First Half Positives

You don’t need us to tell you that the first half was some of the most depressing baseball you’ve seen in quite a few years. Between the injuries, under-performance, and swirling trade rumors, it has been unfamiliar territory for many of us and not at all fun to watch. It seemed like the Phillies would find a new way to lose every night, from an outright trouncing to a late-inning nuclear meltdown. But it hasn’t all been bad, and as we go into the All-Star break, it will be soothing to reflect on the bright spots of the Phillies’ 2012 season.

Cot for Choice

Carlos Ruiz not only was the subject of a funny Internet meme thanks to Ryan Howard‘s auto-correct, but he was baseball’s most productive catcher. You read that right: Chooch, not Brian McCann or Buster Posey or Joe Mauer or Yadier Molina or Mike Napoli, has been baseball’s best-hitting catcher according to every reliable metric. He is the only catcher with a wOBA over .400, and leads the second-place Mauer by a whopping 45 points.

Player Team wOBA wRC+
Carlos Ruiz Phillies .422 168
Joe Mauer Twins .377 141
Yadier Molina Cardinals .371 137
A.J. Pierzynski White Sox .362 126
Buster Posey Giants .356 125
Miguel Montero Diamondbacks .349 114
Ryan Doumit Twins .335 112
Matt Wieters Orioles .330 105
Mike Napoli Rangers .329 101
Brian McCann Braves .312 95
Carlos Santana Indians .302 89
Jesus Montero Mariners .281 78

Ruiz entered the season with a career-high nine home runs, a mark he tied on June 19 and surpassed on June 26. He enters the break with 13, putting him on pace for 24 home runs.

To put Ruiz’s season into historical perspective, he has a 166 OPS+. In baseball history, only four other catchers have finished a season with a 166 OPS+ or better:

Player OPS+ Year Age Tm
Mike Piazza 185 1997 28 LAD
Mike Piazza 172 1995 26 LAD
Joe Mauer 171 2009 26 MIN
Mike Grady 167 1904 34 STL
Carlos Ruiz 166 2012 33 PHI
Johnny Bench 166 1972 24 CIN
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/9/2012.

Add to this Ruiz’s responsibilities calling every game, handling his pitching staff, controlling the running game, and overall playing solid defense, and you have one of the most valuable and most underrated players in the game today. One must shudder at the thought of how much worse the Phillies would be right now if they hadn’t been relying on the consistently-hot bat of Ruiz.

The Defensive Wizardry of Freddy Galvis

Galvis wasn’t much with the bat, as expected, but hot damn could that guy play some defense. Brought up through the system as the shortstop of the future, Galvis filled in admirably for the injured Chase Utley at second base, taking with him his incredible defensive prowess. It seemed like not a game went by that Galvis didn’t prevent runs with some kind of unreal acrobatic maneuver such as this…

… or with his speed.

Things went south quickly for Galvis, however, as he injured his back in early June and we later learned that he had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, resulting in a 50-game suspension. With a motley crew of replacements in his stead (Mike Fontenot, Michael Martinez, Pete Orr), the Phillies missed his defensive wizardry until Utley made his long-awaited return  at the end of June.

Juan Pierre: Surprisingly Not Bad

If you had told me that, when the Phillies brought Pierre on board, they would give him two-thirds of the plate appearances out of left field, I’d have cried and cried and bemoaned his lack of production. Pierre, however has been exactly average. His .330 wOBA matches up precisely with the NL average .330 wOBA among all left fielders. Given Pierre’s previous history (.293 wOBA last year for example), the Phillies struck lightning in a bottle with this low-risk signing. To boot, Pierre has stolen 20 bases in 23 attempts (87%) and accomplished two things we deemed impossible: he hit a home run, and he threw out a runner from the outfield. We at Crashburn respectfully doff our caps to Mr. Pierre.

Jim Thome Mashing Taters

Thome, often the subject of The Dugout’s hilarious satire, returned to Philadelphia for the 2012 season, hoping to add onto a Hall of Fame career in what is likely the final year of his career. He entered the season with 604 home runs, eighth-most in baseball history. With the five he hit as a Phillie, he moved into a tie with Sammy Sosa in seventh place. Now with the Baltimore Orioles, he will likely finish the season somewhere in the neighborhood of Ken Griffey, Jr. at 630, which may encourage the 41-year-old to stick around for one more year. Thome also hit his 100th career home run as a Phillie on June 17 against the Toronto Blue Jays, adding yet another milestone to a career chock full of them.

The Final Tour for Cole Hamels?

In what may be his last season as a Phillie, Hamels has not disappointed. In 118 innings, he has a 3.20 ERA and portends to be a Cy Young candidate. The 28-year-old Hamels is a free agent at season’s end and is expected to receive a hefty sum of money, leading many to speculate that the down-and-out Phillies will move him by the July 31 trading deadline. While he has been in red pinstripes, however, the Phillies have benefited from more of the usual thanks to his four-pitch arsenal that includes baseball’s most devastating change-up. Hamels leads all MLB pitchers in swinging strikes with the change-up:

Player Team StrSw
Cole Hamels PHI 159
James Shields TB 126
Chris Capuano LAD 105
Edinson Volquez SD 96
Felix Hernandez SEA 86
Stephen Strasburg WSH 86
Tim Lincecum SF 85
Johan Santana NYM 85
Dillon Gee NYM 83
Tom Milone OAK 82

It goes without saying that if and when Hamels leaves the Phillies, his arm will be sorely missed, but it has been an absolute treat watching him evolve since making his Major League debut in 2006, leading the Phillies to the World Series in 2008, and evolving into a superstar in 2011.

Vance Worley Keeps ’em Looking

Worley was one of very few surprises for the Phillies last year, finishing with a 3.01 ERA in 131.2 innings and earning third place in NL Rookie of the Year voting. He had many skeptics, however, including yours truly, wondering how illusory his reliance on called strike threes actually was. Vanimal proved to us that he is for real as he enters the break with a 3.46 ERA and has been one of the very few consistently-good arms on the staff. His strikeout and walk rates are virtually identical to those he posted last year and he once again finds himself among the best inducing called strike threes, along with teammates Cliff Lee and Joe Blanton.

Player Team CS3
David Price TB 48
Cliff Lee PHI 46
Vance Worley PHI 43
Joe Blanton PHI 38
Chris Capuano LAD 35
Yovani Gallardo MIL 35
Justin Verlander DET 35

Worley is now an incredibly valuable commodity as he will be cheap and under team control through at least 2016. If the league never catches up to him, the Phillies will have found an absolute steal in the third round of the 2008 draft.

A Slew of Lefties

If there has been one upside of having a completely awful bullpen, it’s that the Phillies have been able to experiment with a few lefties, including mainstay Antonio Bastardo, veteran Raul Valdes, and youngsters Jake Diekman and Jeremy Horst. Bastardo, despite a 5.34 ERA, has shown flashes of brilliance and could become a dominant reliever if he can ever harness his control. Valdes has been incredibly valuable, posting a 3.48 ERA with a K/BB ratio approaching 6.0 in 20.2 innings. Diekman, with some more seasoning, has the stuff to become an absolute terror to NL East lefties as he throws in the mid-90’s with a devastating slider. He had one disastrous appearance against the Cubs on May 17, but has been close to untouchable since then, posting a 1.72 ERA with a 23/9 K/BB in 15.2 IP. Like Bastardo, control will be Diekman’s demon to battle. Finally, although we have seen very little of him, Horst — famously acquired in the Wilson Valdez trade with Cincinnati — has the potential to be a rock in the Phillies’ bullpen for years to come. The 26-year-old has struck out seven in his four Major League innings thus far and had a 2.11 ERA with Lehigh Valley before his promotion.

You would need double these 1,400-plus words to go over the negatives, but there will be plenty of time for that over the remaining three months. For now, as we anticipate the appearance of Ruiz, Hamels, and Papelbon in the All-Star Game, we can smile fondly on the positive experiences we had between April and July.

On Leadership

The Phillies dropped yet another game yesterday, losing 4-3 to the Atlanta Braves for a series sweep. They have won 10 of their last 35 games dating back to June 1 and the frustration is reaching a boiling point, both with the players themselves and with the fans. Jonathan Papelbon threw a chair into his locker, Shane Victorino was pulled from the lineup because he was frustrated with his own play, and then you have this from Jimmy Rollins yesterday:

This isn’t a big deal, even though it will likely be the big story between now and when the Phillies return from the All-Star break. Columns may be penned, tweets may be sent, and fans may take to sports talk radio incensed about the team’s lack of leadership and lack of accountability, but none of it means anything. The biggest mistake Rollins made wasn’t walking out and avoiding accountability; it was making the job of the writers covering the team more difficult. Without any useful quotes from Rollins, they will be forced — forced! — to talk about Rollins’ selfish attitude and inability to be a team leader.

It’s funny how, a few years ago when the Phillies were winning, Rollins’ attitude was seen as a positive to the team. He went out of his way to trash-talk the Mets and predict how well his Phillies would perform in the coming season. He went on The Best Damn Sports Show Period and called Phillies fans “front runners”. Shane Victorino’s high-octane, no-holds-barred personality was seen as an asset to the team as well. Ryan Madson‘s temper tantrum after blowing a save in San Francisco, where he kicked a metal folding chair and broke his toe, was seen as cute (and dumb). Winning colors everything; likewise, so does losing.

Rollins and Victorino aren’t much different now than they were a couple years ago. They have aged, battled injuries, and are not performing at the level they did when the team was winning. Those are the most significant differences, and all are reasons why the Phillies find themselves at 37-50 in last place in the NL East. They didn’t forget how to be leaders, or be positive. They didn’t all of a sudden turn cancerous towards their teammates. They started declining and the rest of the team was worse for it. That’s it. There’s no narrative behind it, and there’s no need for leadership or accountability to enter the picture because it’s irrelevant.

Here’s the important thing: the 2012 Phillies aren’t doing a very good job of outscoring their opponents, a critical factor in winning games. This chart shows the relationship between the Phillies’ run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed) and their winning percentage, going back to 2000.

The data:

Win% Run Diff.
2000 .401 -122
2001 .531 27
2002 .497 -14
2003 .531 94
2004 .531 59
2005 .543 81
2006 .525 53
2007 .549 71
2008 .568 119
2009 .574 111
2010 .599 132
2011 .630 184
2012 .425 -28

Twelve seasons isn’t a huge sample size, but the chart is meant more for illustrative purposes anyway. When the Phillies outscore their opponents, they win more games. This is the case for every team in every year since the game was invented, and tells you more about a team’s success and failure than would the presence or absence of leadership and accountability. In 2000, when the Phillies struggled, had no leadership, and had to trade a franchise pitcher in Curt Schilling, they were outscored by 122 runs and barely won 40 percent of their games. In 2002, when Scott Rolen was becoming a problem and the team had no leaders stepping up, they scored about as many runs as they allowed and as a result won about as many games as they lost. Finally, this year, when Rollins and Victorino are insatiable clubhouse distractions, the Phillies have been outscored by 28 runs through 87 games (putting them on pace for a -52 differential) and have only won 42.5 percent of their games as a result.

As a fan, it’s great to get emotionally invested in the storylines — that’s what makes rooting for these teams so fun. You ride out the low times and enjoy the high times and you can’t enjoy one without the other. And there’s certainly some fantasy involved on the part of the writers, but it is also good to be able to separate fantasy from reality. The claims of a lack of leadership and accountability are post hoc rationalizations for the Phillies’ failures. They wouldn’t exist if Rollins and Victorino were acting the same exact way and putting up the same exact numbers, but had better production surrounding them. Winning and losing shapes our perception of teams and players.

It is also important to notice that the players on these losing teams — not just the Phillies — who are castigated as poor in the clubhouse are never identified as such prior to the season, or at any time before that. Only after stuff hits the fan do we learn who the culprits are, which tells you all you need to know about the latest batch of diagnostics. Should Rollins have faced the media? Absolutely. What he did was immature and he neglected to do his job as an employee of the Phillies. In the big picture, though, 2012 is a lost season. Put the pitchforks away and turn your attention to the moves the Phillies can make between now and next April to put them in a position for a successful 2013 campaign.