Failure in Philadelphia

Four years ago, the Phillies had a relatively stable Minor League system with high-upside talent, one of the most formidable offenses in baseball, an incomparable starting rotation, and enough payroll space to purchase a small tropical island. Now, the organization is bereft of young talent, the offense has withered away, and this season will be paying $120 million to seven players over the age of 30, all locked up to long-term contracts.

Since winning the World Series in 2008 — after which Pat Gillick resigned, opening the door for Ruben Amaro — the Phillies’ playoff success has trended downward, from losing the World Series in 2009, losing the NLCS in 2010, losing the NLDS in 2011, to missing the playoffs entirely last year with a .500 record. Having once lauded Amaro for his craftiness in signing Cliff Lee in the silence of night two winters ago and trading for the likes of Lee (the first go-around), Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Hunter Pence, the city has now turned against him after a disappointing off-season.

The Nationals bolstered their already-potent outfield by trading for Denard Span. The Atlanta Braves signed free agent B.J. Upton and today acquired his brother Justin in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, creating one of the most deadly outfields in the game. The Phillies? They traded for the slap-hitting Ben Revere and signed noted drunk and racist Delmon Young, neither of which portend to fix any of their previously-existing problems in terms of offense and outfielders specifically.

There is no other way to look at Amaro’s tenure at this point in time as anything but an utter failure, and it isn’t as if this failure came out of nowhere. The disaster that was the Ryan Howard contract extension (five years, $125 million) could have been seen from outer space; relying on a left fielder and third baseman (Raul Ibanez and Placido Polanco, respectively) in their mid- and late- 30’s to stay healthy and productive was a fool’s errand; and trading the farm for an incremental-at-best improvement in World Series-winning odds was deplorable from the beginning.

Yesterday, Paul Boye responded to some comments Amaro made yesterday defending the Delmon Young signing. Referring to Young’s lack of plate discipline, Amaro said (paraphrasing): “I don’t care about walks; I care about production.” The comment does not stand by itself as illogical among those made by members of the Phillies organization over the years. The Phillies are known as one of the least forward-thinking organizations in baseball, still relying heavily on the observations of scouts and little on those utilizing statistics. While organizations like the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics, and St. Louis Cardinals have thrived with the marriage of stats and scouts, the Phillies have gone nowhere fast by relying on antiquated theories and tools.

At some point in the near future, the Phillies will fire Amaro, ending a disappointing era of Phillies baseball. They must use this opportunity to join the 21st century of baseball by hiring a GM who knows that platoons are useful, corner infielders aren’t as valuable as their middle infield companions, and bullpens are best done on the cheap. And that GM should hire a manager who knows that sacrifice bunts are often more hurtful than helpful, that matching up players in situations of favorable handedness is ideal (i.e. not Ryan Howard vs. lefty relievers), and leaving starters in to pitch a meaningless eighth inning of an 8-1 game is extremely risky. The Amaro era is Exhibit A that overseeing baseball teams, as it operated previously, is inefficient at best and actively destructive at worst.

Caring About Walks and Production

Moments ago, Ruben Amaro, Jr. said something to this effect (I paraphrase, but only gently): I don’t care about walks, I care about production.

He said this in reference to everyone’s favorite acquisition, Delmon Young, against accusations that Young could be a poor fit due to his lack of base-on-ballness. And it’s a fair chance for us naysayers to say j’accuse, because Young doesn’t walk. He was unintentionally walked 19 times in 608 plate appearances in 2012. He’s only topped 30 walks once in a season (35 in 2008). His highest single-season OBP is .336, and his BB% of 3.3% was the second-lowest among all qualified hitters last year (Alexei Ramirez, 2.6%), which is crucial because, as we all appear to grasp and understand, OBP is the elemental root of baseball: not making outs.

The guy doesn’t walk.

Amaro’s counter is that, for whatever reason, walks =/= “production.” That’s the essence of what he’s saying. Thinking generously, he considers walking ability and plate discipline little more than a capillary in a hitter’s bloodstream.

Well, in a surprising turn of events, he’s wrong.

Walks are not the end-all, be-all of a hitter’s existence, but their presence tells us a lot about a hitter. Take the inverse of that BB% leaderboard from 2012; who were the names at the top of the list, rather than the bottom? We find Adam Dunn, Carlos Santana, Dan Uggla, Ben Zobrist and Carlos Pena as the top five in that category, respectively.

Dunn is renowned for his patience, but also his incredible power. Even if he doesn’t draw a walk by being exceptionally selective, he can force a pitcher to nibble or peck away at the outside for fear of leaving a meatball, even in the face of Dunn’s impressive strikeout numbers. Adam Dunn hit .159 in 2011, and that’s not good, but because he walked 75 times – none of those intentional, despite his known power commodity – he was able to salvage a .292 OBP. Delmon Young posted a .296 OBP in 2012.

Santana has walked more than 90 times in each of the past two seasons, despite not having overwhelming power (35 doubles/27 homers in 2011; 27 doubles/18 homers in 2012). His OBPs those seasons of .351 and .365 represent a +.015 and +.029 difference between themselves and Young’s career-best which, again, was posted almost five seasons ago.

Uggla had a down year in 2012, but still had 25 points of OPS on Young. Uggla’s 94 walks led the National League. That’s 74 more walks than Young, or about an extra 12% of a 600-PA season that’s devoted to getting on base and not making an out.

Zobrist is one of the most productive, still barely-heralded players in the game, due in part to drawing more than 90 walks in three of the past four seasons. Since 2009, Young has made 146 fewer outs than Zobrist, but Zobrist has had 456 more PA. To match Zobrist’s OBP, Young would need to reach base in 285 of those 456 excess PA. That’s a .625 OBP.

Pena has always been a high-strikeout guy, but his patience and past power have enabled him to draw a bevy of walks on his own. Pena has only been within nearly 40 points of Young in AVG in any given year since 2009 – and often, the crevasse is wider – but Carlos wins the OBP battle handily in three of those four seasons thanks to, you guessed it, walking.

It would be one thing if Young were an unholy power threat, like Dunn was, or possessed exceptional contact ability, like Juan Pierre, in place of the void that is his nonexistant walking prowess. He possesses neither, and is thusly not productive.

I’m still waiting for you to prove you do actually care about production in this case, Ruben.

What Happened to My 100-Win Team?

Sometimes, being a fan is difficult. Usually, the most arduous times come simply from losing, but there seems to be a special, intense pang of despondency attached to the difficulty associated with watching a once mighty team crumble from within and without. Nationally, Philadelphia – the team and city alike – were never darlings, but I didn’t care; major-city sports teams always get plenty of attention, but rarely any non-partisan admiration.

So there’s no pity to be expected from the continued devolution of what was once a squad called the Philadelphia Phillies. No one who isn’t connected to the team in some way will feel badly for this string of events. They likely delight in it. And so be it; they’re entitled to react as they please. All that being said:

What the hell happened here?

In a sense, things have been going backward since the parade down Broad Street on Halloween 2008 ended. In 2009, the Phillies returned to the World Series, but were bested. In 2010, they bowed out a round earlier. In 2011, they were on the wrong end of one of the better postseason pitching duels in history in the NLDS. In 2012, they didn’t even have the chance.

And now, here we sit, spectators to the composing of another bizarre chapter in one of the strangest rebuilding parables ever told: the 2012-13 offseason. The roster has been transformed, through age as well as acquisition, into one that harnesses but a sliver of its former potency.

The progression of the Phils’ team slugging since 2007 reads as follows: .458, .438, .447, .413, .395, .400. The progression of the Phils’ team OBP since 2007 reads as follows: .354, .332, .334, .332, .323, .317. That is…um…not encouraging. But at least the problem is fairly easily identifiable: to complement an aging, papier mache core, corresponding moves had to be made. With, presumably, a sizable amount of budget room and a decent crop of free agent outfielders to choose from, the Phillies decided to hang onto their 16th overall pick and not sign a Michael Bourn or Josh Hamilton or Nick Swisher (although Hamilton’s eventual price of 5/$125M is out of the reasonable price range anyway).

Instead, the Phillies, having added the controversial and not-that-good Delmon Young to their bounty, now possess a bushel of nine outfielders on their 40-man roster, of whom six have seen Major League action:

  1. Domonic Brown: the former top prospect who’s had to battle nagging injuries and inconsistent playing time. Hit .235/.316/.396 in 212 PA in 2012.
  2. John Mayberry Jr.: made a fan favorite with a white-hot finish to 2011. Hit .245/.301/.395 in 479 PA in 2012
  3. Laynce Nix: given a two-year deal before 2012, he’s currently the most expensive outfielder on the roster. Hit .246/.315/.412 in 127 PA in 2012.
  4. Ben Revere: cost a depth starter in Vance Worley and well-regarded prospect in Trevor May to acquire. Defensive specialist. Hit .294/.333/.342 in 553 PA in 2012.
  5. Darin Ruf: the powerful, flash-in-the-pan never-prospect who might have a career as a bench bat. Hit .333/.351/.727 in a certainly sufficient 37 PA sample in 2012.
  6. Delmon Young: the former No. 1 overall pick with character, weight and baseball ability issues. Hit .267/.296/.411 in 608 PA in 2012.

On the infield side of things, the Phillies sent two relievers to Texas and assumed $6M of responsibility for Michael Young, who contributed a .277/.312/.370 line in 651 PA for the Rangers. This is to say nothing of Rule 5 draftee Ender Inciarte, who almost certainly faces waivers and an offer back to the Diamondbacks at some point this spring.

These are borderline penny-pinching moves, brought on by a combination of paying top dollar for top talent (Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee), unnecessary top dollar for for very good or not-so-top talent (Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon) and an emptying of the farm for deals ranging from great (Halladay) to acceptable (Roy Oswalt) to just bad (Pence). It would be another thing entirely if the majority of these moves were made with sound baseball logic at their foundation, but the reality facing us here is that’s simply not the case. It is those second- and third-category moves that make this more frustrating than it needs to be, rather than an acceptable placement in the cycle of rebuilding -> contention and back again.

Now, here we sit, fewer than two years removed from a 102-win season, having to rely on a likely dual-platoon, five-outfielder system, an aging infield that provides no certainty of full-season health and questionable depth in the rotation, in the bullpen and on the bench.

These cobwebs are tough to peel off. It feels as though the club has arrived at or near the place many of us feared it would arrive as the risky and head-scratching moves began to pile up: on the doorstep of relegation to “also-ran” status with a shaky outlook for a return to “elite” status within the next three years. The playoff hopes of this team as currently constructed rely on too many low-probability bouncebacks from too many players than should have been necessary. And far too many to be a viable plan. The 2011 season has never seemed further away.

I write this before a single game is played in 2013. I write this before these players can be given a chance to prove me wrong. As with most of my negative notions, I hope to eventually be proven wrong. But I also write this under cloud cover that feels thicker than any I can remember for years back.

And you may ask yourself, well, how did we get here?

Phillies Sign . . . *sigh* to 1 year, *groan* thousand dollar contract

The Phillies have signed Delmon Young to a 1 year, $750,000 deal.

This is what happens when you get wrapped up in superficial identifiers like “right-handed bat.” We’ve arrived at the point where “right-handed bat” can refer to any player that has had marginal or better success against left-handed pitching in the last decade, regardless of the quality of his overall contribution to the team. Delmon Young is terrible. Full stop. By rWAR, he was a full win and two-tenths below replacement last season, and a total of almost a win and a half below replacement in the last two seasons, compiling a .267/.299/.403 line over that period. His walk rate from 2011-2012 is 3.9%, about half the league average for hitters, making him, at least in that respect, a good fit for the current Phillies lineup.

By the grace of Jim Leyland he accrued 608 plate appearances for the Tigers last season, and an accompanying 226 innings in the field, where he is one of the worst defenders in baseball.

Credit for this .gif to GIFULMINATION

This is where a past, more naive version of myself would write “Young can be useful if strictly limited to pinch hit plate appearances against left-handed pitching.” He has, after all, always hit lefties well — .307/.341/.483 for his career, with a .308/.333/.500 line in 189 plate appearances against them last season. But the Phillies don’t exactly have a stacked outfield at the moment. Ben Revere will certainly anchor the centerfield position, and the corner spots will be filled by some combination of Young, Domonic Brown (he screamed, into the uncaring void, season after season), Laynce Nix, John Mayberry, Jr., Darin Ruf, and, if he’s not offered back, Ender “‘s Game” Inciarte (though he’s more likely an emergency centerfielder).

If you’ll indulge me in a jaunty youthful fantasy for a moment, assume that the Phillies’ plan is for Domonic Brown to be the everyday rightfielder in 2013. That — stop laughing, please. That means the 2013 outfield is a high upside but big question mark mainstay (Brown) and a collection of players who each have a useful attribute or two, but who I cannot think it could be argued should be full time players on an ostensibly first-division team, and I include Revere in this. If this were the 2010 outfield of Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth, a player like Delmon Young would be helpful for 150 to 200 plate appearances against almost exclusively lefties. The same could be said for Mayberry.

But with 600 plate appearances or more to allot to this collection of would-be left-fielders, it’s impossible to parcel them out in such a way that shields you from each of these players’ severe respective weaknesses. You’re inevitably going to get intolerable doses of Young’s fielding and adverse platoon futility, Ruf’s defending and baserunning, Mayberry’s flailing against righties, and so forth. Right-handed pitching handled 58% of the league’s plate appearances last season. You can’t leverage 3 or 4 different platoon pieces against that. And all of this is presuming that Charlie Manuel is willing to get more creative than he’s ever shown the capacity to be. And it presumes that my Domonic Brown precondition is correct; it probably isn’t. If you’re going to go with a smattering of likely marginal guys and hope that a few best case scenarios find the light of day, why not at least round up marginal guys with average or better defense? That’s not the case here either.

In the Phillies lineups of yore, writing off one weak lineup spot wouldn’t be a problem. But which positions can be penciled in as certain offensive contributors in 2013? Carlos Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins, and, if one is willing to be generous with the health prognosis, Chase Utley. As I tweeted this morning, the model for a playoff-contending Phillies team is to hope that the offense somehow manages league-average performance, and that the pitching staff achieves 2011 levels of greatness. The overabundance of below league average role players is not going to help the chances of the current roster managing that.

This is not to even mention, by the way, that Delmon Young is a bigot. Stark’s reference to off-field issues alludes to an incident in which an intoxicated Young assaulted a man after repeatedly calling him a “fucking Jew.” I’ve long been on the record about taking a clubhouse full of jerks that can play baseball over a less effective squad of nice guys. But I have to draw the line somewhere, and I think just shy of an anti-semite being on my favorite team is a good place to draw it. No Luke Scott or Josh Lueke, and no Delmon Young please. If $700,000 wasted is the price to see Delmon Young fail his way out of baseball, I’d be more than happy with that outcome.

LATE BREAKING UPDATE: There is nothing good in this world.

Antonio Bastardo and Arbitration

Antonio Bastardo finished the 2012 season with a 4.33 ERA, a far cry from the 2.64 figure with which he ended 2011. Nevertheless, Bastardo and the Phillies avoided arbitration yesterday, agreeing on a one-year, $1.4 million contract in the lefty’s first year of eligibility. The $1.4 million salary is nearly triple what he earned last season, which seems to have become a topic of controversy. I made the mistake of checking Twitter and Facebook for reactions, so now I must explain why there’s nothing controversial about the Bastardo news.

The bulk of the arbitration process was explained extremely well by Maury Brown (@BizballMauryat FanGraphs a couple years ago. Some key points:

The [arbitration] process is based largely on three factors:

  • Major League Service Time;
  • Comparable statistics with like players by position, and;
  • Comparable salaries with like players by position;

A player of between 3 and 6 years of service time (the CBA defines one full year as a total of 172 days of Major League credited service) becomes automatically eligible for salary arbitration.

When we look at comparable players for Bastardo, we are specifically looking at arbitration-eligible non-closer relief pitchers with between three and four years of service time. Among those who did not have injury-plagued seasons in 2012, there were ten other non-closer relievers along with Bastardo:

Name Team SV IP ERA 2013 Salary
Wilton Lopez Astros 10 66.1 2.17 $1,760,000
Bobby Parnell Mets 7 68.2 2.49 $1,700,000
Jonny Venters Braves 0 58.2 3.22 $1,625,000
Mitchell Boggs Cardinals 0 73.1 2.21 $1,475,000
Antonio Bastardo Phillies 1 52.0 4.33 $1,400,000
Tony Sipp Indians 1 55.0 4.42 $1,275,000
Jerry Blevins Athletics 1 65.1 2.48 $1,100,000
James Russell Cubs 2 69.1 3.25 $1,075,000
Wesley Wright Astros 1 52.1 3.27 $1,025,000
Ryan Webb Marlins 0 60.1 4.03 $975,000
Josh Kinney Mariners 1 32.0 3.94 $700,000

As you can see, Bastardo’s salary ranks fifth among the 11 comparable relievers. We can even go back to last season to see how Bastardo’s comps fared (note that SV, IP, and ERA are from 2011):

Name Team SV IP ERA 2012 Salary
Jim Johnson Orioles 9 91.0 2.67 $2,625,000
Jason Motte Cardinals 9 68.0 2.25 $1,950,000
Brad Ziegler Athletics 1 58.1 2.16 $1,795,000
David Robertson Yankees 1 66.2 1.08 $1,600,000
Sergio Romo Giants 1 48.0 1.50 $1,575,000
Luke Gregerson Padres 0 55.2 2.75 $1,550,000
Alfredo Aceves Red Sox 2 93.0 2.03 $1,200,000
Phil Coke Tigers 1 34.0 3.71 $1,100,000
Burke Badenhop Marlins 1 63.2 4.10 $1,075,000
Manny Acosta Mets 4 47.0 3.45 $875,000
Chris Resop Pirates 1 69.2 4.39 $850,000
Franklin Morales Rockies 0 46.1 3.69 $850,000

Bastardo’s $1.4 million would have been the seventh-highest among the 12 other comparable relievers. Matt Swartz projected Bastardo to earn $1.1 million, but the extra $300,000 isn’t surprising nor is it controversial. If the Phillies felt that there was no appropriate salary for Bastardo, they would have non-tendered him, but that option is usually reserved for players whose performance is far below what their salary would dictate — Luke Hochevar of the Kansas City Royals, for example, recently avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $4.56 million contract despite a career 5.39 ERA, including 5.73 in 2012. It was expected that the Royals would non-tender him, but they didn’t for unforeseen reasons (a.k.a. the Royals being the Royals). The Phillies previously non-tendered Nate Schierholtz, for a more local example.

Bastardo was never going to be non-tendered — not when he was among the most potent relievers last year:

Player SO/9 IP Age Tm
Craig Kimbrel 16.66 62.2 24 ATL
Aroldis Chapman 15.32 71.2 24 CIN
Antonio Bastardo 14.02 52.0 26 PHI
Jason Grilli 13.81 58.2 35 PIT
Kenley Jansen 13.71 65.0 24 LAD
Ernesto Frieri 13.36 66.0 26 TOT
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/19/2013.

The Phillies handled Bastardo’s arbitration-eligibility correctly, and they should consider themselves very fortunate that a pitcher of his caliber — one that could very easily set up or close for a number of teams, including their own — will be used as a middle reliever in the upcoming season at a relatively cheap price.

Crash Bag, Vol. 37: Imaginary Road Beef

Let’s just start with the one thin everyone’s been talking about all week. I don’t even feel like doing an intro.

@cwyers: “Which Phillies player is most likely to have an imaginary girlfriend?”

Dude. It takes SO MUCH to shock me, particularly in the world of sports, and beyond that, in the insane world of college football. I mean, I’m surprised all the time (like when the Mariners made that idiotic John Jaso-for-Michael Morse swap the other day) but I think the last college football story that I really couldn’t wrap my mind around, that I couldn’t process as it unfolded, was the Jerry Sandusky story, which took me weeks to grasp the enormity of.

Now, Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend not actually existing is certainly not as enormously, appallingly horrifying and despicable an act as Sandusky’s repeated sexual abuse of children. In fact, I find nothing particularly disturbing about this story. The reason it’s so shocking is that I can’t remember anything like this ever happening before, particularly involving an athlete whose legend on the field is mostly a construct of what sportswriters had said about his character off it. Which is not to say that Te’o is a bad player–among defenders in college football this season, he was some tiny but still non-zero fraction of the player Jadeveon Clowney was, which makes him quite valuable indeed.

If Te’o got duped and went along with the story to avoid being embarrassed, I feel bad for him. That makes him (at worst) stupid and badly-advised and (at best) gullible and insecure. Which doesn’t make him any different from any other college student, if we’re being honest. I know people who have fallen for what we’re now calling the Catfish phenomenon of online dating and it’s embarrassing enough when the only people who know you fell for it are half a dozen close friends who feel bad enough for you not to mock you mercilessly. That’s the best-case scenario, but I don’t think it’s particularly likely.

If Te’o was in on the hoax from the beginning, creating this dead girlfriend narrative for publicity’s sake, that’s a pretty cynical thing to do, but I don’t know that it’s any worse than how Cam Newton got to where he wound up in terms of college stardom. First, I think I’m too weirded out to be outraged. Second, I never really cared enough about the story to begin with to give anything more than a cursory “That’s terrible, but good for him for overcoming that.” And finally, and most importantly, Te’o’s…whatever this is…is not even close to the worst cover-up involving a Notre Dame football player and a girl. Not. Even. Close. If anything good has come from the instant transition of Manti Te’o from national hero to national joke, it’s that more people are talking about Lizzie Seeberg.

I don’t think I said anything original or insightful there, but I don’t get the impression that anyone reads the Crash Bag for insight. Or even that anyone reads the Crash Bag at all. On to the jokes.

Many people responded to Colin’s question over Twitter when he first posed, probably due to some combination of it being particularly relevant to the zeitgeist and Colin being a much more notorious writer than I am. And the reaction was almost universally one of: John Mayberry.

I don’t get that. I mean, thinking about it, I can see it, but to arrive at Mayberry just because mermaids are made up is a leap I don’t get. I bet Mayberry could get a real girlfriend if he wanted one badly enough.

I think the most interesting possibility would be Erik Kratz. Kratz, like Te’o is beloved, known as a good guy and devoutly religious in a sect that’s kind of off the beaten path. Though Mennonites, theologically, have way more in common with your garden variety Protestant than Mormons do. I will say this–I’ve known my fair share of Mennonites and Mormons (I actually have several Mennonite relatives myself) and to a person they’re all kind and friendly people. I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty certain Kratz is married, and, if he’s anything like the other Mennonites I know, he wouldn’t cheat on his wife and he wouldn’t enjoy being teased by teammates who get on his case for not enjoying the local Annies. But neither would he fight back. So to avoid that awkwardness, there’s a part of me that could see Erik Kratz making up imaginary road beef just to keep the guys off his case. Not a large part, but if you told me that was going on I wouldn’t spit out my coffee or anything.

Or…yeah, you know what, if you’re going to try to hit on an actress by having your agent call her agent, you’d probably make up a girlfriend.

@dan_camp: “why are some of my stupid friends saying the “most expensive” part of the nats signing Soriano is their loss of a 29th pick?”

Well, I’d be more inclined to say that the most expensive part of signing Rafael Soriano is paying a relief pitcher $14 million a year. Now don’t get me wrong, that’s a stealth bomber’s worth of money for a relief pitcher, but the Nationals are a team that’s trying to win a title right now, and they don’t need a whole lot in the way of big pieces to put them over the top, so a good relief pitcher like Soriano is worth way more to team that’s going to use him in the seventh or eighth inning of a playoff game than a good relief pitcher like Mike Adams is to a team whose offense is so bad that it’s going to go 81-81 no matter how good its bullpen is (like the Phillies). The Nats are so good in spots, and have so much depth and so few glaring weaknesses that they’re doing something very smart: liquidating their surplus assets in areas of strength so they can shore up areas of relative weakness. I can’t begin to tell you how much I love their trade of Alex Meyer for Denard Span, and the smart money seems to be on the Soriano signing being a precursor to a similar trade of Tyler Clippard for either a prospect or some other complementary piece.

But anyway, a late first-round pick, on its own, is a nice piece, but not enough to keep a team from signing a good free agent. In the late 20s, the odds of pulling a superstar on any given one pick are remote, and yes, I know where Mike Trout was drafted. So if you’ve already got a stocked farm system and you’re good to spend on a free agent, like the Nats are, go nuts. Now on the other hand, if you can get a bunch of those picks in a row, like the Yankees have, you can get a lot of low-risk complementary players or take a lot of high-risk, high-ceiling amateur players. Conversely, if you lose your late first-round pick every year, like the Phillies did for a long time, your farm system is going to be devoid of high-level talent in short order.

Draft picks are exercises in probability. At No. 1 overall, you’re just as likely to get a Bryan Bullington as your are a Chipper Jones or Bryce Harper, but those are pretty good odds when you think about it. And as you go down the draft order, the odds of a Bullington increase, as you might expect, to the point where by the end of the first round, it’s unlikely that any particular first-rounder is going to turn into something more than a complementary player. But pool enough of those picks, or lose enough of those picks, and the odds of drafting (or watching someone else use your pick to draft) an impact player gets pretty good. So giving up the No. 29 pick for Soriano (even if he is a relief pitcher) is a non-trivial cost, but it’s not the end of the world. But if they lose a pick to sign a reliever every year for the next five years, then it starts to be a problem.

@Major_Hog: “What is the likelihood of Arkansas winning the College World Series?”

Ever? Not bad. It’s a pretty good program, even if it’s not on the level of, like, Florida or UCLA or Texas. But next year? I don’t like your chances all that much. I mean, the likelihood of any one team winning a championship in any sport is almost always remote, which goes double for a sport like college baseball that has hundreds of teams, a 64-team playoff and tons of small sample postseason variation.

But hey, they were a national semifinalist last year, so how bad things can be?

Though if you’re going to watch the University of Arkansas this season, there’s no better reason than…well, actually, the best reason is, and I can’t stress this enough, MEANINGFUL BASEBALL FOUR WEEKS FROM NOW. I keep telling people that if you follow college baseball, you get regular-season games in February and playoff games in June, but y’all never seem to listen. You need this. I know because the internet is full of silly folks who think spring training is worth getting excited about. Yes, let’s kill the fatted friggin’ calf so we can watch people put on outrageously racist hats and act like Matt Rizzotti‘s three-week hot streak is an accurate harbinger of future events. I’d rather watch games that count, played by players who care (and who are actually going to factor into the playoff run).

What follows is a list of better ways to predict regular-season performance than watching Spring Training games:

  • Projection systems such as ZiPS.
  • Throwing darts at the Baseball Prospectus guide.
  • Ouija board.
  • Psychic hotline.
  • Astronomy. No, I don’t mean astrology. I mean looking at the night sky through a telescope probably tells you more about future performance than three weeks of Kyle Kendrick throwing 45 pitches against the Blue Jays’ yannigans.

Anyway, college baseball is awesome and you should watch it. But if you’re going to watch the University of Arkansas in particular, the star attraction is Friday night starter Ryne Stanek. First of all, he’s got an awesome name. Like, if you’re going to be a skinny college kid, you might as well have a name like a reject from The Expendables. Last year’s SEC pitchers that included Florida’s awesomely-monikered Karsten Whitson, Hudson Randall and Austin Maddox. Plus the No. 3 and 4 starters for South Carolina were named Montgomery and Westmoreland–once you got to the end of the Gamecock rotation, you were as likely to face a division of armored cavalry as a fastball. But Stanek stood above them all.

Plus he’s a legitimately exciting prospect. He’s likely to go early in the first round in June’s amateur draft, perhaps No. 1 overall in a weakish class. At believe you me, if you think top-notch starting pitching is fun to watch in the big leagues, it’s so much better against collegiate hitters who lack the power and plate discipline of pros. This is a game where Trevor Bauer or Danny Hultzen could just tell the offense to take the night off, or Michael Roth could pull off a “stop hitting yourself” routine on hapless Clemson batter after hapless Clemson batter for years on end. Stanek should be a good pro, but he’s going to be something else entirely this season.

@smallupsetter: “What do you think Hunter Pence‘s spirit animal is?”

Fiddler crab. And I have no wish to discuss this matter any further.

@Living4Laughs: “What is your favorite book written on Soviet history?”

I don’t know that I have one. I’m really not as big a Russian/Soviet history buff as I am a Cold War buff. In fact, I find Russian/Soviet culture to be…well, not my particular cup of tea. But I’m engaged to be married to someone who deals with Russian culture for a living, so what KTLSF knows I just kind of absorb the way she absorbs (often against her will) details about baseball. Which is how she came to own a Phillies t-shirt, just as surely as I eat the occasional pelmeni.

So while I can rattle off the technical specs of just about every jet fighter the Soviet Union ever produced, and speak at great length about the international political, military and diplomatic impact of the Warsaw Pact, I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down and actually read a book about Soviet history in isolation. I do own a book called One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs that takes historical details of the Cuban Missile Crisis and puts them in a linear, story-focused format. I don’t know that it’ll tell you anything in particular that you wouldn’t learn from watching Thirteen Days, but it’s a good read.

Apart from that I’d just go read The Hunt for Red October.

Though I will say this. I was (and remain) a huge Tom Clancy fan, but it’s weird to put up a writer as a hero when you’re a kid, then go back and read Debt of Honor and Executive Orders after having studied politics and learned to do math and turned into an adult. Because I’m kind of appalled, looking back on it, by Clancy’s crazy-naive Libertarian politics and how sneaky-racist and not-so-sneaky-sexist his stuff gets in parts. I don’t want to say my turning into a fringy liberal since I was 15 ruined Clancy for me, but it’s still not the same.

@Cody011: “Assuming the phillies don’t make any more moves & remain healthy (big if), can you project this team to win 90+?”

Ninety what, games? I mean, I can project this team to win however many games you want, but the time for assuming the Phillies are going to be the class of the National League has come and gone. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Phillies win that many games, but I certainly wouldn’t go betting anything of significance on it. They’re a team that won 81 games last year, traded away a bunch of key pieces in midseason last year, didn’t add any significant free agents (and no, Mike Adams, however good a middle reliever he is, is still a middle reliever), aren’t counting on any potential impact prospects (ditto Phillippe Aumont, as much as j’adore Le Pont au Papelbon), are losing their best position player from last year to 25 games’ worth of drug suspension to start the season and are looking at…well, let’s just go with the midseason age around the diamond for next season, for catcher and the four infielders: 34, 33, 34, 34, 36. We’re getting to the point where the Phillies are fielding of players who, if they were women and interested in having children, would be old enough to have non-trivial concerns about complications with their pregnancies.

I went a long way for a bad metaphor there. Let’s try that again.

@JohnMorgera: “It seems like the offseason consensus is the Phillies will be lucky to make a run, but what is next seasons best case scenario?”

The Phillies get lucky and make a run.

Honestly, I don’t see a scenario where the Phillies make the playoffs this year. They were light-years behind the Nationals and Braves last year, and the Nationals, with another year of maturation for their young stars, plus a full season of Strasburg, Werth, Harper and Wilson Ramos, plus the addition of Dan Haren and Denard Span, will probably be even better than they were in 2012. And the Braves, who have some rising stars themselves, will probably be just as good as they were last year. On a side note, I did a rough draft of that “if you had to pick 25 players to win the next 10 World Series” post I do every year, and I wound up picking three Braves. It’s completely subjective, and doesn’t mean much…I mean, except that they have a lot of good, young players…but anyway, yeah. The Phillies were a .500 team with an almost even run differential last year, and I just don’t see where the 17 games the Nationals had on them last year get made up. Not when the big offseason acquisition is Ben Revere, and not when the big internal hope is that Chase Utley plays 150 games. If you’ve been even remotely paying attention since 2009, that is–to quote a spacefaring legend–a long wait for a train don’t come.

Now, if the Phillies make the playoffs, with Hamels, Lee, Papelbon, Bastardo, Adams, Aumont and Halladay, they have enough pitching to have a puncher’s chance in a short series. And I know they don’t have to beat Washington to get there. But the Reds and Braves certainly aren’t any worse than they were last year, and the Dodgers and Cardinals stand to be markedly improved over 2013. So that whole playoff scenario is starting to look awful crowded without the Phillies, even with the second wild card.

@tholzerman: “who has more names, Gandalf or the chick who spurned the titular character in the Beatles song ‘Rocky Raccoon?’ “

Does Gandalf not only have the one name? There was a girl in “Rocky Raccoon?”

I’m really not a Lord of the Rings guy or a Beatles guy, so someone else probably ought to field this one. In more general terms, though, I’d like to submit a third contender.

You see, Snookums, ain’t nobody has more names than His Royal Highness, Christopher Rupert, of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. And good luck not walking around whistling that song all day.

@fotodave: “Do Bonds or Clemens deserve to be in the hall of fame despite the steroid allegations?”

Of course they do. A top-five of all time hitter and a top-five of all time pitcher, conservatively. And

  1. Even if PED usage during a time before MLB tested for banned substances is blameworthy (which I don’t think it is)
  2. And if that blameworthiness is grounds for being penalized in Hall of Fame voting (which I don’t think it is)
  3. And if you think the BBWAA that, as recently as a decade ago, lionized these players as gods for their athletic feats has a moral leg to stand on while wagging its crooked, obsolete finger at these suspected drug cheats (which I don’t think it does)
  4. And if debiting the likes of Bonds and Clemens for their alleged drug use, in spite of facing competitors who were–by all accounts–mostly similarly juiced up, they’d suffer relative to their peers appreciably (which I don’t think they would)

If you grant all those things, Bonds would have been twice the player Jim Rice was, and Clemens would have been twice the pitcher Jack Morris was, or Goose Gossage. So yes, I think they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.

@fotodave: “Followup: What would it take for Pete Rose to get in the hall-of-fame?”

I know I say this every time, but I love that y’all announce follow-up questions like this is a press conference.

I kind of covered this last week, but because betting on baseball is such a longstanding historical booboo in the eyes of the sport’s leadership, and because it violates the competitive integrity of the game in a way that not even PED use does, Rose is pretty well screwed. Everyone said he’d be reinstated if he fessed up and apologized, and he did, and he wasn’t.

There’s a great scene in The Right Stuff set at Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club, the bar frequented by test pilots outside of Edwards Air Force Base. On the eve of Chuck Yeager’s run at the sound barrier, a woman at the bar asks Pancho about the photos of pilots hanging on the wall. Pancho gives that woman the same answer that I’d give Pete Rose if he asked me what he’d have to do to get reinstated, for one, and get past this Maginot Line of sanctimonious bluster that we call the Hall of Fame electorate. What Pancho says to the woman is this:

“You have to die, sweetie.”

@SoMuchForPathos: “Let’s say I don’t want to buy a gun. Should I go with a wooden baseball bat to protect myself in case of burglary?”

Well, neither a gun nor a bat will do you as much good as, say, renter’s insurance. Or locking your doors.

But if I could pick one piece of sporting equipment as a weapon of self-defense…actually, guns are sporting equipment in some cases, as are bows and arrows. I get the allure of the handgun-as-home-defense-weapon. But even if I were committed to the idea of greeting trespassers with deadly force (I’m not, by the way. I’m much more of a hide under the bed until they’re gone type.) I wouldn’t pick a handgun in a million years. Soldiers and policemen have a hard enough time hitting people with handguns–or rather, with bullets fired from handguns, but you get the idea–when lives are on the line, so imagine how laughably worthless a normal person, and not someone who’s trained to kill people with guns for a living, would be in a life-or-death scenario.

But anyway, if you’re convinced you’re going to have to shoot someone to death in your home in order to be safe, why on Earth would you pick a handgun instead of, say, a shotgun, which is scarier to look down the business end of, easier to hold steady and fires (if you want it to) cannisters of shot that don’t require the shooter to be particularly accurate to hit his or her target. You know who kills lots of people in movies? Arnold Schwarzenegger. You know what he almost never uses to do it? Pistols. He uses automatic firearms and 40mm grenade launchers, which are really not the kind of thing normal people ought to be keeping around for home defense anyway. But failing that, he uses shotguns. I guess the moral of the story is that you probably shouldn’t buy a handgun for home defense. You’re probably going to hurt yourself or someone else in an accident than you are to thwart a robbery by staging a successful re-enactment of the last half hour of Patriot Games. And if you do try to shoot and kill an intruder, you’re probably going to miss, put a hole in the wall and get stabbed to death by someone who literally brought a knife to a gunfight. And we’ll all be very sad, but we’re all going to secretly think you were kind of a dope after you’re gone. Sorry. Nothing personal–you just should have bought a shotgun instead. Or locked your doors and called the cops like a smart person would.

But if you want a melee weapon for home defense, well, again, I wouldn’t, because if you’re going to get close enough to really get around on a bad’un with a bat, you’re going to get close enough for him to stab you to death, which, again, will cause your loved ones to think you’re kind of a dope after you die. Hockey sticks have more reach, but less heft, and golf clubs are probably only good for one, maybe two swings. I’d take a dangerous tool, like an adze or a scythe, instead. Or go all out and buy a halberd. Chicks dig guys with halberds–makes them feel safe. This is totally true.

@Matt_Winkelman: “What drives fan interest, storylines and player personality or talent, is it bad to have irrational favorites?”

I’m going to assume that second comma is supposed to be a semicolon and those are two separate questions. To answer them in sequence, I’d say both and no.

What drives fan interest is entirely a matter of personal taste, and whether the qualitative or the empirical is the primary concern changes from fan to fan and even from judgment to judgment for a single fan. For instance, I enjoy the bejeezus out of The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton entirely because of his talent, because I don’t know the first thing about him as a person, nor do I care. On the other hand, I root just as hard for Angels farmhand Michael Roth, who is as pedestrian an athlete as Stanton is transcendent, entirely because of his personality and personal history.

The most-beloved players, though, are both. I’d hold up Ken Griffey Jr. and Cal Ripken as exemplars of this statement. Among current players, I think there may be no better example of combining personality and talent than R.A. Dickey, who, predictably, is almost universally beloved. My favorite baseball player is Jimmy Rollins, and if you asked me why I’d rattle off a list of intangibles that I’d put someone through a plate-glass window for saying about Jeff Francoeur. But Rollins has also been a very good and very exciting player for a long time.

I think fandom is about having irrational favorites. Liking a player just because he plays for your team is the height of irrationality. However good a prospect Jackie Bradley is, and however much his specific skill set contains almost everything I value in a ballplayer, the only reason I like him so much is that he played for South Carolina while I was there. Sounds pretty irrational to me.

Ask any thoughtful baseball fan, no matter how empirical his or her judgment may be, and you’d probably get a couple irrational favorites, regardless of performance. Which is good. Sports are at their best when they make you irrationally happy.

@hdrubin: “It’s not Thome/Howard or Leno/O’Brien, but what would you do with Beltre vs. Olt if you were the Rangers GM?”

This is a fantastic question, because this is precisely the fantasy scenario every armchair GM spends hours considering. Honestly, I think this is less similar to Thome/Howard than you might think, because Beltre’s got more in the tank than Thome did and Howard was a better prospect than Olt is.

I’d trade Olt. First of all the Rangers have a glut of good young infielders even without Olt, and Beltre is a future Hall of Famer who’s got at least three, probably four, more years on his contract. And even if the bat starts to go, he’s still one the best defensive third baseman in the game.

The reason I wouldn’t move Olt to first base, DH or an outfield corner is because his value is so much higher at third base. Olt has big power, yes, but more average contact skills, so his all-around offensive game is not going to be nearly as close to that of The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton as his raw power is. Which means that guys who can hit like Olt and play first base or DH don’t exactly grow on trees, but they’re not the Holy Grail, either. At third base, however, such players are rarer, particularly players who are actually pretty good defenders at that position, as Olt is purported to be. Factor in the paucity of young, skilled, major-league-ready third baseman making this a seller’s market for Texas, even accounting for how obvious it is that the Rangers have to move him. Plus the Rangers are still trying to win, and even though Beltre’s old an expensive, he’s still pretty much in the Demon Boil stage of his career, while Olt still has the uncertainty of a Larval Mass.

Given that the Rangers still need outfield help, I’d see what Olt could buy in a trade.

That’ll do it for this week. The person I promised a world-ending answer to about the Singleton-smoking-pot question, hang on for another week. I couldn’t give that one the rant it deserved this time around, but I’ll get to it.

Again, if you have questions about imaginary road beef or the Cold War or even about baseball, write in on Twitter using the #crashbag hashtag (yes, it rhymes and there’s nothing I can do about it).

One last note, perhaps for the first time ever, all five of us have written something this week, so scroll back through the archives and check out:

Ryan, Bill and Paul all used nice colorful graphics, too.

Pleasant dreams for a pleasant weekend, everyone, and may all of your love be directed toward people who actually exist.


Shouldering the Load

If you’re like me, seeing that tweet pop on your timeline last week was like sending a bolt of lightning through your chest. “Shoulder issue” and “Hamels” appearing in the same sentence is almost as frightening as the Three Scariest Words; those being “Dr. James Andrews.”

Everything seems alright, though. Ruben Amaro says he’s fine. We’re guessing Scott Sheridan is optimistic. Cole Hamels himself will probably tell you all is well and there’s no need for concern. On that, I’ll continue to hold my breath, but as for the comment that Hamels felt some of this discomfort toward the end of last season, was there any noticeable change?

To the eye test, I personally don’t recall Hamels looking adversely affected. The numbers seem to bear that out: a 3.32 ERA in 38 September innings with 44 strikeouts against seven walks are not typically the figures of an injured pitcher. He wasn’t given the Mark Prior treatment, either, throwing 110 pitches at most and fewer than 100 three times that month.

Of intrigue, though, is the note that Hamels’s overall fastball velocity dropped for the third consecutive season in 2012, down to 90.9 MPH from 91.2 in 2011 and 91.7 in 2010. September ’12 was also, on the whole, one of Cole’s slowest fastball months of the year, but no much slower than April that the concern pot should be stirred. Those same P f/x tables show that Cole’s FB movement hasn’t flattened out, either, so despite an uptick in line drives allowed against it, fewer fastballs left the yard for the ever-damaging dinger.

Above, we see graphical representations of Hamels’s horizontal (left) and vertical (right) release points, as documented over the years. The vertical graph shows little difference, but take a look at the horizontal graph on the left. At some point during the season (these graphs aren’t specifically detailed, unfortunately), Hamels reverted back to a release point more like 2011, slightly more three-quarter than over-the-top. While it’s not possible to tell given these tools exactly when this changeover occurred, there’s no clear statistical indicator (in terms of performance) that demarcates a noticeable change; Hamels was pretty consistent year-round.

I’m led to believe the front office when they say this issue is minor. At least, it’d better be.

Nothing Wrong with Depth Signings

The Phillies recently signed pitchers Aaron Cook and Juan Cruz, and have shown interest in infielder Ryan Theriot according to Jon Heyman. Cook has a 5.54 in 318.2 innings since 2010. Cruz had been an effective reliever with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011 and the Pittsburgh Pirates last season, despite a high walk rate. Theriot has been on back-to-back World Series champion teams: the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 and the San Francisco Giants last year, even though he didn’t provide much in the way of actual value. The duo of pitchers are the 11th and 12th non-roster invitees to spring training.

The Cook signing and interest in Theriot in particular have drawn the ire of Phillies fans, annoyed that the team’s biggest moves have been trades for a slap-hitting center fielder (Ben Revere) and an over-the-hill third baseman (Michael Young). The signings, though, don’t reveal anything about the team’s intentions; they are simply very low-risk gambles that are commonplace at this time of the off-season. Last spring, the Phillies opened up shop in Clearwater giving tryouts to Scott Elarton, Dave Bush, Joel Pineiro, Scott Podsednik, and Lou Montanez, among others. None of them ended up contributing to the Major League team.

Kevin Frandsen did. Frandsen was one of the many non-roster invitees and he turned out to be a great find, so much so that he was slotted in as the Phillies’ starting third baseman for 2013 until they traded for Michael Young. Jeremy Horst, another non-roster invitee (acquired in the Wilson Valdez trade), ended up being a key contributor to last season’s team as well, finishing with a 1.15 ERA in 31.1 innings.

The odds of a non-roster invitee helping out the way Frandsen and Horst did are very slim, but that’s why teams invite upwards of ten and commit little in terms of money, both guaranteed and non-guaranteed. You never know if a veteran, with the motivation of extending his career in any way possible, might have made some improvements during the winter. Since the risk is almost non-existent, the Phillies’ recent signings of Cook and Cruz, and their interest in Theriot can only be good things.

Phillies Prospect Conversation: Jason Parks (Baseball Prospectus)

Leading off our tour of Phillies Prospect coverage is Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus. Jason became the head of BP’s scouting staff when Kevin Goldstein was absconded away by Jeff Lunhow and his Hugh Grant eyes to join the Houston Astros. Jason is a skilled evaluator with an insatiable appetite for baseball. He enjoys a squeeze of citrus in his water. I can sit here and tell you how good Jason is at his job, how wonderfully realistic his assessments of talent are and how Jason’s content separates itself from the rest of the prospecting world because he’s simply the best and most unique pure writer of words we have. But perhaps the most ringing endorsement I can give Jason’s work is this: Whenever someone approaches me about how they can get into scouting and what they need to look for when evaluating talent, I refer them to Jason’s chapters in Baseball Prospectus’ 2012 book, Extra Innings. I can’t do better than those chapters so I won’t try.

I know an overwhelming number of our readers here probably already have subscriptions to BP. If you don’t, you need to head on over there and snatch one up. Even if you’re not sabermetrically inclined, the prospect coverage alone is already worth the small fee and is going to evolve into the most comprehensive public scouting database on Earth when the 2013 season starts. More on that in a bit. For now, enjoy my hour long talk with Jason which I transcribed to the best of my ability. Keep an eye out for my notes and links throughout.

Eric (via text)- I’ll call you in 15 minutes if that’s okay

Jason (via text)- I’m waiting in line for coffee, should be home in 15 minutes. Perfect.

15 minutes, 37 seconds later

(phone ringing)

Jason– Hello?

(Jason and I engage in 20 seconds of small talk neither of us is particularly comfortable with)

Eric– Alright, let’s get into this. Why don’t you start by telling everyone about your new job and how it’s going?

Jason– It’s good. Different. Kevin’s (Goldstein) level of success gave me all sorts of freedom when he was still around. Our prospect coverage complimented one another and his presence gave me all sorts of freedom to write things like….faux fiction. Now there’s more structure to what I’m doing. I knew the direction I wanted to take things right away. I wanted to bring in more eyes and run things like an actual scouting department. (Eric’s note: He has. Several writers/evaluators across the country have joined BP to cover the minors this season. I’m curious to know what the output’s format will be for all this scouting data but it will certainly be exhaustive and ground breaking)

Eric– What does the Top 10 process entail?

Jason– I make a preliminary sketch of the top guys in the system and then make a list of guys I know within the industry who have coverage of that team. I make calls and work that information into the list. Then I’ll ask for contributions from the BP team about the top ten and ask for suggestions on players we think will get to the majors this year, or who might have a breakout season. I want as many sources as possible.

Eric– I want your thoughts on the Phillies philosophy on acquiring amateur talent. I know in the past you’ve said you really like what they do, but since then your writing has indicated a change in your stance on the pure, raw tool athletes the Phillies lust for every June.

Jason– My views have….refined on the Phillies tool heavy approach. It’s not that I’m no longer a fan of toolsy freak guys, I’m just no longer a fan of guys who don’t know how the hell to play baseball. I’ve given up on teaching the freak athlete how to play baseball because those guys just don’t develop. You have to see feel and instincts. If those things are lacking, the kid won’t bear fruit. I’m all for big tools as long as they show an aptitude for playing baseball as well.

Eric– One thing I find fascinating is an entire farm system’s worth of talent has been exported over the last half decade or so (since the Blanton trade) and nobody has made the Phillies regret trading them yet. Do you have thoughts on a cause to this or is this just some random stroke of luck?

Jason– Let me start by saying that no teams want kids they trade to fail. You draft and develop a relationship with these kids. You don’t send him away and hope he burns out or gets hurt. Sure, teams want to “win” these trades, whatever that means, but not at the expense of someone’s job or career. I think that gets lost on blogs. To answer your question, one reason things may have worked out like this is because teams are supposed to know their system better than anyone else. Only teams that see a prospect come to work every day can claim that his makeup is a known commodity. Makeup (Eric’s note: the definition of makeup throughout baseball is not uniform. Some will tell you lack of faith in a god is a sign of poor makeup, others couldn’t care less what you do at home as long as you strive to get better at baseball. Jason skews toward the latter) is an underrated part of this whole process and when you have a handle on that and other teams don’t, you have the upper hand. That’s not to say all prospects are traded because they have poor makeup. This thing with the Phillies is probably mostly luck, but the internal evaluation process is something to consider as well.

Eric– The one guy who was considered untouchable throughout that whole exile was Domonic Brown. This was a guy who (I proceed to crush on Domonic Brown) and no longer looks like that player. I’d like to know why.

Jason– I would also like to know why. People need to realize that the jump from Triple-A to the Major Leagues is insane. The level of competition is far and above what you see in Triple-A. You’re suddenly playing against much better players in bigger stadiums in front of many more people. Then, once you succeed at the major league level, your competition is going to adjust. Then you have to adjust. And then they’ll make more adjustments. This cycle continues for the rest of your career and some guys just can’t do that. This isn’t something you can simulate in the minor leagues. I don’t know why Brown hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations yet but that might be part of it. Others believe he still has a chance to be special. He is still quite young and I know teams were trying to get him thrown in to deals this winter in an effort to buy low.

Eric– I know in today’s online world we like to place the blame on something or someone, so is it fair to say that Brown hasn’t gotten to where we thought he would because of some combination of everything people have pointed to? All the stuff you mentioned, injuries, mishandling, luck, swing changes…?


Eric– Ok, let’s get into your list itself

(Eric’s note: Baseball Prospectus’ Top 10 Phillies Prospects

1.        Jesse Biddle

2.        Maikel Franco

3.        Adam Morgan

4.        Roman Quinn

5.        Tommy Joseph

6.        Ethan Martin

7.        Cody Asche

8.        John Pettibone

9.        Carlos Tocci

10.        Shane Watson)

and talk about Jesse Biddle, who’ll likely be the number one guy on everyone’s list this year. Give me your assessment of Biddle and touch on the strange fluctuations in velocity he tends to suffer from. Is that an incedental side effect of his development from a once a week high school pitcher in the short scheduled Northeast to a full time ballplayer? Or is that something we should be concerned about long term?

Jason– Biddle certainly isn’t your ideal type of #1 prospect and he does have a lot of warts on him already. As far as the velo concerns go, I think saying it’s due to growing pains is a convenient excuse. I’m not sure it’s okay to think that after Biddle has been in pro ball this long. His delivery is clean, but whatever relationship he has with the ball, his explosiveness and intensity, is lost at times. Once he completely grows into his body, maybe it’ll stick. If he can pitch at 90-93mph or maybe a little lower if he can learn to manipulate the ball and add movement, I think it’ll work at the Major League level. He’s got a mid-rotation ceiling. Not sexy.

Eric– Talk me through why Maikel Franco is so high on your list.

Jason– He has crazy bat speed. His hands are explosive. The reports I got on him were better than he looked when I saw him. For instance, I don’t think he sticks at third base. He’s too thick and slow in the lower half to confidently project at third. Maybe right field is an option since you’d hate to waste the arm at first. People outside the Phillies organization would like to see him move behind the plate. That’s a difficult move for anyone to make at this stage in the game, especially when you also want this guy to be a high end hitter. There’s just not enough time to work on all that stuff. Franco plays too fast at times. He needs to slow down. He loves to swing, the approach needs some serious work.

Eric– Do you think coaches can deploy developmental tools to help him improve his approach or is that just something some players have and others do not?

Jason– I think a coach can aid development with the approach but can’t assist with pitch recognition, which I think is an inherent thing that seriously influences the quality of one’s approach.

Eric– You’ve got Adam Morgan next on your list. I’m quite taken by him. Do you think he sustains the success he found last season?

Jason– Something concerns me about Morgan and slider pitchers in general. (Eric’s note: I am of the mind that Morgan’s best secondary pitch is his changeup, not his slider. I am in the minority on this) Bad sliders are home run pitches. If Morgan’s fastball isn’t working for him, if he’s not locating it or it doesn’t quite have the juice it needs, he becomes over reliant on his slider. His changeup comes and goes.

Eric– I actually like the changeup better. Wouldn’t hesitate putting a 6 on it in each of the times I saw him. I’ve kicked around the idea of doing a list myself and am not sure how high I’m going to stick Morgan. Could go as high as #2.

Jason– Well then let me ask you this. Based on what we both think about Biddle and the pitcher he is and the pitcher he might become and what you’ve just told me you think about Morgan, why couldn’t you go and put Morgan at #1?

Eric– Well, (redacted because I don’t want to give away my rankings) and….I know I shouldn’t care about this but I do…I don’t want people to think I did it just to be different. I know I should just evaluate the player, have an objective opinion about him and that’s it, but I know if I see something fishy on someone else’s list, I tend to wonder if they did what they did primarily for attention. I don’t want that to happen.

Jason– Sure, but you could justify it. There’s enough evidence and room for subjectivity for you to stick Morgan at #1 in a bad system and totally justify it. Now, if someone put Roman Quinn at the top of their list, then THAT would be someone I’d point at and say, “this person wants attention.”

Eric– Good, I’m glad you brought him up because we need to talk about him and an overarching issue the public seems to have with overvaluing speed. Do you think we see speed, that tangible, sexy tool, and forget about more important aspects of a player’s profile? Especially in a system like this where plus-plus tools are in short supply, do we see an 80 tool and fall in love even though the rest of the player isn’t all that good?

Jason– Speed clouds judgment. Having a catalytic tool like speed causes people to think you’re going to do the things you’re doing now all the way up through the major leagues. The ways he gets on base, the way he gets extra base hits….those sorts of opportunities don’t come around very often in the Majors. Sure, he’ll put pressure on infielders, but what MLB infielder is used to fielding a ball cleanly and throwing out fast guys at first base? How often do big league outfielders misplay a ball so badly that even the fastest of runners can stretch a double? It doesn’t happen. This is the fastest player in baseball not named Billy Hamilton and I don’t think it’s going to matter. I was one of the few that didn’t buy into Dee Gordon. Sure he’s a total burner and he’s good enough to play shortstop, but you have to hit. You have to have the strength to hit and control a baseball bat. Quinn is going to have to develop that strength and that’s a really hard thing to do.

Eric– What about the defense, do you think he sticks at short?

Jason– If they’re in A-ball and you’re questioning the defense already, they’re probably going to have to move. His hands and actions need serious improvement if he wants to stay at short.

Eric– Let’s discuss guys that are a long ways away. Gabriel Lino (Eric’s notes: acquired for Jim Thome this past season). Any chance the bat develops enough for him to be a backup? I know the tools are loud.

Jason– Yeah…it’s not gonna work. Lino is big and strong. The build is strong. He has impressive catch and throw skills and the raw pop is awesome, but you only see it at 5 o’clock. He needs to hit. I just don’t think he’s going to.

Eric– Andrew Pullin, go.

Jason– Ah yes, when I started making calls Pullin’s name started popping up. He’s sort of a weird guy. The bat is interesting but his entire status as a prospect totally depends on whether he can successfully convert to second base. There’s not enough bat for a corner outfield spot. Watch for the defense, it’s key.

Eric– I guess we sorta need to talk about Darin Ruf. When he had that August and interest in him really exploded, it seemed questions were directed at everyone but you. I want your thoughts on Ruf.

Jason– I understand the excitement. We’ve seen it before when a guy who’s just an org guy or a four-A guy has a stretch where he just goes apeshit. People assume that because this guy is doing this at Double-A that he’s close enough to the majors that it’ll translate and he’s just going to keep mashing. You can’t Ruf has a ton of raw strength, just bull, country, lift balls out all over the place strength….but it’s just not gonna happen at the big league level. We had some discussion amongst the scouting staff at BP about putting him in the back half of our top 10 because some think he’s a platoon bat. There’s value in a platoon bat and some argued that value and, more importantly, the certainty of that value compared to the high risk involved with the young players we ended up with at #9 and #10 meant we should include Ruf. I’ve dealt with l angry comments because we didn’t.

Eric– Let’s do some rapid fire, one sentence evals. Dylan Cozens.

Jason– Got some love. Was a candidate to be in our “on the Rise” section.

Eric– Jake Diekman?

Jason– Got some love there, too. If he can command that plus-plus velocity then he can pitch in more than just a specialist role. Righties do pick it up early though because the arm slot is so low.

Eric- Larry Greene?

Jason– I’m not a fan of the bat speed. I’ve had some say he has slider bat speed. He’s a first -base-only guy.

Eric– Kelly Dugan

Jason– No love

I then thanked Jason for spending over an hour on the phone with me, we talked for five more minutes and then I went to play darts with my future brother-in-law. Up next in our prospect conversations series: Baseball America’s Jim Callis.

Chase Utley and Left-Handed Pitching

Ken Rosenthal reported this week that the Phillies may be in search of a right-handed bat, listing Scott Hairston, Alfonso Soriano, and Vernon Wells as possible targets. Leaving aside the fact that the latter two are horrible tire-fires, the phrase “right-handed bat” triggers in me a gag reflex many years in the making. The notion that the Phillies are “too left-handed” has been around since at least Ryan Howard‘s arrival, and possibly longer. You could find such a claim on some blog or newspaper for any season since their run of success began.

This talking point persisted despite the fact that, from 2008-2010, the Phillies were the second-best hitting team in the NL against left-handed pitching when measured by their 105 wRC+ (friendly reminder that this is just park-adjusted and league-normalized wOBA). It seems almost shameful in its ingratitude nowadays, when an extra-base hit or a walk is almost a luxury for Phillies fans. In the two most recent seasons, the Phillies certainly have struggled against left-handed pitching, posting a 92 wRC+ in that split in 2011, and an 86 wRC+ in 2012. It’s less of a canard and more of a legitimate issue now.

The departure of Jayson Werth put a dent in the lineup’s LHP effectiveness for sure, but just as costly was Chase Utley‘s time lost to injury, and the apparent crumbling of his adverse platoon abilities. Entering 2011, Utley was just about equally lethal against either flavor of pitcher for his career. In fact, in 2010, he hit .294/.422/.581 in 166 plate appearances against lefties, compared to .266/.371/.381 in 345 plate appearances against righties. After knee injuries forced him to miss lots of time in the next two seasons, his bat declined, and his defiance of the platoon advantage principle unraveled in dramatic fashion. His wRC+ crashed from 172 in 2010 to 73 in 2011. It rebounded to 90 in 2012, but that figure is still second worst of his career.

It’s not hard to pick out what’s underlying that. Take a look at this table (click for larger), which plots various measures of Utley’s contact, discipline, and power against left and right-handed pitchers since 2007.

wXB/H is a statistic that measures power totally independent of contact ability, which is why hits are in the denominator. For more information, see here

The areas with discernible trends — and in which the decline is markedly worse against LHPs — is in BABIP and the power metrics. Utley is swinging roughly as often against LHPs as he usually has, and putting the ball in play about as often too. But those balls in play are becoming hits much less often, and, even when they do, they’re less likely to go for extra bases, or turn into home runs.

The culprit appears to be Utley’s pulled balls. From 2009-2010, when pulling the ball against a left-handed pitcher (136 plate appearances), Utley posted a .556 wOBA. For 2011-2012, in 97 such plate appearances, his wOBA is less than half of that — .246. The effect is easily visible when you chart his hits and plate coverage in these scenarios. Observe his hit locations when pulling the ball against left-handed pitchers, 2009 to 2012:

Now look at his slugging percentage when pulling a ball into play against lefties, over that same time period:

More outs and weakly hit balls are evident since his injury. Needless to say, we’re slicing the data up rather finely here, and these are pretty small sample sizes. But it’s not blogging without some questionable speculation. With that in mind:

Pulling the ball requires the hitter to be ahead of or right on the incoming pitch. Timing and recognition is crucial, especially if you’re a left-handed hitter trying to pull the ball against a same-handed pitcher, since you “see” the ball for significantly less time. For the Utley of old, this was never a problem. His pitch recognition was and still is among the best in the game, and his short, compact swing allowed him to bring the bat through the strike zone as quickly as needed, getting on top of left-handed offerings without issue. If his chronic knee issues have forced him to make alterations to his swing, even minor ones, this advantage could be obviated. A change in footwork could slow his bat just enough to hamper his contact abilities, or sap his ability to generate power to his pull side, relegating Utley to the production of a more traditional left-handed hitter.

This is not to say that such an outcome would be disastrous. Utley’s performance against lefties in 2011 was atrocious, but it rebounded significantly in 2012. Even then, with an OPS of .679 against left-handed pitching last season, Utley was 11% above the average left-handed batter in adverse platoon scenarios. His overall line of .256/.365/.429, while somewhat sub-Utley in caliber, was still more than acceptable for a second baseman of his defensive talents.

Besides that, Utley was really the least of the Phillies’ problems against lefties last season. There were several notable non-lefties who couldn’t hack it against southpaws — Jimmy Rollins (221 PA, 65 wRC+ vs. LHP), Placido Polanco (101 PA, 65 wRC+), and Michael Martinez (54 PA, 46 wRC+). And a few of Utley’s same-sided cohorts had their own problems — Ryan Howard (106 PA, 60 wRC+ vs. LHP), Juan Pierre (60 PA, 13 wRC+), and Domonic Brown (59 PA, 70 wRC+). The good news is that Polanco, Martinez, and Pierre are no longer with the team, and there is room to hope that Rollins and Brown will improve upon their figures. If Utley is able to build upon 2012 and make a further effort to resurrect his lefty-on-lefty abilities, and any of the previously mentioned players can make their own adjustments, the Phillies could even their nasty platoon split without the addition of the ever-elusive right-handed bat.