Is the Phillies’ Bullpen Just Bad?

In the comment’s of Paul’s post about Antonio Bastardo, AGH asked this question:

The Phillies have allowed the third most two-out runs in all of baseball. The pitching staff’s two-out ERA is also third worst (5.48), better only than the Rockies and the Indians.

Certainly injuries/lack of talent plays a part, but how much bad batted ball luck is involved in a stat like this? Is this the sort of stat that typically regresses to the mean?

It is an interesting question and one I think is worth addressing in its own post.

Simply put, there is very little correlation from one year to the next when it comes to the bullpen. The correlation coefficient for runs allowed by each team’s bullpen from 2011 to 2012 is 0.169, which is weak. There a lot of reasons why a split that drills down to a) relievers only b) with only two outs c) in only one year isn’t reliable.

Sample size: National League relievers so far this year have faced 24,410 batters with two outs out of 75,284 total batters, or 32.4%. So you’re cutting your sample size by two-thirds right from the start. Each team has had its bullpen pitch with two outs between 1,486 and 1,607 times. Then consider that each team has used at minimum 10 relievers. In reality, we’re talking about individual sample sizes under 100 PA — often way under — for each reliever.  Additionally, teams don’t use their relievers uniformly. For example, Jonathan Papelbon has logged over 50 innings while Raul Valdes is only at 27.2. Furthermore, some relievers are used to get only one out, most notably lefty specialists, so they either never pitch with 2 outs or only do so in a favorable match-up. As a result, your samples are heavily influenced by a lot of outside factors, even beyond what I have listed here.

Batted ball luck: Yep, BABIP plays a huge role in the success or failure of every bullpen. Some years, like the 2008 Phillies, almost everything goes right. Other years, like this year, everything goes completely wrong. From 2011 to 2012, there was actually a negative correlation in aggregate bullpen BABIP, -.153, still weak. But it tells us that BABIP essentially regresses to the mean the next year. In other words, if your BABIP is above-average in one year, it is likely to drop in the next year, and vice versa. Phillies relievers have an aggregate .306 BABIP but their true talent level may lie somewhere in the .290′s since they are so good at missing bats — their collective 24.5% strikeout rate is fourth-best in all of baseball. It is worth recognizing that the Phillies have had an astoundingly bad year on defense, especially with the Chase Utley, Freddy Galvis, and Placido Polanco injuries.

Turnover: Relievers, particularly non-closers, have notoriously bad job security. Teams are happy to shuffle younger arms between the Major and Minor Leagues at a moment’s notice, and often sign the older players to short-term deals. While GM Ruben Amaro brought some familiar faces back, the Phillies did say goodbye to Ryan Madson, Danys Baez, Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero, and Mike Zagurski, among others. There is a difference between that group of players — mostly veterans — and Michael Schwimer, Joe Savery, Jake Diekman, and B.J. Rosenberg — all young players — and it affects the stats we use to judge bullpen performance.

Injuries: The Phillies have been bitten badly by the injury bug as they’ve seen Jose Contreras, David Herndon, and Michael Stutes hit the disabled list. Pitchers, more than position players, are prone to injury, so they may not make the same impact from one year to the next. Additionally, the health of the Phillies’ starting rotation also affects how the bullpen is used. Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay have both been injured at times this year, forcing Charlie Manuel to use a sub-par replacement (Kyle Kendrick) and rely on his bullpen more.

Trades: This is pretty self-explanatory. In the bullpen, the Phillies have Josh Lindblom and Jeremy Horst, both acquired in trades — Lindblom in the Shane Victorino deal and Horst in the Wilson Valdez trade. David Herndon was also acquired in the Rule-5 draft. This is just another way new faces are brought into the mix and familiar ones can drift away.

It’s easy to look at all of the awful bullpen stats and conclude that the relievers are collectively awful and that the Phillies need to make a significant change, but the reality is the crew they have assembled is actually decent. They have a 4.54 ERA but a 3.95 xFIP, the disparity due in part to an NL-high 39.6% fly ball rate and an above-average 12% HR/FB rate. Don’t forget that 11 of the 40 home runs Phillies relievers have allowed came from Chad Qualls and Brian Sanches, both no longer with the team. Lindblom has allowed three homers in eight innings of work, but he is having a bad year in that regard and figures to  be better next year. The fact is that bullpens in general, and the individual pitchers that are part of them, are volatile by nature. The 2012 Phillies simply had a bad roll of the dice in many ways when it came to the bullpen, but it should be noticeably better next year even if they do nothing.

The Two Faces of Antonio Bastardo

Antonio Bastardo is not the only member of the 2012 Phillies performing beneath the expectations set by better play in 2011. To varying extents, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and the departed Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino have done the very same. It’s all disappointing. You get it by now; none of this is news.

What seems particularly striking, though, is the fascinating change in performance of one Antonio Bastardo. The 2011 season was a breakout for the then-25-year-old southpaw, who made relief pitching look childish for the better half of the season until, presumably, tiring down the stretch. In fact, from early June through mid-July, Bastardo didn’t even permit a hit for 13 consecutive outings, striking out 11 against two walks in the 12 encompassed innings. He’s had no such good fortune thus far.

Not being entirely sure about what details/minutiae might have changed between seasons, I took to poking around the data. Here are a few things I found:

Thanks to the ever-helpful BrooksBaseball, it seems that Bastardo has altered his approach to right-handed batters, while leaving his tactics against the platoon advantage relatively unchanged.

Consider the tables above (disregarding the pitches classified as “cutter” and “change”). The most marked differences between the bottom halves of the two tables come in the “First Pitch” and “Pitcher Ahead” rows, where it’s obvious things have changed. Bastardo seems to be leaning more heavily on his fastball when ahead in counts, but trying to deceive RHB with first-pitch sliders when starting off an AB.

Bastardo’s fastball velocity is down almost a full mile per hour on average, again according to Brooks, going from 93.2 MPH in ’11 to 92.45 through Tuesday this year. That may be playing a part. Of course, it doesn’t help when those fastballs in pitchers’ counts are, well, not ideally placed…

That’s a big, red splotch at the belt and over the heart of the plate. Compare that with the much, much better 2011 and…

…you can see the difference. That, in tandem with an almost scary-high walk rate, combine to make a rather concerning command issue. That sort of thing comes with the territory with a lot of live arms anymore, and it’s passable when the walk rate hovers below 4.5 per nine innings; not at the 5.2 per nine clip at which Bastardo is currently operating.

What makes all of this a bit less concerning and more curiosity-inducing than anything – to me – is the punch-out rate. Bastardo has continued to mow batters down with the Ks: 54 in 38 IP through Tuesday, good for what would be a career-best 12.8 K/9. A big part of that is, understandably, the slider. In two-strike counts this season, Bastardo’s slider is holding hitters to an astonishing .051/.140/.128 slash line against, producing 29 of his 54 strikeouts and a 51 percent whiff rate. In non-two-strike counts, things haven’t gone so well, but it could be due to some bad breaks. Hitters are tuning up the slider when it’s not being used as an out pitch, hitting .476/.500/.714 against the spinner on a .450 BABIP.

So it’s a little bit of everything conspiring against Bastardo so far this season. He’s hit some bad spots, had his typically less-than-stellar command take an additional hit and had a couple bad breaks, but also has the pure stuff to rack up impressive strikeout numbers in the process. There’s some encouragement to be taken from this, but Antonio Bastardo as he is at this moment is not the same pitcher as he was last year, suffice to say. He continues to linger a bit more than an arm’s length away from becoming a reliable bullpen piece that the Phillies so desperately need.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

It should come as no surprise that the Phillies are vastly ahead of every other team in baseball in offensive production from the catcher position. Before finding himself on the disabled list, Carlos Ruiz was posting MVP-caliber numbers, including a 154 OPS+. As soon as Ruiz went down, though, another incredibly productive catcher popped up for the Phillies in Erik Kratz, who has a 183 OPS+ in 26 games. 14 of his 19 hits have gone for extra bases. The lone wolf is Brian Schneider and his 76 OPS+.

Just how much production have the Phillies received from their catchers compared to the rest of Major League Baseball? Before we look at a pretty bar graph, let’s look at the ranks:

Rate Stats

  • Batting average: .311 (1st)
  • On-base percentage: .377 (1st)
  • Slugging percentage: .546 (1st)
  • On-base plus slugging (OPS): .924 (1st)
  • Weighted on-base average (wOBA): .391 (1st)

Counting Stats

  • Doubles: 40 (1st)
  • Home runs: 20 (7th; 3rd in NL)
  • Extra-base hits: 60 (1st)
  • Runs batted in: 75 (4th)
  • Strikeouts (fewest): 67 (4th)

This chart shows each team’s weighted runs above average (wRAA) from their catchers.

Team wRAA
PHI 32.0
SFG 25.5
MIL 22.0
STL 16.3
ARI 13.7
LAD 3.6
ATL 0.7
COL -3.4
PIT -6.7
CIN -7.0
HOU -8.7
WSN -17.4
MIA -19.6
CHC -20.1
NYM -22.5
SDP -23.4

The difference between the Phillies and Padres, just in terms of offensive production from their catchers, is about 55 runs, or roughly five and a half wins. Both Ruiz and Kratz’s seasons to date are total aberrations and we are very unlikely to ever see them approach this level of offense again, so it’s a good time to sit back and appreciate just how good they both have been in 2012.

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.

Kyle Kendrick’s Flashes of Greatness

Kyle Kendrick is currently sitting on his second consecutive scoreless innings streak of at least 15 innings, and no, you’re not dreaming — this is real life. Orel Hershiser need not worry until KK reaches the 35-inning mark or so, but it is still an impressive feat for the soon-to-be 28-year-old right-hander. Between June 28 and August 3, Kendrick tossed 22 consecutive scoreless frames, and after last night’s eight-inning gem in Milwaukee, Kendrick is back up to 15 consecutive scoreless innings.

Why has Kendrick, with the career 12 percent strikeout rate and 4.84 xFIP, shown flashes of brilliance so far this year? The most obvious answer is that Kendrick vastly improved his ability to miss bats. Entering the season, Kendrick’s K-rate was just over 11 percent and peaked at 13.4 percent in 2009, a 26.1-inning season. This year, Kendrick has struck out 17 percent of the batters he’s faced. Since Kendrick will likely finish somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 total batters faced, that comes out to about 35 extra outs, relative to his career average, that don’t rely on luck or defenders converting a batted ball into an out.

The second notable change in Kendrick is an increased reliance on the change-up. He had thrown it roughly 15 percent of the time entering the season, but brought it up above 22 percent in 2012. Although it is not anywhere near the level of Cole Hamels‘ change-up, it has been good enough as hitters have posted a .313 wOBA against his change and swung and missed at it almost as much as all of his other pitches combined:

  • Change-up: 26
  • Cutter: 15
  • Sinker: 13

The role of the change-up for most pitchers is to mess up the hitter’s strategy, as opposed to an out pitch as Hamels uses it. If hitters go up to the plate licking their chops at Kendrick’s cutter, then he has to do something to make that strategy less rewarding, which he accomplishes by reducing his cutter usage and increasing his change-up usage. As a result, hitters are performing 40 points worse in wOBA against the cutter than they did last year in a comparable amount of innings. Despite that, they are performing better against the change-up, but it can be explained by last year’s .143 BABIP regressing (.316 now).

This isn’t to say that Kendrick is better than a fifth-starter type — his xFIP is 4.62 (career 4.64) and his SIERA is 4.40 (career 4.78). However, he has continued to evolve despite being pushed in and out of his roles between the starting rotation, the bullpen, and even Triple-A Lehigh Valley. As the Phillies have him under contract next year for $4.5 million, this can only be considered good news. With three very talented veteran starting pitchers at his disposal (Hamels, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee), Kendrick can pick their brains (as he has done in the past) and continue to make these incremental improvements.

DVD Contest Winners

On Wednesday, A&E Home Entertainment was nice enough to send me some copies of the latest DVD series “The Essential Games of the Philadelphia Phillies” to give away to the loyal Crashburn Alley readers. All you had to do was leave your Twitter handle in the comments with a valid email address. I tossed the entries into a randomizer on Random.org, and here are your winners.

  1. @framed_ace
  2. @Wzeiders
  3. @usfsucks
  4. @JFSportsFan
  5. @tim_horstmann

I’ve sent the winners an email to which they will reply with a mailing address. If I don’t receive a reply within 48 hours, I will randomly select others to take their place, so there’s still a chance you might win if you entered and weren’t originally selected.

Thanks to A&E Home Entertainment for their generosity. If you’d like to give them a reason to pass along more stuff to give away, send them a message on Twitter (@AEHomeEnt) letting them know you enjoy their products and involvement within the community.

Crash Bag, Vol. 15: Thou Bigoted Swine

I was listening to the excellent Solid Verbal podcast on my drive home from work yesterday, and Dan and Ty were having a discussion about movies that briefly touched on American Pie. Which led me to consider a very important question with regard to American cinema: has internet porn ruined the teen sex comedy?

I think you know where I’m going with this, and while nothing came up when I Googled this question, I apologize if someone else has written about this already. Though that might be the result of my being a little gunshy about clicking more than one page of an internet search that included “teen,” “sex,” and “porn.”

I experienced my awkward teenaged years during the heyday of the teen sex comedy. All due respect to Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds, my middle school and high school years brought us Road Trip, Euro Trip, The Girl Next Door and three different American Pie releases. It made Seann William Scott and Eugene Levy into a cottage industry. Around the turn of the century, these movies constituted the entirety of films marketed to teenaged boys.

And good Lord, did they do business. And as much as we wanted to see those movies to see Jason Biggs or Breckin Meyer get the girl, or hear the (we thought at the time) hilarious banter, we were really in it to see Shannon Elizabeth’s boobs. In a way, it was great. For boys born in the 1980s, it was a safe way to discover your sexual identity–vicariously. You got to see what breasts looked like in action and got a guide in what not to do around women. The second part was huge, because movies like that are rife with scenes involving a guy trying some absurd rhetorical or sexual move and making an ass of himself, though you totally would have done that yourself if no one had told you it was a bad idea.

Nowadays, we still have movies where teenagers engage in hilarious pre-sexual hijinks, of which Superbad is perhaps the greatest example, but there’s no obvious and gratuitous nudity, or at least there’s less of it. Nudity in film is less to rope in wide-eyed 14-year-olds and more to make a statement about sex (for instance: David Cronenberg since 2004 or so has made films tell you in no uncertain terms that he is above your taboos about sex and nudity) or engage in some arty Mad Men basic cable sideboob.

But I was trying to think of something that I think this is because Shannon Elizabeth’s boobs are all over the internet, and they (or boobs like hers) are doing things that Stifler would only dream about, for free, on demand and in high definition in the privacy of your own home.

We don’t need to mix our sex with our poop jokes anymore. Anyway, I don’t mean to make a value judgment one way or the other. I just had that thought and decided to share, because I have a platform to do it on. On to more serious and baseball-related topics. Most of which have to do with Jimmy Rollins.

@4Who4What: “How come it’s cool when Cliff Lee doesn’t run out a grounder but it’s inexcusable for Jimmy not to run out a grounder?”

Racism. As Bill mentioned earlier.

@4Who4What: “btw the answer is bc of racism but curious to see if you have a different theory.”

Good, I’m glad we agree. And no, I don’t have a different theory. Every three years or so, J-Roll doesn’t run out a ground ball all the way, and Phillies fans and sports media react the way reasonable people would act if the first five minutes of Red Dawn happened in Lower Merion. It’s a non-story. Which I’ll now write about at length.

Without the racial component, the train of thought for one to get mad at Rollins not running out a ground ball, and only to get mad at that, is so illogical that I struggle to even understand how one could come to such a conclusion. It’s so stupid as to be beyond ridicule for several reasons, of which I’ve selected a few:

1) I love how it’s okay to completely drag ass down the first base line if you know you’re out, but if you run all the way and touch the bag you’re okay. This is true in 99 percent of cases, except when J-Roll cruises one night and it’s the end of the world. No one runs full-out all the time, not even Derek Jeter. Over four or five plate appearances a game, 162 games a year? Give me a break. No one works that hard all the time, unless your job is literally a matter of life and death or national security. Jimmy Rollins is neither a trauma surgeon nor a U.S. Army Ranger. If he can’t muster the motivation to bust it down the line once in a while with his team losing and well out of the playoff hunt, I totally feel his pain. If he really didn’t want to try, he’d have just struck out and saved himself jogging the 30 yards at all.

2) A lot of people have brought up Cliff Lee’s famous “oh, screw it” as an example of a double standard. The common response: Lee is a pitcher. Ohhhhkay….so it’s totally kosher for a pitcher not to run out a ground ball, even though playing offense isn’t part of his job. That makes sense. Except in the National League, pitchers do bat (and run the bases if necessary), so it’s not literally not part of his job. But at least it’s not his primary responsibility. Seems reasonable. So if, say, a corner outfielder whose primary asset is his offense were to not give 100 percent on defense, that’d be just as kosher, right? Then how do you explain what people spent the late 1990s and 2000s saying about Bobby Abreu and Manny Ramirez?

3) And why is running to first base so special? If you know you’re out, then it’s good to make the symbolic gesture of tagging the bag, I guess, just as a matter of protocol. But if it’s vital that you haul ass down the line even if you know your effort will be in vain, why is it not similarly important that fielders run full-speed into the wall for a foul ball that they know will be out of play? Or jump at the wall for upper-deck home runs? Or even run full-speed between other bases? When was the last time someone got forced at second to end an inning and everyone criticized him for not running hard even though he knew he’d be out? That’s not a rhetorical question–I legitimately can’t remember such an instance.

Finally, I have empirical proof that Jimmy Rollins is not lazy–he’s in his 12th full major league season (in eight of which he’s played 154 or more games). You don’t get a career in the big leagues that long without working harder than a Soviet coal miner. There is such a thing as a makeup issue, but most guys with serious work ethic or makeup issues don’t collect close to 40 WAR over their careers, or win MVP awards or make multiple All-Star teams.

Did Rollins run as hard as he could have on that ball? Most likely not, and he should have. But Uncle Cholly talked to him privately and says the matter is now resolved. Which, by the way, is how grown-ups settle professional disputes. And if that bothers you, you need to get a life. And personally apologize to me for making me waste close to an hour writing about why you need to get a life.

The eason everyone’s up in arms about this particular instance: Rollins is black, and we’re conditioned by generations of racial stereotyping and lazy sports journalism to believe that black athletes are more talented than white athletes but don’t work as hard. So while I don’t have any problem giving white players a pass when they dog it periodically, we need to be just as permissive, if not more so, when a black player does it.

Don’t believe me? Think of how many black baseball players you’ve heard of described as “scrappy.” I don’t recall Juan Pierre getting that one much, even though he’s essentially the black David Eckstein. Or make a tally of how many white players you’d describe as “lazy,” alongside a tally of black and Latin players you’d describe the same way. I’d warrant that at least half of the normative discussion about major league ballplayers’ mental faculties and work habits is coded racial nonsense.

This is my least favorite kind of racism–unintentional and often unnoticed. At least the guy dropping n-bombs and refusing to let his daughter date a black dude is doing it consciously. We can identify and either admonish or dismiss him appropriately. But the Rollins outrage is insidious and subconscious. It’s not maliciously racist, but is it racist in that we’re drawing conclusions about someone based on the color of his skin, and in its own way, it’s damaging too. Maybe I’m making too much of this, but we’re never going to stamp out this nonsense if no one calls it out for what it is.

MORE ROLLINS

@_wrongsideof30: “Can you prove that Jimmy Rollins hated Shane Victorino based on the numbers since Shane left?”

I can indeed. I love having fun with arbitrary endpoints and small sample sizes! After the game on July 29, Victorino’s final game as a Phillie, Rollins was slugging .397. Since the trade, however, he’s been slugging .538. The difference? Victorino is gone. QED.

But wait–if you shift the watershed moment back a week, giving Rollins time to digest Victorino’s departure, we can change the facts to fit our narrative better. Through August 5, he was hitting .245/.304/.405, about the same line as his injury-plagued 2010 season, when everyone was certain he was done. Since? .258/.361/.516, good for a higher OPS than the one that won him the MVP award in 2007. So Rollins hated Victorino enough that he turned back into an MVP-caliber player since he left.

@RobbyHoller: “if Jimmy Rollins was a hard hitting college journalist, what on-campus scandal would he uncover?”

When I was in college, I had this fantasy that we’d have some freshman pledge a frat as an undercover story and write a multi-part tell-all about hazing, because the frat boys at USC were all douchebags who dressed like my dad (no offense, Dad), couldn’t hold their liquor and got all the hot girls. No one who loves pink polo shirts and boat shoes that much–and has to keep his sunglasses on a leash so they don’t run away–should have the social run of the campus. Not in a just world.

Anyway, I never tried to make good on this, because 1) it would have been the least surprising expose ever and 2) that’s a lot to ask of a freshman, even if he’s insane and idealistic enough to join a big college newspaper. So that’s me.

But J-Roll? I’m going to say something along the lines of unearthing an underground chemical weapons distribution ring in the engineering department. Unbeknownst to administration, nine professors and seven grad students have been designing and manufacturing chemical and biological weapons and selling them for millions of dollars to Russians for use in Chechnya and South Ossetia. What a scandal that would be.

And speaking of hard-hitting college journalists, I threw a hissy fit on Twitter on Wednesday night over the editorial staff walkout at the University of Georgia’s student newspaper. I won’t waste your time by repeating it here, but it’s an unbelievable and outrageous story that you should check out. I get Baseball Outraged all the time, but this is one of only a few things that has gotten me Real Life Outraged.

@soundofphilly: “Is Over the Top the best Sly Stallone movie?”

Only if you’ve never seen Demolition Man. Three notes about Sylvester Stallone movies:

  • Rocky is a legitimately good movie. For me, it’s one of maybe half a dozen sports movies that really transcend sports and stand as great movies period. It’s weird that the guy who mumbled his way through Cliffhanger not only starred in, but wrote such an evocative movie that warmed the hearts of hundreds of millions. Despite Talia Shire being the romantic lead.
  • Where Rocky was earnest and unassuming, there may be no more self-aware movie franchise than The Expendables. It makes no pretensions of being anything other than a three day cocaine bender’s worth of over-the-hill action stars cramming as much over-the-top violence as they can into 90 minutes. For what it is, it’s unbelievably entertaining. And I can’t wait for the sequel.
  • Apparently it’s in vogue for online baseball writers to talk about how much they love food and cooking. I am not like those men. I eat total garbage and have the culinary ability of a golden retriever puppy. I say that because if we wind up like in Demolition Man, where all food is Taco Bell, I’d totally be fine.

@Wzeiders: “Do you think the Phillies should head into 2013 with the exact same bullpen (plus the injured guys)?”

More or less, yeah. Probably bring up De Fratus and Aumont as well, just to see what you’ve got. In Papelbon you’ve got as close to a sure thing at closer as you’ll find nowadays, and Antonio Bastardo, while not what he was last year, is still a perfectly fine setup guy. Michael Schwimer has actually been pretty good of late, and Jake Diekman can be death on lefties if he’s only ever used against lefties. David Herndon will be on his way back by next year, and the addition of Josh Lindblom midseason gives the Phillies even more depth in middle relief. I might see about picking up a LOOGY or a converted starter in free agency if the opportunity presents itself.

But yeah, assuming Papelbon is the closer, the way to go is to get as many cheap guys as you can and see who works. Beyond Papelbon and Bastardo, you really only need two guys to be significantly better than replacement-level in order to have a decent bullpen.

@bxe1234: “What’s your favorite poem”

Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. My standard bored-in-class routine in college was to work on memorizing this poem, but I never really got the whole thing down, because it’s six stanzas long and being bored in class only happens about an hour a week and intermittently. I once got really drunk at a friend’s house and went on a fifteen-minute-long rant about how beautiful a poem this is, ending with a recitation.

Why is it so great? It’s a pileup of incredible imagery, line after line after line, and it’s almost musically rhythmic, sort of bouncing from word to word, and because we’re talking about poetry, I’ll describe the way the words come together as mellifluous. It taught me that writing can be beautiful for its own sake, and not just because of what it says. What a poem.

@brendankeeler: “wanna play wiffleball with me?”

No. I am hilariously bad at baseball and all its variations. My senior year of high school, I played slow-pitch softball in a church league and one extra-base hit (a double) in what must have been about 20 games. In slow-pitch softball. I was the Juan Pierre of slow-pitch softball. The last time I played wiffle ball, I popped my shoulder out of my socket reaching for an outside pitch, and the time before that I walked 2 out of every 3 batters I faced. So while I may want to play wiffle ball with you, you probably don’t want to play with me.

@Not_Andre: “Can we replace Ruben Amaro jr with Jules Winnfield? I bet he would’ve signed cole for much less money”

Dude. That would be…”awesome” isn’t a strong enough word. I’ll think of something better. Can you imagine him coming down to the clubhouse to discuss tactics with Charlie Manuel?

“Say ‘bunt’ again! I dare you! I double dare you!”

And I know it’s churlish to complain about Hamels’ contract extension now, but Jules would have seen Jered Weaver re-sign and gotten Hamels inked for about 2/3 the AAV Amaro wound up giving him. It’s unfortunate, but Hamels is so good it’s not the end of the world.

@lexuhbooz: “How much would you charge to have Mini-mart kidnapped and held hostage for the next 10 or 20 years?”

I don’t want him kidnapped–I just don’t want him to play for the Phillies. Not only can he have his freedom, he can play baseball for literally any other team on Earth without bothering me.

Though if Jules Winnfield were the Phillies’ GM, I bet this would have happened already.

@DashTreyhorn: “Assuming the Phillies don’t sign Michael Bourn, who is the ideal leadoff man in 2013? Sub-question: Should they sign Bourn?”

The ideal leadoff man is probably someone like Rickey Henderson, who gets on base at a .400 clip and has both speed and power to burn. On the likely Phillies’ roster? I’d like to see them move Utley or Brown up in the order. Neither one is putting up the power numbers we’d have liked, so why not put one of the Phillies’ top two plate discipline guys, particularly if they sign a relatively low-OBP center fielder like Angel Pagan in the offseason. Pagan’s not Shawon Dunston, but neither is he Kevin Youkilis–if he’s going to post a .330 OBP, I’d just as soon have Rollins lead off. Which, of course, he will, because no one loves path dependence like the Phillies.

And no. They should not sign Bourn. I’ve long been of the opinion that you don’t get in trouble paying superstar prices for superstars–you get in trouble paying superstar money for good-but-not-great players, a lesson the Phillies are living with Ryan Howard. Bourn is, apart from Josh Hamilton, probably the top position player free agent this offseason, and with every team in the market for a plus defender in center field with Bourn’s speed and he’s coming off the best season of his career. But would I pay $17 or 18 million a year for Bourn? No. Not with B.J. Upton in the same free-agent class.

Michael Bourn is a career .275/.339/.370 hitter. B.J. Upton, who is a pretty good defender in center (though not as good as Bourn) is a career .255/.338/.414 hitter. Same OBP as Bourn, slightly higher slugging percentage, and almost as good a baserunner. Plus he’s two years younger and can probably be had for a pittance in comparison. If you sign Bourn instead of Upton, you’re getting about 15 percent more ballplayer for 50 percent more cost. It’s not a deal I’d make. So if the Phillies invest in a center fielder at all this winter, it had better not be on Bourn.

@BerenstainGer: “What is your favorite military battle in history?”

Great question. I’m a huge fan of the D-Day invasion and Gettysburg, but both of those seem obvious. Stalingrad is fascinating for its scope, Coral Sea and Petersburg for the way they changed modern warfare, and the Revolutionary War is great for those little-known battles with interesting back-stories. Kings Mountain was famously brutal. The British commander at that battle, Patrick Ferguson, had served as a sniper at the Battle of Brandywine three years earlier, where he famously passed up an open shot on George Washington.

The siege of Fort Sackville is another personal favorite of mine.  This siege ended only when the American commander, George Rogers Clark, ordered captured Canadian and Native American soldiers marched out in front of the fort and had them tomahawked to death. Seeing Little Bighorn personally was an incredible experience as well.

But my all-time favorite, even if it is a little conservative, is the Battle of Trenton. This is the battle that featured Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware River and spawned the now-iconic painting of the event. For about two years, my desktop background was this painting with the caption: “America. We will kill you in your sleep on Christmas.”

Some of my favorite facts:

  • A spy had actually tipped the Hessian commander off about the attack the night before, but he was too busy playing cards to look at the letter. He was shot to death in his pajamas, the unopened note in his pocket.
  • The Colonial password for the mission was “Victory or Death.” That’s the Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks in Miracle pregame speech of passwords.
  • No American officers were killed, but two were wounded, one of whom was the young James Monroe, who nearly died when the bullet severed an artery.

But, yeah, a bunch of ragtag Americans walk all night through the freezing cold, cross a river, and show up at daybreak to wake up the Germans–”Surprise! You’re captured!” Awesome. All battles should be like this.

@elkensky: “who is the Domonic Brown of 20th century film directors, nbc sitcoms, russian politicians, and DS9 characters?”

Wow, all my favorite things. Okay, we’re looking for someone who, essentially, is awesome but often overlooked or not given the opportunities he deserves.

  • Film Director: Peter Berg Not a 20th-Century director, but I don’t care. His films are at once intimate and expansive, and have kickass post-rock soundtracks. And yes, I know he directed Battleship, but we’re not going to talk about that. Remember when I was talking about Rocky being one of only a couple sports movies that transcend the genre? Friday Night Lights is like that. A little heavy on the shaky-camera, but for some reason, you feel like you’re really at ground level with Berg’s films, no matter how big the scope. One of my favorite directors, and he’s nowhere near as big a name as he ought to be.
  • NBC Sitcom: Community Rabid internet following, huge critical acclaim, almost killed by management that doesn’t know what to do with a good thing.
  • Russian Politicians: Vladimir Zhirinovsky If you asked an American to name a current Russian politician, 99 percent would say Vladimir Putin, and the rest would say Dmitri Medvedev. Many Americans have also heard of Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, both of whom are more famous for other things but have run unsuccessfully for president. But the great underrated Russian politician? Zhirinovsky, longtime leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party.

    Zhirinovsky is  half-Jewish, but also an outspoken anti-Semite, and has made the following campaign promises on behalf of the LDP: 1) Free vodka for everyone 2) Free underwear for everyone 3) Deportation of all Chinese people from eastern Russia 4) Reconquering Finland, Poland, Kazakhstan, Alaska (proposing to put all Ukranians there) and the Baltic states (proposing to dump nuclear waste there 6) Eliminate bird flu by ordering the army to shoot down migrating birds) 7) Execute criminals on sight.

    He is so far-right that while he’s pursued political friendships with Saddam Hussein and Marine Le Pen, Pat Buchanan rejected him as too extreme. I’m loath to denounce extremist or even neo-fascist politicians as “insane,” but Zhirinovsky might actually be insane. He’s hilarious.

    The best part? His Liberal Democratic Party consistently finishes third or fourth in the Russian presidential elections, polling at up to 10 percent, and currently seats 56 members in the Duma. In a country with particularly insane politics, Zhirinovsky stands out.

  • DS9 characters: Garak Of the three 24th-Century Star Trek series, Garak has more depth and nuance than any other character. If I can make a comparison to The Wire–Omar is Data (the character who is so interesting and great because he’s unique) and Garak is Stringer (the character who is unique and great because he’s so interesting). In a universe that’s often comically idealistic and preachy, Garak is the one speck of Machiavellian darkness. In a universe where the good guys are entirely good and the bad guys are entirely bad, here’s one guy who skirts the line. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s an episode where Garak is so good you don’t notice how bad an actor Avery Brooks is. And he’s a secondary character in the least-well-known of the three 1990s Star Trek series.

@TonyMcIV: “Any opinion on the last player we got in the JoeBla trade?”

Never heard of him. Though considering what the Phillies gave up and how bad the Dodgers’ farm system is, I’d have been shocked if they’d gotten anyone I had heard of.

@Framed_Ace: “What would your walkup music be?”

Most important question of any major league fantasy, by far. It’s got to be something you won’t get tired but still says something about yourself. So as much as I’ve been listening to B*Witched’s “C’est La Vie” recently, I probably shouldn’t pick that.

There are, in my mind, two ways to go: the serious route and the absurd route. The serious route is something that will pump you up or give you a legitimate competitive advantage. Think Chase Utley‘s “Kashmir” or Mariano Rivera‘s “Enter Sandman.” The absurd route is governed by what I’ve humbly called Baumann’s First Law of Argumentation: “All other things being equal, the funniest answer is the correct one.” It’s like Occam’s Razor with a whoopee cushion.

I tried to answer this question for Jonathan Papelbon earlier this season, and I’m satisfied with my suggestion. But if I were going to express myself and try to gain a competitive advantage at the same time? I see only one answer.

I think that’s quite enough for this week. I had to skip several questions about the future of Juan Pierre with the Phillies, but we’ll get to that next week. Until then, may the force be with you.

Stacking Up Felix Hernandez’s Perfecto Against History

In the aftermath of Felix Hernandez‘s perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays yesterday, many statistical kernels of wisdom came flying out, but one in particular stuck with me. Against 27 batters, King Felix induced 26 swings-and-misses, a staggeringly-high number. Getting batters to swing and miss is great for two obvious reasons: they don’t make contact with the baseball, so Evan Longoria‘s .297 batting average, for instance, doesn’t come into play; and the pitcher’s defense, park factors, and luck don’t adversely affect the outcome of a ball in play.

26 whiffs is impressive and even more so when you stack it up against other perfect games in recent memory. In Roy Halladay‘s gem in 2010 against the then-Florida Marlins, he induced only eight of them, instead relying on called strikes and the defense behind him to keep Marlin runners off of the bases. In fact, among the Phillies’ three aces, Cole Hamels is the only one who has even come close to 26 as the lefty got 20 whiffs against the San Francisco Giants on July 21, a season-high. Halladay’s 2012 season high is 15 while Cliff Lee‘s is a meager 12.

Other pitchers to throw perfect games this year were Matt Cain (14 whiffs) and Phil Humber (also 14). Dallas Braden, who joined Halladay in accomplishing the feat in 2010, had only five. Mark Buehrle induced just six whiffs in his gem in 2009.

What Hernandez accomplished yesterday wasn’t just baseball history, but one of the most dominant starts you’ll ever see, hits allowed or not.

Ryan Howard’s Struggles Concerning

After rupturing his Achilles tendon to end the NLDS last year against the St. Louis Cardinals, Ryan Howard began his slow climb back to the Phillies’ lineup. He didn’t return until July 6, by most accounts earlier than expected given the way he gingerly ran around the bases. Still, Howard was a welcome sight back at first base as the Phillies had utilized a less-than-exciting cast of characters in his stead, including Ty Wigginton (190 PA, .742 OPS), John Mayberry (75 PA, .625 OPS), Hector Luna (41 PA, .652 OPS), Laynce Nix (34 PA, .942 OPS), and Jim Thome (13 PA, .585 OPS).

Even as Ryan Howard set career lows in OPS in both 2010 (.859) and 2011 (.835), he was still an above-average hitter overall and slightly above-average for his position. No longer was he the 40-50 home home run, 135-150 RBI threat of yesteryear, but he was still a force to be reckoned with and still a player opposing teams needed to prepare for in pregame preparation. Since returning from the disabled list, however, he has been a shadow of his former self, even the 2010-11 version. In his 121 plate appearances, he is setting career-highs and lows and all the wrong categories:

  • Walk rate: 9.1% (career average: 12.2%)
  • Strikeout rate: 36.4% (career average: 27.6%)
  • Isolated power: .222 (career average: .283)
  • BABIP: .281 (career average: .323)

These are the basic stats for hitters that let you know how he is performing. This should be very alarming, especially in the first year of Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract. The walk rate tells you he isn’t being very patient, the strikeout rate tells you he is not making nearly enough contact, the isolated power tells you he isn’t making solid contact, and his BABIP backs up that point as well. Hitters tend to have a lot of control over their BABIP, as opposed to pitchers who typically don’t.

One big change in Howard’s game is that he is back to being an opposite-field hitter, but he has been such almost exclusively since returning. All seven of his home runs have been to right-center or further away from right field. In fact, only one has actually gone to the right of center field; Howard has not pulled any in his 121 PA.

The heat maps tell the story here. You can see a lot of blue (no power) where there once was plenty of red (lots of power).

And it holds true for both right- and left-handed pitchers.

What is concerning is that, although Howard has at least shown some power, he is hitting a lot of balls on the ground. FanGraphs puts his ground ball rate at 48 percent, well above his career average of 39 percent. As a result, he is sitting on career-lows in line drive rate and fly ball rate (excluding 2004-05) as well. Ground balls are great if you are a Juan Pierre-type who doesn’t hit for any power, has speed, and doesn’t force an infield shift. Howard, of course, wants to hit as few grounders as possible because he does induce that shift on the right side and he hits into it often as his hit chart indicates.

The average lefty has a .175 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) on inside pitches. Howard’s ISO is .000. From 2009-11, it was .254. In previous years, we worried that Howard was becoming too pull-happy and now he is not at all. There is a balance to be struck, but Howard has bounced from one extreme to the other.

The lack of contact is also a big red flag. Howard has always been a high-strikeout hitter, but 36 percent is astronomical even for him and even in the small sample size. To put this in perspective, Howard has taken the third-fewest swings (236) of the 21 National League first basemen who have logged at least 100 PA. Yet, he has the tenth-most swings and misses (82). In terms of percentages, Howard has swung at the second-fewest pitches in the strike zone (41 percent) and the third-most outside the strike zone (35 percent).

Whether Howard has made mechanical or approach changes to compensate for his Achilles injury or made a concerted effort to be less like he was last year and more like he was in 2006, it simply hasn’t worked thus far in 2012. Fortunately for him and for the Phillies, he has a free month and a half before the end of the season, as well as the off-season and spring training to iron out all of the kinks and return in 2013 as the first basemen the Phillies thought they were keeping around when they agreed to the five-year deal two seasons ago.