Reminiscing with Graphical Representation: The 2008 Phillies

On Tuesday, I unveiled my full-season infographic detailing the season that was for the Philadelphia Phillies using Wins Above Average (WAA) by position. The season was, for all intents and purposes, pretty ugly. But what makes a (hopefully) successful rebuild so rewarding, what makes the special seasons (like 2008) so truly special are the years like these that often proceed them.

As a quick reminder, here’s what the 2016 season looked like for the Phillies. The full story and graphics can be READ AND SEEN HERE.

In 2016, the Phillies tied for last in the league with -16 wins above average. They played at or above league-average in just three positions: catcher, second base and center field. Of the remaining positions, their starting rotation ranked 18th in the league while every other position ranked no better than 24th. Spelling the rotation, the bullpen’s WAA was second-worst in the league and the position players as a whole posted the lowest wins above average in the majors with -11.2.

Terrible position players, terrible relievers, okay starting pitching. Thus was the story of 2016.

So were this rebuilding process to bare similar fruits to the most recently constructed Phillies powerhouse, what would that look like? Here’s what the Phillies 2008 roster looked like when it took home the team’s first World Series trophy in 28 years.

*Reminder: positions marked in red are the top half in the league, those in blue are in the bottom half. The darker the red, the closer to the position was to leading the league, the darker the blue, the closer it was to league-worst.*

Where the 2016 Phillies were above league-average in just three positions, the 2008 Phillies were below league-average in just three positions: starting pitching, catcher and third base. The homegrown middle infield duo of Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins highlighted the World F’ing Champs lineup, ranking first and second respectively in wins above average at their positions.

Of the 722 plate appearances made by the second base position in 2008, Utley made 699 of them. Sixteen of the remaining 23 were given to Eric Bruntlett or Tadahito Iguchi, the others went to…Brad Harman? Who? Can that really be true? (They were, in fact, seven of his 11 career plate appearances, all of which came in that season.) But I digress. Utley accounted for every single one of the 6.7 wins above average the Phillies saw from the second base position (and even 0.2 more that were negated by Bruntlett, Iguchi and Harman’s play), ranking 2.3 wins above the next best second base position in the league (the Red Sox with 4.4) and over four full wins above the third-ranked Florida Marlins (2.6 WAA). The relative dominance is astonishing.

Not only did Utley dominate the second base position, but he was, by FanGraphs’ wins above replacement, the second-best player in the majors worth 8.2 wins behind only Albert Pujols. And as was the case for the majority of his career, his exploits carried over to his defense. He flourished at second leading the league with 30 defensive runs saved in 2008. Among those that actively patrolled second base, he led the league in the following categories, which are most effectively described as “just about every damn one”: fWAR (8.2), wRC+ (134), on-base percentage (.380), slugging (.535), OPS (.915), wOBA (.389) and hard-hit percentage (38.7%).

That brings us to J-Roll. The multi-faceted shortstop posted great numbers on all three sides of the ball. At the plate he slashed .277/.349/.437. On the base paths, his 8.1 base runs were best of any shortstop and top-10 in the majors. And by advanced defensive metrics, he was not only the best shortstop in the league but one of the top ten defenders overall.

This is all to say that the second base-shortstop combo was the bedrock of those world champions, the foundation upon which they stacked talent in the upcoming years.

Oh, and there was also a 28-year-old, runner-up MVP first baseman who led the league with 48 home runs and 146 RBIs who didn’t miss a game all season. No other major leaguer hit more than 40 homers and none drove in more than 130 runs. With counting stats that good, the big fella could have earned a nickname from a popular tally-phile Sesame Street character who would be thrilled with his work.

“The number of the day is…6. Ah ah ah ah ah.”

Across the outfield, the Phillies were also consistently above average. Headlined by Shane Victorino playing the fourth most effective center field position in the majors, Pat Burrell in left and Jayson Werth in right contributed to the seventh-best outfield in the majors by wins above average. They were a fine complement to the Rollins-Utley-Howard double play combo Kalas belted out when the club won their second consecutive National League East title in 2008, and together, they formed a lineup that comfortably went six-players deep. The only rest for the opposition came in the seven, eight and nine holes after wading through the dominant top two-thirds of the lineup. Any mistakes made against the bottom-third of the order meant they were right back to the top, dangerous as ever, this time with no leeway and runners on base.

The outfield was strong defensively with Victorino and Werth both ranking in the top-14 in defensive runs saved among outfielders. Taken in conjunction with Utley and Rollins who both ranked in the top-eight in the MLB in defensive runs saved, it’s no wonder the Phils were tops in the league in that particular defensive metric.

Werth and Victorino also played a part in the Phillies being the most efficient big league club on the base paths, per base runs. Rollins, Utley, Werth and Victorino could all be found among the top 20 most effective base runners, again measured by base runs. No other team had four players ranked in the top-50. Like at first base with Howard, Burrell in left – who provided no skill on the bases and no defensive value – contributed with his bat, slugging 33 homers that ranked 20th in the majors and tied for seventh among outfielders.

Led by the perfect Brad Lidge (48-for-48 in save opportunities), the bullpen carried an otherwise average starting rotation. With an automatic ninth-inning option, the game was significantly shortened for Charlie Manuel. Plus, as every reliever who threw at least 59 innings that season posted a sub 3.30 ERA, those pedestrian starters didn’t need to throw seven innings anyway. For goodness sake, Clay Condrey threw 69 innings with a 3.26 ERA. The only thing more impressive may be that he managed to do that with an 11.2% K-rate, lower than all but two major league relievers who threw at least 50 innings. Ryan Madson, who earned his nickname as the “Bridge to Lidge,” and Chad Durbin combined to throw 170.1 innings with a 2.95 ERA and 1.26 WHIP.

To recap: the Phillies ended their title drought with astonishing depth in the starting lineup, an infield that – with the exception of Pedro Feliz – was historically good, league-leading efforts both on the base paths and defensively and a bullpen that overcompensated for underwhelming starting pitching.

These characteristics make 2008 an interesting point of comparison with which to keep in mind when framing the team’s makeup over the next few seasons when the wins began to pile up even more, but the end goal was never again reached. Stay tuned next week when I break down the 2011 roster than won the most games in franchise history but faltered in the National League Division Series.

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  1. Romus

    January 12, 2017 09:41 AM

    Very good analysis.
    Did not realize the magnitude of Utley’s contributions during that ’08 season.
    For some reason…always imagined he was 4th guy down on the totem pole below JRoll, Ryan and Cole.

  2. Epicurean

    January 12, 2017 10:58 AM

    This was a great read. I’d be curious to see a similar project for the 2011 Phillies.

    • Epicurean

      January 12, 2017 11:04 AM

      And had I read your final paragraph, I would have seen that one is on the way. I’m looking forward to it.

  3. Carmine

    January 12, 2017 11:08 AM

    I’m glad the numbers prove just how valuable Victorino was in his prime.
    I am also discouraged by how far we are from replicating the rest of the positions. Odie could be another Shane. Franco could equal, say Burrell. TJ could equal Ruiz’s offensive contribution but at a much less valuable defensive position. In our dreams, Crawford might be another Rollins. That means that prospects like Alfaro and Williams and Quinn have some big shoes to fill.
    It seems our best hope is to be built much more around starting pitching than the 2008 team and try to come close to the bullpen.

  4. Steve

    January 12, 2017 12:20 PM

    Cool post.. would be interested to see the 04/05/06/07 teams breakdown

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