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Some Thoughts on Tuesday’s Game

The Phillies dropped the second game of their four-game set with the Cincinnati Reds, losing 5-4 in a see-saw game. Cliff Lee started and, as has been the case throughout 2012, did not get the victory, remaining at 2-7 on the season. Jonathan Papelbon got the loss, allowing a lead-off solo home run to Zack Cozart in the ninth inning to break the 4-4 tie. It was one of the more interesting games, especially since the Phillies have been presumed dead for a couple months at this point, and I had a few thoughts on the game as it progressed.

Ryan Howard and Right Field

Last week, I pointed out that Ryan Howard wasn’t pulling the ball as much as he used to, which may have been a symptom of simple rust or an inability to put pressure on his back foot, the one he rehabbed so laboriously before returning in July. Howard has made progress pulling the ball as his hit chart since August 16 indicates:

Entering last night’s game, in which he was 1-for-3 with an RBI single, Howard had 10 hits in his previous 23 plate appearances, including three doubles and a home run, each of them to center field or towards right field. His triple-slash line since the 16th reads .455/.478/.727, which is quite a nice sight for the left-hander.

Cliff Lee, Not A Winner

Lee yet again pitched well enough to win, holding the Reds scoreless through six innings last night. The Phillies, however, spotted him just one run. Charlie Manuel sent Lee back out to the mound for the seventh, having thrown only 85 pitches. However, it was his third trip through the Reds’ batting order, and almost all pitchers have worse results the more a lineup sees him in the same game. Over his career, opposing batters have posted a .680 OPS against Lee the first time they see him in a game, .691 the second time, .719 for the third, and .766 for the fourth.

Scott Rolen led off the seventh with a double to left-center, followed by a Todd Frazier walk — the first Lee had allowed all game. Ryan Hanigan singled up the middle, scoring Rolen to tie the game 1-1 and prompting pitching coach Rich Dubee to head to the mound. While this was happening, B.J. Rosenberg was warming up in the bullpen. Since the Phillies are 10 games out of the second Wild Card and behind six other teams, they should be playing for next year, and as such should have brought in Rosenberg or even Phillippe Aumont just to give them some work in a high-pressure situation (the leverage index on Hanigan’s single was 3.94). Lee stayed in the game, striking out opposing pitcher Homer Bailey — why did Reds manager Dusty Baker not pinch-hit for him? — before allowing two more runs on a Zack Cozart sacrifice fly and a Drew Stubbs single to left field.

Lee’s final line read 6.2 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 9 K and he was potentially on the line for a loss. A confluence of bad luck (the Reds had some lucky hits throughout the game), no run support, and some questionable decision-making put him in that position, and this has been the case for many of his starts throughout 2012.

Kevin Frandsen and the 2013 Opening at Third Base

Frandsen had himself a nice game. He made two spectacular diving plays at third base and went 3-for-4, including a game-tying RBI triple with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. With Polanco having hit so poorly and missing so much time due to injury this season, this has prompted the idea that Frandsen is somehow the Phillies’ answer at third base next season. Frandsen, however, has a career .650 OPS (72 OPS+) in 644 PA spread out over six seasons. Despite the diving plays, Frandsen has never been known for his defense at the hot corner, spending an overwhelming majority of his time in the Minor Leagues at second base and shortstop.

The Phillies’ third base situation is certainly an interesting one, but one thing is certain: Frandsen is not the answer. Polanco hasn’t hit much at all this season (71 OPS+) but he is realistically equivalent to Frandsen in that regard and plays Gold Glove-caliber defense. The question, of course, focuses on his ability to stay on the field. Polanco’s option for 2013 is relatively cheap ($5.5 million) and he can return the value on the merits of his defense alone, but the Phillies will need to have a Plan B in that case. They can pick up Ty Wigginton‘s $4 million option as well (ick!), sign one of the even uglier cheap options in free agency, or trade for a modest utility infielder. It will certainly be interesting to see how the Phillies approach this conundrum in the off-season.

Late-Game Strategy

The Phillies entered the bottom of the ninth down 5-4 and staring down the barrel of the arm of one of baseball’s most dominant relievers in left-hander Aroldis Chapman. You may recall Chapman once threw catcher Carlos Ruiz a 103.5 MPH fastball last year. Ruiz doubled, setting a record for the fastest pitch that went for a hit. The Cuban throws some serious heat, and it’s reflected in his stats. He is currently one of two relievers in baseball history to post a K/9 above 14 and a BB/9 under 2.5 with at least 50 innings pitched. His strikeout rate entering the night was at 48 percent, narrowly ahead of Craig Kimbrel, and way ahead of every other reliever in the game. Oh, and his ERA was at 1.35 with a 0.85 SIERA.

By some miracle, Placido Polanco was able to make contact with a Chapman fastball and placed it perfectly in the hole between the third baseman and shortstop, giving the Phillies a lead-off base runner. Against a reliever who doesn’t miss bats so prodigiously, a follow-up bunt may in some capacity be defensible. But not against Chapman. Nevertheless, Jimmy Rollins followed up by laying down a sacrifice bunt, but Chapman fielded the bunt and threw a bullet to second base, forcing Polanco out at second. Using the win expectancy tables from The Book, the home team’s win expectancy drops from 35.3% to 29.6% even with a successful bunt. Never mind that the left-handed and powerless Juan Pierre was due up. The Phillies have decided to bunt in some unfortunate situations before, but this was among the worst, ignoring the fact that the game was meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

Game graph courtesy FanGraphs.