Talking Phillies with Chris Branch

We were sad to see David Hale leave his Phillies beat at The News Journal as he moved on to cover college football for ESPN (@DavidHaleESPN). No one referenced The Simpsons quite like he did. However, we are also happy to welcome in a new guy into the fold, and that is Chris Branch (@ChrisBranchTNJ). Chris introduced himself on July 3 here if you’d like to learn a bit about him. I caught up with him via email over the All-Star break to get his views on a few issues pertinent to the Phillies.

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1. You’re jumping right into a disastrously bad season for the Phillies. Have any of your perceptions of the team as an outsider changed now that you’ve been in the clubhouse?

They haven’t changed much. Before I got here, I knew the Phillies were having a bad season, but I didn’t know how bad. I will say my first few days I was impressed with how upbeat they tried to stay as the losses kept piling up, but any optimism vanished as they left for the All-Star break.

2. What is the general atmosphere in the clubhouse? We learned that Jonathan Papelbon had a mild tantrum after blowing Thursday night’s [July 5] save in Queens. Is this a regular occurrence?

Like I said, it was kind of upbeat before they really started sucking. There seemed to be a main troupe of guys laughing and joking before games (Victorino, Papelbon, Lee), but smiles were nowhere to be found after last Sunday’s loss. I haven’t seen any tantrums of any kind yet, but seeing Victorino that depressed before Sunday’s game was just as weird.

3. How are the younger players treated in the clubhouse, particularly the relievers who have been a big reason behind the Phillies’ troubles?

Honestly, the relievers kind of stay mum when the media’s in the clubhouse. I’ve seen Papelbon razz them a bit, but they’re normally all business when we’re around.

4. After Brian McCann‘s grand slam in the eighth inning on Friday [July 5], fans immediately filed out of the stadium in seething anger. What is your perception of the atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park as it relates to the fans?

Frustration. It’s pretty palpable that people are sick of the losing, especially in that fashion. To have Kyle Kendrick, who’s struggled most of the season, pitch seven shutout innings only to have Antonio Bastardo give up the McCann boomstick like that has to be brutal for fans to watch. You could feel any electricity built up over the course of the game evaporate the second the ball hit the brick wall in center field.

5. What do you expect the Phillies to do with Cole Hamels, who may become a free agent after the season?

I have a feeling they’re going to re-sign him before the deadline. But, if the team keeps losing, you have to think Ruben will listen to some trade calls at the deadline rather than get caught up in a Pujols-esque situation. There’s no way the front office lets the status quo remain for the rest of the season, though.

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Thanks to Chris for taking the time to share his perspective as an insider. Make sure you follow him on Twitter (@ChrisBranchTNJ) and check out his work on Philled In for The News Journal.

Praising Juan Pierre

Marcus Hayes wrote a column recently praising the production of Juan Pierre while at the same time castigating proponents of Sabermetrics for having doubted him. I’m not hyperlinking to the article because I don’t want to reward him with even more pageviews than I already sent his way after openly mocking the piece yesterday on Twitter. Judging by the quotes in Hayes’ piece, even Pierre himself seemed a bit under-appreciated by the numbers crowd, praising his own ability to lay down bunts and go first-to-third.

The whole argument is mischaracterized, however. Yes, Saberists were less-than-enthusiastic about Pierre’s acquisition of the starting left field job with the Phillies, but for good reason: he had finished the previous two seasons — aged 32 and 33 — with a .657 OPS, more than 20 percent worse than the league average. In 2011, he stole only 27 bases in 44 attempts (61%). And overall, the most generous thing you can say about his defense is that it is average at best if you pay absolutely no attention to his noodle arm. In the previous four seasons, he had averaged just over one win above replacement (fWAR), right between a replacement-level player and an average player.

Statistically, the Phillies were much more likely to get the 2010-11 version of Pierre (79 OPS+) than the ’09 version (105 OPS+). Somehow, though, the Phillies got lucky and Pierre is having one of the best years of his career. He currently has a 101 OPS+ thanks to a .316 batting average. He has also been the team’s best base runner, stealing 21 bags in 25 attempts (84%) and producing 2.3 base running runs, per Baseball Prospectus. Pierre’s .337 wOBA is a few ticks above the NL average for left fielders at .331, when it was just .303 in the previous two years. Hayes cites Pierre’s 1.6 WAR (rWAR) but mistakenly categorizes it as poor. It actually puts him on pace for about 3.0, which is quite good.

The best part is that the Phillies are getting this highly-aberrant production from Pierre for the low, low cost of $800,000. They just got done with Raul Ibanez‘s three-year, $31.5 million contract in which he posted a 101 OPS+. Basically, the Phillies are getting the same production out of Pierre as they did with Ibanez for about one-tenth of the cost and with significantly less risk.

There isn’t too much else to say about Pierre’s season. Sure, the bunt hits are nice, but they are insignificant in number (10) and in impact, especially when counteracted by the sacrifice bunts with which he is 6-for-12, the second-lowest success rate among those with at least eight attempts. As for the first-to-thirds Pierre speaks of, he’s only done so six times, two fewer than the NL average and half as many as the league leader (Rafael Furcal, 13). When it comes to the things that really matter for Pierre — reaching base and advancing — he has done adequately so far. He won’t be nearly as productive next year, but we are quite content giving him credit for everything he’s done in 2012 to this point.