Are Jayson Werth and Bobby Abreu Overrated?

January is a super-boring month for baseball fans as there’s not much going on. All the big names have found homes and all the trade rumors have died down. There is no excitement — that’s why Hall of Fame debates are so popular and so spirited: people are bored!

Even writers get bored and struggle to come up with fresh material, so they stretch and write cliche articles such as this by Tony Lee of NESN.com:

Jayson Werth, A.J. Burnett Among Baseball’s Most Overrated, Overpaid Players

Along with Werth, Lee also claims Abreu is among the most overrated. As he hacks at a couple former Phillies, I’m bored enough to meet his claims with a response. Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments below, whether you disagree with me or would like to tack on additional points.

Abreu left Philadelphia during the 2006 season. The Phillies have made the playoffs each year from 2007-2010.

This is by far the most-cited piece of “evidence” that Abreu isn’t “a winning player”. The problem is that it makes the mistake of implying causation with correlation. Wikipedia has a couple of humorous examples of absurd correlation/causation fallacies:

With a decrease in the number of pirates, there has been an increase in global warming over the same period.
Therefore, global warming is caused by a lack of pirates.

[...]

Since the 1950s, both the atmospheric CO2 level and crime levels have increased sharply.
Hence, atmospheric CO2 causes crime.

There are far too many variables that separate the Abreu-era Phillies from the post-Abreu Phillies, such as randomness, division strength, timing, injuries, and the fact that the ’07 team can be objectively judged as a better team than in ’06. Furthermore, the ’07 Phillies didn’t exactly sizzle in the post-season as they were swept out of the National League Division Series by the Colorado Rockies. That, after winning the division by the skin of their teeth on the last day of the regular season.

Had Abreu been on that team, rather than finishing his Phillies career on a team that missed the Wild Card by three games, would he have shed his “not a losing player” reputation?

Baseball is well-known for being a sport based upon individual match-ups, but post-season berths are won and lost by entire teams, not by individual players.

At this point in his career, Abreu is likely underrated. Plenty of people think he’s about to hit rock bottom, but a soon-to-be 37-year-old with above-average on-base skills and moderate power is actually quite valuable. Last year, Abreu was a 2.2 fWAR player, which was worth about $9 million — exactly what he earned and what he will earn in 2011. With just a slight mean-regression in BABIP, Abreu should be worth at least $9 million in the upcoming season.

He is not the sole reason for any of this, but Abreu seems to lack that certain something that can make an impact in the middle of a lineup, even given his steady production over the years.

Throughout his Phillies career, Abreu was an offensive force; an on-base machine with considerable power. Abreu was 32 years old when he was traded to the Yankees. Unsurprisingly, his production declined rather than improved. From 1998-2006, Abreu’s lowest on-base percentage was .393 in ’01. His OBP has since ranged from .352 last year to .390 in ’09. If teams have been relying on an aging, declining Abreu for incredible offense in the middle of their lineup, they were sorely mistaken — and that is their fault, not Abreu’s, just as it will be the Washington Nationals’ fault if and when Jayson Werth declines over the course of his seven-year contract.

He has also frustrated fans in each city with his less-than-daring approach to the outfield wall.

Despite his Gold Glove from his ’05 season, Abreu has never been impressive defensively. As with Manny Ramirez, Abreu was productive enough offensively that you accepted that flaw. It would have been nice if he was better with the glove, but his defense was only a point of contention when fans became frustrated with the Phillies’ post-season near-misses in the mid-2000’s. Fans were not outraged at Abreu’s defense with the 65-97 Phillies in 2000.

Werth’s time in the City of Brotherly Love resulted in some nice results and a legion of beard-sporting followers, but it was not the type of stint that deserved seven years and $126 million, the contract he received from Washington.

The contract awarded Werth recently is absolutely excessive. It was a calculated risk taken by the Nationals’ front office, one that will likely not pay off in the end. There are certainly several legitimate arguments to be made against the Werth deal.

Werth has never hit .300, has never driven in 100 runs and has shrunk in high-pressure situations throughout his career, at least those in the regular season

This is not one of them.

Werth never hit .300, but did you know that he hit .298 in ’07 and .296 last year? If Werth had one more hit and one less out in ’07, he is a .302 hitter; if he had two more hits and two less outs last year, he’s a .300 hitter. Seems like a couple hundredths of points in batting average fall well within the range of expected variance.

Additionally, Werth drove in 99 runs in ’09. Obsessing with nice round numbers like .300 and 100 — ignoring the fact that they’re relating to batting average and RBI, the Windows 95 and 98 of baseball metrics, respectively** — ignores the larger point.

** Nerd slam!

Finally, Lee gets caught up in the false belief that Werth is not a “clutch” player. Werth was notoriously awful with two outs and runners in scoring position last year, and he was — he had just a .680 OPS in those situations. But did you know that Werth had a .985 OPS in those situations in ’09?

Logically, one who believes Werth was not clutch last year must believe that Werth was clutch in ’09. So, what happened? Did Werth forget how to be clutch last year? Or… are clutch statistics based on a small sample size and thus subject to a ton of variance? I think the answer is quite obvious here.

In one of Lee’s previous articles, he argues that Carlos Ruiz is among baseball’s most underrated. His argument isn’t really worth fisking other than noting that he uses last year’s batting average and slugging percentage as evidence that Ruiz is improving, but misses that they are based heavily on BABIP luck and are likely to regress in 2011.

Generally speaking, articles like these aren’t even worth mentioning since everybody does them, but I’m bored and needed something to write about. I have no personal issues with Tony Lee or his writing; he is simply an unfortunate bystander in my boredom storm. Aside from commentary on this and Lee’s articles, consider this an open thread for anything Phillies-related. I eagerly await FanSince09‘s appearance. (Should of kept Matt Smith!)

The Insignificant Hall of Fame

At Baseball Daily Digest last year, I wrote an article by the same title in which I expressed the reasons why I no longer cared about the Hall of Fame. Last night, I was a guest on Steve Keane’s (of the Kranepool Society blog) podcast, and we discussed the Hall of Fame at the end. I expressed similar sentiment about my finding the Hall pretty much irrelevant.

Update: Craig Calcaterra, Jason Rosenberg, and Bill from The Platoon Advantage have tackled the issue as well. Click on over for some more anti-HOF sentiment.

Today, after Roberto Alomar and Saberist-favorite Bert Blyleven were elected in the Class of 2011, Joe Posnanski wrote a column that includes some eye-opening quotes from Jeff Idelson, president of baseball’s Hall of Fame. Those are excerpted below:

“Baseball has historically been held to a very high standard, right or wrong,” he says. “There’s a certain integrity required when it comes to baseball’s highest honor, which is being inducted into the Hall of Fame. The character clause exists as it relates to the game on the field. The character clause isn’t there to evaluate and judge players socially. It’s there to relate to the game on the field. … The voters should have the freedom to measure that however they see fit.”

[...]

It seems clear to me from what he says here that the Hall of Fame has no problem with the exclusion of known steroid users or even strongly suspected steroid users.

“When you look at the Hall of Fame elections,” he said, “you see that those who are elected are representative of that era. The Hall of Fame election is a continuum. And the standards have upheld the test of time. We believe they work. We believe the voters have exercised a great understanding about the candidates in the Hall of Fame. I think when you look at who the writers have voted into the Hall of Fame, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t belong there.”

[...]

“You know this … as you walk through Cooperstown, you have the history museum where every facet of the game is represented,” he said. “That will not change. That’s the celebratory nature of the Cooperstown experience. But when it comes to players inducted, we feel strongly that the rules for election need to be where they are. … There’s no question that in many ways, this is an odd time. But at the end of the day, we want to maintain the high standards of the Hall.”

When baseball fans traverse to Cooperstown, New York, they are going to an institution called the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. What is the purpose of a museum, you ask? The International Council of Museums defines it as a:

permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment, for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.

A typical jaunt to a museum may include browsing the history of the universe, or taking a gander at dinosaur fossils. You don’t go to a museum to receive a biased point of view on history, whatever the subject may be; you go for a learning experience, to gather enough facts to make your own interpretations.

Museums have been that way for a long time. That is, until the Creation Museum. The Creation Museum takes the story of the Bible and forces it backwards into the history of our planet — in essence, the exact opposite of what a museum should do. PZ Myers of the science blog Pharyngula visited the Creation Museum in August 2009 and wrote a recap of the experience:

We were asked to sign a document before we entered that required us to be “respectful” of their facilities, which apparently meant more than simply appropriately regarding their building as private property. One of our atheists was in an entirely friendly conversation about evolution with a creationist visitor, when one of the guards came up and asked them to stop, saying that we had signed an agreement not to even discuss anything in the building where others could hear. (To his credit, the creationist said that he welcomed the discussion the guards wanted to silence, and they continued outside.) They knew we disagreed with them, and they were clearly on edge…and they knew that their beliefs could not stand up in the face of free speech.

[...]

They have a script you’re supposed to follow. There is a single route that snakes through the building with a series of exhibits with a linear agenda. You are supposed to get their Sunday School lesson plan of the 7 C’s (creation, corruption, catastrophe, confusion, Christ, cross, and consummation). Exploration is not an option. You will follow their track. There is no interactivity, either — it’s a chain of displays, dioramas, and little scenes, supplemented with frequent videos that tell you what to think.

I am deeply concerned that the baseball Hall of Fame is going down this sad path that the Creation Museum paved. Rather than simply providing information for passers-by, Idelson is fine with the Baseball Writers Association of America using incomplete — and often completely biased, hypocritical, or even nonexistent — information which is used to pass judgment on individual players, their teams, and the era in which they played.

In essence, Idelson doesn’t give baseball fans enough credit to make their own judgments about the so-called “steroids era”. Instead, he needs to fill in the gaps with what he believes are the correct answers. The problem is that he has no way of knowing, much less proving, that his point of view is correct and thus that it should be the official view of the time period heretofore.

So what should we do about this?

First and foremost, we need to be very vocal about how objectively wrong Idelson’s stance is, that it is unfair to use such questionable information to make firm judgments. The Internet does a great job of this, but we need more than snarky blog posts.

Secondly, stop giving the Hall of Fame your patronage. As much as it may sting to not take that annual trip to Cooperstown with your family, find another fun venue where your money will be put to better use.

Finally, we can ignore the Hall of Fame entirely. In reality, it doesn’t matter at all, even ignoring Idelson’s comments. You don’t need the Hall of Fame’s validation to recognize that a player was among the best of his time, or that a player was chronically overrated. The off-season is boring enough that the Hall debates are great time-fillers, but they are ultimately meaningless.

Baseball does not need a Hall of Fame. When the institution is run properly, it can be a great asset that people can use to better understand the various time periods and cultural mores. However, it is not a necessity. In fact, the Hall of Fame needs us a lot more than we need it.

If Idelson’s comments struck you as intellectually dishonest and offensive, make yourself heard. As Myers suggests regarding Ken Ham’s Creation Museum:

Don’t give it [respect] to him. All his carnival act deserves is profound disrespect and ridicule. Go to his “museum” as you would to a cheap freak show, and laugh, laugh, laugh…and go home to publicly mock and heap scorn upon it.

Irreverence is our answer, not dumb humble deference.

Dom Brown’s Hands

At the Baseball Analytics blog, I used heat maps to verify that Mitch Williams‘ analysis of Domonic Brown seems to be correct: he needs to lower his hands so that pitchers can’t simply throw him up-and-in all the time.

The heat maps indicate that, although he was swinging at up-and-in pitches frequently, he was not successful —  not only in terms of hitting for power, but simply making contact.

Brown finished 2010 with a .271 wOBA, which ranked all the way down in the eighth percentile of Major League hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. If Brown is to blossom into the offensively-potent player the Phillies organization has long thought he would be, he may need to take the advice of Mitch Williams and lower his hands.

Act Like We’ve Been Here Before

To the right you’ll find the cover of today’s Philadelphia Daily News (click to enlarge). The headline is quite celebratory in nature: “Philadelphia, city with a superiority complex.”

Hey, it’s been a good week in Philly, after all: the Phillies got Cliff Lee, the Eagles pulled off one of the all-time greatest comebacks against the Giants on Sunday, and the Flyers are the cream of the NHL crop. It is a great time to be a Philadelphian.

Conversely, it’s not as great a time in New York. The Yankees have missed out on all of the top free agents and trade candidates, the Mets will be lucky to sniff .500 in 2011, the Giants were on the losing end of Sunday’s memorable game, the Rangers are eight points behind the Flyers, and so forth.

Given the rivalry between the two regions, some back-and-forth nose-thumbing is to be expected. Philly has certainly been on the receiving end of some New York bravado. However, the rash of “Philly > New York” sentiment over the past couple days seems excessive and, in some cases, unprofessional. Inferiority complex, much?

Take Stan Hochman’s article for the Daily News as an example. He brainstorms possible nicknames for the Phillies’ four aces, but he couldn’t resist taking a potshot at New York:

I had a patriotic theme, “Armed Fources” plus “Deadly Fource” and “Brute Fource” but baseball is not a violent game, unless you’re sitting in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium wearing the other team’s gear.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It sounds like every generic insult about Philly fans.

The always-interesting Marcus Hayes has his own smug take on the rise of Philly sports in his latest article, titled “Philly teams are putting a fork in New York”.

Something is in the air in Philadelphia.

Carried by a light wind, it makes its way south, down the turnpike. It is distinctly New York in aroma. Is it those honey-roasted nuts they sell out of street carts? Is it the hot dogs?

The swamplands of New Jersey?

Ah. Wait.

It is the smell of New York misery.

It is a rancid thing for Giants and Mets and Rangers fans, and only a little better for the Yankees faithful.

For Philadelphians, it is ambrosia.

Never has it smelled more delicious than this week.

Hayes does mention, at the end of the article, that Philly still does not have any advantage in terms of championships — the ultimate goal for all teams involved. On Twitter, David Murphy pointed out that New York won those championships more recently in three of the four major sports.

Great week for Philly, no question about it. Some bragging is acceptable, nay earned. But wouldn’t we look better to outsiders, who still view Philly fans as boorish animals, if we simply shrugged our shoulders at all of this? Ho-hum. Act like we’ve been here before.

Instead, radio switchboards are alight with controversy brewing. Arguments will be had, people will get upset for no meaningful reason, and maybe that’s the ultimate goal for the media people responsible for fueling this fire: move more papers, attract more listeners, sell more advertisements. If that is the case, New Yorkers should know that the Philly media does not represent all — or even most — Philadelphians.

Rivalries are fun. Trash-talking is fun. It can, unfortunately, be taken too seriously, ruining the fun for the rest of us. This Philly sports fan, for one, repudiates the latest salvos and hopes New Yorkers and the rest of the national scene doesn’t think any less of us for it.

Cliff Lee Signs with Phillies

Texas Rangers beat writer T.R. Sullivan is reporting that the Phillies have signed free agent left-handed pitcher Cliff Lee. Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News is reporting that it is a five-year deal. Joel Sherman says it is “in the 5 yr, $100M range”.

In the wake of losing Jayson Werth to the Washington Nationals, the Phillies could have done nothing and been fine heading into 2011, but GM Ruben Amaro made sure that the Phillies would continue to be among the premier teams in Major League Baseball.

The Phillies already have nearly $147 million committed to 18 players with three arbitration cases left to settle. Assuming Lee will earn around $20 million in 2011, that brings the Phillies’ payroll up to $167 million, a 21 percent increase from last year’s Opening Day payroll. Presumably, this leaves them little flexibility to round out the rest of the roster and thus will be doing so with cheaper options, mostly in-house. Between now and spring training, Amaro will try to unload the hefty contracts of Raul Ibanez and/or Joe Blanton.

According to Baseball Reference, Werth was a four-win player on average over the last three years while Lee has been a 5.5-win player. On that exchange, in a vacuum, the Phillies made a slight upgrade but do have some risk to account for with an outfield that will include some variation of Ibanez, Shane Victorino, Domonic Brown, and Ben Francisco.

Phillies fans are extremely enthusiastic, and for good reason: a rotation of Roy Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels may rank among the best in baseball history.

Paul Hagen on Protection, RBI

Bloggers have often been critical of the media when they discuss Sabermetrics. The criticism has usually been somewhat justified as the media hasn’t always taken a sunny disposition towards statistical analysis. Recently, though, we have seen a sea change in the attitudes of most in the media. As a result, Sabermetrics is no longer that niche, taboo subject met with instant derision. It is now a well-respected method of analysis sweeping into Major League front offices.

Paul Hagen’s latest article for the Philadelphia Daily News is an excellent indication of the media’s growing acceptance of Sabermetrics. Viewing articles on Philly.com is usually a big no-no for me because of the Satan-spawned auto-play video ads. However, Hagen discusses the supposed lineup protection that Ryan Howard will be missing now that Jayson Werth moved on to the Washington Nationals. Logic and quotes from SABR’s Gary Gillette are used to provide the reader with reasons to adopt this alternative view of the game of baseball. It’s a great read and I highly recommend reading the full article, auto-play ads be damned. (Nothing this can’t fix, anyway.)

Because as everybody knows, without a legitimate righthanded threat behind him, Howard won’t get a pitch to hit all season long.

The kicker, of course, is that conventional wisdom frequently is somewhere between off base and flat wrong. And Gary Gillette, a writer and member of the board of directors of the Society for American Baseball Research, suggests that fretting about who will replace Werth in that slot is probably much ado about nothing.

“Everything I’ve looked at in the past has either showed no effect or minimal effect. In fact, sometimes it was the opposite,” he said yesterday at the Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort.

[...]

There’s another point to be made here. The point of a lineup is not to feature one player. It’s to maximize the number of runs a team scores.

So how often Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco and Chase Utley get on base in front of Howard is more crucial to how many RBI he gets than who bats behind him. And if he doesn’t get good pitches to hit, he has to be disciplined enough to take a walk if he isn’t seeing something he can handle.

Along with Hagen, other good Saber-friendly writers in the Philly media include Matt Gelb, David Hale, and David Murphy. For as much complaining as we bloggers do when it comes to the media, the fact is that a good portion of them have made room on the stage for us stats junkies. Writers like Hagen should be applauded for doing the responsible thing: providing the alternative viewpoints to their readers to let them make their own informed decisions.

. . .

On a sadder note, Philly-Twitter favorite Logan Morrison’s father recently passed away. If you’re on Twitter, please take a minute to send him your well-wishes. Logan is a great guy and I’m sure he would be very appreciative of such kind sentiment in his time of need.

Logan Morrison’s Twitter: @LoMoMarlins

Chase Utley Gets No Respect

If you tuned in to MLB Network on Monday, you may have overheard some crazy talk coming from former Philadelphia Phillies closer Mitch Williams. Following a discussion of the National League MVP award, the panel discussed the possibility of someone other than Josh Hamilton taking home the American League hardware. Miguel Cabrera was mentioned, as was Robinson Cano.

After a quick review of some basic statistics, Williams proceeded to call Cano the best player in baseball. This, following a discussion that included Albert Pujols on the NL side of things. Now, to clarify, Williams did not qualify his statement with “…in a few years” or with any if-statements. Right now, Cano is the best player in Major League Baseball in Williams’ eyes.

The problem is that Cano isn’t even the best player at his own position. That honor belongs to Chase Utley.

Cano’s 2010 season is ostensibly his peak. .389 wOBA, -0.9 UZR/150, -1.3 EQBRR, 6.4 WAR. That’s about as good as it’s going to get for Robbie.

Now consider Utley’s career lows since becoming a regular in 2005: .373 wOBA (2010), 7.6 UZR/150 (’06), 0.5 EQBRR (’05), 5.2 WAR (’10). At his worst, Utley is still comparable to Cano.

What about Utley’s best? .420 wOBA (’07), 19.3 UZR/150 (’08), 8.8 EQBRR (’09), 8.1 WAR (’08). Utley grades out much better than Cano by comparison.

It could very well be true that Cano is a better player in aggregate going forward especially since he is four years younger, but as of right now, Utley is the best player at his position and arguably the most valuable player in all of baseball. He is still on the good side of 30 (32 to be exact) and will have plenty of time to recuperate from a thumb injury that sidelined him for two months and completely sapped his power when he returned from the disabled list.

Bill James projects a .380 wOBA for Utley and .371 for Cano in 2011 (note: James’ projections tend to be very optimistic). Utley has a strong track record for elite defense while one would be kind to call Cano an average fielder. Utley has always contributed positively on the base paths including double-digit stolen base totals (with an 88% success rate) in five of his six full seasons. In short, Utley is a multi-talented player with a well-padded resume while Cano is a one-dimensional player with one really good season and two good finishes to his name.

Even in an era with mainstream acceptance of Sabermetric principles, Utley still goes relatively unnoticed and unrewarded. Utley could very well go down as the franchise’s second-best player of all time, behind third baseman Mike Schmidt. He already ranks eighth all-time in WAR at 38.7, about 28 WAR behind the man currently in second place, Ed Delahanty. If he has 5+ WAR seasons for the next four years, he could mail it in during his late 30’s and finish in second — if the Phillies decide to extend him beyond 2013, that is.

With shock jocks like Mike Missanelli calling for the team to ship Utley to another city, it’s time for people to wake up and realize just how great of a player Utley really is. Utley should be to the Phillies what Derek Jeter is — and what Cano will be — to the Yankees.

Be sure to read this post if you’d like to contribute a guest article to Crashburn Alley.

On Awards and Voting

Dejan Kovacevic, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s beat writer for the Pirates, caused a ruckus earlier today when it was revealed that his National League Rookie of the Year ballot diverged from the consensus with a Buster Posey, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata lineup, omitting Jason Heyward.

Prior to today, the ROY debate came down to the first place finisher — Posey or Heyward? It was unanimously believed that those two players made up the top two in either order. Walker or Tabata never entered the discussion.

Kovacevic’s voting resulted in lots of debates, and lots of baseless accusations and fallacious argumentation. FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron does a good job of defending Kovacevic but I would like to take it a bit further. As far as I can tell, there are two groups of people: the reactionary and the logical.

Imagine that we’re back on October 31 and you’re at a Halloween party. You, a liberal, strike up a conversation with someone who reveals himself to be a Tea Party supporter who plans to cast all his votes for people like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell. Upon learning this, you can either be aghast that he’s a Teabagger (reactionary) or inquire more about his positions and then make a judgment (logical). It would be disingenuous to discredit him simply because he’s a Teabagger. After learning about his positions, you can legitimately discredit him after he says that he wants to see the deficit lowered but does not want to raise taxes or cut defense spending.

Similarly, many baseball fans and writers reacted as disingenuously to Kovacevic without ever hearing his justification, which can be found on his Twitter feed. When he justifies his voting with…

Re: ROY voting. Felt very firmly about Posey, thus chose him 1st. Felt Walker/Tabata had strong years, comparable to rest of class.

Neither Walker nor Tabata is off-the-board choice, as seen from list of NL rookies with 400 PA, ranked by OPS. tinyurl.com/3x9aghm

Obviously saw way more of Walker/Tabata than others, but that also gave perspective on them performing at high level in poor lineup/setting.

Feeling always has been with voting that broadest variety of perspectives bring best results. Few can argue final overall tally, I’d think.

…then you can go ahead and argue against him. Kovacevic could have had some legitimate justification but now that we see his reasoning is flimsy at best. Have at it!

The thing with these awards is that the criteria is so vague and amorphous that you can’t begrudge someone for the way they vote unless they have a completely objectively-reached ballot. Otherwise, their positions are unfalsifiable. “He’s a good clubhouse guy” or “he’s a leader” can’t be argued against by outsiders and that’s why a lot of voters resort to those defenses, as bland as they are.

Questionable ballots have been a part of awards voting for a while now — a product of a flawed system. Either you can have an automated system (based on pure objectivity; statistics) or you don’t. With the latter, you can’t fault the writers when their votes don’t line up with yours. You can argue against their reasoning, but not against their credibility to have the privilege of voting.

Awards are fun to discuss and debate, but in the end they’re mostly meaningless and will never mean much until they are turned over to an objective system. It is likely better for baseball to have this flawed system anyway, since we spend so much time talking about it — free publicity! In two weeks we’ll have forgotten that Kovacevic voted for Walker and Tabata over Heyward, turning our attention to the coming winter meetings.

In the event that Roy Halladay does not win the Cy Young award or receives fewer than all of the first-place votes, criticize the system and not the voters — until you hear their justification. Said differently, “don’t hate the player; hate the game.”

In Which Rational Philadelphians Headdesk

It’s Chase Utley overkill here at Crashburn Alley. But the “Utley sucks” meme has continued to spread and it must be stopped. Jack McCaffery shot the most recent salvo of stupid, titling his article “It’s time for Phillies to move Chase Utley to the outfield”. Take a minute to let that soak in. Really immerse yourself in the aura of that statement; respect the courage it took to actually send that to his editor; respect his editor for not returning the file back to McCaffery with “LOL” next to it.

I’m worried about beating a dead horse, as Utley has been covered fairly substantially here since the Phillies were eliminated from the playoffs. However, Twitter seemed to be in agreement that this article needed a good fisking, so here we are. You know the drill: his statements will be posted in bold; mine will follow in normal typeface.

Chase Utley has been haunted by one injury after the next.

In an article that will very clearly disparage Utley, this statement implies that the injuries indicate a flaw — something that is Utley’s fault. Utley landed on the 15-day disabled list twice in his career (broken hand in 2007, torn thumb ligament earlier this season). He’s never been on the 60-day DL. Since 2004, he’s missed a total of eight days for “day-to-day” woes.

I don’t think there’s any question that Utley plays hurt a lot, but he is not a medical case fit for an episode of House.

His defense at second base has gone from acceptable to poor.

Yes, if by “acceptable to poor” McCaffery means “elite to elite”. As this article detailed, there has been no better defensive second baseman in baseball since 2005 than Utley.

Even if you are skeptical of UZR, you can’t deny that ALL reliable defensive metrics are in agreement that Utley plays a mean second base. As mentioned in this article:

[Utley] is second to Mark Ellis in Revised Zone Rating (RZR) .862 to .842, has made the most Out Of Zone plays (OOZ) with 137, and racked up the most Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), nearly doubling the second-highest total of Ellis, 60 to 33.

And no, errors are not reliable. Oftentimes, defenders who have more range make more errors. If I play second base, my range is going to be super small because I’m unathletic and thus I will get to fewer balls. Therefore, I will have substantially fewer opportunities to make errors than someone like Utley. Utley has tremendous range. In terms of runs over the past three seasons, Utley leads all qualified second basemen with over 39 range runs. The runners-up are Mark Ellis and Brandon Phillips with 15.4 range runs.

His offensive production is deteriorating at troubling speed.

This “deterioration” has come at “troubling speed”? McCaffery’s next thesis: “Day turns into night way too fast”.

Despite his injury, Utley still finished the 2010 season tied in wOBA with Hanley Ramirez and Joe Mauer at .373. That’s pretty good company, no?

So exactly what was so outrageous again about the notion of moving Utley to the outfield earlier in his career?

1. He’s super good defensively at second base.

2. The Phillies had/have a glut of outfielders, including a top prospect in Domonic Brown they had sitting on the bench for two months last season because they had nowhere to put him.

3. Moving Utley to the outfield cuts into his value, much like moving Joe Mauer to first base. In calculating WAR, a second baseman is credited one-fourth of a win while a corner outfielder is debited three-fourth’s of a win, for a total of one full win.

Loosely based on the Alfonso Soriano-Robin Yount model, the idea was to provide full protection of Utley as a power hitter by minimizing his inning-to-inning physical stress.

Clearly, Utley wears down as the season progresses from his balls-to-the-wall style of play. The solution isn’t panicking and moving Utley to a corner outfield position; it’s giving him more days off during the season.

And even if his injury history cannot be directly linked to where he plays on defense, heightened physical wear is an accepted cost of middle-infield work.

Said another way, “And even if the facts go against my argument, I am going to restate my argument emphatically nevertheless.”

Now, McCaffery just randomly veers off into a tangent about Cliff Lee. How it’s related to Utley is not clear.

Here’s the deal, take it or leave it. This will be the last blast of the Cliff Lee trade. The topic may arise again in context, but this will be the last 15-yard-penalty pile-on.

Nonetheless, here it comes: From the moment that disaster struck the Phillies, the apologists hid behind one hope. None of it will matter, they kept saying, if the Phillies go to or win the World Series. Well, the Phillies didn’t do any of the above, and instead watched Joe Blanton go less than five innings of a pivotal NLCS loss.

Joe Blanton would have started Game Four of the NLCS even if the Phillies had kept Lee. If the Phillies went into the season with a rotation of Roy Halladay, Lee, and Cole Hamels, then GM Ruben Amaro never trades for Roy Oswalt.

By the way:

  • Oswalt, 2010 regular season: 2.76 ERA
  • Lee, 2010 regular season: 3.18 ERA
  • Oswalt, 2010 playoffs: 2.75 ERA (2.37 excluding his stint as a reliever in the NLCS)
  • Lee, 2010 playoffs: 2.51 ERA

If a World Series was supposed to make people forget Lee, then the lack of a World Series by rule had to supply the opposite effect.

People forgetting about Lee isn’t relevant. What is relevant is whether the trade was the correct move at the time. Many people have strong opinions veering on both sides, but a fair decision can’t be reached until we see the fates of the prospects (Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and J.C. Ramirez).

Although the prospects didn’t appear to pan out in 2010, they still have plenty of room to grow. And at the very least, the Phillies ended up getting a half-season out of a very good starter in Oswalt, who is under contract for at least one more season for $9 million. If the Phillies think he’s worth it in 2012, they have a $16 million club option they can pick up, or buy him out for $2 million.

What would have happened is the Phillies would have either felt too out of the picture and traded Lee at the trading deadline, or they would have let him walk in free agency as a Type A free agent and recouped one first round draft pick. For an easy comparison, here’s what the Phillies have and would have had in each scenario following the 2010 season:

  • Kept Lee: Halladay-Hamels-Blanton-?-? rotation in 2011; one compensatory pick (likely at the end of the first round, negating its value immensely)
  • Traded Lee: Halladay-Oswalt-Hamels-Blanton-? rotation in 2011; Oswalt under contract for a cheap price well below market value; Aumont, Gillies, and Ramirez; one compensatory pick when Oswalt walks after the 2011 or ’12 season

I don’t think you can make an argument that Lee would have been significantly better than Oswalt and kept the Phillies alive in the post-season. There’s the whole chaos theory thing, but also that Oswalt pitched just as well and arguably better both in the regular season and in the post-season.

It’s just one more reason why trading the dominant left-handed pitcher of his time for three minor-league nobodies is the worst big-league sports trade in Philadelphia history.

What a gross exaggeration.

  • January 27, 1982: Ryne Sandberg traded by the Philadelphia Phillies with Larry Bowa to the Chicago Cubs for Ivan De Jesus. As a Cub, Sandberg compiled nearly 58 WAR in a Hall of Fame career. In three seasons with the Phillies, de Jesus put up 2.7 WAR.
  • July 30, 2006: Traded by the Philadelphia Phillies with Cory Lidle to the New York Yankees for C.J. Henry (minors), Jesus Sanchez (minors), Carlos Monasterios and Matt Smith. Henry was a bust. Sanchez put up decent numbers last year in Clearwater. Monasterios is now a Dodger, having done nothing as a prospect in the Phillies’ system. Smith was a decent LOOGY for nine innings in 2006 but hasn’t been in professional baseball since 2008. Abreu, meanwhile, was worth 17.3 WAR since departing from Philadelphia. Yes, the trade was a salary dump more than anything, but it still is one of the most damaging trades in Phillies history.

You can add the Curt Schilling, Scott Rolen, and Ferguson Jenkins trades in there as well. The Lee trade is easily defensible and comes nowhere near the “worst big-league sports trade in Philadelphia history”. But whatever helps you sell newspapers, Jack.

Now, Lee rant aside, McCaffery spent a lot of time at the beginning of his column whining about Utley’s injuries, hypothesizing ways to cure his ailments. McCaffery wraps up his article contradicting everything he said.

Somehow, Brett Favre ignored a severe ankle injury and started his 292nd consecutive game Sunday. He’s 41.

So what does that say? It says that too many other pro (and college) athletes miss too much time with similar injuries because they’d rather be babied, talked about and massaged. That’s what.

Wouldn’t moving Utley to the outfield because of his injuries fall under the “babied” and “massaged” categories?

Furthermore, playing while hurt is exactly why Utley appears to have hurt the Phillies this year. There’s something to be said for machismo and pain tolerance, but to a point. Playing while hurt to the detriment of a team is dumb and the problem shouldn’t be exacerbated by sportswriters looking to place athletes in neat groups, like “babied” and “gritty”.

I would prefer Utley to admit when he’s not feeling 100%. I would prefer Charlie Manuel to recognize this even if Utley doesn’t say anything, and to give Utley more regular days off during the season. I would prefer that Ruben Amaro mandate extra days off for Utley. And I would prefer the media not to pat athletes on their (aching, sore) backs for refusing to take days off. I would appreciate it even more if those same sportswriters wouldn’t place those athletes in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t so long as the team doesn’t win a championship” quandary.

Chase Utley and Accountability

Chase Utley has been the subject of many discussions lately, including two posts here and a Marcus Hayes tangent in an online live chat for the Philadelphia Daily News. Among Hayes’ many criticisms of Utley, he called the second baseman “seldom accountable” and then “condescending and rarely accountable”, adding that he “hides from criticism”.

It wasn’t something that I felt worthy of even a snarky remark, as I felt it was simply an irate journalist trying to sully the good name of an athlete who wasn’t making his job easy. And that was probably the case and it is the case a lot of the time.

However, David Hale wrote a fair assessment of Utley’s accountability to the media and to the fans. I urge you to read it.

What stood out to me:

During my 14 weeks on the beat, I covered about 60 games. I would estimate that Utley made himself available to the media after about five of those games. When he does talk, he says nothing. He is vague and unresponsive to even direct, legitimate questions. He doesn’t necessarily lie, but he certainly glosses over significant parts of the truth at times.

[...]

We asked Charlie throughout the postseason about Utley’s health, and Manuel’s only response was, “He tells me he’s healthy.” Not that Utley would ever say anything different.

And this is where Utley’s lack of accountability with the fans hurts him. He came back from a serious injury to his hand, one that directly impacted his swing, two weeks early. He never quite looked right at the plate after that. But he also would never let on that his hand was still hurting or that he was having trouble recovering and getting his timing and strength back.

While none of the above should surprise you, it should help you understand the writers more when they bring this stuff up.

Still, is it relevant or newsworthy? It was Utley’s quiet demeanor and play-through-everything mindset that endeared him to fans and the writers in the first place. It seems awfully convenient that, following a disappointing showing in the post-season (and a disappointing regular season), that these qualities are now detriments. Why, when the Phillies won it all in 2008, did the writers never complain about Utley not talking? When Utley hit five home runs in last year’s World Series against the New York Yankees, how come no one questioned his accountability then? Even during his injury-riddled 2010 regular season, no one spoke ill of Utley.

But once the Phillies were out of the playoffs, Utley became a huge problem.

People need a scapegoat for losing. The writers went to Ryan Howard first, for having no post-season RBI and for taking that called strike three to end the NLCS, but stopped upon realizing he was one of the better performers in the post-season. Placido Polanco? The expectations aren’t high enough. Shane Victorino? Same thing. Carlos Ruiz? Fan favorite and he was never supposed to be relied on for offense anyway. And he called Roy Halladay‘s no-hitter. Raul Ibanez is old and overpaid and everybody realizes it. Jayson Werth was awesome. Bench guys were irrelevant.

By process of elimination, Utley was made the scapegoat. His lackluster post-season wasn’t enough to send him to the gallows, though, so that’s where all of these extraneous details come into play. Utley becomes the tragic hero so the Phillies’ 2010 eulogy has an interesting hook, and so that writers have intriguing stories to help sell newspapers, increase listener- and viewership, and attract page views. The flaying of Chase Utley has little to do with his individual performance and personality traits, and a lot to do with his team’s overall finish. Had the Phillies won it all, Utley’s muted personality would instead have been described as “quiet leadership” or that he was “leading by example”.

In science, it is considered bad form to make a conclusion, then go back and do research and run tests to bolster that conclusion. It should be considered — and I would argue is — considered bad form in writing to have two different storylines mapped out for the same result.