Phillies Should Shake Up Bench

With the offense slumping, many Phillies fans are begging for changes to be made. Demote Raul Ibanez, call up Domonic Brown; designate Greg Dobbs for assignment; give Ben Francisco more playing time; trade for Mike Lowell. Some of the suggestions are quite large in magnitude; others are nit-pick alterations.

As we found out at the end of May, the culprits for the Phillies’ offensive slump are Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jayson Werth. Aside from trading Werth — something that won’t happen unless the Phillies fall completely out of the playoff picture — there isn’t much that can be done to reduce the impact the three hitters have besides changing their position in the lineup. So any major changes that are made, such as demoting Ibanez and promoting Brown, are unlikely to have a meaningful impact on the offense and there is the chance that any such moves could backfire both in terms of performance and in terms of money.

However, the Phillies can make a change, just for show, and it doesn’t have to have any real impact.

Charlie Manuel relies very heavily on his starting eight and as such, bench players are less meaningful to the Phillies. This is something free agents take into mind when deciding if they should sign with the Phillies — Ross Gload did so in the off-season when he decided to leave the Florida Marlins. He realized he would have less at-bats with the Phillies despite having the same exact role as he had in Florida, but he valued the opportunity to win a championship highly.

Since bench players are nearly invisible in Philadelphia, GM Ruben Amaro can kick Greg Dobbs, Juan Castro, and even Ross Gload to the curb and replace them with similarly cheap bench bats. Dobbs is owed $1.35 in 2010 before hitting his third year of arbitration. Gload earns $1 million this year and $1.6 million in ’11. Castro will make $750,000 and the Phillies can buy out the last year of his deal for $50,000 in ’11. These are not expensive players and the Phillies have a history of paying players to simply go away, see: Geoff Jenkins and Adam Eaton. The Phillies are paying $1.25 million and $500,000 respectively to keep them away.

After eliminating three players, we need some replacements. Who could they be?

  • Andy Tracy, 1B/3B (AAA): 36-year-old career Minor Leaguer who never got a real opportunity at the Major League level despite compiling good numbers in the Minors. Currently hitting for an .834 OPS for Lehigh Valley with a good walk rate. Has played first base exclusively while in the Phillies’ system, but has had experience at third base. Could easily replace Greg Dobbs.
  • John Mayberry, OF (AAA): Decent hitter with some power, but poor strike zone judgment has been his downfall. Had some Major League experience last year with the Phillies, but did not drop any jaws. OPS’ing just over .800 for Lehigh Valley. After Ben Francisco, the Phillies don’t have a reliable right-handed bat off the bench as Juan Castro is impotent offensively.
  • Cody Ransom, 3B/SS (AAA): Minor League numbers have been in decline since 2007 but he has consistently shown decent power with slugging percentages in the high .400’s from 2006-08. Has played mostly on the left side of the infield throughout his Minor League career but has played at third base almost exclusively for the Phillies this year, where he plays above-average defense according to Baseball Reference’s Total Zone fielding metric. Since Juan Castro has been poor with his glove as well as his bat, Ransom would likely out-produce him if given an opportunity.
  • Tagg Bozied, 1B (AA): Has bounced around in the farm systems of five teams before landing with the Phillies. Bozied has compiled some impressive power numbers, mostly in AAA. In AA Reading, he has a .909 OPS including a .535 SLG with 9 HR. Over 91 percent of his defensive innings have come at first base. As a right-hander he could spell Ryan Howard against a tough left-handed starting pitcher and otherwise replace Ross Gload. Bozied has a .933 OPS against southpaws over his Minor League career. The soon-to-be 31-year-old has never gotten the call to the Majors despite the prodigious power numbers.

Besides the obvious benefit of potentially striking lightning in a bottle with one of these replacements, the Phillies also send a positive message to fans — “Hey, we are just as frustrated about the offense as you are, and we’re doing something about it” — without making too much of an impact on the team. And if you believe in the “sending messages” theory in the clubhouse (I don’t), kicking Dobbs, Castro, and Gload to the curb could tell the rest of the squad that no one’s job is guaranteed.

The Major League minimum salary is $400,000 so calling on three of the above four players would cost roughly $1.2 million prorated over the remaining 105 games (about $1 million). That would put them a hairline over the $140 million payroll mark the organization set in the off-season. Essentially, swapping bench bats is a low-risk, medium-reward move with ancillary P.R. benefits. And personally, I would rather pay six guys (three of whom become unemployed) $4 million to OPS .700-ish than three guys $3 million to OPS .400-ish.

Should the Phillies Break Up with Raul?

At Phillies Nation, Corey Seidman has authored a thought-provoking piece on what the Phillies should do with Raul Ibanez going forward. I encourage you to read the whole article because he backs up his arguments with a lot of facts and logic. But to quickly sum up, Corey suggests the Phillies ask Raul to wave his no-trade clause, eat his salary (roughly $8.5 million remaining in 2010 and $11.5 million in ’11) and have him go to another team. If he doesn’t waive the NTC, the Phillies simply cut ties with him, eat the salary, and move on into the Domonic Brown era.

Corey’s arguments make a lot of sense. After all, Raul is 38 years old, OPSing only .712, and playing poor defense in left field. However, I do disagree with his suggestion. The decision to cut Ibanez seems to be based on his prolonged slump in 2010 and a poor performance last year when he returned from a groin injury. His second-half performance in ’09 looks especially bad compared to how he began the year, on an MVP-pace that earned him his first All-Star selection — in the starting lineup, no less.

In the first half of ’09, Raul hit 22 home runs, drove in 59 runs, and compiled a slash line of .312/.371/.656. In the second-half, after battling with a groin injury, Ibanez hit 12 homers, drove in 34 runs, and compiled a slash line of .232/.323/.448. While the .771 OPS is not great, it is more in line with what we should have expected from Ibanez. After all, Ibanez benefited from a freakishly high HR/FB rate above 21% over the entirety of 2009, much higher than his career rate at 13%. Raul’s second-half struggles were somewhat due to his groin injury but mostly due to regression to the mean and comparing those results to his first-half results.

From the start of the ’09 season until his last game before going on the DL on June 17, Raul hit 78 fly balls. Since we know he hit 22 HR, we now know that his HR/FB rate was 28%. In the second half, he hit 67 fly balls with 12 HR for a HR/FB rate of 18% — still high, actually, but definitely more realistic. This year, Raul hasn’t been so lucky as his HR/FB rate is only 5%. Just as we did last season, we expect Raul’s HR/FB% to not stay constant, but to more closely reflect that of his career average 13%.

Additionally, Raul hasn’t just been unlucky with home runs; he has been BABIP unlucky as well. His career average is .304 but only .250 so far in 2010. It mostly has to do with line drives as his BABIP on liners is only .600 compared to the ’09 Major League average of .724.  Hitters don’t have too much control over their line drive rate so crediting it to randomness is entirely warranted here.

Let’s say that Raul turns the normal 13% — and not 5% — of his 60 fly balls into homers: three homers becomes eight. Raul has hit 30 line drives, so if he gets normal BABIP luck, he gets an extra 4 hits. If we credit Raul with an extra five homers and four singles, his OPS goes from a miserable .712 to .823. While that is a good illustration of some of Raul’s poor luck, it also shows the folly of the small sample size. We are, after all, only talking about 205 plate appearances (excluding yesterday’s game against the San Diego Padres). At this point, the only reliable statistics are (per Corey’s brother Eric, formerly of FanGraphs):

50 PA: Swing %
100 PA: Contact Rate
150 PA: Strikeout Rate, Line Drive Rate, Pitches/PA
200 PA: Walk Rate, Groundball Rate, GB/FB

—–

250 PA: Flyball Rate
300 PA: Home Run Rate, HR/FB
500 PA: OBP, SLG, OPS, 1B Rate, Popup Rate
550 PA: ISO

At present, we have about two-thirds of the necessary sample size to reliably use HR/FB and merely half of the required PA for our slash stats. Ibanez isn’t quite as bad as he has looked, although a month ago I noticed that his bat looked like it was slowing down. He is closer to the Ibanez of 2008, who OPS’ed .837 with 23 HR, than the Ibanez we have been watching with an OPS of .712 and 3 HR. Furthermore, Ibanez is actually showing good plate discipline, increasing his walk rate to nearly 14%, up from 10% last year. He has also cut his strikeouts down to 17%, down from 24% last year.

On a tangential subject, I disagree with Corey on simply cutting ties with Ibanez. If the Phillies can find a taker for him and get a warm body in return, even if they have to eat the rest of his salary, that’s fine. But there is no reason to simply throw him away while still paying his salary. He is a better hitter than everybody else on the Phillies’ bench. Even if he becomes a Matt Stairs-esque pinch-hitter, that’s fine. Getting him to accept that role may be difficult, however.

Corey makes salient points about bench versatility. If the Phillies demote Ibanez, they become very outfield-heavy with Greg Dobbs, Ross Gload, and Ben Francisco. When Jimmy Rollins returns, Wilson Valdez will likely get the boot back to Triple-A (if he goes through waivers unclaimed, something that has already occurred once this year), meaning Juan Castro will be the back-up for both middle infield positions. With Rollins’ calf, that’s a shaky proposition and someone is bound to claim Valdez if he continues to pass through waivers. At third base, Dobbs would be the only one capable of backing up Placido Polanco, who had missed a few games due to a bruised elbow.

Cutting Ibanez isn’t the best option in that scenario. Instead, when Rollins comes back, the Phillies can cut either Dobbs or Gload and keep both Castro and Valdez (both capable of fielding at third base) on the roster. Dobbs and Gload are pretty much the same player: left-handed, replacement-level bench bats with poor defense. If Ibanez is demoted and kept on the roster, the Phillies should cut Dobbs or Gload, preferably Dobbs. Dobbs’ salary is only $1.35 million this season before hitting free agency in 2011, while Gload is only owed $1 million this year and $1.6 million next year.

Of course, Corey wants Ibanez cut more so to usher in the Dom Brown era. Brown is hitting well in AA Reading with a .969 OPS and has improved each year he has been in the Minors since 2006 as an 18-year-old in the Gulf Coast League. The Phillies wouldn’t call up Brown to pinch-hit or to even platoon with the right-handed Ben Francisco; they would only bring him up to play full-time, which would essentially require Ibanez to be out of town (unless he’s keen on getting 100 PA the rest of the season).

Playing Brown full-time also allows the Phillies to know exactly where they stand when deciding whether or not to offer Jayson Werth a contract in the off-season. If Brown plays well, the team may feel it does not have to pay Werth $15 million over each of the next four or five seasons when they can have Dom Brown with similar production at the same position making the Major League minimum $400,000. As such, the Phillies could patch up other areas in need of repair.

That is, I believe, the strongest argument for cutting Ibanez. Otherwise, I don’t see a reason to cut ties with a left-fielder who, while he may be 38 years old, is more likely to OPS in the high .700’s or low .800’s going forward than his current production in the low 700’s.

Yes, Ibanez is struggling, but if I can preach one concept to Phillies fans, it’s patience. It took patience to see Cole Hamels through his early-season struggles; it will take patience to see Joe Blanton through his. It took patience to see the Phillies through their terrible two-week offensive slump and they still may not be out of it despite scoring five and six runs in their past two games. There are a lot of factors out of a player’s control in this great game called baseball, and to panic because a bunch of those breaks haven’t fallen our way is not a good idea. I don’t want to say Ibanez is fine because I do think his bat has slowed down, but I am more concerned with Ryan Howard than Ibanez if you catch my drift.

Every team, even the best, experiences these problems plenty of times throughout every season. The Phillies have been extremely lucky the past few years since they have not only been relatively injury-free, but have had the luxury of enjoying the primes of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jayson Werth with enough payroll flexibility to keep them in town. The Phillies have not had to deal with the thought of dumping a crucial member of the team off at the nearest exit. Sure, they ate the salaries of Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins, but no one viewed them as mainstays in the Phillies organization as Eaton was a back-of-the-rotation starter and Jenkins had already lost his starting job to Werth.

The 2010 season has been a real struggle for Raul Ibanez and the Philadelphia Phillies, but it is not unique. The Atlanta Braves are wondering if they are ever going to get anything out of Nate McLouth; the New York Yankees have been waiting for Curtis Granderson to find his power; the Houston Astros are trying to find out who took away Carlos Lee‘s offense. Over the next four months those three hitters will, most likely, improve offensively not because someone found a mechanical flaw or they fixed their timing (although that could certainly happen), but because they are simply regressing to their mean. I can flip a coin ten times and get eight tails. If I continue to flip a coin 100 more times, I should expect that coin to come up tails not 80% of the time, but 50% — its true probability. The same holds true for Raul and many other struggling baseball players.

Jon Garland Blames CBP for Loss

Via Matt Gelb:

[Padres starting pitcher Jon] Garland: “This ballpark is a joke, in my eyes. But it’s something you have to deal with. There are good ballparks, and bad ballparks. Hitters love it here, and pitchers hate it. As long as this ballpark stands, it’s going to be like that.”

Garland gave up six runs on ten hits in seven innings of work. Walter Johnson he is not. To be fair, Garland didn’t pitch poorly and Jayson Werth‘s home run did look like an easy fly out. However, Werth’s homer was not aided by the dimensions of the ballpark but by the early June heat.

It seems every year, a few visiting players complain about the “bandbox” that is, supposedly, Citizens Bank Park. The reputation is unwarranted, however. Using ESPN’s park factors:

  • 2010: 1.20 (over 1.00 favors hitters), 8th in MLB, 5th in NL
  • 2009: 1.01, 16th in MLB, 10th in NL
  • 2008: 1.02, 11th in MLB, 7th in NL
  • 2007: 1.42, 1st in MLB

As you can see, in the last two and one-third seasons, Citizens Bank Park has been a hair above-average in terms of homer-friendliness. If Garland’s complaints were made in 2007, he may have a point. CBP has been playing rather fair.

Coming into tonight, Garland had a 2.15 ERA for the San Diego Padres, whose home games are played in Petco Park. Using the same park factors from ESPN:

  • 2010: 0.82, 23rd in MLB, 12th in NL
  • 2009: 0.72, 29th in MLB, 16th in NL
  • 2008: 0.74, 30th in MLB
  • 2007: 0.69, 29th in MLB, 15th in NL

Additionally, Garland’s BABIP was a paltry .258 and he had stranded 80% of base runners, about 10% higher than the average. Garland’s 4.50 SIERA is more than double his 2.15 ERA.

Looks like Jon Garland wants to have his cake and eat it too. If Citizens Bank Park is a “joke”, then so too is Petco Park.

Any time a pitcher wants to complain about CBP, they should ask “What would Armando Galarraga do?” As you know, Galarraga was on the verge of a perfect game when umpire Jim Joyce called Jason Donald safe — when replays showed he was clearly out by a full step — on an infield single. Instead of throwing a fit and yelling at the umpire, Galarraga simply smiled and retired the 28th batter for his complete game shut-out. He did not bad-mouth Joyce in the media; in fact, he shook Joyce’s hand when exchanging the lineup card the next afternoon.

As Joe Posnanski wrote:

Galarraga pitched a perfect game on Wednesday night in Detroit. I’ll always believe that. I think most baseball fans will always believe that. But, more than anything, it seems that Galarraga will always believe it. The way he handled himself after the game, well, that was something better than perfection. Dallas Braden’s perfect game was thrilling. Roy Halladay’s perfect game was art. But Armando’s Galarraga’s perfect game was a lesson in grace.

If Galarraga had given up that home run to Jayson Werth, would he have whined about it after the game to the media around his locker?

Let’s Talk Starting Pitching

With all of Philadelphia in a malaise over the Phillies’ offense, the effort from four of the five starting pitchers has been overlooked. Joe Blanton, still trying to find his stuff six starts after recovering from a strained left oblique, has been the odd man out. Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, and even Kyle Kendrick (relatively speaking) have been rather effective so far in 2010.

Roy Halladay

  • Perfect game on 5/29/10 against the Florida Marlins
  • 5 complete games, 3 shut-outs
  • Averaging 7.2 IP per start, on pace for 34 starts and about 262 innings, which would be the highest IP in a season by a Phillie since Curt Schilling tossed 268.2 in 1998
  • 9 of 11 starts have qualified as quality starts
  • On pace for 213 strikeouts, would be the 14th most in Phillies history since 1920
  • Leads all Major League pitchers (with at least 50 IP) in SIERA at 2.96

Cole Hamels

  • Gave up three runs or fewer in five straight starts before rain-shortened outing on Tuesday in Atlanta (six straight even if you count that start)
  • Four of previous five starts — excluding Tuesday — have been quality starts
  • Averaging a strikeout per inning
  • Struggled to put away left-handed hitters entering 2010, but is holding them to a .273 OBP and .268 SLG in 2010 likely due to his new cut fastball
  • 3.51 SIERA is ninth-best in the National League and 16th overall

Jamie Moyer

  • Has completed six innings in nine out of ten starts
  • Earned a complete game shut-out against the Atlanta Braves on 5/7/10
  • While not exactly Cy Young material, he has kept the team in every game in which he has pitched, never surrendering more than five runs
  • Walk rate (1.8 per nine innings) is at its lowest since 1998

Kyle Kendrick

  • Has left the game without allowing a run three times: 4/20 @ ATL (8 IP), 5/5 vs. STL (7 IP) and 5/28 @ FLA (6 IP)
  • Quality starts in three out of his last four outings
  • Has walked two or fewer in each of his last six starts
  • Reached the sixth inning in five out of his last six starts
  • ERA now a respectable 4.62, down from 5.04 (and a matching 5.01 SIERA)

The Phillies’ offense may have fallen from their perch atop the National League in offense, but the pitching has come together. Even the bullpen has been reliable in the wake of injuries to Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge, although they have not had too many opportunities for shutdowns and meltdowns while the offense has been slumping. Before today’s series finale in Atlanta, the team ranked sixth in the league in runs allowed per game at 3.98, just behind the Braves at 3.96. Having allowed only two runs to the Braves on Wednesday, that average drops to 3.94.

It is a crying shame that the Phillies have been wasting these great pitching performances with a dreadfully impotent offense over the past two weeks. After the 5-1 victory to open up the series with the Boston Red Sox, the Phillies had a run differential of +69 for a Pythagorean winning percentage of .676. In other words, based on run differential, the Phillies played like like a 110-win team. In the last 11 games, the Phillies’ run differential is -36, or a Pythagorean winning percentage of .073, which comes out to a 12-win team in a 162-game season.

If the Phillies hit like a bottom-feeding offensive team, averaging 3 runs per game, the Pythagorean winning percentage would come out to .303, 49 wins in a full season. If the Phillies had hit like they normally do, averaging 5 runs per game, the Pythag equals .548, an 89-win team.

BEGIN END G RS RA PWL XW XL XW-162 XL-162
4/5 5/21 41 224 155 .676 28 13 110 52
5/22 6/2 11 14 50 .073 1 10 12 150
4/5 6/2 52 238 205 .574 30 22 93 69

Glossary | PWL = Pythagorean W-L record | XW = Expected wins | XL = Expected losses | XW-162 = Expected wins per 162 games | XL-162 = Expected losses per 162 games

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

In the last nine games (May 22-31), the Phillies have scored a grand total of ten runs. The team was shut out in five of those nine matches thanks, in part, to injuries to the right side of the infield, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and third baseman Placido Polanco. The Phillies have replaced Rollins and his .339 weighted on-base average (wOBA) with Juan Castro‘s career .263 and Wilson Valdez‘s .254. Polanco’s .335 wOBA has been swapped with the .314 wOBA belonging to Greg Dobbs and Castro has logged some innings at the hot corner as well.

Along with the inferior substitutes, the bats of the starters have collectively cooled off as well. Ryan Howard has reached base in nine of his 36 plate appearances since May 22 on four singles and five walks. Chase Utley has reached base in only six of his 37 PA on three singles, a triple, and three walks. Jayson Werth is hitless in his last 20 plate appearances, striking 11 times in that span.

How about a look in graph form? (Click to enlarge)

The slump stats (May 22-31):

NAME BB HBP 1B 2B 3B HR ROE PA wOBA
Placido Polanco 3 0 4 1 0 0 0 17 .412
Raul Ibanez 4 0 3 2 1 0 0 28 .344
Ross Gload 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 9 .317
Wilson Valdez 1 0 4 2 0 0 0 22 .309
Carlos Ruiz 3 0 4 1 0 0 0 23 .304
Ben Francisco 1 0 1 2 0 0 0 14 .293
Juan Castro 2 0 2 2 0 0 0 20 .286
Shane Victorino 3 1 6 2 0 0 0 39 .277
Brian Schneider 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 6 .270
Ryan Howard 5 0 4 0 0 0 0 36 .200
Chase Utley 3 0 3 0 1 0 1 37 .198
Jayson Werth 1 0 2 1 0 0 0 28 .134
Greg Dobbs 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 15 .096
TOTAL 29 1 35 13 2 1 1 294 .256

There’s a clear drop-off between career and streak wOBA when you get to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jayson Werth, and Greg Dobbs. Howard and Utley have hit nearly .200 points under his career wOBA while Werth is nearly .250 points under and Dobbs has completely fallen off a cliff. The reason the Phillies aren’t scoring runs? Their 3-4-5 hitters are simultaneously slumping. Between the three of them, they have exactly two extra-base hits in 101 PA. Werth, a maven of plate discipline, has walked only once in his last 28 PA.

Utley has only struck out in 4 of his last 37 PA, which is a good sign and leads us to believe that he has simply been BABIP unlucky for the most part. Howard, on the other hand, is back to whiffing after making frequent contract through the first month and a half. Over the cold streak, Howard has struck out in 32% of his at-bats, matching his career average. As the plate discipline stats on FanGraphs show, Howard has been swinging at a lot of junk outside of the strike zone. And Werth, as mentioned, has struck out in 43% of his at-bats during this cold streak, well above his career average 29%.

So I wouldn’t worry about Utley and Werth’s struggles are likely correctable. Howard’s slump is concerning since he has been turned into a singles hitter. 72% of his hits are singles compared to 50% last year and 49% in 2008. Additionally, his walk rate is 3% lower and he is hitting 7.5% more ground balls and 7% fewer fly balls. More ground balls means more singles and fewer fly balls means fewer doubles and home runs. This could be a function of how opposing pitchers are going after Howard as he has seen lefties in 35% of his PA this year and has seen even fewer pitches in the strike zone than he did last year, 45% to 42%.

However, as I wrote recently, this offensive slump is nothing to fret about although it is frustrating. The core of this offense has helped the team rank among the National League’s best in many offensive categories for three-plus years. That isn’t about to change.

LOL: Lots of Links

I haven’t linked to my work elsewhere in a while, so I’d like to get that out of the way and direct you to the outstanding work of others as well. Additionally, you may notice a new ad on the right-hand sidebar from Google. If you have a few seconds, click on the links. It doesn’t take much effort and it will help pay for the costs of maintaining this website. Thanks!

Baseball Prospectus fantasy starting pitcher advice:

Baseball Daily Digest:

Elsewhere:

Useful links:

Around the SweetSpot:

The Phillies play the Braves early today — the game starts at 1:05 PM EST. Joe Blanton vs. Tommy Hanson.

Philadelphia’s Golden Age of Baseball

The 1976-83 era Philadelphia Phillies were incredible collections of baseball players. The Phillies had the greatest third baseman of all-time in Mike Schmidt and one of the greatest left-handed starting pitchers of all-time in Steve Carlton. There was the all-out hustle of Pete Rose, the overt power of Greg Luzinski, the sterling defense of Larry Bowa and Garry Maddox, and the lights-out relieving by Tug McGraw. The team made the playoffs in six out of those eight seasons, averaging a .568 winning percentage in that span of time. They reached the World Series twice in a four-year span from 1980-83, winning it once in ’80.

The ’76-83 Phillies, led by Danny Ozark and then by Dallas Green and Pat Corrales, was considered to be the greatest era in Phillies history. Never before had the Phillies even reached the playoffs in two consecutive years, let alone three in a row as they did from ’76-78.

The 2006-10 era Phillies, however, may be Philadelphia’s new golden age of baseball. The team has made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and, despite recent offensive woes, appears poised to make it four in a row for the first time in franchise history. Presently, the Phillies have enjoyed the prime years of the franchise’s best first baseman, second baseman, and shortstop ever in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins.

After winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2005, Howard broke Schmidt’s single-season home run record in ’06, surpassing Michael Jack’s 48 with 56. Howard would go on to accrue at least 45 HR and 136 RBI in this “golden age”. 2006 also saw one of the greatest defensive plays of all-time when Aaron Rowand went face-first into the centerfield fence in an all-out effort to catch a fly ball hit by Xavier Nady, then of the New York Mets. And if not for the punch-less David Bell at third base, the Phillies could have set a record for most home runs by an infield as Howard, Utley, and Rollins combined for 115 long balls.

The Phillies broke a 13-year playoff dry spell when they won the division on the very last day of the season thanks to an epic meltdown by the Mets in 2007. While the dry spell does not compare to that of 1951-75, the ’07 accomplishment meant a lot given how much adversity the Phillies had to overcome, signified by the franchise’s 10,000 loss in mid-July. Reaching the post-season involved playing .592 baseball in the season’s final three months, including wins in 13 of the final 17 games.

In 2008, Cole Hamels‘ pitching ranked among the best ever by a Phillies left-hander (behind Carlton, of course) and Brad Lidge‘s perfect season made baseball history as one of only two relievers ever to go a full season without blowing a save (Eric Gagne being the other). The Phillies reached the post-season and compiled a veritable reel of highlights, from Brett Myers‘ at-bats against C.C. Sabathia and Chad Billingsley to Shane Victorino‘s grand slam (off of Sabathia) to Matt Stairs‘ beautiful swing for a tie-breaking two-run home run off of Jonathan Broxton to Joe Blanton‘s home run in Game 4 of the World Series to Utley’s heads-up throw to home to nail Jason Bartlett. The team broke a 27-year championship dry spell and quickly brought baseball back into vogue in Philadelphia, previously an area dominated by the Eagles. The championship parade brought over two million visitors to Broad Street. Chase Utley spoke for every Phillies fan across the nation with his WFC exclamation.

The Phillies waved goodbye to a clubhouse stalwart in Pat Burrell and welcomed the new baseball bat of Raul Ibanez in 2009. It was the first of many signs the Phillies were not going to be complacent with past achievements. The Phillies took hold of first place at the end of May and never relented. However, Ruben Amaro, successor to Pat Gillick as GM of the Phillies, traded a wealth of prospects to Cleveland for dominant lefty Cliff Lee and also signed free agent Pedro Martinez, one of the best right-handed pitchers ever to play the game. They won the division with relative ease and it turned into the Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez show in the post-season while Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins delivered some key late-inning hits against the Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers.

They reached the World Series for the second consecutive year, the first time that has ever been accomplished in Phillies history. While they were dispatched by the New York Yankees in six games, there was no doubt that they had the ability to make it all the way back for the third consecutive year. If the Phillies do so in 2010, they will be the first National League team to make three straight World Series appearances since the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals.

During the off-season, the Phillies acquired Roy Halladay, viewed by many as the best pitcher in baseball and at least the best right-handed pitcher in the game. While the cost was Cliff Lee and a swap of prospects, Halladay has justified the transaction thus far. Through 11 starts, he has a 1.99 ERA and has already tossed five complete games, three of which were shut-outs. Of course, one of those shut-outs came last night when he threw baseball’s 20th (and the Phillies’ second) perfect game against the Florida Marlins. He is on pace for 266 innings in 34 starts, which would be the most innings thrown since, well, himself in 2003. And before that, Jack Morris in 1987.

Never before have Phillies fans seen their baseball team so dynamic. The Phillies have been among the best in offense, defense, and base running during this “golden age” and have had some incredible pitching performances to boot.

While the Phillies’ recent offensive woes are frustrating, keep this in perspective. You are watching the greatest group of Phillies ever assembled. This includes the best starting pitcher in the game and the franchise’s best first baseman, second baseman (also the best in the game) and (presently injured) shortstop. And you can make an argument that Jayson Werth belongs in that conversation as well, despite a short track record of success.

The team has been selling out every home game and has gone into the top-five in Major League Baseball in total payroll. The Phillies are so popular (and good) that national broadcasts rushed to cover them, even in spring training. Enjoy this, folks, because it won’t last forever. Don’t get caught up in the frustrations of a two-week offensive slump. This is a truly remarkable Phillies roster poised to once again make history.

Phillies Offense is Just Fine

Oh no! The Phillies have been shut out in three out of their last four games and they have been held scoreless in 37 out of the last 38 innings. Clearly something is amiss!

Since a 12-run outburst against the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 17, the Phillies’ offense has collectively hit for a .203 AVG, .282 OBP, and .309 SLG — worse than Eric Bruntlett‘s career numbers. In those eight games, the team has scored only 15 runs, an average of under two per game. This has got to be uncharted territory for the high-octane Phillies offense, right?

Incorrect. Here are some offensive droughts the Phillies have endured over the past few years:

2009

  • May 9-14: 5 games, 14 runs, .176/.291/.320
  • June 16-26: 10 games, 35 runs, .208/.279/.344
  • July 28-August 4: 7 games, 17 runs, .218/.279/.331
  • August 25-September 7: 13 games, 31 runs, .236/.294/.417

2008

  • April 5-10: 6 games, 20 runs, .231/.326/.392
  • June 3-12: 9 games, 33 runs, .226/.318/.365
  • June 17-26: 8 games, 15 runs, .181/.257/.252
  • August 1-9: 8 games, 21 runs, .207/.321/.368
  • August 14-21: 7 games, 19 runs, .203/.252/.323

2007

  • May 15-23: 7 games, 27 runs, .218/.285/.389
  • June 4-11: 8 games, 31 runs, .255/.325/.433
  • August 8-16: 8 games, 32 runs, .227/.304/.373
  • August 18-25: 7 games, 26 runs, .249/.295/.414

As you can see, the Phillies have traditionally hit at least four offensive skids per season. This will hold true for any similarly potent offense or starting rotation or bullpen. No team will average five runs per game and score exactly five runs every game. Sometimes they will score ten and another time they will score zero; sometimes they will score six and another time they will score four. We tend to overlook the times the Phillies’ offense is on fire because we expect it. The Phillies averaged 7.7 runs per game from the start of the 2010 season until April 16.

To quote J.C. Bradbury of Sabernomics on streaks:

Occasionally, these things happen in clumps (like the Braves losing nine games in a row), and fans are quick to respond with disdain and frustration. For example, the data below represent wins (w) and losses (l) in a 162-game season for a .500 team, generated randomly via a computer program (Stata code: generate x=round(uniform(),1)) . Note that this team actually finishes below .500 and has several streaks of wins and losses. In fact, there is an 18-game span where the team has two five-game losing streaks and one six-game losing streak while going 2-16. I imagine the sports pages would have a field day with this team as being one of the worst in baseball, when in fact it is an average team.

l l l l w w l l l w w w w l w w l l l w l w l l l l l w l l l l l w l l l l l l w w w l w w w w w w l w w w l w w w l w w l w w l w l l w w w l w w l l w w l w w w w l l w w w w w l l w w w l l l l w l l w l l l l l l w w w w l w l w w w w w w w l w w l l w w l w w l w w w l w l w l l w w w l w w l w w l w l w w l l l w l
[…]

This has to be frustrating for management, because the belief that random fluctuations represent real and easily-correctable problems can have financial consequences. A good team that plays poorly can translate into losses at the gate. A GM may look at his roster and see a good team that he doesn’t want to change, but “hang on and be patient” doesn’t resonate well among fans who demand answers. How can a GM signal that things are going to get better when the team is already configured optimally?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Phillies at the moment. They are still one of the best offenses in baseball even without Jimmy Rollins and a fully healthy Carlos Ruiz and a struggling Raul Ibanez and a powerless Ryan Howard (71% of his hits have been singles compared to 50% last year). Imagine how fun it will be if and when Rollins is 100% healthy and Ruiz isn’t banged up and Ibanez gets on one of his patented hot streaks and Howard stops hitting like David Eckstein.

That the league’s best offense has been shut out in three out of their last four games has not sat well with most Phillies fans and talking heads. However, the storyline would be a lot different if the Phillies had squeezed just one run in each of those shut-outs. It’s not so much that the Phillies’ offense has been rendered impotent over the last week-plus, but that the label of being shut-out — three times — is a Scarlet letter.

Just as I advocated when Cole Hamels was struggling, Phillies fans need to just ride out this wave of poor play. It is not representative of the big picture; things will turn around.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

2010 is a stark contrast to previous seasons as the Phillies have dealt with injury after injury. Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero started the season on the disabled list due to off-season flexor tendon surgery; Lidge has since returned due to elbow inflammation. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins hasn’t been able to keep his calf in working order, first with a grade-two strain, more recently with a grade-one. Joe Blanton started the year on the shelf as well with a left oblique strain, and J.A. Happ soon joined him with a left forearm strain. Ryan Madson got angry and kicked a folding chair, breaking his right big toe. And bench players Brian Schneider and Juan Castro dealt with strains of their own of the left Achilles and the left hamstring respectively. (Carlos Ruiz is also hurting.)

It’s been a struggle for sure, but the Phillies still find themselves three games ahead in the tightly-bunched NL East, eight games above .500. Charlie Manuel came into the season expecting to use a lineup of Rollins-Polanco-Utley-Howard-Werth-Ibanez-Victorino-Catcher-Pitcher but has only used that order once after April 12. Even worse, Manuel’s top-two options for the closer’s role have gone down in Lidge and Madson, forcing Jose Contreras to step up — something he has handled with great aplomb.

Just how badly have the Phillies been bitten by the injury bug?

Player Absent Injury $/Gm $ to Date Injury Cost
Brad Lidge 35 R Flexor Tendon Surgery / R Elbow Inflammation $74,074 $3.33M $2.59M
Jimmy Rollins 32 R Calf Strain (Grade II, Grade I) $52,469 $2.36M $1.68M
Ryan Madson 24 R Toe Fracture $29,835 $1.34M $0.72M
Joe Blanton 24 L Oblique Strain $18,519 $0.83M $0.44M
J.C. Romero 16 L Flexor Tendon Surgery $26,235 $1.18M $0.42M
J.A. Happ 34 L Forearm Strain $2,901 $0.13M $0.10M
Brian Schneider 13 L Achilles Strain $6,944 $0.31M $0.09M
Juan Castro 9 L Hamstring Strain $4,321 $0.19M $0.04M
TOTAL 187 $9.69M $6.08M

(Click the graph to view a larger version)

The blue bars indicate the amount of money each player would have earned if he had “contributed” in each of the team’s first 45 games. The red bars indicate the amount of money each player has collected while sitting on the disabled list (games missed times game salary).

Overall, the eight players on the list are collectively owed $9.69 million through 45 games but have only been healthy enough to earn $3.61 million of it (37%). The 28 players who have been on the 25-man roster have earned $39.43 million through 45 games; the $6.08 million represents more than 15% of that.

Last year, the New York Mets lost nearly $55 million to injuries, representing about 37% of their total payroll for the season. The 2008 Mets weren’t too fortunate, either — they lost more than $27 million, about 20% of their payroll. (Via Jeff Zimmerman, Beyond the Box Score)

Mets Series Preview: Joe Janish

Fellow member of ESPN’s SweetSpot blog network Joe Janish was nice enough to get involved in a Q&A, previewing the upcoming series between the Phillies and Mets. His questions and my answers can be found at his blog Mets Today by clicking here.

. . .

1. How much patience do the Mets have with Jose Reyes? He’s currently sporting a .550 OPS.

Plenty. Number one, because the guy was sitting on a couch for over a month — literally. The Mets have only themselves to blame for rushing him back; it was unrealistic to expect an athlete to return to world-class condition in one week after being completely sedentary for six weeks. Number two, there isn’t any alternative — the next-best shortstop in the organization that is anywhere close to MLB-ready is Ruben Tejada, and he isn’t as close as the front office would like you to think, and he is AT BEST another Anderson Hernandez. Reyes may struggle for a little while longer, but eventually he’ll get back into the swing of things. Though, we may not see it until the Mets are so far behind it won’t matter.

2. The Mets are near the bottom of the National League in a lot of offensive categories. Will the Mets be looking to acquire a bat at the trade deadline?

No. As bad as the Mets’ offense is, their pitching is worse — so if a deal is to be made, it HAS to be for an arm. The fact they have not given Chris Carter a shot to merely platoon with the offensively anemic Jeff Francouer suggests that they will “go with the horses they came with”. Other than right field, there isn’t really any position where there is an opportunity to make an improvement. David Wright, Jason Bay, Jose Reyes, and possibly Ike Davis are pretty much set for the season at their respective positions. As bad as Rod Barajas is, he’s doing what the Mets want — hit homeruns — and there aren’t many offensive-minded backstops available anyway. Luis Castillo is immovable, and again, the trade wire is void of second sackers with punch. Angel Pagan is filling in admirably for Carlos Beltran, and, yet again, a better-performing centerfielder would be hard to come by. That leaves Francoeur, but Mets seem intent on waiting out his slump.

3. Speaking of trades, do the Mets have the prospects to make a deal for Roy Oswalt of the Houston Astros?

Doubtful. The best they have to offer is Jennry Mejia and Fernando Martinez, but the fan base would go ape if either of those youngsters were moved. Further, I’m not sure the Astros would be interested in either of them.

4. After Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey, the Mets rotation isn’t looking too good. Aside from a deal for a star pitcher like Roy Oswalt or Cliff Lee, how can the Mets patch up the back of the rotation?

It can’t happen from within, unless RA Dickey and Hisanori Takahashi pitch well above their heads. Even then, there’s still an empty spot in the rotation, assuming Oliver Perez doesn’t return there. The shortsighted decision to bring Mejia north as an MLB reliever rather than let him continue developing as a starter in the minors is biting the Mets in the butt very hard right now. The best the Mets have to turn to down on the farm include journeymen Pat Misch and Bobby Livingston and fringe prospects Tobi Stoner and Dillon Gee. The pickings are slim. Their best hope is that someone is willing to give up an MLB-caliber starter for Dan Murphy, because their trade chips are equally underwhelming.

5. The bullpen has been decent for the Mets so far, but do the high walk rates set off any alarms?

The bullpen did well in April, but Jerry Manuel’s pedal-to-the-metal “management” is already seeing its ill effects. Manuel has been managing for his job since Opening Day, and mixing and matching relievers as if every contest were Game Seven of the World Series (Fernando Nieve and Pedro Feliciano are first and second in the NL in appearances, and on pace to appear in 97 games by the end of the season). Add in the fact that John Maine and Ollie Perez rarely made it through (or to) the fifth frame of starts, and what you have now is a bullpen that is starting to break down now, and is poised to continue a downward spiral. Yes, the high walk rates are a major concern.

BONUS: Moyer-Dickey, Blanton-Takahashi, and Hamels-Pelfrey are the pitching match-ups. How do you see the series panning out?

Strangely enough, for all my negativity, I’m liking the Mets chances in this particular series — mainly because they’re missing Roy Halladay. Also, I think that there is an outside chance that Dickey’s knuckler could dance enough to keep the Phillies off-balance, and both he and Takahashi have the benefit of mystery right now — meaning, Phillies hitters and the scouting reports are not familiar with the two hurlers. As for Hamels-Pelfrey, I’m liking what I’m seeing of Pelfrey lately, and have yet to be convinced that Hamels can be the pitcher he was two years ago. With a little luck, the Mets could pull out two wins — and their 16-9 at home suggests they could get “lucky”. Oh, and it’s going to be more difficult for Mick Billmeyer to pick off the catcher’s signs from the sharp angle of Citi Field’s bullpen. 😉

. . .

Tip of the cap to Joe for being unbiased about his team. Now let’s hope the Phillies can sweep the Mets!