The Cole Hamels Rebound

Cole Hamels turned in his best start of the season on Friday against the San Diego Padres, tossing eight strong innings before deferring to Ryan Madson to close out the game at 3-1. Hamels allowed one run on three hits, striking out ten (tying a season-high) and walking only one. It was a stark contrast to his previous start against the New York Mets on Saturday, when he allowed seven runs and failed to get through the fifth inning.

Although his results were stellar, Hamels was not himself leading up to his start on Friday. In his prior seven starts, he posted a 2.96 ERA but struck out only 33 in 45 and two-thirds innings, a per-nine rate of 6.5. In the 13 starts prior to that selection, he struck out 91 in 90 and two-thirds innings, a per-nine rate of 9.0. Hamels wasn’t being hit hard recently nor did his batted ball profiles change in any significant way; he simply wasn’t missing bats.

What was the problem? Hamels’ velocity was never alarming. Via Joe Lefkowitz’s site (click to enlarge):

FF: Four-seam fastball; FC: Cut fastball; CH: Change-up; CU: Curve

His pitch selection didn’t differ, as the following chart illustrates:

Pitch selection by handedness plus or minus one standard deviation:

RHB

  • Change-up
    • April 5 to June 8: 17.8 +/- 5.3
    • June 14 to July 16: 17.9 +/- 6.4
  • Curve
    • April 5 to June 8: 6.8 +/- 4.3
    • June 14 to July 16: 8.1 +/- 4.3
  • Four-seam fastball
    • April 5 to June 8: 40.8 +/- 10.9
    • June 14 to July 16: 35.7 +/- 12.6
  • Cut fastball
    • April 5 to June 8: 10.4 +/- 3.2
    • June 14 to July 16: 9.6 +/- 6.1

LHB

  • Change-up
    • April 5 to June 8: 4.7 +/- 3.0
    • June 14 to July 16: 5.1 +/- 4.2
  • Curve
    • April 5 to June 8: 3.0 +/- 1.7
    • June 14 to July 16: 3.3 +/- 3.3
  • Four-seam fastball
    • April 5 to June 8: 16.2 +/- 8.1
    • June 14 to July 16: 15.4 +/- 10.0
  • Cut fastball
    • April 5 to June 8: 3.0 +/- 1.7
    • June 14 to July 16: 3.3 +/- 3.3

Finally, although swings and misses were down in the latter selection, there was no particular pitch making the difference.

Swing and miss averages plus or minus one standard deviation:

  • Change-up
  • April 5 to June 8: 6.5 +/- 2.9
  • June 14 to July 16: 5.7 +/- 4.0
  • Curve
    • April 5 to June 8: 1.4 +/- 1.1
    • June 14 to July 16: 1.0 +/- 1.4
  • Four-seam fastball
    • April 5 to June 8: 3.1 +/- 1.6
    • June 14 to July 16: 2.3 +/- 1.4
  • Cut fastball
    • April 5 to June 8: 1.5 +/- 1.7
    • June 14 to July 16: 1.1 +/- 0.7

    Is it possible that it was all random? A pitcher whose K/9 was 9.1 last year, sits at 8.4 this year, and is 8.5 for his career — could he simply have gone down to 6.5 for a span of seven starts just by sheer randomness? It appears that that is exactly the case. In fact, it is a great illustration of exactly why small sample sizes are met with such skepticism among the statistically-minded. When we notice a trend, we have been trained to think that there must be an underlying cause; we need a reason to fit our narrative, and randomness is such a boring plot line.

    The good news is that Hamels righted his ship in his last outing against the Padres, notching his 18th double-digit strikeout performance of his young career. He has matched last year’s Cy Young winner, Roy Halladay, pitch-for-pitch all season long. Not even an unfortunate bout with the baseball gods could sidetrack him from helping lead his team to the post-season.

    Phillies Should Take Rollins Off the Market

    This article was prepared unknowing that Matt Gelb and David Hale covered the same subject. For a similar take with a different spin, check out Gelb’s article for the Inquirer and Hale’s for Delaware Online.

    With three-fifths of the regular season already over, the potential end of Jimmy Rollins‘ Phillies career is closer than many realize. The 32-year-old shortstop has been a fixture of the Phillies since 2001, but his continued presence in Philly has been pushed aside with the looming free agency of Ryan Madson and (potentially) Brad Lidge, as well as the final year of arbitration for Cole Hamels. The Phillies have a lot of important decisions to make once their season is over; retaining Rollins is on the itinerary, but it doesn’t appear to be at the top of the list.

    Quietly, Rollins has rebounded from two awful, injury-plagued seasons in 2009 and ’10. In ’09, he accrued 725 plate appearances, but his overall production plummeted: his on-base percentage fell below .300 and his .250 batting average was his lowest since ’02. Last year, Rollins suffered three injuries: a calf strain, a re-aggravation of the calf strain, and a thigh strain. As a result, he came to the plate only 394 times, most of them as a shadow of his former self. His batting average dipped below .250 and hit for considerably less power; his .131 ISO was his lowest since ’03.

    In ’09 and ’10 combined, Rollins posted less fWAR than he did in ’08 alone (5.6 to 5.4). Phillies fans, as a whole, seemed to quickly jive with the idea of turning over a new leaf at shortstop. A slow start to the ’11 season by Rollins and a surprisingly productive start by prospect Freddy Galvis in Double-A Reading only seemed to reinforce those feelings. (Galvis is currently hitting .265/.319/.389.)

    Rollins appeared to have hit his stride with a 4-for-4 day against the Oakland Athletics on June 26. But he followed that up with one hit in his next 17 at-bats spanning four games. Was that all the future holds for J-Roll? One good day for every four bad days? Since the start of July, however, Rollins seems to have actually hit his stride. In 17 games, he has posted a .988 OPS with eight extra-base hits (four doubles, four homers) and five stolen bases.

    On the season, Rollins has walked exactly as often as he has struck out (40 times). His batting average and on-base percentage are at pre-2009 levels while his power is quickly catching up. His elite defense has never wavered and he is still as smart and as aggressive a base runner as he has always been. His 3.3 fWAR through 98 games this season has already surpassed that of the previous two and he is on pace for 5.3 fWAR in 700 PA. Only five shortstops have been more valuable than Rollins this year.

    J.J. Hardy, sitting on 2.1 fWAR, recently signed a three-year, $22.25 million contract extension with the Baltimore Orioles. The market for shortstops will be thin, with just Jose Reyes and Rollins leading an underwhelming group that includes Alex Gonzalez, Nick Punto, and Cesar Izturis. If the Phillies feel that committing Hardy-esque money to Rollins is ill-fated, they would have to take one of three actions: do nothing and rely on Wilson Valdez, Michael Martinez, and Galvis; go with one of the underwhelming free agent shortstops mentioned; or make a trade for a shortstop (such as Jhonny Peralta). Of course, a fourth option does exist, which is out-bid several other teams for the services of Reyes, but it is very unlikely and almost impossible that the Phillies do so.

    When you consider the available options for both the Phillies and Rollins, the continued marriage between the two makes a lot of sense. The Phillies retain a quietly very-productive shortstop who doubles as a powerful marketing tool; Rollins stays the face of a franchise, one that will have a great opportunity to win a World Series in each of the next several years. It may not happen now or even soon, but a contract extension for Rollins makes too much sense.

    Davey Lopes Effect in L.A.?

    I studied “the Davey Lopes effect” last year, an attempt to find a source for the Phillies’ success on the bases. The details are below the third question in this “Five Questions” bit about the Phillies I did at The Hardball Times. If you peruse the numbers, I think you’ll see a clear trend where the addition of Lopes coincides with improvement in both stolen base attempts (particularly third base) and success rate.

    A difference in opinion on Lopes’ salary led to his parting from Philadelphia and eventual move to Los Angeles. Compared to the league average, the Dodgers have stolen eight more bases and have been thrown out seven fewer times. Matt Kemp, with 27 stolen bases in 30 attempts (90 percent) is personally responsible for 37.5 percent of the total stolen bases and 34 percent of the total attempts, so he should be the primary focus.

    Going into 2011, Kemp was a liability on the bases. He was 104-for-143 (73 percent), which is above the general 70 percent threshold for base-stealing to be worthwhile, but he was disappointingly 19-for-34 (56 percent) in 2010. With the addition of Lopes, Kemp has become an extremely threatening base runner, in addition to his progression as a talented hitter (.968 OPS). He has attempted to steal third base six times, which is tied for a career high with two-fifths of the season remaining.

    Outside of Kemp, the Dodgers have been relying on speedy young players and grizzled veterans for stealing bases. Tony Gwynn Jr. and Dee Gordon are 22-for-28 (79 percent) combined, while Jamey Carroll, Aaron Miles, and Juan Uribe are a combined 8-for-8. For the young players, it is impossible to use the stats to see a Lopes effect; for the vets, they have not attempted nearly enough stolen bases for a difference to be meaningful.

    On a team level, the Dodgers as a whole are significantly better off this year than they had been in 2010. Although the Dodgers had the fourth-most stolen base attempts last year, they had the third-worst success rate (65 percent) and they barely broke even in 2009 (71 percent).

    Perhaps most importantly, though, the Dodgers have attempted to steal third base 16 times, 12 successfully (a pace for 26 attempts). Lopes’ trademark with the Phillies was making them aggressively take third base. As my article at THT illustrated, the Phillies went from the third percentile on third base attempts in 2006 to 97th in ’09. The Dodgers attempted to steal third 13 times last year with nine successes and were 12-for-19 in ’09.

    It is still much too early to say that Lopes has significantly affected the Dodgers’ base running, but there are some clear trends. It appears that Lopes brought the same philosophies that turned the Phillies into aggressive, efficient base running machines to Los Angeles.

    Wednesday Link Dump

    There’s nothing in the blog queue for today unless Paul or Jeff want to whip something up on the fly, so I’m just going to direct you to great stuff from around the Internets. Let’s start with some self-promotion.

    You can follow the Crashburn crew on Twitter. @CrashburnAlley is Bill, @Phrontiersman is Paul, and @Utley4God is Jeff. Although I’ve been absent during the last couple games, I’m usually on Twitter during games giving my immediate reactions and often wagering large sums of money to will the Phillies to victory. If you’re not a Tweeter — and why wouldn’t you be — you can get updates on new posts by liking Crashburn Alley on Facebook.

    I co-host the Phillies and Sabermetrics-focused show “Stathead” with Jeff Sottolano on Phillies 24/7 HD radio, 98.1 WOGL HD-4. The show airs every Tuesday at 3 PM ET and re-airs on Wednesdays at 2 PM ET. If you missed yesterday’s show, you can still grab your HD radio to hear what we had to say about Vance Worley, Ryan Howard, and some trade deadline targets. We also discussed the Bill Conlin article that was dissected here recently.

    If you’re into fantasy baseball, I cover starting pitchers every Friday at Baseball Prospectus, looking for undervalued pitchers that are likely available in your leagues.

    In case you happened to miss all of the blog action over the last few days, here’s a quick recap:

    • Jeff Barnes argues that the Phillies should do nothing as the July 31 trading deadline fast approaches. [Link]
    • I looked at Ryan Howard’s stats and didn’t find much room for optimism. [Link]
    • Continuing my role as Debbie Downer, I also called for lowered expectations with Vance Worley. [Link]
    • Jose Bautista continues to be the target of PED suspicion, so I compared his rise to stardom to that of Roy Halladay. [Link]

    Phillies stuff elsewhere on the Internet…

    At Brotherly Glove, Eric Seidman (@EricSeidman) looks at the impact J.J. Hardy’s recently-signed contract will have on Jimmy Rollins. [Link]

    Also at BG, Eric points out that a third baseman may be as important to the Phillies as a corner outfielder or reliever. [Link]

    At Zoo With Roy, @Cranekicker delves into Shane Victorino’s mind after he hit what he thought was a home run. [Link]

    Chris Jones (@LONG_DRIVE) from The Fightins looks over the players the Phillies could be acquiring before the trading deadline. [Link]

    The Good Phight’s Taco Pal thinks Hunter Pence’s career year is unsustainable and isn’t the best player for the Phillies to target. [Link]

    Fire Eric Bruntlett looked at the potentially historic seasons from the Phillies’ three aces. [Link]

    David Murphy (@HighCheese) reports that Roy Halladay will make his next start after failing to get through the fifth inning on Monday. [Link]

    David Hale (@Philled_In) has some nice quotes from Scott Proefrock that indicate the Phillies may be passive leading up to the deadline with quite a few players on their way back from the disabled list. [Link]

    Matt Gelb (@magelb) has the latest updates on Roy Oswalt — good news. The hope is an early August return. [Link]

    This is an old article from The Good Phight, but I’ve seen the “Team Record when Player X Scores a Run” stat thrown around lately, so I think it’s worth another read. [Link]

    General baseball stuff on the Interwebs…

    Matt Swartz (@Matt_Swa) is now writing for FanGraphs and he brought SIERA along with him. His debut at FanGraphs features a five-part series explaining SIERA and the recent changes made to the great statistic. Parts one and two have been posted; three should be up sometime today as well.

    I’m always amazed at the quality of work Mike Fast (@fastballs) does at Baseball Prospectus. In his latest article, he shows the production of players based on the amount of pitches they see within the strike zone. [Link]

    David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) looks at RBI production from the clean-up spot over the past decade. [Link]

    At SB Nation, Jeff Sullivan (@LookoutLanding) concludes that Roy Halladay’s latest outing in Chicago confirms, not denies, that he is not human. [Link]

    Due to Halladay’s bad start in Chicago, his streak of 50 consecutive road games with six or more innings pitched was broken. Baseball Reference lists the 50 longest such streaks. [Link]

    Matt Klaassen (@devil_fingers) posted the updated catcher defense ratings at Beyond the Box Score. Do a Ctrl+F for Carlos Ruiz. [Link]

    By the way, if you haven’t read Gary Smith’s article on Chooch at Sports Illustrated, do yourself a favor and click on this link. –> [Link]

    Ben Duronio (@Ben_Duronio) of Capitol Avenue Club points out the real reasons why the Atlanta Braves could trade Derek Lowe. [Link]

    Completely random stuff from the Internet…

    As a video game enthusiast, when this guy set the record for lowest score without dying in a game of Super Mario Bros. 1, he became my idol:

    Anyone have any theories as to how Mathieu Bich pulled off this magic trick?

    I don’t know why, but metal seems to translate to the piano well. I’ve heard quite a few metal covers done on piano and none of them have been bad. I’d have preferred if this one wasn’t passed through a computer program, but it’s great nonetheless.

    Ryan Howard Sitting on Career-Lows

    Ryan Howard went 0-for-4 last night in the series opener against the Chicago Cubs, just a small part of the Phillies’ collective inability to push runs across the board against Rodrigo Lopez. The 3-4-5 in the lineup collectively went hitless in 11 at-bats while John Mayberry Jr. was the only one to have more than one hit. As the Phillies had been on a roll offensively (55 runs in the eight games prior), and were much improved after getting Chase Utley back (average 4.6 runs per game since May 23), we can’t really complain about this one bad game.

    However, it is getting increasingly more difficult to ignore Howard’s precipitous decline. I’ve become known as a Howard-hater (I’m not really), so I will just present the facts and leave the conclusions up to you, the reader. The following is a large selection of Howard’s current offensive stats, accurate prior to last night’s game against the Cubs. If you don’t understand any of the stats or would like to learn more about them, click here.

    • Isolated Power (ISO): .209. Previous career-low: .229 in 2010. Career average: .285. Howard’s ISO has been in decline since 2006, actually. To put this in context, Matt Kemp has a .275 ISO, Michael Morse is at .230, and Jhonny Peralta is at .211.

    • Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP): .292. Career-low: .285 in 2008. Career average: .324. Likely due to a decline in line drives (19 percent) but it may not be meaningful. He has become more of a pull hitter. Given the shift, this may have an adverse effect on his BABIP.
    • Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA): .345. Previous career-low: .366 in 2008. Career average: .387. To put this in context, Kevin Youkilis is at .396, Adam Lind is at .367, and Michael Bourn is at .345.
    • His OPS (.803) tells a similar story. Previous career-low: .859 in 2010. Career average: .931.
    • OPS+, which adjusts for park and league factors, has Howard just over 120, still a career-low.
  • Platoon Splits: Howard was known for being average to slightly above-average against left-handed pitching, but extremely good against right-handed pitching.
    • 2011 vs. LHP: .291 wOBA. Career-low: .290 in 2009. Career average: .326.
    • 2011 ISO vs. LHP: .080. Previous career-low: .149 in 2009. Career average: .207.
  • 2011 vs. RHP: .368 wOBA. Previous career-low: .372 in 2010. Career average: .419.
    • 2011 ISO vs. RHP: .270. Previous career low: .274 in 2010. Career average: .327.

    Howard is on pace for 31 home runs and 124 RBI. While not as good as his 2006-09 numbers, it is roughly equivalent to last year’s production. Given what appears to be the dawning of a new era of pitching and defense, those numbers appear quite good. However, the Sabermetric stats paint a different and much more pessimistic picture. Howard has become known for his ridiculously productive second-halves; here’s hoping he has another one up his sleeve.

    What to Expect from Vance Worley

    Vance Worley has filled in admirably for the Phillies while Joe Blanton and Roy Oswalt sit on the disabled list. The young right-hander has made nine starts with overall great results, and has gone between the starting rotation, the bullpen, and Triple-A Lehigh Valley as requested by the front office.

    Overall, Worley has a 2.15 ERA in over 54 innings of work, averaging nearly seven strikeouts and four walks per nine innings. With his goggles and easily-manipulable nicknames (my favorite is Vance Vance Revolution), he has garnered a fan following and a push for National League Rookie of the Year.

    Despite overall decent results, Worley was not a highly-touted name in the Phillies’ Minor League system. He was taken in the 20th round of the 2008 draft. Yet, he earned a call to the Majors in his third year of professional baseball — quite the accomplishment. In the Minors, he didn’t have any eye-popping numbers; his swing-and-miss stuff was average, and he had decent control, but that was about it. He had limited action in the Majors last year, but had both good performances and good results.

    However, Worley’s career 4.25 SIERA speaks more to his true talent level than his career 2.00 ERA. His Phillies career is very reminiscent of J.A. Happ, the lefty sent to the Houston Astros in the deal that brought Oswalt to Philadelphia. Happ showed similar mediocre strikeout and walk rates with no special batted ball abilities, but a fluky BABIP helped him to a 3.11 ERA with the Phillies.

    Fans and talking heads alike insisted that Happ was one of the select few that DIPS simply could not understand, like Matt Cain. Many said it was due to deception, as Happ slung the ball from behind his head, leaving batters with even less time to pick up the spin and speed of the ball.

    Happ’s success continued when he went to Houston last year, finishing up with a 3.75 ERA after his relocation. With the ‘stros, Happ had a 7.6 K/9 and 4.4 BB/9, both rates slightly up from when he was in Philly. His 4.40 SIERA, though, was in line with his previous performances and indicated what to expect going forward.

    This year, Happ has had significant struggles. His strikeout and walk rates are about the same, but rather than having a BABIP in the .260’s, it is now .312. As a result, his 5.76 ERA is not quite what GM Ed Wade expected when he acquired the lefty. His 4.61 SIERA is still around where we have expected to be all along, so Happ has actually been quite unlucky, but his 2009-10 and ’11 seasons are indications of just how much luck can play a part in a pitcher’s success or failure.

    That should give one caution when looking at Worley. He has a .253 BABIP so far, but fans and talking heads are still claiming that Worley is the latest DIPS heretic — again, due to deception, as Worley hides the ball for what appears to be an above-average period of time. Everything about Worley and Happ, besides their handedness, is nearly identical, including their luck. Worley is due for the same regression that Happ went through, and it will not be pretty.

    If you want to go where the smart money is, look at his 4.44 SIERA. Unless Worley improves his control, his ability to miss bats, and/or his ability to generate ground balls, his true talent level is that of a #4-5 starter. That is fine, for the role in which the Phillies need him. Unfortunately, the needs of the team and the expectations of fans and talking heads rarely align. Worley’s fall from grace will be steeper than it needs to be.

    A Roy Halladay/Jose Bautista Parallel

    I got into a bit of a Twitter debate last week following my routine praising of Jose Bautista. After the Toronto Blue Jays slugger hit two home runs on Saturday, he sat atop the FanGraphs WAR leaderboard at 6.5, just a shade under his full-season total of 6.9 from last year. Now, he is at 6.7, a pace for over 11 WAR, a Bondsian pace. Some of the comments sent to me after I sung Bautista’s praises flat-out accused the right-hander of using illegal substances to get ahead.

    As a result of the recent “steroid era”, which may or not be over, Bautista has in many circles been a magnet for accusations of performance-enhancing drug use. The man who slugged 54 home runs last year shrugged off those claims in an interview with Canada’s TSN as well as pointing out that he has been drug tested no less than 15 times. That is not enough for some people, unfortunately — likely the same people who crowed when Major League Baseball instituted the current drug-testing stipulations.

    It is unfortunate that many people cannot enjoy Bautista’s rise to superstardom because of their apprehension trailing from the “steroid era”. Like a jilted lover, these baseball fans are reluctant to embrace another power hitter lest they be let down again as they were with Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.

    The “evidence” people cite as “proof” of Bautista’s using is nothing short of hilarious. For instance, many accuse him of beginning to use steroids in 2010, even though his power surge actually started in September 2009. Then there are the arguments from incredulity, the claim that there is no possible way a scrub like Bautista could become a premier power hitter without the aid of a PED (one that has gone undetected, has not visibly altered his body, and apparently has been unused by other players).

    When rational explanations are given, such as that the move from Pittsburgh to Toronto gave him access to a different set of coaches that tried different things with his mechanics — something Bautista himself said was the underlying cause of his transformation — the skeptics scoff. Coaches are good, but are they 16-to-54 home run-good?

    Yes. Why is it hard to accept the notion that a coach could have a huge impact on a player? First, the words from Bautista himself, transcribed from the TSN video.

    I did have to make some changes to my hitting approach and the way I went up to the plate. Because I used to get started so late, the only way I could try to be on time, sometimes, was to be quick. So, this was my speed [demonstrates]. So, by the time I try to come around, the ball was already on top of the plate and everything was so late. I had heard it a million times: start slow and early, start slow and early. But to me, that didn’t make a lot of sense until we watched video. We got a mirror, they showed me.

    Those skeptics who don’t buy that story should also have trouble believing the story of Roy Halladay. Halladay got off to a rough start in his Blue Jays career for a variety of reasons, but didn’t turn things around until he received guidance from Mel Queen. From SI’s Tom Verducci:

    The Blue Jays owed Halladay $3.15 million for the 2001 and ’02 seasons. Privately, the organization wanted to fix him just enough to be able to trade him. The Toronto G.M., Gord Ash, telephoned one of the organization’s pitching instructors, Mel Queen, in the spring of ’01. “You’ve got to fix Halladay,” Ash said.

    Queen was the Blue Jays’ pitching coach from 1996 through ’99. He had watched Halladay throw in his first big league camp and called him Iron Mike because his slow, over-the-top delivery looked as measured as those old metal pitching machines.

    […]

    Queen brought Halladay to the bullpen for a throwing session, except he began so rudimentarily that he refused to let Halladay use a baseball. Queen lowered Halladay’s release point and speeded up his delivery, all without a ball in the pitcher’s hand.

    Halladay threw phantom pitches for 20 minutes. The next day they did the same thing. At the end of that session Queen let him actually throw a ball. The coach showed him two grips for a fastball: one that caused the ball to run away from a righthanded hitter and another that sent it away from a lefthander. “Aim for the middle of the plate,” Queen said.

    What happened was amazing. The improvement was immediate.

    “It was one day,” Halladay says. “The first day it was good. And the next couple of days it just got more comfortable and more consistent. It just made it so much easier to move the ball.”

    While Halladay turned things around by his mid-20’s as opposed to Bautista’s nearly-29 (more a result of [lack of] opportunity rather than skill or biology), the comparison is rather fitting. Bautista’s resurgence is discriminated against because he is a hitter, whereas Halladay’s transformation gets nary a raised eyebrow because he is a pitcher and because his rise to superstardom came before the witch hunts. Pitchers this side of Roger Clemens are rarely thought of in the performance-enhancing drug issue, even though they had similar incentives to use (and did use).

    Why can a pitcher turn his entire career around and become the best pitcher in baseball due to good coaching, but a hitter cannot do the same for himself?

    Ultimately, if you don’t trust Bautista’s success achieved entirely in an era with strict drug testing, then you should logically be just as, if not more, skeptical of Halladay, whose success preceded the first implementation of drug testing at the Major League level.

    Phillies and Braves Strength of Schedule

    Peter Hjort of Capitol Avenue Club was analyzing the Braves’ remaining schedule on Twitter, eventually concluding that it was a “cake walk” for the Braves. That made me a little angry. I went to Baseball Reference and pulled both the Braves’ and the Phillies’ remaining opponents and their winning percentages, and found an aggregate strength of schedule. The results are surprising.

    Win%

    .533

    3

    3

    .587

    6

    .402

    7

    3

    .489

    3

    4

    .473

    4

    3

    .473

    12

    6

    .326

    3

    .446

    3

    3

    .533

    4

    .505

    9

    9

    .626

    6

    .522

    4

    3

    .435

    4

    .565

    4

    7

    .533

    3

    4

    .500

    12

    9

    TOTAL

    70

    71

    AVG OPP WIN%

    .500

    .499

    The Braves play the NL East 39 times over their remaining 70 games (56%) while the Phillies play within the division 30 times over their final 71 (42%). Removing the Braves and the Phillies from the equation yields an aggregate .489 opponent winning percentage for the Braves and .491 for the Phillies. Over 65 games, it doesn’t even mean the difference of one game. If the remaining schedule is a “cake walk” for the Braves, then it’s equally so for the Phillies, which should make for an intriguing push for the NL East division crown.

    The Phillies and the Second Half

    The group projects keep rolling along. ESPN asked a representative from each of the Sweet Spot blogs to discuss their team and what to expect in the second half. You can read my answers here, but you can also catch them and the responses of others over at ESPN. I wanted to see what Paul and Jeff had to say, though, so I emailed them to get their thoughts.

    What’s the most important thing that needs to be fixed or accomplished in the second half?

    Bill: Although the Phillies finished off the first half on a high note, scoring 14 runs against the Atlanta Braves, the offense will need to pick up if the Phillies want to create more distance between themselves and the Braves in the NL East race. The Phillies averaged a bit over 4.1 runs per game, which is right around the league average, and the team overall had an OPS+ below 100 (below 100 is below-average). The rotation is great, but run-scoring is as important as run-prevention.

    Paul: Call this a toss-up between (1) get healthy and (2) improve the offense. It’s not as apocalyptically bad as some of us might have feared for a while, but it’s still not exactly 2007, either. I’d rank the need to find a capable left fielder above strengthening the bullpen, although both could certainly be used, especially if arms continue to get injured. Starting pitching, it appears, will not be an area of need in this deadline season.

    Jeff: Continue Domonic Brown’s Development.  The young outfielder has shown flashes of the potential that made him our one untouchable prospect over the past few years.  Heading into the stretch run, his development in the Phillies best chance to add a weapon to the lineup.  With continued trust from Charlie, and the at bats that come with it, Dom could really be hitting his stride come October.

    Top item on trade deadline shopping list

    Bill: A right-handed bat, ideally. The Phillies have been linked to names such as Josh Willingham and Michael Cuddyer, but they have to worry about hitting the luxury tax. Most likely, any moves the Phillies make will be small in nature. Otherwise, they will be looking at relief pitchers, but that’s a distant second priority.

    Paul: See above: improve the offense. Really, the search shouldn’t be limited to a corner outfielder. With Placido Polanco slumping miserably and now coming up lame, adding a player who could provide some pop and passable defense at the hot corner could be good insurance. Adding on the the bullpen is less of a luxury now with so many arms hurt – despite the emergence of so many previously unheralded hurlers – so that could also be considered an area to target. Really, I believe the calls of financial restrictions this year; I don’t think the Phils have much payroll flexibility to work with, so unless they can find cheap options at every turn, they may have to settle for picking one improvement and living with it.

    JeffCarlos Beltran.  It’s going to be hard to convince the Mets to send him within the division, but he’s a perfect target for the Phillies.  Beltran has put up a .878 OPS while playing average defense in right field this season.  The switch hitter doesn’t struggle from either side of the plate, and his defense would likely be above average in left field.  The Mets also lack leverage due to Beltran’s full no trade clause and since they are contractually obligated to not offer him arbitration (that would net them draft picks when he leaves).  The Phils may need to convince the Mets to pay some of his salary to avoid the luxury tax.  But this is the one possible trade piece I see that could greatly enhance the Phils World Series chances.  It’s a “swing for the fences” move, and we have just the GM to do it.

    Player to watch in the second half

    Bill: Domonic Brown. Recently on the blog, I wrote about Brown’s surprisingly productive first half and why there is reason for optimism with the highly-touted rookie. The outfield corners have been an offensive black hole for the Phillies, so if they can get Brown to take it to the next level, they should be just fine.

    PaulRyan Howard, for better or for worse. He’s made a reputation of being a hot second-half hitter, and if he can provide power along 2007 or ’09 lines, the Phils could be in even better shape. He may or may not continue this trend of explosive Augusts and Septembers, no one can really say for sure. Facing weaker, expanded-roster pitchers in September could be a boost for everyone, and I’m sure the pitchers wouldn’t complain about not having to pitch in a tight game every start. Who knows? An extra run here or there could mean the difference between using a starter for another inning or saving pitches for deeper in the stretch run and into the playoffs. Maybe.

    Jeff: Ryan Howard. Philly’s most debated player could be incredibly important in the second half.  The Phillies’ lineup is a completely different beast when Howard is on a hot streak.  He’s known for being better after the All Star break.  If that’s true again, it could go a long way into reestablishing the Phils as one of the NL’s best offensive teams.

    Feel free to provide your own answers to the three prompts in the comments.

    You can follow Bill on Twitter @CrashburnAlley, as well as Paul (@Phrontiersman) and Jeff (@Utley4God).

    Crashburn Alley First Half Awards

    At the end of June, myself, Paul Boye, and Jeff Barnes dished out awards to the Phillies we felt were most deserving. Due to some interest on Twitter, I felt that issuing MLB-wide awards would be appropriate as well, so the three of us hunkered down in our basements, crunched some numbers, and handed out some awards. Drumroll, please…

    National League

    • Most Valuable Player Award

    Bill: Jose Reyes, New York Mets

    Reyes is the NL leader in Fangraphs WAR (5.2), has been average to slightly above-average defensively, has successfully stolen 30 bases in 36 attempts (83%), and is a big reason why the Mets are at .500.

    Runners-up: Matt Kemp, Andrew McCutchen

    Paul: Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers

    I had Kemp pegged as my preseason MVP…in 2010. That didn’t exactly work out so well, but the Bison has come out smoking this year. He’s 20/20 by the All-Star break, slugging .584 and has seen a bounce-back in his walk rate with a drop in his K rate. Sure, he plays for a bad team in a whole mess of financial issues, but that’s not his fault.

    Runners-up: Jose Reyes, Andrew McCutchen

    Jeff: Jose Reyes, New York Mets

    Reyes is getting on base 40% of the time and slugging .529.  Oh yeah, he also plays an above average shortstop and has stolen 30 bags (on 36 tries) by the All Star break.  He’s one leg injury away from putting up one of the greatest walk years in recent memory.

    • Cy Young Award

    Bill: Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves

    Many Saberists discredit his work thus far because of perceived luckiness, and I don’t disagree, but I give the award based on results. I’m an awards literalist. Jurrjens’ 1.86 ERA is a league-best and nearly 60 points lower than Roy Halladay‘s. Halladay has pitched 33 more innings, but it doesn’t make up for such a large gap in run-prevention. Yes, Halladay will most likely be the much better pitcher going forward, but for the first-half, I have to go with Jurrjens.

    Runners-up: Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels

    Paul: Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies

    Things Jair Jurrjens has on Halladay: ERA and one more win. Things Halladay has on Jurrjens: 30 IP, K/9, BB/9 (and K:BB), CG and WAR. Plus, Doc’s peripherals have more insulation against regression – note Jurrjens with a 5.3 K/9 and .260 BABIP. Good defense or not, he shouldn’t be allowing so few hits forever.

    Runners-up: Jair Jurrjens, Cole Hamels

    Jeff: Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies

    I really wanted to pick Cole Hamels for this, but there’s a minor issue.  One of the game’s greatest players, is having his best season.  Doc has already put up 5.1 fWAR, on pace to blow past the 6.6 he put up in his 2010 Cy Young campaign.   He’s striking out more, walking (slightly) less, getting more groundballs, and allowing less homeruns.  He’s been better in every way from 2010, and that’s a scary thought for the National League.

    Runners-up: Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw

    • Rookie of the Year Award

    Bill: Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals

    Espinosa has the second-best wOBA in the National League (.352) and leads all rookies in fWAR by far, 3.3 to teammate Wilson Ramos‘ second-best 1.8 fWAR. He is hitting for a lot of power (.218 ISO) at a position that doesn’t have much power (NL average 2B: .120 ISO).

    Runners-up: Freddie Freeman, Wilson Ramos

    Paul: Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

    A hot finish before the break propels him past Danny Espinosa. If he can carry that production over, it should help make up for the loss of Chipper Jones and the reduced production of Jason Heyward.

    Runners-up: Danny Espinosa, Craig Kimbrel

    Jeff: Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals

    Not the strongest class. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone off the radar makes a run at this in the 2nd half (*looks at Domonic Brown*). Espinosa has put up a solid season, mixing a .792 OPS with above average defense at 2nd base.

    Runners-up: Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel

    American League

    • Most Valuable Player Award

    Bill: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

    Not even a contest. Bautista is walking more than he is striking out (20% to 14%) and hitting for insane power (.368 ISO). His .487 wOBA and 6.6 WAR are Bondsian, and he is on pace for 57 home runs… when offense has plummeted league-wide over the past two seasons.

    Runners-up: Adrian Gonzalez, Boston Red Sox; Curtis Granderson, New York Yankees

    Paul: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

    I had about the same reaction as everyone else when, during the All-Star Game telecast, there was some positing that Adrian Gonzalez was the “hands-down” MVP so far. Mmm, yeah, not really. Bautista’s slash line is currently .334/.468/.702 with 31 HR, and any world in which that line is not deemed superior to .354/.414/.591 with 17 HR is one I’m not sure I want to know.

    Runners-up: Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera

    Jeff: Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

    This is a two horse race against Adrian Gonzalez, in that a two horse race is more interesting than a one horse race.  Bautista has been the best player in the American League and its not that close.  In fact, Bautista could go hitless in his next 49 plate apperances and still have a higher on base percentage than Gonzo.

    Runners-up: Adrian Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson

    • Cy Young Award

    Bill: Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

    His 1.86 ERA is MLB-best among pitchers with 100+ innings, slightly ahead of Jurrjens’ 1.87. Not sustainable in the least, but great so far.

    Runners-up: Justin Verlander, James Shields

    Paul: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

    This race is probably a bit closer than it appears. Verlander has had a stretch of dominant starts that seems to have given him some separation for the time being, though, so he gets the nod at this point. With so many viable candidates, though, we might even see three completely different names on this list at the end of the season.

    Runners-up: Jered Weaver, James Shields

    Jeff: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

    JV has done just about everything you can do to lock up a Cy Young award.  He’s won 12 games already, has a 2.15 ERA, and has a career best 4.74 K/BB.

    Runners-up: Jered Weaver, James Shields

    • Rookie of the Year

    Bill: Mark Trumbo, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

    Trumbo leads all AL rookies with 1.7 WAR and has shown tremendous power with AL-rookie-best .223 ISO. The AL ROY contest is not particularly enthralling, but Trumbo emerges at the top of an underwhelming list.

    Runners-up: J.P. Arencibia, Michael Pineda

    Paul: Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners

    Talk about hitting the ground running. Right out of the chute, Pineda has dominated. Playing in Safeco helps, sure, but there really aren’t any smoke and mirrors to this guy. He attacks, he gets Ks and gets results. He’ll be cheap for a while, too. He’s absolutely one to hold on to.

    Runners-up: Jeremy Hellickson, Jordan Walden

    Jeff: Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners

    Striking out a batter per inning and keeping your ERA around 3 is a good way to become rookie of the year.  Pineda has done just about everything right since his promotion and is the clear front-runner for this award.

    Runners-up: Mark Trumbo, Dustin Ackley

    Recap

    Let us know in the comments which picks you think we got right and wrong.

    You can follow Bill on Twitter @CrashburnAlley, as well as Paul (@Phrontiersman) and Jeff (@Utley4God).