The Phillies Offense, Visually

By now, everyone is firmly aware that the Phillies haven’t been hitting. They’ve managed two or fewer runs in five of their last six games and, looking at the personnel, it doesn’t portend to get significantly better until Chase Utley and Ryan Howard return from the disabled list, which may not come for another two or three months.

Just how bad has the offense been? I compared the Phillies’ wOBA by position to the National League average, then converted the difference into runs.

Pos PHI wOBA NL wOBA RAA
C .277 .320 -2.1
1B .335 .331 0.2
2B .251 .316 -3.1
3B .219 .308 -4.9
SS .272 .310 -2.1
LF .304 .298 0.3
CF .342 .355 -0.7
RF .305 .332 -1.5

It ain’t pretty. Note that the run values are through roughly 70 plate appearances, so for a fun mental exercise, you can multiply by 10 for a full season’s performance.

If the offense continues to flounder — and we have good reason to expect it should improve slightly, at least — then the Phillies will have a tough remaining five months of the regular season, and they will have to rely even more on their starting rotation.

The positions that stick out are second base and third base. Freddy Galvis, known for his glove and not his bat, has been filling in at second for Chase Utley, someone who twice posted a wOBA north of .400 (2007 and ’09). By comparison, the .250 wOBA of Galvis looks like a steep fall — and it is. Third baseman Placido Polanco has had a terrible start to what may be the end of his career. Now 36 years old, Polanco has had difficulty with just about everything opposing pitchers have thrown at him, and while he has never been known for his plate discipline, he has only drawn one walk in 54 plate appearances.

With the aging roster and the potential escape of soon-to-be free agents Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino, 2012 may be the Phillies’ best shot to win another championship. If it’s going to happen, they will need the offense to pick itself up by the bootstraps and score some more runs.

Phillies Opening Day Trivia

In today’s Opening Day start against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Roy Halladay allowed a paltry four base runners in eight innings of work. He served singles to the first two hitters he faced in the first inning, then held the Pirates hitless the rest of the afternoon. The only two times the Pirates reached base after that was when Halladay hit Andrew McCutchen with a pitch in the fourth inning and Clint Barmes in the eighth.

What does that look like in graph form? The following graph shows how many base runners were on at the time of each at-bat. There’s not a lot to show.

Halladay used his curve 22 times out of his 92 total pitches (24 percent). One of them was this beauty:

Halladay’s game score of 83 is his best Opening Day start of his career, in which he has made ten. The nine prior to today:

Date Tm Opp Rslt App,Dec IP H ER BB SO HR Pit GSc BF
2010-04-05 PHI WSN W 11-1 GS-7 ,W 7.0 6 1 2 9 0 88 68 27
2011-04-01 PHI HOU W 5-4 GS-6 6.0 5 1 0 6 0 101 64 24
2006-04-04 TOR MIN W 6-3 GS-8 ,W 7.2 5 2 0 4 2 88 63 29
2005-04-04 TOR TBD W 5-2 GS-8 ,W 7.0 9 2 0 7 0 91 58 29
2007-04-02 TOR DET W 5-3 GS-6 6.0 6 2 1 4 0 104 53 26
2008-04-01 TOR NYY L 2-3 GS-7 ,L 7.0 7 3 2 3 1 95 52 27
2009-04-06 TOR DET W 12-5 GS-7 ,W 7.0 6 5 1 2 2 99 46 27
2004-04-05 TOR DET L 0-7 GS-7 ,L 6.2 10 6 2 9 3 111 35 32
2003-03-31 TOR NYY L 4-8 GS-6 ,L 5.2 7 3 4 2 2 103 31 28
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/5/2012.

Additionally, today’s 1-0 win marked the 22nd time the Phillies were held scoreless or to just one run on Opening Day, but just the third time they emerged victorious.

Date W / L RS RA Season Postseason
April 9, 1913 W 1 0 88-63
April 15, 1930 W 1 0 52-102
April 5, 2012 W 1 0 N/A
April 17, 1902 L 0 7 56-81
April 14, 1908 L 1 3 83-71
April 14, 1910 L 0 2 78-75
April 14, 1925 L 1 3 68-85
April 17, 1934 L 1 6 56-93
April 14, 1942 L 1 2 42-109
April 14, 1953 L 1 4 83-71
April 6, 1973 L 0 3 71-91
April 8, 1975 L 1 2 86-76
April 7, 1978 L 1 5 90-72 Division Champ
April 6, 1979 L 1 8 84-78
April 5, 1983 L 0 2 90-72 NL Pennant
April 9, 1985 L 0 6 75-87
April 7, 1987 L 0 6 80-82
April 10, 1990 L 1 2 77-85
April 8, 1991 L 1 2 78-84
March 31, 1998 L 0 1 75-87
April 5, 2004 L 1 2 86-76
April 5, 2009 L 1 4 93-69 NL Pennant

Finally, Freddy Galvis became the 41st player to ground into at least two double plays on Opening Day. With two in his first two at-bats, he had the opportunity to join Albert Pujols as the only players to hit into three, but Galvis was able to avoid joining that infamous club. Pujols accomplished his feat last year on March 31 against the San Diego Padres.

A bit of trivia from the Inquirer’s Matt Gelb:

twitter.com/magelb/status/188017186739191810

Terrifying Thought Experiment #1

Earlier today, Ryan Lawrence posted his best guess at the Phillies’ opening day roster. Everything about the offense, including the starting lineup, looks pretty grim:

C Carlos Ruiz
1B Ty Wigginton
2B Freddy Galvis
SS Jimmy Rollins
3B Placido Polanco
LF John Mayberry, Jr.
CF Shane Victorino
RF Hunter Pence

BN Jim Thome
BN Laynce Nix
BN Brian Schneider
BN Pete Orr
BN Juan Pierre

SP Roy Halladay
SP Cliff Lee
SP Cole Hamels
SP Vance Worley
SP Joe Blanton

RP Jonathan Papelbon
RP Chad Qualls
RP Antonio Bastardo
RP Mike Stutes
RP Kyle Kendrick
RP Jose Contreras
RP David Herndon

(I took out Lou Montanez and subbed in David Herndon, as Lawrence was planning for 6 relievers instead of 7 only because a fifth starter won’t be needed until April.)

Last season, the pitching staff allowed 529 runs, which is very good. Historically good, in fact. If you put every team since 1947 in the same 4.5 runs per game environment, the 2011 Phillies staff ranks 18th out of 1550 post-integration pitching staffs in runs allowed. And that’s without a park adjustment; 14 of the teams ahead of the Phillies had pitcher-friendly park factors on their side. The brightest beacon of hope for 2012 is that the pitching staff will still be extremely good, but it probably won’t be as good as it was last season. The simplest reason is that it is very difficult, even in the more pitcher-friendly environment of late, to allow as few as 529 runs. Beyond that, there are a few candidates for regression, like Cole Hamels and Vance Worley.

If you take the ZiPS projections for the pitching staff that Lawrence came up with and adjust it to fill, say, 1450 innings (this is about what most teams needed last year), you get a runs allowed total of 606. On the one hand, ZiPS is probably a bit bearish with regards to some of the best pitchers on the staff, but, on the other, we’re assuming no injuries or bad fortune will take their toll. So 606 is a reasonable enough estimate. Assume, furthermore, that the National League run environment will be the same as it was last year: 4.13 runs per game. With these two numbers, we can use the Pythagenpat formula to get a picture of what is needed from the Phillies offense in 2012 (click for large):

The upshot is, in a tougher NL East, the Phillies need to score around 730 runs to be in the 95 win ballpark and be reasonably certain of winning the division. Keep in mind: last season they scored 713 runs, and, thanks to an inordinate amount of success with runners in scoring position, that total was probably higher than their team OPS of .717 portended. Without delving deeply into hitter projections, the opening day offense predicted by Ryan Lawrence above is not nearly as good as the sum contributions that the Phillies got last season. Per Fangraphs, Ryan Howard produced 92 weighted runs created last season, and has not yet even resumed baseball activities since the setback with his surgery wound; his ETA right now is indeterminate, as is his 2012 effectiveness. Chase Utley, missing to begin 2011, produced 61 weighted runs created. He returned on May 23rd last season, and I think most people would count that as an optimistic projection for 2012 given the tone of the updates we’re being given on him.

This is to say nothing of the potential for regression facing John Mayberry, Jr., the likely ineffectiveness of Ty Wigginton, and the fact that Juan Pierre, who by wRC+ was the 10th worst qualified hitter in baseball last season, is penciled in as a bench contributor. The offense above is likely to score significantly less runs than in 2011, which could put the Phillies in the 92 win range or worse. Particularly now that two wildcard spots are available, this will probably still be enough to make the playoffs. But with the substantial improvements made by the Marlins and the Nationals, and with the Braves still being a contender, the division is by no means the guarantee that it was in the last two seasons. The Phillies, who know the sting of a short series so very well, may be facing a single game win-or-go-home proposition if they don’t look outside the organization for reinforcement.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

Over at the Sweet Spot blog, David Schoenfield takes a stab at how the post-season rotations will line up. The Phillies will need to wait until the end of the day to be assigned an opponent, but regardless of which team it is, the Phillies will enter the playoffs with the best starting rotation, bar none. Here’s a graphical look at how the Phillies compare with the other two known playoff entrants in the National League, going by SIERA.

With Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, the Phillies have the best starter by far in the #1 and 2 spots, and have a slight edge at #4 with Roy Oswalt. The Brewers beat the Phillies at #3 because they’re using Zack Greinke behind Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum, even though Greinke has been significantly better by defense-independent metrics. He has been significantly worse with runners on base: batters are hitting for a .908 OPS against him when runners are on, compared to .695 when the bases are empty.

The Phillies are slightly behind the Brewers and D-Backs in offense, but make up for it with their elite starting rotation. While anything can happen in the post-season, as last year’s San Francisco Giants can attest, there is no reason to bet against the Phillies going into October. It will be a real treat to see how this much-heralded rotation fares in the playoffs.

The Cost of Loyalty

The graph below takes Raul Ibanez and John Mayberry, Jr.’s performances in favorable (vs. opposite-handed pitching) and unfavorable (vs. same-handed pitching) platoon scenarios and compares them to an average NL batter in those same splits.


Notes: wXB/H is “Weighted Extra Bases per Hit,” a contact skill-neutral measure of power that I Frankenstein’d together here. Strikeout rate is inverted, so that lower strikeout rates are higher above league average.

As you would expect, Mayberry bests Ibanez in every category except for walk rate versus opposite-handed pitchers. His overall output, plate discipline, and power are all superior to those of Ibanez. The best thing that can be said for Raul Ibanez is that he has streaks of passable to good performance. When you stop creating generous endpoints for him, he is just a corner outfielder with poor defense who is hitting 10% below league average at the moment by wRC+. On many other teams he would be a bench bat — and blessed to hold on even to that role. Front offices less prone to considerations of loyalty and character, on teams whose fates were less assured, would have looked elsewhere for production weeks ago.

Still, we’re a few days away from the official submission of playoff rosters, and I can say with reasonable certainty that Charlie Manuel will start Raul Ibanez in left field for every playoff game. Granted, it’s more complicated than the above graph makes it seem. Ibanez has nearly twice as many plate appearances as Mayberry, and it will be a while before we can be certain that Mayberry’s improvements are the real deal. It’s also questionable how much their skill differential will really matter in the playoff rat race, where a good four or five plate appearances can turn an entire series.

But suppose the Phillies are knocked out shy of their ultimate goal. While we’re sitting around building narratives after the fact, as FuquaManuel detailed, will we at least consider this, a decision predicated entirely on non-baseball factors that objectively lowers the team’s offensive potential? Or will we brush it aside, credit Charlie Manuel again for being the “player’s manager,” and turn our attention to some other scapegoat?

Please Stop Calling Cliff Lee Streaky

A week after I wrote that the NL Cy Young might be a two man race, Cliff Lee appears to have pitched himself back into contention. The night after that post went live, Lee capped off a brilliant August with 8 and 2/3rds shut out innings against the Reds, and, on Monday, followed that up with his league-leading 6th complete game shutout of the year against the Braves. His numbers now fall right in line with those of Halladay and Kershaw, and it’s impossible to exclude him from any discussion about the NL’s best pitcher in 2011.

Lee’s dominance this season, at least to me, has seemed under-advertised by media and fans. It’s understandable, to an extent. Everyone breathlessly waits to see what Roy Halladay can do next, and for good reason. Cole Hamels is presently filling in the zeroes on his next contract with each gem of a start, and, anticipating that he’ll stick around, we want to feel out just how devastating his new repertoire can be, as if 2010 wasn’t evidence enough. Vance Worley is the new rookie surprise story, on a staff that was hardly wanting for reasons to watch. Added to all that, Lee began the season with some starts that were a strange mix of high strikeout and earned run totals, just when the expectations for the new mega-rotation were fresh and uncompromising.

All of these factors have contributed to a strange notion that I’ve seen in more than a few places: Cliff Lee is “streaky,” or “inconsistent.” I’m not making this up:

Dare to say it; Lee has been somewhat inconsistent this season, with two historic months of dominance surrounded by some fairly modest months of performance.

He is at times the best pitcher in the world, and during others he’s just another pitcher. If you look at his monthly splits this season, Lee has put in two months of ridiculous, epic and historic work.

I want to stress here that this is not meant as a dig at Philadelphia Sports Daily or Jim McCormick. He’s a very good beat writer — one of the best, and one of my favorites, actually. This was just the easiest example to cite. Bill Petti, a writer at Beyond the Boxscore whose work I also enjoy, wrote about it too. They’re simply elaborating on something that a lot of other people on blogs, twitter, radio, newspapers, and in broadcasts have said at some point or other this season. In most cases they’ve said it because of this:

It’s easy to see why someone would look at this data and conclude that Cliff has had, at the very least, a strange year. The June through August stretch is particularly schizophrenic, at least when measured by ERA. Of course, ERA never tells the whole story. His BABIP fluctuated wildly over that period, from .191 to .359 to .237. His strikeout rate was actually at its lowest during his incredible June, and was lower in his 0.45 ERA August than it was in his 4.18 ERA April. A simple results-based evaluation is insufficient; it’s much more complicated than the number of earned runs he has allowed from one month to the next. If we fade ERA out a bit, and add FIP and xFIP to the above graph, this becomes all the more obvious:

That smoothes things out quite a bit, doesn’t it? For one thing, the big split between his FIP and xFIP in July indicates that home runs allowed per fly ball was the source of his outcome woes that month, and indeed that metric was severely inflated, at 18.8%. If his ERA had fallen in line with his FIP or xFIP, no one would seriously accuse him of streakiness. The first graph now looks like a superficial take, at best. We can’t say for sure that there weren’t some perfectly good reasons for his BABIP and HR/FB fluctuations month-to-month (in particular his pop-up rate spiked heartily in his low-BABIP August), but, really, isn’t that the point? When you chunk data out into such small samples, you’ll end up with the murkiest of portraits no matter what brushes you use.

This is especially true when the criteria for that chunking is as entirely arbitrary as calendar months. The Gregorian calendar was rolled out by the head of the Catholic Church almost 500 years ago, primarily because the previous calendar had a nasty habit of shifting the Spring equinox further out of alignment with Easter each year. Baseball evolved gradually in 19th century America from a variety of ancestral stick-and-ball games. The two have nothing to do with one another. There is no reason that Cliff Lee’s pitching ability should have anything to do with the ambitions of Pope Gregory XIII, or the orbital mechanics of the Moon. As Twitterati member @Everybody_Hits noted a while back, you can redefine the calendar months and Cliff Lee’s “consistency” problem disappears. What if each month began on the 25th instead of the 1st?

Now, instead of the wild month-to-month sine wave, Cliff has had a great 4 month stretch from April 25th to August 24th, bookended by a decent March/April and two fantastic August/September starts. It’s impossible to call this an up-and-down season. Even in moving the endpoints, though, we are still submitting to the tyranny of the Moon, sticking with 30-day periods to define our months. Again, there is no reason why we should do this. It has just as much to do with baseball as migratory bird patterns and seasonal wheat harvests. So, hey, let’s break out Lee’s performance according to the rotation of Lambda Andromedae, a G-type giant binary star located approximately 84 light years from Earth. It happens to have a rotational period of 54 days.

Now, if I were to claim that Cliff Lee draws his pitching abilities from the machinations of a distant star, strengthening his powers with each full rotation, I’d have just as strong a set of empirical legs to stand on as those that would look at his monthly splits and call him streaky. In analyzing baseball, we’re constantly limited by the fuzziness introduced by small sample size even when working with a full season of data (especially for pitchers). Splitting it up further only amplifies the problem. Anyone who chooses endpoints, be it a fan, writer, or broadcaster, does so with a certain agenda in mind, whether they know it or not. Even from those endpoints that seem perfectly natural on their face — monthly splits being an excellent example — there can emerge great thickets of coincidence that masquerade as narratives. If we fail to apply the utmost scrutiny to these, we may allow single season gems like Cliff Lee’s 2011 to be muddied with baseless criticisms, and that would be a true shame.

Phillies Record When…

Every so often, you will be given a statistic featuring a team’s record when a specific player does something. It is most commonly featured in the NFL. For instance, when Ray Lewis sacks the quarterback, you will very quickly be given the Baltimore Ravens’ record when Lewis records a sack. When the numbers are abnormal, they become their own narrative, and writers and fans alike run wild with them. Recently, the stat has been imported to baseball. The popular one floating around now shows that the Phillies are undefeated when Hunter Pence records a hit.

David S. Cohen of The Good Phight debunked a similar stat a few years ago, but I decided to take it a couple steps further and include the Phillies’ winning percentage when each player scores a run, records a hit, hits a home run, or drives in a run. (Click to enlarge)

Upon looking at the various charts, you should notice a couple things. One is that the players with fewer plate appearances (or fewer events recorded) are on either side of the players who get regular time in the lineup. This is the effect of a small sample size: the variance is much higher. Once the sample becomes larger, players tend to cluster around the mean.

Secondly, the records reflect the importance of each event as well as sampling bias. There are a lot of high winning percentages when a player hits a home run because  home runs are the most potent event in baseball, on average. Additionally, players hit home runs off of either bad pitchers or good pitchers not pitching at their normal level (example: the Phillies hit four homers off of San Diego Padres pitching on July 23). As a result, the game is more easily winnable than normal. When teams face good pitchers, they tend not to hit home runs and lose more games.

What the “Team Record when Player X Does Something” stat tells you is… nothing. It may look like the Phillies’ .933 winning percentage when Raul Ibanez hits a home run is vastly superior to that of Carlos Ruiz and his .750 winning percentage, but Ibanez has only homered in 15 games. The winning percentage differential of .183 only accounts for roughly three games. When you consider the hefty amount of variance with such a small sample, it comes out as not being meaningful in the least.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

Throughout the season, you’ll hear about run differential as a measure of a team’s success. While not perfect, run differential has been shown to be a good way to determine the skill of a team. It is, after all, the basis for Pythagorean Expectation and its variants. If you know how many runs a team scores and how many they allow, you have a good basis for predicting their future success.

The Phillies have been doing quite well in that department, as you may expect. Prior to Sunday’s games, the Phillies had the third-largest run differential in baseball and by far the best in the National League, besting the St. Louis Cardinals +129 to +48.

Here’s an overall look at MLB run differentials, followed by just the National League. (Click to enlarge)

The Phillies’ 498 runs scored and 369 runs allowed translates to a 72-41 record. As they were 74-39 prior to yesterday’s game, the two-game difference isn’t much and shows the Phillies are about as good as they’ve looked. With this run differential, the Phillies are a 103-win team over a 162-game season. Even with the loss yesterday, the Phillies are on pace for 105 wins.

This study, by David D. Tung, found that “The root mean square difference between the observed and predicted games won is [4.0] games.” What that means is that the Pythagorean expectation will give you an idea how good a team is plus or minus four games. In other words, the PE says the Phillies are a 103-win team, but could actually be between 99-107 in terms of true talent. Basically, the Phillies are really freaking good.

The Playoff Odds Report at Baseball Prospectus, which uses similar but more intricate methods, puts the Phillies at 100% to make the playoffs, the only team in baseball to have risen to the peak. The next-best team in the NL is the San Francisco Giants at 87.9%. Furthermore, the Phillies’ simulated won-lost record comes out to 101-61, right in line with both our to-date results and the Pythagorean expectation.

It seems a bit hyperbolic, but whether or not they win the World Series, there is a very strong case to be made that the 2011 Phillies are the greatest team in franchise history. Through just 114 games, the Phillies already have the tenth-best run differential (remember, a counting stat) in franchise history and the fifth-best in franchise history in the live ball era. Prorating their run differential over 162 games gives them a +185 differential, which would be the third-best in franchise history behind the 1976 team (+213) and the 1887 team (+199).

Year G W L Ties W-L% Finish R RA Rdiff
1976 162 101 61 0 .623 1st of 6 770 557 213
1887 128 75 48 5 .610 2nd of 8 901 702 199
1894 132 71 57 4 .555 4th of 12 1179 995 184
1977 162 101 61 0 .623 1st of 6 847 668 179
1899 154 94 58 2 .618 3rd of 12 916 743 173
1893 133 72 57 4 .558 4th of 12 1011 841 170
1892 155 87 66 2 .569 4th of 12 860 690 170
1993 162 97 65 0 .599 1st of 7 877 740 137
2010 162 97 65 0 .599 1st of 5 772 640 132
2011 113 74 39 0 .655 1st of 5 498 369 129

Chase Utley Is Good

Just one of your intermittent reminders that Chase Utley is, in fact, good at playing baseball.

Among players with 240 or more plate appearances, Utley is one of nine second basemen with three or more Wins Above Replacement via FanGraphs (fWAR). Utley ranks seventh in the group at 3.3, trailing Dustin Pedroia at 6.5. Although the difference appears quite large, Pedroia has nearly twice as much fWAR due to having nearly twice as many plate appearances. If we scale fWAR to 700 plate appearances, a full season, we get to see just how good Utley is and has been thus far.

WAR

PA

WAR/700 PA

Pedroia

6.5

484

9.40

Utley

3.3

246

9.39

Zobrist

5.5

451

8.54

Kendrick

4.2

382

7.70

Kinsler

4.5

478

6.59

Weeks

3.8

469

5.67

Phillips

3.4

460

5.17

Espinosa

3.2

441

5.08

Cano

3.2

443

5.06

Going by just offense, Utley currently ranks second among all qualified second baseman with a .393 wOBA, just barely trailing Pedroia at .398. Ben Zobrist is in third place all the way back at .380. In fact, overall, Utley’s wOBA is tenth-best in the National League.

What has Utley meant to the Phillies? Utley made his season debut on May 23. From the start of the season on April 1 to May 22, the Phillies averaged 3.83 runs per game. Since then, the Phillies have averaged 4.77 runs per game. To put that in perspective, the St. Louis Cardinals currently average the most runs per game in the league at 4.80. With Utley, the Phillies’ offense went from below-average to among the league’s best.

Although not much has changed for Utley — he has always been this good — two things are noticeable. One is that he has completely recaptured the power that evaded him last year. In 2010, his ISO dipped to .169, by far a career low. This year, it is back up to .212, just eight points below his career average. The second difference is that Utley continues to make contact more frequently when he swings the bat. His swinging strike rate has been on a steady decline throughout his entire career, as the following chart illustrates:

A difference of 2.3 percent from 2005 to 2011 may not seem like much, but in a typical season, Utley sees 2,500 to 3,000 pitches of which he will swing at about 40 percent (minimum about 1,000). So, given that theoretical minimum constraint, Utley is making contact with 23 more pitches compared to the start of his career. With a career BABIP at .313, that is hypothetically seven more hits, worth about ten points of batting average in 600 at-bats.

Along with his typically pristine defense  (his 22.4 UZR/150 is tied for best in baseball; small sample size caveat) and his efficient base running (11-for-11 stealing bases), Utley continues to be the total package and continues to be criminally underrated around baseball.