The Resurgence of Pat Burrell

At the Baseball Analytics blog, I looked at the resurgence of former Phillie Pat Burrell. The results may surprise you.

It appears to be that, in 2009, he was simply unable to hit soft pitches. As a Phillie, he had always been known for his ability to turn on an inside fastball. On the other hand, he was known for a “butt jut” on inside breaking balls. When he read the spin of an inside breaking ball, his feet would remain planted, but he would arch his back so that he almost looked like a backwards C at home plate.

In 2010, he regained his ability — or timing, most likely — to hit the soft stuff.

Pretty heat maps follow.

David Beats Goliath, Phillies Out of Playoffs

The called strike three to Ryan Howard that clinched the National League Championship Series for the Giants was, among other things, emblematic of the Phillies’ offensive ineptitude throughout the NLCS. Despite banging out eight hits and drawing five walks, the Phillies were only able to push across two runs against Jonathan Sanchez and the Giants’ bullpen. Once again, they were disappointing when runners were in scoring position, notching hits in two of a whopping eleven opportunities. Overall, they were 8-for-45 in the series — a measly .178 average with RISP.

The Phillies also played poorly defensively, continuing a surprising trend in the 2010 playoffs. Shane Victorino misplayed a fly ball in center field, Chase Utley misplayed another grounder, and Placido Polanco made a throwing error. Defensive failures helped the Giants score two runs in the third inning, marring what was an otherwise impressive outing by Roy Oswalt. Chase Utley, baseball’s best defensive second baseman, was the biggest goat of the goat defenders in the NLCS — a shocking revelation to say the least.

In the end, the Phillies came two playoff wins away from becoming immortalized in baseball history, perhaps as a dynasty. They would have been the first National League team since the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals to reach three consecutive World Series. Though that was not realized, what the Phillies have accomplished is impressive nonetheless.

Consider that, when the Phillies clinched the division on the last day of the regular season in 2007, we Phillies fans were simply thrilled that a 13-year playoff drought had ended. The Colorado Rockies promptly swept the Phillies out of the NLDS. And that was all right.

Now, on the heels of a championship in 2008 and a near-repeat in ’09, the Phillies’ exit from the NLCS in Game Six is considered premature. The disappointment from Phillies fans in the restaurant I was in at the time of Howard’s called strike three was palpable. Sports talk radio callers — and the hosts — blasted Howard and his sizable contract awarded to him earlier in the season, wondering how someone with zero NLCS RBI could be worth such a large sum of money. Utley was denigrated for, apparently, typically shoddy defense. Charlie Manuel’s decision-making, for the first time since the Phillies have enjoyed playoff berths, was second-guessed.

Amid the disappointment, it is important to step back and appreciate what we have witnessed out of the Phillies. Yes, the dismissal from the 2010 playoff stings, but the team gave us a lot to be proud of in this season alone. For instance, coming back from a plethora of injuries and seven games out of first place in the division, was an incredible feat. There was also:

Roy Halladay‘s perfect game against the Florida Marlins, and his no-hitter in the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds.

Roy Oswalt playing left field — and recording a put out — in the 14th inning was great theater.

Jayson Werth put up one of the best offensive seasons by any Phillies outfielder ever.

Carlos Ruiz‘s emergence as a legit offensive threat.

Cole Hamels‘ bounce-back season after a disappointing 2009. Brad Lidge, too.

Ryan Madson‘s continued dominance as the set-up guy for Lidge.

Ruben Amaro’s ability to fill in around the edges, with Wilson Valdez, Mike Sweeney, and Ross Gload playing big roles outside of being reliable bench players.

Remember, three years ago, that Kyle Kendrick started Game Two of the NLDS and Jamie Moyer started Game Three. The Phillies have come a long way. They should not be ashamed of what they didn’t accomplish this season.

While the Phillies will likely part ways with Jayson Werth, the core group is still intact and primed for another deep post-season run with a trio of ace starting pitchers and a solid but aging offense.

In closing, if I can ask one thing of the Phillies fan base in the aftermath of the NLCS — don’t harp on players for what they didn’t do in the post-season. There aren’t enough innings and plate appearances from which to draw conclusions confidently. That Ryan Howard didn’t have an RBI isn’t indicative of decline, or mental shortcomings, or what have you. If you replay Howard’s 22 at-bats again in the same situations, he will likely come away with at least one RBI. Likewise, Utley’s defensive miscues are not representative of his true ability as a second baseman; they were just a few ugly plays in a very small sample of opportunities.

Rolls of the die can be cruel. The Phillies happened to roll snake eyes  several times in the NLCS. Them’s the breaks. The Phillies have been on the other end as well. Just ask the Los Angeles Dodgers about Matt Stairs, or the Tampa Bay Rays about Joe Blanton and Geoff Jenkins.

Ask Brock Lesnar about Cain Velasquez.

No Easy Answer to Jayson Werth

At the Baseball Analytics blog, I look at just how much of a challenge Jayson Werth is to opposing pitchers and managers.

He hits hard stuff (93rd percentile in wOBA, 2010) and soft stuff (95th percentile) alike. He even hits well with two strikes (97th). If there is an easy way to handle Jayson Werth, it’s not obvious. Among the 14 pitchers he has faced 20 or more times, only Tim Redding, Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez, and Chris Volstad have had impressive results. Aside from mediocrity, there is nothing the four pitchers have in common.

When Werth hits free agency after the post-season, teams will be bidding for the services of what appears to be an as-yet unsolved riddle — a very productive, multi-talented unsolved riddle.

NLCS Headed Back to Philly

Looking down the barrel of a loaded gun, the Phillies staved off elimination for at least one more day with a 4-2 victory over the San Francisco Giants in Game Five of the NLCS. The Phillies capitalized on some poor umpiring and some poor Giants defense, scoring three runs in the second. Roy Halladay, running on fumes, held the Giants to two runs through six innings of work while the Phillies’ bullpen was dominant.

Starting what appeared to be “one of those days”, the Giants jumped out to an early lead in the first inning thanks to some uncharacteristically poor control from Halladay and and yet another fielding error by Chase Utley. With runners on first and third and one out, Buster Posey hit what appeared to be a tailor-made double play, but Utley was too anxious to complete the play and booted the ball, only recording the out at second. Already leaving much to be desired at the plate, Utley has not looked like the deserving Gold Glover that  he is.

Tim Lincecum was dominant until he hit the third inning. Raul Ibanez blooped a hit to right-center, and Carlos Ruiz put runners on first and second after being hit in the right forearm by a Lincecum change-up. Halladay attempted to sacrifice bunt the runners to second and third, and successfully did so on a very controversial play. The ball hit home plate and bounced back towards the catcher, in foul territory. The umpires, however, ruled it fair. Posey threw to third but Ibanez slid in safely just ahead of the throw. Halladay did not run to first in the confusion of the event, and was easily retired for the first out.

The craziness did not stop there. Shane Victorino hit a sharp grounder to first base that ricocheted off of Aubrey Huff‘s knee, caroming into center field, allowing both Ibanez and Ruiz to score. Placido Polanco followed up with a crisp single to left field, scoring Victorino. Just like that, the Phillies were up 3-1.

Given the poor umpiring, the rabbits’ foot that seemed to be in sole possession of the Giants, and the general malaise of the Phillies, two runs seemed hardly enough of a cushion. Halladay was clearly gassed as his fastball topped 90 MPH only once after his 70th pitch. Aside from two doubles by Pat Burrell and Cody Ross that brought the Giants to within 3-2, Halladay pitched just well enough to escape relatively unharmed. As I noted on Twitter, he seemed to be struggling with his release point. Why? He was dealing with a pulled groin, as Matt Gelb reported on Twitter. That’ll do it.

After Halladay left, the quartet of Jose Contreras, J.C. Romero, Ryan Madson, and Brad Lidge combined for four shut-out innings. Collectively, they struck out five — Madson struck out the side in the eighth — and allowed only one base runner on a hit off of Contreras. Before Lidge was put into the game, though, Jayson Werth tacked on an insurance run, smoking a home run down the right field line, over the 24-foot high wall. As FOX broadcasters Tim McCarver and Mitch Williams  noted, the insurance run made Lidge feel a lot better coming into the inning. Of course, Lidge’s slider looked as sharp as ever in his quick dismissal of the Giants’ 7-8-9 hitters.

It wasn’t a pretty win by any means. The Phillies continue to look lackluster defensively, and they had just one hit with runners in scoring position again. But the Phillies — and their fans — have to feel much, much better about their chance to advance to the World Series with two more games to win with Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels toeing the slab in Games Six and Seven respectively.

Rolls of the Die

I’ve been reading a lot of reactions and analysis of Game Four of the NLCS. The Phillies, of course, lost on a sacrifice fly by Juan Uribe in the bottom of the ninth — a crushing blow to the team’s chances of advancing to the World Series. Many are second-guessing Charlie Manuel, wondering why he chose to go with Joe Blanton rather than Roy Halladay on short rest. Others are blaming Chad Durbin, or third base coach Sam Perlozzo for sending Carlos Ruiz on a suicide mission to home plate following a Shane Victorino single to center.

Me? I’m with Rob Neyer — I don’t think you can focus on any one particular aspect explaining why the Phillies lost. Would the Phillies have been better off if Durbin didn’t walk two and give up two runs? Sure. But relievers give up runs. Would it have been better to hold Ruiz at third with one out? Absolutely. Should Victorino have taken second on Aaron Rowand‘s throw that nailed Ruiz? Definitely.

That analysis relies on hindsight, which we all know gives us 20/20 vision. Chaos theory and all that, we don’t know that if Ruiz is held at third base, that Polanco drives in Victorino and Chase Utley on a double to left-center. Maybe if Antonio Bastardo was brought in instead of Durbin, he ends up giving up three or four runs. You just don’t know, since the playoffs are such small samples of data, prone to the whims of any roll of the die.

Last night’s loss was frustrating. The Giants seem to have a 1.000 BABIP and Cody Ross has a .747 ISO. But there were some good things that happened last night. Every regular got a hit. The injured and struggling Polanco was 2-for-3 with that key two-run double. Ryan Howard smoked a double to left-center off of a left-handed reliever (Javier Lopez) that was owning him every night prior. The team hit .333 with runners in scoring position. They knocked the Giants’ well-respected #4 starter out of the game before he could complete five innings. They handled the Giants’ relievers — outside of Brian Wilson — very well.

As @PhillyFriar said on Twitter:

“Small sample size variance” seems like a shitty consolation at a time like this, but damn if it ain’t the truth.

A couple of bounces the other way… ahh well. We’ll just have to count on the best pitcher in baseball to get the series back to Philly.

Jayson Stark tweeted:

72 teams before this year trailed 3 games to 1 in best-of-7 postseason series. Only 11 came back to win the series.

15.3% seems like a thin number compared to the percentages thrown out before the start of the NLCS, when the Phillies were up into the 60’s. The playoffs are a crapshoot. 60 percenters can turn into 15 percenters in the blink of an eye, and that’s exactly what happened to the Phillies.

The Giants haven’t played much better than the Phillies. Heres’ a quick comparison of the teams so far:

Offense

  • OBP: Phillies .317; Giants .287
  • SLG: Giants .338; Phillies .328
  • RBI: Giants 14; Phillies 13
  • SB: Phillies 4-for-5; Giants 1-for-2

Pitching

  • ERA: Giants 3.34; Phillies 3.63
  • K/9: Giants 10.3; Phillies 9.4
  • BB/9: Phillies 2.6; Giants 3.6
  • K/BB ratio: Phillies 3.6; Giants 2.9

The teams are pretty even statistically, but small sample variance is the reason why the Phillies are down 3-1 instead of tied 2-2 or up 3-1.

Ryan Madson’s Dominance

Over at the Baseball Analytics blog, I took a look at potential 2012 free agent Ryan Madson. If you frequent Crashburn Alley, you’ve probably heard me make some of the same points before, but the pretty charts should make it worth the read anyway.

Madson will enter the final year of a three-year contract in 2011. Although the Phillies have a lot of money coming off of the books, including Brad Lidge potentially, Madson — represented by super-agent Scott Boras — should garner a lot of attention from the other 29 teams in the Majors. He is a guy with dominant stuff that can close on just about any team.

Chase Utley’s Power Outage

One thing that has been on my mind for a while is Chase Utley‘s power hitting against right-handed pitching before and after his thumb injury. As you may recall, Utley tore a ligament in his thumb that caused him to miss nearly two months of the regular season. Overall, Utley’s season was still productive but still below what we’ve come to expect from him. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it an “average to poor” season, as a Beerleaguer reader dared, but he was certainly not the same guy even after he was taken off of the disabled list.

Utley had a staggeringly amazing .434 wOBA against left-handed pitching this season, but only .337 against right-handers. It is quite odd that a left-handed hitter would have such a drastic platoon split in favor of same-handed pitching, but this is the case with Utley.

Here’s a look at Utley’s isolated power (ISO) against RHP before and after his thumb injury:

Before the injury, Utley essentially had tremendous power in the lower left quadrant of the strike zone, and even a little below. After the injury, if you split the strike zone into nine areas, Utley has lower-left and upper-middle for the most part.

The biggest change has occurred in his ability to handle breaking pitches. Here are the same two images as above, except we are only looking at “soft” stuff now:

The sample size for the top graph is 428 pitches; 257 for the bottom.

My theory is that Utley’s thumb is still a problem, sapping his power. Left-handed pitchers pitch Utley low and outside. Right-handers do as well, but pitch inside on a more frequent basis. Hitting inside pitches puts more pressure on the wrist and thumb given the direction in which the bat makes contact with the ball. Additionally, hitting softer pitches requires good bat control which is related to hand strength and dexterity. A thumb injury such as Utley’s will sap both attributes, which is why he has seen such a precipitous decline in his power hitting.

Data courtesy Baseball Analytics.

Cole Hamels’ Cut Fastball

Using the Baseball Analytics data, I went and looked at Cole Hamels‘ cut fastballs. Earlier in the season, fans weren’t too thrilled with it since it seemed like right-handed batters were killing it and Hamels didn’t know how to use it effectively.

Here’s a look at Hamels’ cutters against right-handed hitters from April through the end of June:

And Hamels’ cutters against RH from July through his last start in the NLCS:

Obviously, huge changes in results. In the second half, the cutter was put in play 23 times:

  • 11 ground balls
  • 8 fly balls
  • 3 pop-ups
  • 1 line drive

Of the 23 balls in play, only four were hits.

When Hamels was learning the cutter, it was thought of as nothing more than a show-me pitch. With dedication to improvement, Hamels has developed it into a legitimate out-inducer — likely why his K/9 went from 8.8 in the first half to 9.5 in the second half. He is no longer a predictable two-trick pony.

Hamels struggled yesterday in Game Three of the NLCS against the Giants, but it wasn’t because of his cutter; it was his four-seam fastball to right-handed hitters.

In 2010, when Hamels threw up and in to right-handed hitters, his wOBA against went from the 71st percentile to the 14th percentile. In the upper-right quadrant inside the strike zone, Hamels dropped to the 6th percentile.

While Hamels made great strides with his cut fastball, it was his bread and butter — the four-seamer — that failed him yesterday.

The Decline of Raul Ibanez

I was recently given trial access to a great baseball database, which you can see used on a regular basis over at the Baseball Analytics blog. There is a multitude of data available to parse in almost any way, shape, and form. I was like a kid in a candy store. The first thing I wanted to analyze was the decline of Raul Ibanez, so that’s what I did.

Here’s an excerpt:

Having watched Ibanez in his time as a Phillie, I have noticed his problems with fastballs. At 38 years old, it seems like his bat speed has been in decline and thus has been rather helpless trying to make solid contact on fastballs. The following images show his in-play slugging percentage on fastballs, the first showing data from April 5 to June 13, 2009 and the second showing everything since.

Spoiler: the results? Not good.

Is Ben Francisco Invisible?

As mentioned yesterday, it is usually not a great idea to make changes just because they didn’t work out in a game or a small set of games. For example, Roy Halladay struggled in the Phillies’ Game One loss. Most people recognize that it was an uncharacteristically mundane start from Doc and that he will likely be better in future starts. Almost every sentient person in the world would not skip him in the rotation because mean-regression is blatantly obvious in this regard.

However, it is smart to make changes based on principles — facts we know to be true. There are two items, among others, we know to be true that should inspire some more tactically-efficient changes from Charlie Manuel:

Francisco, at the very least, should have been a defensive replacement for Ibanez in each of the first two games of the NLCS. As Ibanez’s non-catch of a Pat Burrell fly ball in Game One and his last-ditch diving effort on a Burrell line drive in the ninth in Game Two both indicate, he leaves a lot to be desired defensively. He finished 2010 with a -8.4 UZR/150 and has a career -2.3 career rating. On the other hand, Ben Francisco has a career 3.4 rating.

That Manuel hasn’t subbed Francisco in for Ibanez defensively hasn’t hurt the Phillies… yet. It almost did last night in the ninth inning. But Manuel should start to make the substitution starting in Game Three — especially given the spacious outfield in AT&T Park in San Francisco — before it becomes an issue.

Francisco really should have been in the starting lineup in Game Two against Jonathan Sanchez, and should be in Game Four against Madison Bumgarner. Francisco has the higher career wOBA against lefties, .350 to .330. This year alone, Francisco’s .384 wOBA against lefties way out-paced Ibanez’s .318.

Manuel showed in Game Two that he is willing to make some logically-sound changes. The batting order was as close to optimal as the Phillies are ever going to get under Manuel’s reign. He split up the left-handed hitters by batting Chase Utley second and Placido Polanco third, ahead of Ryan Howard. That forced Giants manager Bruce Bochy to consider allowing Polanco and/or Jayson Werth to face his left-handed relievers, or burn extra relievers in an effort to maintain the platoon split advantage. On the other hand, Manuel didn’t listen to sports talk radio, where there were chants for Wilson Valdez to get the start over Jimmy Rollins.

Manuel isn’t ignorant to defensive replacements as he did it frequently when Burrell was here in Philadelphia. Burrell’s game logs from 2008 indicate that he was lifted for a defensive replacement in 73 games. Ibanez isn’t much better than Burrell defensively, so the lack of a defensive substitution is puzzling to say the least. It would be nice to see Francisco utilized to increase the Phillies’ advantage by another percentage point or two.