard’s opposite-field power. Where you’d expect Howard to hit pitches deeper in the zone out to left when he’s going right, so it seems Victorino doing the same for extra singles or doubles would potentially be a sign of better things to come.