Amateur Hour at Citizens Bank Park

In the post-season, fans are usually subject to high-caliber baseball as the best offenses, pitching staffs, and defenses tend to rise to the top by the end of 162 regular season games. Of the eight playoff teams this year, only the Braves went in with a negative UZR/150 (-5.7) and the Giants had the only wOBA below the league average (.318).

High-level play was not seen at Citizens Bank Park last night in Game Two of the NLDS between the Phillies and Reds. Roy Oswalt was not sharp, allowing a lead-off home run to Brandon Phillips in the first inning. He struggled all night with his control and left after just five innings of work having allowed four runs. Chase Utley made two errors in one inning. Laynce Nix reached safely to lead off the second inning when Utley fielded a routine ground ball but threw the ball wide of the first base bag, pulling Ryan Howard off. A wild pitch and a walk put runners on first and second with one out to bring up catcher Ryan Hanigan. Hanigan hit a dead double play ball, but Utley rushed his throw, causing a tough short-hop that Howard could not pick and that allowed Nix to score the Reds’ second run.

Ahead by four runs going into the bottom of the fifth, the Reds would make some miscues of their own to help the Phillies get back in the game. With two outs and a runner on first, Shane Victorino reached on a fielding error by Brandon Phillips. The next hitter, Placido Polanco, reached safely on a fielding error by Scott Rolen bringing Utley to the plate with the bases loaded. Utley waited on a change-up from Bronson Arroyo, hitting a line drive to right field, plating two runs to bring the score to 4-2.

J.C. Romero relieved Oswalt in the sixth and held the Reds in check, retiring the two batters he faced. Chad Durbin was brought in to get the third out of the inning, but Drew Stubbs drew a two-out walk. Durbin erased his mistake by picking Stubbs off at first base.

Things got interesting in the bottom of the sixth. With two outs and a runner on second base, reliever Arthur Rhodes hit Carlos Ruiz in the kneecap with a pitch. Ruiz doubled over in pain but eventually shook it off. Manager Dusty Baker brought in right-hander Logan Ondrusek to the face right-handed pinch-hitter Ben Francisco. Ondrusek promptly hit Francisco in the head with a pitch — it hit him on the bill of his helmet. With the bases loaded, Ondrusek couldn’t find the strike zone and walked Shane Victorino on four pitches, forcing in the Phillies’ third run.

Aroldis Chapman came in to start the seventh inning and yet another Phillie was hit by a pitch — or so it seemed. Chapman threw a fastball high and inside to Utley, which at first glance appeared to grace his hand. Utley acted as if he was hit and the home plate umpire awarded him first base.  Upon closer inspection — as the animation below illustrates — Utley pulled a Derek Jeter and simply acted as if he had been hit.

[Click here to view Utley’s close call]

Chapman would get two outs and Utley’s acting appeared to be in vain. Jimmy Rollins, however, hit a line drive to right field which Jay Bruce — normally a very good defender — lost in the lights. The ball sailed past him, allowing Jayson Werth and Utley to advance to second and third. Second baseman Phillips dropped the relay throw, however, allowing the Phillies’ tying and go-ahead runs to score. Two errors were awarded on the play, to Bruce and Phillips — the Reds’ third and fourth on the night. The Phillies would score one more run on a ground-out by Ruiz, and tacked on one more in the bottom of the eighth.

The Phillies bullpen held the Reds scoreless for four innings. Jose Contreras pitched a clean seventh, Ryan Madson a clean eighth, and Brad Lidge closed the door in the ninth after working around a lead-off walk. In total, Phillies relievers tossed four innings, allowing a mere three base runners on one hit and two walks.

It wasn’t the most impressive win — certainly not after what happened on Wednesday — but the Phillies are happy to go up two games to none any way they can.

. . .

Quotes

Via Mark Sheldon, who covers the Reds for MLB.com:

“It was in the lights the whole time. I tried to stick with it to see if it would come out. It never did. It’s pretty helpless. It’s embarrassing. I take a lot of pride in my defense. There’s really nothing I can do about it. I wish for my team more than anything that it didn’t go into the lights or that it came out and I could have caught it. It didn’t happen.” — Jay Bruce

[…]

The debacle of the seventh inning started when Chase Utley acted his way through a hit-by-pitch from Aroldis Chapman. The pitch was 101 mph, Utley didn’t sell it that well but it was enough to be awarded first base.

“I don’t think at any time that the ball hit him. I don’t think he ever got hit,” Chapman said.

“It was pretty close,” Utley said. “At first I thought it was going to hit me in my head.  Fortunately, it didn’t.  And he throws so hard.  I felt like I thought it hit me, so I put my head down and I ran to first.”

Q.  Did it hit you?  Chase Utley:  “I’m not sure.”

Red Leg Nation scribe and ESPN SweetSpot member Chad Dotson on the game:

If you had told me that the Reds would commit four errors, and they would be committed by Rolen, Phillips, and Bruce, I never would have believed that in a million years.

[…]

Four stupid errors. The only other time the Reds made four errors this season was in that disastrous game in Atlanta back in May, when the bullpen blew that big lead. Heck, the Reds only had 72 regular season errors, and that was tied for the second-fewest in baseball.

More error trivia, from ESPN: The 4 errors by the Reds tie an LDS record, previously done 5 times. The last time the Reds made 2 errors in an inning in a postseason inning– Game 3 of the 1972 World Series. Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan made an error on the same play in the 6th inning.

Roy Halladay’s No-Hitter, Moment by Moment

The following is a submission from Nick Scott, who writes for fellow ESPN SweetSpot blog Royals Authority as well as Broken Bat Single. He analyzed every millisecond in the final out of Roy Halladay‘s no-hitter last night against the Cincinnati Reds, and I thought it was a great read. He offered to have it re-posted here for your enjoyment.

You can view a larger version of each image by clicking on it.

. . .

There are thousands of plays in a baseball season.  They are not all created equal.  For example, on September 25, the Kansas City Royals played a game in Cleveland against the Indians.  In the top of the seventh inning, Mike Aviles grounded out to the shortstop for the second out of the inning.  The Royals were down seven runs to one, and both teams had long been out of the post season picture.  A few die-hard fans of each team cared, but the individual play had little to no significance in the grand scheme of baseball.  Plays like that are a part of baseball, they are needed to move the season to its conclusion.  However, it’s not those plays that create history, primarily because they are so abundant and so ordinary.

Last night, fans around baseball were treated to a historic moment.  Roy Halladay pitched a no-hitter in a playoff game, only the second time it’s ever happened.  An individual game of baseball in many ways mirrors the season and even the entire history of the sport.  A game is not complete until every out has been made, just like a season isn’t complete until every game is played.  Many outs are merely mundane, simple groundouts to short, there seemingly to move the game a step closer to the end.  Some outs, just like some games, take on a much greater importance.  Outs like the one to end a no-hitter take on supreme importance, and playoff games likewise.  The convergence of an important out and an important game elevate the moment to one of historic proportions.

I’d like to focus on the final out of last night’s game moment by moment.  An out that took roughly 10 seconds from pitch until completion, but one that encapsulates the drama of baseball.

It’s the top of the ninth inning, two outs and an 0-2 count on Cincinnati Red Brandon PhillipsRoy Halladay had surrendered only a single walk  in this opening game of the National League Division Series.   He’d thrown a first pitch fastball for a strike at 93 MPH and followed it up with a 91 MPH cut fastball outside which Phillips swung at and missed.  Catcher Carlos Ruiz called for a curve ball off-the plate, knowing that Phillips was likely going to swing at nearly anything to stay alive, and hoping the change in speed would have him swinging in front of the pitch.  Halladay obliged with a 79 MPH curve, right where Ruiz wanted it.

Brandon Phillips, likely willing to do anything to stay alive and with that previous cut fastball still in his head, stretches out his arms and begins a very awkward swing at the curve ball.  The guy in the crowd wearing the white coat seems to be leaning in an attempt to will the ball past the batter.

Phillips gets stretched out just enough to get the very end of the bat on the ball.  However, the sink on the curve drops the ball to where it will hit on the lower half of the bat.  The guy sitting down in the second row is holding a radar gun.  He’s obviously some kind of scout.  He’s not there as a fan, he’s there for his job and isn’t even going to soak in the last pitch of a no-hitter in a playoff game.

Phillips drives the ball down to the ground weakly and it takes a half-hearted bounce.  Catcher Ruiz looks to be a little stunned that the ball is not in his glove and his body seems to be in a bad position to field the ball if it doesn’t get to the pitcher.  The guy standing next to the leaning white-coat guy seems convinced that the no-hitter has already happened.  He’s about four seconds from being right, but a lot still has to happen.

Phillips knows he barely hit the ball and his only shot at breaking up the no-hitter is to beat a throw from the catcher.  Ruiz begins to realize he is in a bad position, but is moving in the direction of the ball and begins to remove his mask.

Halladay finally begins to move towards the ball, probably realizing that Ruiz has a very tough play to make with Phillips running across his face and more importantly, the bat being dropped directly in the path of the ball.  The umpire, John Hirschbeck, shifts his weight, driving off of his left foot in an attempt to get in the best position to see the play unfold.  Meanwhile, the scout speaks into a headset, probably telling his assistant the speed of the pitch so it can be recorded.

Halladay realizes that the play is not his, he’s got no shot at it and can only get in the way.  Phillips hits the grass in a full sprint, and the ball hits the ground right in front of the still rolling bat.  Meanwhile, second basemen Chase Utley starts moving towards first to back up a potential errant throw.

Brandon Phillips takes the inside path towards first base, knowing that he is right in the path of the throw from Ruiz to first baseman Ryan Howard.  Ruiz stoops to pick up the ball, which is now rolling to the bat and about to bounce back towards the pitcher.

Ruiz runs just past the ball because the way it hits the bat, it gets directed in an odd direction.  Brandon Phillips is about halfway to first and Ruiz has yet to pick up the ball.  At this point, the entire play hinges on Ruiz being able to cleanly pick up the ball with his bare hand.  Rain earlier in the day likely clung to the grass, making the play that much more difficult.

Home plate umpire John Hirschbeck signals that the ball is fair, while Ruiz’s momentum carries him to his knees.  Brandon Phillips has moved a few steps closer to first, Utley continues to his backup position, first base umpire Bruce Dreckman gets into what he feels is the best position to see the play and Ryan Howard gets prepared to take a throw to the inside of the base, a throw which Phillips is still expertly blocking.  Roy Halladay is watching it all unfold in front of him and if I had to guess, isn’t convinced he’s got a no-hitter.

Ruiz fires the ball to the inside of Brandon Phillips, the throw taking nearly all of his upper body strength, since he cannot rely on his legs for power.  The ball quickly makes up ground on Phillips, but the play is still clearly in doubt.  Fans in Philly are probably not breathing.

Chase Utley, sensing a bad throw moves quicker into position, while umpire Dreckman is firmly in position ready to make the call.  The ball and Phillips are in a dead heat, the only question now is whether Ryan Howard can catch it.

Ryan Howard stretches to catch the high throw, utilizing every bit of his 6’4” frame.

History being made, the celebration ensues.

These small intricacies are typical of any baseball game, from a meaningless late September matchup between two basement-dwellers to postseason no-hitters.  It’s the competition inherent in the sport and the uniqueness of baseball which allow these rather typical series of moments take on the utmost significance.

Nick Scott writes about the Royals for Royals Authority, podcasts about the Royals at Broken Bat Single and writes about the Chiefs for Chiefs Command.  You can follow him on Twitter@brokenbatsingle, on Facebook or email him at brokenbatsingle at gmail dot com.

Doc’s No-No: By the Numbers

If you happened to be vacationing somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy yesterday, you’re probably wondering why Roy Halladay is still the top trending topic on Twitter. The right-hander, already the author of a perfect game during the regular season, held the Cincinnati Reds hitless through nine innings in Game One of the NLDS last night. He became the second player in baseball history to toss a no-hitter in the post-season, joining Don Larsen who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Just how good was Halladay? Let’s delve into the numbers.

0 runs
0 hits
0.11 in-game WHIP
1 Reds’ NL rank in avg. runs scored per game
1 walk
1 line drive
3 outfield fly balls
3 infield fly balls
7 lowest pitch total in one inning
8 strikeouts
9 innings
10 change-ups
12 ground balls
12 highest pitch total in one inning
14 0-2 counts
17 swinging strikes
22 curve balls
25 first-pitch strikes
25 balls
31 cut fastballs
37 two-seam fastballs
79 strikes
94 MPH, maximum fastball velocity
94 game score
104 pitches thrown
154 minutes to complete nine innings
46,411 paid attendance
respect earned

Back in February, I pondered Halladay’s chances of being inducted into the Hall of Fame. I concluded:

If Halladay helps the Phillies reach the post-season on multiple occasions and pitches well in his playoff appearances (winning a World Series would really help), and if he can make a few All-Star teams, and if he can earn some Cy Young votes (the hardware would, again, really help), then a legitimate case can be made that he should go into the Hall of Fame with a Phillies cap.

In his first year with the Phillies, Halladay has:

  • Pitched a perfect-game against the Florida Marlins
  • Made the NL All-Star team
  • Pitched a complete game shut-out to help his team clinch the division against the Washington Nationals
  • Led the NL in wins, complete games, shut-outs, innings pitched, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and lowest walk rate
  • [Will likely] win the NL Cy Young award
  • Put himself into legitimate NL MVP candidacy
  • Pitched a no-hitter in Game One of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds, his first career post-season start

Just imagine what he can do from 2011-13 and potentially ’14 (vesting option worth $20 million). He needs only 31 more regular season wins for 200 over his career, which should seal the deal among the more traditional voters. I didn’t think it was possible at the time I wrote the article, but Halladay has done enough this season to make his career worthy of Cooperstown enshrinement. The only question mark concerns the logo on his cap, but Philadelphia got a hell of a head start with Halladay’s performance this year.

Still can’t get enough of the no-hitter? Listen to Scott Franzke’s call of Halladay’s moment from last night by clicking here.

Roy Halladay Tosses Second Post-Season No-Hitter

Roy Halladay was as dominant as ever tonight, tossing just the second post-season no-hitter in baseball history. He needed only 104 pitches to get through 28 batters with the lone dent on his stellar outing  a fifth-inning walk to Jay Bruce. The Phillies’ prized right-hander struck out eight and induced twelve ground balls with three infield pop-ups.

With all of the great baseball moments in Philadelphia dating back to 2007, it has become increasingly hard to impress Phillies fans. Epic walk-off hits in the post-season? That’s old hat. Amazing defensive plays? Boring. Making up seven games in the standings in a short amount of time? Already did it.

Halladay, though, managed to sear himself into the memories of baseball fans with his historic performance tonight. Although he had tossed a perfect game earlier in the year and is on track to win his second career Cy Young award, many analysts and fans wondered how he would react to his first ever post-season start. It is safe to say that those questions have been answered.

Aside from confusing hitter after hitter, Halladay put on a bit of a hitting clinic in the second inning. With two outs and runners on first and second, Halladay stepped to the plate against Edinson Volquez. Reds fans had to be breathing a sigh of relief as there is no other opposing hitter you’d rather see up with runners on base than the pitcher. Halladay hacked at the first pitch and sent a well-hit line drive to left field, allowing Carlos Ruiz to score to put the Phillies up 2-0. Shortly thereafter, Shane Victorino singled to center, scoring Wilson Valdez and Halladay.

Hits by Roy Halladay through one plate appearance: 1.

Hits by the Cincinnati Reds through 28 plate appearances: 0.

It was just that kind of night. The National League’s most potent offense was squelched by Halladay’s ability to get ahead of hitters and locate his pitches extremely well. Of the 28 batters Halladay faced, he threw a first-pitch strike to 24 of them (86 percent). He got to an 0-2 count with 14 of the 28 hitters and never fell behind 2-0. Pitcher Travis Wood made the best contact against Halladay, sending a line drive to right fielder Jayson Werth in the third inning. That would be the only line drive of the night.

The Reds weren’t exactly classy when speaking to reporters after the game. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera — with a .292 wOBA and 6.4 percent walk rate — thought the umpires were rather generous to Doc. Via the Cincinnati Enquirer’s John Fayman on Twitter:

He and the umpire pitched a no-hitter. He gave him every pitch. Basically, we had no chance.

Eno Sarris posted this chart at FanGraphs in his recap that shows that home plate umpire John Hirschbeck’s zone was pretty good.

Called strikes are the light red squares and I see only one that’s questionable. You stay classy, Reds. I made the “NL East Whining” category given all of the complaining the Atlanta Braves do about the Phillies — I’m hoping I don’t have to add an “NL Central Whining” category now. Edinson Volquez pitched with the same home plate umpire and ended up walking two and not making it out of the second inning.

MLB.com‘s Todd Zolecki has some great quotes from the man himself, Doc Halladay:

“I felt like we got in a groove early,” Halladay said. “[Catcher] Carlos [Ruiz] has been great all year, but he helps me get in rhythm, throwing a lot of pitches for strikes, getting ahead, and then later in the game mixing pitches well, mixing speeds well. So he’s done a great job for me, just trying to be aggressive.”

[…]

“It’s surreal. It really is,” Halladay said. “I just wanted to pitch here, pitch in the postseason. To be able to go out and have a game like that is a dream come true.”

Just as he did after his perfect game against the Florida Marlins, Halladay deflects the praise from himself and puts it on his teammates. What a guy.

The Phillies go up 1-0 on the Reds in the NLDS and look to take a commanding 2-0 lead as Roy Oswalt takes the bump Friday night against Bronson Arroyo.

Phillies-Reds NLDS Preview: Q&A with Chad Dotson

Philadelphia is ready to enjoy yet another year of post-season baseball. I believe it was the great philosopher Sun Tzu Zack de la Rocha, of Rage Against the Machine, who once said “Know your enemy”. What better way to know the enemy than to speak directly to him? That’s what I did with Chad Dotson of Redleg Nation, a fellow member of the ESPN Sweetspot blog network. Below are Chad’s answers to some questions I tossed his way via e-mail. If you click over to his blog, you can see my answers to his questions as well.

(Language in the clip may be NSFW)

. . .

1. Scott Rolen seemed to be on fire in the first half, but he cooled off in August and September. Are the Reds concerned? Is the lack of production due to declining health?

There is certainly reason for concern, as there is a stark difference between Rolen’s first-half and second-half numbers. Some of that diminished production is likely due to age, as Rolen has gotten a bit worn down (only once in the last six seasons has Rolen played as many games as he’s played this year). Rolen’s diminished performance since the All-Star break, however, is partially a problem of perception. In other words, Rolen hasn’t really been that bad in the second half; his OPS+ after the break is 15. The problem is that you are comparing those numbers to a fluke first half, when Rolen unexpectedly hit 17 homers on his way to posting an OPS+ of 145.

Meanwhile, his defense has been very good. Yes, there is reason for concern, but the Scott Rolen of the second half has been a pretty good player in his own right.

2. Can the Reds still win the series if the Phillies neutralize Joey Votto?

Sure, but it makes things more difficult. One of the best things about this team is that someone different has stepped up to be the hero when needed. There are lots of guys who are comfortable in the tense moments.

That said, I’m not particularly concerned about the Phillies neutralizing Votto. No one has been able to neutralize Votto all season. Since April, Votto has put up an OPS over 1000 in each month, and he has been the steadiest, most professional player I’ve ever seen. Every single day, every single at-bat, every single pitch, Joey Votto is locked in. That’s why he has been the Most Valuable Player in the National League, even though Charlie Manuel didn’t think he was an All-Star.

3. The starting pitching match-ups don’t favor the Reds, to say the least. Will Dusty Baker have a quick trigger to take out a struggling starter and go to the bullpen?

Yes, and the Reds are particularly well-suited to weather that storm. The Reds don’t have a brilliant top of the rotation like the Phils, but they have a much deeper group of starting arms to call upon than most teams. Dusty Baker is going to go with a three-man rotation in this series: Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto. That means that Travis Wood and Homer Bailey will be pitching out of the bullpen. You remember Wood; he almost spun a perfect game against your guys back in June. Both he and Bailey are capable of coming in at a moment’s notice to take the ball if a starter falters.

4. If there is one thing that the Reds and Phillies have in common, it’s that both teams have watched their closers struggle at various points throughout the season. Do you trust the bullpen to hold down a one-run lead in the eighth and ninth innings?

No…and yes. I love the guy, but I just don’t trust Francisco Cordero in those tight spots right now; as good as CoCo has been the last few years, he’s been scary this season. I do, however, trust the other guys out there: Nick Masset, Arthur Rhodes, and a guy the Phillies should be dreading — Aroldis Chapman.

Chapman should have the ball in his hands in every crucial spot, because there’s no one like him in the world. A big lefty who throws up to 105 MPH and has the most unhittable slider I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to see Ryan Howard flail at one of those sliders.

Dusty Baker has made clear that CoCo is his guy, but he has also hinted that he won’t hesitate to go elsewhere if Cordero isn’t getting the job done. I’m going to go the wishful thinking route, and hope that Dusty give Cordero a very short leash in October.

5. The Reds are neither aggressive (90 SB; NL avg. 89) nor efficient (68% success rate) in terms of stealing bases. Do you expect the Reds to be more aggressive on the base paths in the NLDS, or will they be content to play station-to-station baseball?

While the Reds haven’t been an aggressive team when it comes to stolen bases, I think you’ll find that the Reds are the most aggressive team in the league when it comes to baserunning. Cincinnati leads the league in going first-to-third, taking an extra base almost every single time there is an opportunity.

Given Dusty Baker’s small-ball tendencies, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more base-stealing in the NLDS. One run could be very important against the type of pitching of which the Phillies can boast. Drew Stubbs, in particular, is a speed-burner, and I can see Dusty giving him the green light more often than usual. On the whole, however, the Reds are already pretty aggressive on the basepaths. I don’t expect that to change.

6. Let’s say the Reds get through the Phillies and advance to the NLCS. Who would you rather face, the San Francisco Giants or Atlanta Braves?

Who cares, as long as we’re there? A more serious answer: probably Atlanta. I feel like the Reds match up better with the Braves, especially given all the important injuries Atlanta has suffered. San Francisco has some good pitching that would scare me a bit.

If Cincinnati can beat the Phillies, however, I’ll be on cloud nine and probably won’t care who the next opponent is.

. . .

Thanks to Chad for taking the time to provide his insight into the NLDS. Be sure to click over to Redleg Nation to check out my replies to his queries.

There’s nothing quite like post-season baseball, and for the first time perhaps ever, the Phillies are prohibitive favorites to win it all. It starts today and who better to get the ball rolling than Roy Halladay?

Phillies-Reds NLDS Preview: Starting Rotations

Not surprisingly, the starting rotation is regarded as the Phillies’ big advantage heading into the playoffs. After all, Roy Halladay led all of Major League Baseball in SIERA at 2.93 while Hamels finished tenth (3.19) and Oswalt finished 14th (3.34). Meanwhile, the Reds’ Game One starter will be Edinson Volquez who is still trying to return to form after Tommy John surgery caused him to miss the first half of the regular season. In 62 and two-thirds innings, his SIERA was 3.68. The Reds will send Bronson Arroyo (4.66) to the bump in Game Two and Johnny Cueto (4.14) in Game Three.

Let’s delve a little deeper and look at the six starters we will see in the best-of-five National League Division Series.

Roy Halladay

You won’t get much of an argument if you claim that Roy Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball right now. He’s a favorite to take home the National League Cy Young award — it would be the second of his great career — and should be in the discussion for the NL Most Valuable Player award as well.

What does Halladay do that leads to all that success? It’s simple, really. He has an above-average strikeout rate (7.9 K/9). He walks very few hitters (1.1 BB/9). He induces a lot of ground balls (51 percent). He handles both right-handed and left-handed hitters. He avoids three-ball counts (13 percent). When he falls behind in the count, he bounces back and gets outs anyway (65 percent). He throws a lot of strikes — in 92 percent of plate appearances this season, at least one of his first two pitches were strikes.

The Reds will be praying that the home plate umpire in Game One has a postage stamp strike zone.

Doc will face a right-handed-heavy Cincinnati lineup, which bodes well as his best pitch is a sinker that runs in on right-handers. He held right-handers to a .610 OPS, more than 70 points lower than their left-handed counterparts. But wait, there’s more! Joey Votto struggles (relatively speaking, of course) against ground ball pitchers. So does Jay Bruce. Four Reds ranked in the top-26 in the NL in fly ball percentage: Jonny Gomes (50 percent), Bruce (44 percent), Scott Rolen (44 percent), and Drew Stubbs (41 percent).

Roy Oswalt

Like Halladay, Oswalt strikes out a lot of hitters (8.2 K/9, a career-high) and walks few (2.3 BB/9).  He differs from Halladay in that he relies more on a straight four-seam fastball and thus does not induce quite as many ground balls. Oswalt also has more of a traditional arsenal of pitches: four-seam fastball, change-up (with about a 10 MPH differential), slider, and curve. The problem is that his off-speed pitches don’t induce many swings-and-misses — this year, the whiff percentage is at 26 percent compared to the MLB average 30 percent. Oswalt will generate the majority of his whiffs on fastballs. And like Halladay, Oswalt is a strike thrower, going into a three-ball count in only 15 percent of plate appearances.

Oswalt is an ace on a majority of MLB teams. That he’s the #2 in Philly speaks volumes to how good the starting pitching is.

Cole Hamels

Hamels rebounded from a rough 2009 to have the best season of his Major League career. His strikeout rate skyrocketed, averaging a strikeout per inning. His walk rate also went up (2.6 BB/9) but it is still well below the MLB average (3.3 BB/9). Why the jump? Cole introduced a cut fastball to his repertoire, reducing the use of his other pitches  — most importantly his change-up. Last year, change-ups represented 30 percent of his total pitches; this year, just 23 percent. While his cutter leaves a lot to be desired (especially against right-handers), it is another pitch for opposing hitters to keep in mind, making him noticeably tougher to gauge.

Hamels is the most fly ball-prone of the Phillies’ three aces, making him a good match for the Reds’ fly ball-prone, right-handed-heavy lineup. Since Hamels will pitch in Game Three, he’ll be in Cincinnati at Great American Ballpark. Needless to say, the park will not be aiding him. GAB has a park factor of 133 for right-handed hitters according to StatCorner.

Of the match-ups in this series, it appears that Game Three is the one the Phillies are most likely to lose.

Now, let’s take a look at the Reds’ hurlers.

Edinson Volquez

Volquez became a household name in 2008 when he finished with a 3.21 ERA and averaged 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings. The Reds believed he’d become a reliable member of the starting rotation for years to come, but injuries sidelined him early last season and he didn’t return until mid-July this year. He seems to have his stuff back but he still lacks command as his walk rate is up over five per nine innings. A patient team like the Phillies (fourth-best walk rate in the NL) will be able to work the count against Volquez and punish him for his inability to consistently find the strike zone.

Like Hamels, Volquez used to rely on a change-up but has used it less in favor of a new pitch — in this case, a curve. Volquez still uses the change-up 23 percent of the time and it has nearly 12 MPH of separation from his fastball, so the Phillies have their work cut out for them in this regard. He has also done well to induce ground balls — 54 percent in a small sample of innings.

Right now, Volquez is in the same class as pitchers like Jhoulys Chacin, Bud Norris, and Felipe Paulino. They can all miss bats with relative ease, but lack the control to become anything more than a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher.

Bronson Arroyo

Arroyo is one of those pitchers who seems to consistently beat the ERA retrodictors. Since 2004, Arroyo has underperformed his xFIP just once: in 2008, when his 4.77 ERA was well above his 4.12 xFIP. For most of those years, he had decent strikeout rates combined with good control, but in recent years he has missed fewer and fewer bats. His 5.1 K/9 this year is even with that of “Grandpa” Jamie Moyer! Unfortunately for opposing hitters, the drop in strikeouts didn’t lead to more failure as Arroyo’s BABIP in ’09 and ’10 was .270 and .246 respectively.

Arroyo’s calling card is his avoidance of the fastball — it made up only 39.5 percent of his pitches during the regular season. As he is not exactly a ground ball machine, one would think he would be a candidate for allowing home runs, but he only allowed more than one home run in six of his 33 starts. Moreover, Arroyo is a workhorse, pitching into the seventh in 20 of those 33 starts.

A pitcher who strikes out hitters as infrequently as Jamie Moyer shouldn’t finish a season with a 3.88 ERA, but Arroyo did. The charade can’t last forever, however. Arroyo has a chasm in his performance between right-handed and left-handed hitters: 210 points of OPS to be exact. The Phillies’ lefty-heavy lineup will attempt to fix what’s wrong by making Arroyo’s results match his performance.

Johnny Cueto

Although his ERA in 2008 approached 5.00, Reds fans saw a lot to like about Cueto in his rookie season. He averaged over eight strikeouts per nine and his walk rate hovered around the league average. Since then, though, Cueto has been unable to fan batters at the same rate, failing to hit the 7.0 K/9 threshold in each of the past two seasons. With a 93 MPH fastball and an 83 MPH change-up, it seems like strikeouts could come in bunches for the young right-hander. Perhaps he is too reliant on his slider, as it accounts for over one-fourth of his pitches.

Nonetheless, Cueto has been an average pitcher at best. In Game Three, Cueto will be praying to the BABIP gods to help deliver a gem.

Phillies-Reds NLDS Preview: Starting Eight

It took all 162 games of the regular season, but the Phillies finally found their opponent for the National League Division Series: the Cincinnati Reds. They led the NL in offense, but finished last among the four playoff contestants in their runs-allowed average. Their pitching staff isn’t as deep as the Phillies’ but is nonetheless formidable, thanks in part to the third-best defense as rated by UZR. Still, the Reds are going to try to win the series by mashing the baseball. First baseman Joey Votto led the league in wOBA and Scott Rolen had the second-highest wOBA among third basemen.

How do the Reds compare to the Phillies? Let’s dig into the stats.

Catcher

Assuming Carlos Ruiz is healthy (he was hit by a pitch in yesterday afternoon’s regular season finale), he should catch every game of the playoffs. He had an exceptional offensive year, finishing with a near-.400 on-base percentage with decent power (.447 SLG). Ruiz is a very intelligent hitter, very aware of the ins and outs of hitting eighth in the batting order — he is content to take those unintentional-intentional walks. Aside from his great success at the plate in 2010, Ruiz is known for two other items: blocking pitches in the dirt and coming up huge in October (or, as it is more affectionately called in Philadelphia, Choochtober).

In mid-June, I analyzed Ruiz’s ability to prevent and punish his opponents’ running game, concluding that he is about average in that regard. However, Dan Turkenkopf of Beyond the Box Score found that Ruiz is among the best in the game at blocking pitches in the dirt. With pitchers like Jose Contreras (with the tumbling splitter) and Brad Lidge (slider), this is a critical skill necessary for survival late in games. Additionally, Ruiz is anecdotally highly regarded for his ability to call games and handle a pitching staff. Most pitchers who have passed through Philadelphia during Ruiz’s tenure have had nothing but great things to say about him.

The Reds have two catchers, Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan, that split time about 60/40 (as opposed to the 75/25 split between Ruiz and Brian Schneider). Hernandez and Hanigan are about equal with the bat, but Hanigan possesses much better plate discipline as he walks about five percent more often. Hanigan’s offensive capabilities are similar to Ruiz: high batting average, good on-base skills, occasional power. Hanigan’s platoon split is much wider than Hernandez’s: 182 points of OPS as opposed to 30 in favor of left-handed pitching.

As I don’t follow the Reds as closely as the Phillies, I can’t speak to any anecdotal evidence that Hernandez and Hanigan are comparable to Ruiz in terms of calling a game and handling a pitching staff. Hopefully some Reds fans and bloggers can stop by and provide some analysis there. But overall, I think the catchers are a push — neither side has a clear advantage here.

First Base

It’s the 2006 NL MVP against, possibly, the 2010 NL MVP.

Howard’s 2010 is a disappointment. Although he missed two weeks, his numbers would still be down nonetheless. His ISO declined 60 points from last season, a sign Phillies fans do not want to see. Late in games, opposing managers bring in left-handed relievers to throw him breaking pitches low and away and fastballs up. Howard has given in much more than he had in previous years — his swing rate at pitches outside the zone was six percent higher than his career average and his swing rate at pitches inside the zone was seven percent lower than his career average. Howard isn’t garbage against lefties but there is a definitive blueprint to neutralize him. Pitchers that adhere to that blueprint usually have success.

Joey Votto, meanwhile, appears to have no weakness. He hits left-handers and he hits right-handers. He hits four-seamers, sinkers, cutters, sliders, curves, change-ups, and splitters. He hits at home and he hits on the road. He hits early in games and he hits late in games.

He does appear to have one very minor flaw, though: he hits worse against ground ball pitchers. Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt both induce an above-average amount of ground balls: 51 and 49.5 percent, respectively. Additionally, Ryan Madson can be found at 50.5 percent and J.C. Romero — who should be called upon for this match-up several times — is over 60 percent.

Aside from having a lethal bat, Votto is an adequate fielder, receiving good marks from UZR. Howard, on the other hand, is graded as a sub-par fielder. However, the difference of about 7 UZR/150 between the two over their careers could be negligible given the uncertainty around the data.

The advantage here clearly goes to the Reds.

Second Base

Chase Utley is clearly the best all-around second baseman in baseball. Over the last three years, he leads in both wOBA (.392, 19 points higher than the runner-up Dustin Pedroia) and UZR/150 (14.9, three points higher than runner-up Mark Ellis). In the same period of time, Brandon Phillips has a .333 wOBA and 8.8 UZR/150.

Utley is also a better base-stealer than Phillips. In 508 PA, Utley stole 13 bases in 15 attempts (87 percent). Phillips stole 16 in 28 attempts (57 percent). However, Phillips is better at advancing on the bases on balls put in play as shown by the metrics in the table below.

Base Advancement, via Baseball Prospectus
GAR SBR AAR HAR OAR BRR
Chase Utley -0.3 0.9 0.0 1.1 -0.5 1.2
Brandon Phillips 1.5 -2.2 1.3 1.8 0.4 2.8
  • GAR: Ground Advancement Runs
  • SBR: Stolen Base Runs
  • AAR: Air Advancement Runs
  • HAR: Hit Advancement Runs
  • OAR: Other Advancement Runs
  • BRR: Base Running Runs (e.g. total)

As with first base, there is no debate which team has the advantage here, only this time the Phillies have the upper hand.

Third Base

Ah, finally a position with a closer race. Unfortunately, Placido Polanco is dealing with an elbow that will require surgery once the season is complete. Although he finished the season hitting .316 in the last ten games, he had only hit .235 since August 18. At one point he was a legitimate contender for the NL batting title, but his slump — likely due to his elbow — put the kibosh on that. Overall, he hits around the league average without much power.

Once believed to be the biggest question mark for the Phillies going into 2010, Polanco’s defense has surprised many. Critics, including myself, were unsure if he possessed the arm strength to succeed at the hot corner. He quickly squelched any concern in that area as his 10.6 UZR/150 indicates. (Insert another caveat about UZR’s unreliability within just one season.) He did receive a poor grade in terms of range, which is not surprising.

Scott Rolen, like Polanco, has had to deal with some aches and pains throughout the year. More recently, it’s been an amalgamation of issues but he should be healthy enough to contribute during the post-season. Along with beating Polly’s UZR/150 score (with much better range), Rolen finished with the second-best wOBA (.369) among NL third basemen, more than 40 points higher than Polanco.

Neither are base-running threats although Polanco is a perfect 5-for-5 on the year while Rolen is 1-for-3. The Reds get the advantage here — Rolen is simply better on all counts.

Shortstop

Although Jimmy Rollins spent half the season dealing with two calf strains and a thigh strain, his numbers had been in decline anyway. From 2004-08, his wOBA fell between .341 and .378. The last two years, it’s been .316 and .318 respectively. His power is way down this year — his .133 ISO is his lowest since 2003. He still managed to be efficient on the bases, stealing 17 bases in 18 attempts (94 percent). In 21 games between July 17 and August 20, he stole 12 bases in as many attempts. Since then, he’s attempted only three steals in 25 games. Rollins still received a good grade from UZR on all counts except avoiding errors — in nearly half the innings, he matched his errors total from last year with six.

The Reds have Orlando Cabrera, who is a rich man’s Wilson Valdez. In fact, Valdez put up a slightly better OPS this season and defended just as well. Cabrera is the one weak spot in the Reds’ lineup among the eight position players.

A healthy Rollins gives the Phillies a legitimate advantage here. Rollins at around 75% gives them a slight advantage.

Left Field

Rumors of Raul Ibanez‘s demise may have been greatly exaggerated. Although he finished with his worst offensive showing since 2003, he wasn’t all that far away from his production in recent years. He lost a bit of power but has surged recently, hitting for a 1.051 OPS since September 6. With a platoon split of nearly 100 points of OPS in 2010, Dusty Baker may be more willing to leave Arthur Rhodes in to face Ibanez after dealing with Utley and Howard, meaning that Jayson Werth may get a few extra at-bats against southpaws. Defensively, Ibanez lacks range and has a mediocre arm, which comes as no surprise to Phillies fans.

Jonny Gomes is similar to Ibanez in a lot of ways. He is not as good in terms of plate discipline, but has a similar offensive output from the right side. Like Ibanez, he has a deep platoon split (nearly 140 points of OPS) with a disadvantage against right-handers. With only two left-handed hitters in the starting lineup, the Reds will likely have Rolen and Gomes hitting back-to-back. This becomes a very important part of the batting order for Jose Contreras and Ryan Madson.

Gomes is also terrible in the field, even worse than Ibanez. His career UZR/150 at any outfield position is -18. Slight advantage to the Phillies, more if they pepper left field with batted balls.

Center Field

Shane Victorino and Drew Stubbs is about as close a battle between two players that you can get. They are separated by just one one-thousandth of a point in wOBA with nearly equivalent OBP and SLG. Victorino stole 34 bases in 39 attempts (87 percent) while Stubbs stole 29 in 35 attempts (83 percent). Even defensively, they are very similar.

Push.

Right Field

Jayson Werth, a soon-to-be free agent, has been the Phillies’ most potent offensive weapon throughout the 2010 season. He finished with the sixth-best wOBA in the National League, trailing fifth-place Matt Holliday .398 to .396. Werth has exceptional plate discipline, consistently working deep counts. In each of the past two seasons, he led the NL in pitches per plate appearance with 4.5 in ’09 and 4.3 in ’10.

Throughout the season, though, Werth was dogged by criticism of his failure with runners in scoring position — particularly with two outs. Although he had better production in recent weeks in those situations, he still finished the season with lackluster numbers. Fortunately though, those numbers come in small sample sizes and are not indicative of his skill.

Surprisingly, Werth has a reverse platoon split —  he hit better against right-handers than left-handers in 2010: .932 to .878 in terms of OPS. He’s also a base running threat, stealing 53 bases in 60 attempts (88 percent) since the start of the 2008 season.

Defensively, Werth hasn’t graded as well as he did last year but he still has one of the best outfield arms in baseball. While that may not make up for his odd routes to fly balls, it is definitely a factor that will stick in the mind of the Reds’ coaching staff and the base runners.

On the other side, the Reds have their own offensive threat in right field in Jay Bruce. He is no Werth but his .360 wOBA is certainly respectable. Like Werth, Bruce has a reverse platoon split of about 80 points in OPS. It’s a drastic improvement from 2009 when he had a .180 OPS platoon split favoring right-handers. Defensively, Bruce is regarded highly with an 11.4 UZR/150 in nearly 2,600 career defensive innings in right field.

Slight edge goes to the Phillies in right field.

Summary

  • Catcher: Push
  • First base: Reds
  • Second base: Phillies
  • Third base: Reds
  • Shortstop: Phillies
  • Left field: Phillies
  • Center field: Push
  • Right field: Phillies

Stay tuned for more insight into the series as I’ll discuss the teams’ pitching. On Wednesday, I’ll be swapping Q&A with fellow ESPN SweetSpot blogger Chad Dotson of Red Leg Nation.