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.

Reader Question: Phillies Run Scoring Distribution

J.B. writes:

Hey, Bill, is there any sort of breakdown how the Phillies score runs? Based on purely anecdotal evidence, it strikes me about 60% of the time the Phillies score 3-4 runs 30% of the time, the Phillies score less than that, and 10% of the time the Phillies score 8 or more runs.

I am exaggerating, and I’m sure there’s some nasty confirmation bias here, but my point is that the Phillies’ offense doesn’t look nearly as good if you throw out the occasional big game. Two question sets:

1. Is that true at all? Do the Phillies tend to have more “synergy” games than other teams?

2. Even if it is true, is that true of most teams? Do teams with offense levels comparable to the Phillies tend to score along the same curve (biggest hump at 3-4 runs, mid-size hump on the low end, and a small but significant hump on the high end)? Or are there significant deviations from this?

So here’s what the Phillies’ run scoring distribution looks like compared to all of Major League Baseball (click to enlarge):

The Phillies have played 105 games. In 29 of them (28 percent), they have scored 3-4 runs; in 34 games (32 percent), they have scored 0-2 runs; and in 17 (16 percent), they have scored eight or more. J.B. was close on the 0-2 and 8-plus run buckets, but way off on the 3-4 run bucket.

As for the second question, the team directly ahead of the Phillies in average runs per game is the Colorado Rockies. The team directly behind the Phillies is the Milwaukee Brewers. I added them to the graph (click to enlarge):

While there are small deviations, nothing jumps out as statistically significant. If we put them in buckets:

  • 0-2 runs: PHI 32%, COL 26%, MIL 25%
  • 3-4 runs: PHI 28%, COL 34%, MIL 35%
  • 5-7 runs: PHI 24%, COL 25%, MIL 28%
  • 8+ runs: PHI 16%, COL 15%, MIL 12%

The Phillies do appear to be slightly less “consistent”, but merely a good week for them or a bad week for the others could flip the tables, so it is not all that revealing.

Just for the sake of comparison, here is how the 2011 Phillies stack up with their 2009-10 iterations:

If the Phillies could have absolute control over their run-scoring, they would emulate the 2009 offense for sure, but also keep in mind just how much offense has declined since then. In ’09, the average NL team scored 4.4 runs per game; in ’10, that declined to 4.3; and now in ’11, that average is all the way down at 4.1.

Phillies Production by Position

The Phillies’ offense has been less than stellar in 2011, the continuation of a trend starting last year. They average about 4.1 runs per game, which is right at the National League average. Considering past offenses fans have grown to love, the relative lack of run support has taken some getting used to. Is the Phillies offense really as mediocre as we make it out to be?

I compared the Phillies’ wOBA by position to the league average, and then converted that into runs above or below average.

Shortstop: Relatively thin position. Only seven qualified shortstops have a wOBA above the National League average .312. Jimmy Rollins hasn’t been a wizard at the plate, but he has been ever so slightly better than the league average at the position.

Center field: Comparatively, center field has a glut of capable players. Although Shane Victorino has been incredibly good, he is one of nine NL outfielders with an above-average wOBA. Victorino has been worlds better than Rollins at the dish, but when you factor in position scarcity, his contributions are diminished.

First base: Another stacked position. 11 first baseman have an above-average wOBA, making it the most offense-heavy position in the league — a surprise to no one. Ryan Howard is barely above the league average offensively, but hopefully he has one of his trademark hot second-halves.

Catcher: Traditionally, catcher and shortstop have been the most offensively-weak and that continues to be the case in 2011. The trio of Carlos Ruiz, Brian Schneider, and Dane Sardinha have combined to be about a half-win worse offensively than the average catcher.

Right Field: The combination of Domonic Brown and Ben Francisco in right field has made the Phillies pine for the days of Jayson Werth (who, by the way, is not having a stellar season in Washington). However, right field is not the worst outfield spot for the Phillies as you’ll soon learn.

Third Base: Third base is not a deep position, but the two-month-long slump of Placido Polanco sunk him well below the league average. While the Phillies search for possible cures, Phillies fans hope he can turn it around in time for the second half.

Second Base: This is not Chase Utley‘s fault. His .382 wOBA is best among second basemen with 150 or more plate appearances. Instead, blame the trio of Wilson Valdez, Pete Orr, and Michael Martinez who filled in for Utley while he was recovering from an injury and racked up 56 percent of all of the plate appearances at second base.

Left Field: Raul Ibanez has had a disappointing season as his traditional hot streaks have been shorter and less frequent while his cold streaks have been longer and more frequent. As a result, the lefty has been nearly 12 runs worse than the average left fielder.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

Last night, Cole Hamels pitched brilliantly against the Los Angeles Dodgers, tossing eight shut-out innings while striking out nine and not issuing a single walk. He earned a game score of 79, something he has done only 15 times in his 162 career starts (9.25%). Hamels’ brilliant season continues; his 2.72 SIERA is .05 behind the MLB lead in SIERA, trailing Roy Halladay (2.68) and Cliff Lee (2.71).

Prior to the season, many wondered if Hamels could repeat or even improve on his great 2010 season. It’s very hard to improve on a 3.06 ERA with a 9.1 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9, but Hamels has done it. His strikeout rate is at the same level, but he has drastically decreased his walk rate (1.8) and is inducing even more ground balls (52 percent) thanks to his cut fastball.

Hamels is for real, and he is one of a triumvirate of potential Cy Young candidates in Philadelphia. Thus, it is no surprise that the Phillies are near or at the top of every major pitching category:

  • K/9: 8.3 (leads MLB)
  • BB/9: 1.9 (leads MLB)
  • K/BB: 2.8 (leads MLB)
  • HR/9: 0.65 (4th in MLB)
  • GB%: 49.5% (3rd in MLB)
  • HR/FB: 7.8% (8th in MLB)
  • FIP: 2.77 (leads MLB)
  • xFIP: 2.88 (leads MLB)

Starts like last night’s — eight innings, one or fewer runs allowed — have been commonplace for the Phillies. They have tossed nine of them thus far, the second-highest total in the Majors. Hamels is responsible for five of them, while Halladay and Lee have two apiece.

Here’s a look at the team totals for such starts.

Only five pitchers have accumulated four or more such starts: Hamels and Kyle Lohse with five; and Jaime Garcia, Ian Kennedy, and James Shields with four apiece. Unlike Lohse, Hamels isn’t getting by with luck (.268 BABIP is only 16 points below his career average); he is consistently dominating hitters start after start.

Hamels hasn’t been included in the same conversation as Halladay and Lee, but with his performance to date, it may be time to recognize him as an elite pitcher. He is arguably the best left-handed starter in baseball, and one very critical piece of the Phillies’ elite starting rotation.

Update: Lots of commentary on Hamels today, so here are some links:

Drew Fairservice, Getting Blanked: Cole Hamels Stands in the Shadow of No Man

It’s weird to think of a former World Series MVP as overlooked or underrated, yet Hamels operates in the shadow of his high profile teammates. On the field, Hamels lets his incredible play speak for him. Off the field, his great love of glamorous photo shoots take him places his cutter never could. It’s the price of being handsome, I suppose. And what a toll it takes.

Dave Cameron, FanGraphs: Which NL Southpaw is Greatest?

I don’t think I can do it, honestly. Lee or Hamels, the hairs are too thin to split. I don’t know that I can declare that either is better than the other. The only thing we can say is that the Phillies probably have the best left-handed pitcher in the National League – it’s just impossible to say who it is.

David Golebiewski, RotoGraphs: Cole Hamels Staying Grounded

Hamels is getting many more grounders with his fastball this year, while also boosting his ground ball rate on cutters and curveballs thrown. His changeup already got a lot of grounders and has continued to do so in 2011. Hitters are putting the ball in the air less often against Hamels, which has helped the 27-year-old decrease his slugging percentage on contact nearly across the board.