Phillies Dominating, Time to Take It Easy?

Much has been written recently about the greatness of the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies. From the historically great starting rotation to the revival of the offense and all of the individual narratives in between, it has been an easy ride. Their lead in the NL East has been no less than four games since July 20 and now sits at 8.5 games.

As the New York Mets will tell you, such a large lead doesn’t mean anything until everyone has been mathematically eliminated. The Mets led the NL East by seven games on September 12, 2007, but went 5-12 over their final 17 games to finish one game behind the Phillies. Similarly, in 2008, the Mets led the NL East by 3.5 games on September 10, but the Mets finished out the season playing .500 baseball while the Phillies went on a hot streak (13-3) to win the division by three games.

You can take nothing for granted in the game of baseball, not even a team as great as the Phillies. However, they are a lock for the playoffs according to the Playoff Odds Report at Baseball Prospectus, the only such team at the moment. Colin Wyers, BP’s Director of Research, says the POR uses…

a computer simulation to play out the rest of the season a couple of thousand of times, using a combination of PECOTA projections and a team’s current-season record to establish an estimate of each team’s quality.

The Braves are projected to take the Wild Card with a 92-70 record. For the Phillies to finish worse than that, they would have to play worse than .333 baseball over their remaining 45 games (15-30). So, while the Phillies haven’t mathematically clinched a playoff berth yet, it would take some incredibly improbable simultaneous occurrences to keep the Phillies from October baseball.

That gives us an interesting scenario: should the Phillies start taking it easy this early in August? They learned the hard way over the last two years just how much of an impact injuries can play on the outcome of a season. Although there are only two players on the disabled list (Joe Blanton, Jose Contreras) and one who could potentially be (Placido Polanco), the threat of an injury is always there for previously-injured players like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Raul Ibanez. And, of course, there are random injuries that can take out otherwise 100% healthy players, like Ryan Howard rounding second base last year during a game against the Washington Nationals.

Similarly, limiting the innings of the aces can help keep their arms fresh for October. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels are on pace for 243, 238, and 231 innings, respectively. Since 2005, only 18 different pitchers have thrown 230 or more innings in a season (Halladay and Lee, of course, are two of those 18). The Phillies, in 2011, could make up rougly 16% of that list. Of those 19 pitchers, Adam Wainwright, Brandon Webb, Chris Carpenter, Joe Blanton, and Johan Santana have suffered serious injuries to their throwing arm. Injuries are very hard to predict, but there is a reason why teams have imposed limits on innings in recent years, and it’s why, overall, starters are throwing fewer innings than their predecessors.

Earlier in the season, I was critical of Charlie Manuel for leaving his starters in late in games when the Phillies stood to gain relatively little or even nothing. Leverage Index (LI) shows us the importance of any given situation within a game based on score, inning, out, and base runner states. After one particular start by Lee, I used LI to show how unnecessary his presence on the mound was:

In the fifth inning until he was pulled in the seventh inning, Lee faced sub-1.00 leverage index situations with seven of ten batters, and of course the other three situations were his own doing — a result of his lack of stuff. Going into the seventh, the Phillies were facing four-to-one odds to win the game. Manuel either has a remarkable lack of confidence in his bullpen or was not cognizant of how much he was asking from his starting pitcher.

The average leverage index, for the games in which Phillies starters accrued 110 or more pitches, was 1.04. As the FanGraphs Saber Library explains, an average LI is 1.00, so it isn’t as if these starters are in super-important situations. And, lest we forget, it is May — we are just now arriving at the one-quarter mark.

Even when we look at the peak leverage index, the decision-making isn’t justified. The average max-LI for the 11 110-plus-pitch games is 3.07, with a max of 7.13 in Halladay’s start against the Washington Nationals on April 13. The rest fell under 4.00, with four registering under 2.00. The two most egregious over-uses both involved Halladay: on April 7 against the Mets, when Halladay pitched seven innings as the Phillies won 11-0; and April 19 against the Milwaukee Brewers, when Halladay went six and two-thirds innings as the Phillies lost 9-0.

In this situation, however, rather than looking at LI, we should be looking at the Phillies’ odds of clinching a playoff berth. As discussed above, it is about as close to 100% as mathematically possible without actually being 100%. Thus, any further use reaps the Phillies no rewards and forces the Phillies to take a risk (injury) with each of their players. What if Halladay suffers an arm injury while trying to win a meaningless game on August 14 and cannot pitch in the playoffs? Even if that event has a one percent probability of occurring, the Phillies don’t gain anything the other 99% of the time to make it worth it.

There is the thought that a team going into October with momentum has an edge on the competition. Some teams have rested their players (though not nearly as early as August 11) and then put them back into their normal roles about a week or so before the end of the regular season to get them back into the swing of things, hoping to build up some momentum along the way. The Phillies could follow a similar path: rest their important players between now and, say, September 20 (the start of their final homestand before a six-game road trip), then put everybody back into their normal spots and play out the rest of the season before the NLDS starts on September 30.

Financially, there may be a reason to hesitate pulling the regulars for so long. The Phillies have 12 home games remaining in August and 10 more in September. Will Citizens Bank Park still sell out when the starting lineup consists of Wilson Valdez, Michael Martinez, Ben Francisco, Brian Schneider, and Kyle Kendrick? If the average person spends $35 at a Phillies game, and their attendance declines from 45,000 to 40,000, then they are losing $175,000 per night. Over 22 home games, that is nearly $4 million dollars, or nearly $1.5 million more than Kendrick won in arbitration back in January.

If fans do show up in the same record numbers, will they stay long enough to pay for parking, consume hot dogs and alcohol, and buy shirts and hats? If attendance declines, or the answer to that question is no (which only the Phillies’ front office can answer based on their own internal research), then the Phillies have to bite the bullet and risk further injury for at least the next month. Otherwise, there is no reason not to give the important guys a well-earned vacation — even if it means finishing with fewer than 100 wins or winning the division by fewer than 10 games.

The 2011 Phillies and Their Place In History

The 2011 season is three-quarters completed for the Phillies, and, frankly, it’s been a breeze. They’ve been in first place for all but one day in the season. The last time the Braves were within three games was in mid-July. The Phils haven’t had a losing streak longer than four games, and they’ve never been below .500. It’s been so easy for the Phillies, in fact, that I can’t help but feel that I’ve been taking for granted what a uniquely stress-free season we’re experiencing. Even after the 2007 season, magical as it was by any account, it was difficult, for a time, to shake the nagging question of whether or not the Phillies actually belonged there, mentioned in the same breath as perennial contenders. A World Championship helped beat back those doubts. But 2009 and 2010 were both peppered with maddening offensive droughts, losing streaks, injury woes, and under-performing players. It was a whole lot of stress, ultimately over nothing — both teams made the playoffs, and the former won the NL pennant.

The point, though, is that the Phillies have had no such (superficial) issue to (needlessly) pull our hair out over this season. It’s not as if they’re lucking their way to dominance, either. They’re only outplaying their Pythagorean expectation by two games at the moment. It’s just been some legendary pitching backed by an offense that is more than adequate to support it. The unrelenting, uninterrupted success of the 2011 Phillies is something that I, as a 27 year-old fan, don’t really have a precedent for. It’s tough to restrain one’s expectations for this team, and it’s tough not to think, when Cliff Lee whiffs his seventh batter in as many innings or Chase Utley works the strike zone like some kind of baseball android, that we’re watching the best Phillies team that has ever played. What previous iteration could have been better? The Phillies have had 13 playoff teams and two World Championships, yes, but a lot of things can happen in the playoffs that don’t reflect the true talent level of the team. Has any other Phillies club achieved, in the regular season, what this current group figures to?

We can take a look at the runs scored and runs allowed by previous Phillies teams and try to approximate an answer. Of course, comparing that sort of raw data between eras isn’t possible without some preliminary work. The NL has gone through countless different run environments over the years, and this season is particularly run-starved compared to the last 20 or so years. The league has also had several variations of season length, between the earlier 154 game standard, the strike-shortened 1994 and 1995 seasons, and others. By taking these teams’ run totals and adjusting them to a 4.5 runs per game environment and a 162 game season, we can lay out an equal playing field on which we can start to make comparisons. Plugging these adjusted totals into a Pythagenpat calculation, we can project a win percentage that endeavors to filter out at least some of the luck that goes into a team’s actual record.

These adjustments are still fairly crude. Of the best ten teams by our adjusted Pythagenpat record, four are from prior to the turn of the twentieth century. Two are from seasons prior to the integration of African American players, and well before any substantial number of Latino players had made their way into the league. The vast difference between baseball in the 19th century and baseball as we know it today, as well as the impact of non-white players on the game’s talent pool, are two things that transcend any one quantitative adjustment. To be safe, let’s limit our look to teams following the 1946 season, when integration in baseball got underway. As it turns out, it doesn’t make any difference in our top two teams:

Year Actual Record Adj. Pythag? Adj. Run Diff. wRC+ ERA+
1976 101-61 105-56 241 105 116
2011 75-40 102-60 197 97 127
1977 101-61 99-63 183 110 109
1978 90-72 95-67 138 98 108
2010 97-65 95-67 137 99 110
1993 97-65 94-68 137 105 101
1952 87-67 94-68 119 98 120
2008 92-70 93-69 118 99 113
2009 93-69 92-70 113 104 101
1950 91-63 92-70 98 93 115

ERA+ is an era and park adjusted version of ERA. 100 is average for that league and year, 110 is 10% above that average, etc. wRC+ performs this exact same adjustment with the wOBA offensive metric.

At least by this assessment, the 2011 Phillies are topped only by their 1976 counterparts, who finished the season 101-61. Like 2011, the 1976 NL was a run-starved league, and the Phillies that year relied on some hitters who were having far from their best seasons, but thriving relative to the league. Their anchor was a young core of hitters. Mike Schmidt (150 wRC+), Greg Luzinski (137), and Garry Maddox (133), all in their mid-20s, posted wRC+ figures of 130 or higher. Phillies fans were just beginning to understand the generational talent that they had in Schmidt; he had broken out two years prior with a .282/.395/.546 season, and, in 1976, led the NL in home runs for the third straight year. Jay Johnstone (130) and a declining Dick Allen (133), in the second year of his reunion tour with the Phils, chipped in as well.

In our hypothetical run environment of 4.5 runs per game, this offense would have managed 5.37, the second highest figure of all the post-1946 Phillies teams (and fourth highest over their entire 129 year history). This outstrips the 2011 club easily. Shane Victorino (157), Chase Utley (140), and Hunter Pence (138) match up favorably against the 1976 team’s top three, but Pence has only been with the Phillies for a little more than a week, and, in any case, the current club lacks the ’76 iteration’s depth down the lineup, and potent bench.

Not surprisingly, pitching is where the current Phillies really have an edge. The 2011 rotation, in the 4.5 runs per game environment, allows 3.53 runs per game, decidedly the best in Phillies history (the closest competitor was the 1886 Quakers, with a staff led by Charlie Ferguson, who posted a modest 165 ERA+ in 396 innings). Their present ERA+ of 127 leads the majors, and, among the starters, only Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton have an ERA above 3.5. The 1976 crew featured a formidable bullpen — none of their qualified relievers had an ERA+ below 120 — but their starters just don’t stack up. And how could they? Five of the 2011 club’s qualified starters have an ERA+ above 120, which is higher than anyone in the 1976 rotation managed. This season’s pitching rotation has a legitimate claim to be placed among the best in baseball history, much less franchise history.

Fans in both 1976 and 2011 have had the privilege of watching a future Hall of Famer. Steve Carlton, though experiencing what could be called a “down year” by his standards, was still only 31 in 1976, and had 3 Cy Youngs ahead of him. Like Halladay, he regularly posted gaudy numbers in the innings pitched department, and, as Halladay has, he led the league in batters faced three times prior to the 1976 season. Compared through their age 33 seasons (1978 for Carlton, 2010 for Halladay), Carlton logged almost 1,000 more innings (in an era when they piled up much faster for starters) but Halladay has a significant edge in ERA+ (136 to 120) and K/BB (3.53 to 2.22). Both could be considered an enigmatic and quirky clubhouse presence, although Halladay’s relationship with the press is not nearly as acerbic. Each of them were and are blueprints for the hard-nosed, unrelenting work ethic of a truly elite starting pitcher. It’s easy to imagine, had Twitter existed in the 1970s, more than a few “after this, Carlton is going to go run some stairs” comments. Just like our 1976 counterparts in fandom, we await the remainder of Halladay’s career with unbounded expectations and wide-eyed reverence.

All the way down the list, this year’s Phillies match up well with the best teams in franchise history, the 1976 squad included. And this is without discussing the previous three years’ worth of teams, all of whom appear on our top ten list. As with the late ’70s, this is a golden era of Phillies baseball. 2011 could well be a standout in an era of dominance that likely isn’t over. When the playoffs compress this season into a few vital short series contests, many things could happen to derail this team. But the elite regular season performance, the myriad player personalities, and the dynastic multi-year success will persist in digital and oral history. I’m one of many people who have remarked recently that they look forward to telling their children and grandchildren the story of Chase Utley, or of Roy Halladay, or of Cole Hamels. There is plenty more to be written for all of them.

After HR, Cliff Lee and Carlos Ruiz Celebrate

Ho-hum. Cliff Lee hit his second home run of the season, becoming the 14th Phillies pitcher to accomplish the feat and the first since Randy Wolf in 2004.

You can watch his home run here, but just as interesting as the homer was the celebration between Lee and Carlos Ruiz.

Ruiz in the dugout while Lee was trotting around the bases:

By the way, the full list of Phillies pitchers to hit two or more homers in a season since 1952 (via Baseball Reference):

Shane Victorino’s Ridiculous Season

Notice anything interesting about the line graph above? It’s Shane Victorino‘s weighted on-base average (wOBA) from 2006 through 2011. That sharp spike from 2010-11 marks some significant offensive improvement for the switch-hitter. His .405 wOBA ranks tenth among all qualified hitters in Major League Baseball, just behind Joey Votto in ninth place. Along with his outstanding offense, Victorino has played stellar defense (+17.3 UZR/150; small sample size caveat) and been a threat on the bases (3.4 base running runs also ranks tenth in all of MLB). Overall, he has been worth 5.4 Wins Above Replacement per FanGraphs (fWAR), tied with Matt Holliday for seventh-best in baseball.

The big change has been his production from the right side against left-handed pitchers. Victorino has always been better against lefties, but not quite this good. Overall, Victorino has a .382 wOBA against lefties over his career, but this year, it is an eye-popping .517. By comparison, Jose Bautista — a favorite to win the American League Most Valuable Player award — has a .505 wOBA against southpaws.

Needless to say, Victorino is hitting for significantly more power against lefties (.364 ISO in 2011; .211 career), but he is also walking significantly more (14% 2011; 8% career) and striking out slightly less (10% in 2011; 11% career). The improved plate discipline has allowed him to significantly alter the quality of contact he makes when he swings the bat. This year, he is hitting fly balls 59% of the time compared to his career average 44% and down from 41% last year. More fly balls means more home runs, but Shane is even converting much more on that front as well: 17.5% of fly balls have gone beyond the outfield fence this year, way up from his 10% career average and his 10% showing last year. All of this against left-handed pitching. Victorino’s splits against right-handed pitching have barely changed.

At first glance, it appears Victorino is getting lucky. His .325 BABIP is above his career average .303, and breaking it down by batted ball type shows some more disparity:

  • Ground balls: .266 BABIP in 2011; .269 career
  • Fly balls: .159 BABIP in 2011; .106 career
  • Line drives: .854 in 2011; .753 career

While he has had a lot of success on line drives, his line drive rate against lefties (16%) is at a career low and is among the lowest in baseball (20th-lowest, in fact). He has hit only 49 line drives total, so based on his career average, we would expect 37 hits as opposed to 42. We can chalk this up to a combination of randomness and some legitimate skill, as we have seen evidence that Victorino is making much better contact.

The fly balls follow a similar path. He has hit 117 fly balls, so based on his career average BABIP on fly balls, we would expect 12 hits rather than 17 (subtracting out his 10 home runs). And, obviously, there isn’t any difference at all with the ground balls. So, Victorino may have ten extra hits than expected, which would account for about 16 points of batting average over 600 at-bats. Overall, though, it doesn’t explain the improved plate discipline and power against left-handed pitching.

The only part that could be fluky in any meaningful way is the HR/FB rate. If his HR/FB rate against lefties regresses from 17.5% to, say, 12.5% next year, it could make the difference of six home runs given 117 fly balls. If we took away six home runs from Victorino right now and gave him credit for one more double (-22 total bases), his slugging percentage drops from .532 to .465.

Sustaining that HR/FB rate against lefties will be the biggest key for Victorino moving forward. If he can, he officially joins the ranks as one of the best hitters in baseball. If not, he is still a well above-average hitter and still quite useful in the Phillies lineup. That is a key consideration, as Victorino can file for free agency after the 2012 season.

FanGraphs WAR and Positional Scarcity

Buster Olney caused a stir on ye olde Internets when tweeting his skepticism of the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) stat. Many responses were snarky and derisive, few were educational. Dave Cameron took it upon himself to do some teaching with a post at FanGraphs. If you have any confusion as to how WAR works, I cannot recommend enough that you click over and read Cameron’s article immediately. In fact, I’ll link it again -> here.

A passage I found insightful:

[Ben] Zobrist, on the other hand, is an excellent defensive second baseman and a terrific baserunner, and we’ve got him at 11.5 runs better than average between those two aspects of the game. While he doesn’t have Fielder’s power, he is much faster and more athletic, and is able to use those skills to more than close the gap once defense and base running are factored in to the overall package.

By solely focusing on offensive metrics – especially things like HRs and RBIs, which are heavily skewed towards power hitting first baseman – and not looking at the position averages at each position, the sport has had a long history of overvaluing Prince Fielder’s specific player type. The Ryan Howard extension is a perfect example – he’s something pretty close to a league average first baseman, but he’s getting paid like a superstar.

However, teams have begun to learn from their mistakes. Look at the relative salary difference that guys like Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth commanded last winter, compared to a bat-only guy like Adam Dunn. By nearly any measure you want to use, Dunn was the superior hitter (until this year, anyway), but he got nearly $100 million less than Crawford because teams realized there was more to the the game than standing at the plate and swinging for the fences.

FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) has not been proven to be the most accurate depiction of a player’s value. Along with Baseball Reference WAR (rWAR), the two have the most credence as they are backed up by (mostly) objective measurements and a transparent process. As Tango recently pointed out, “everyone has their own WAR”. The challenge is getting everyone to spell it out and be consistent with it.

Olney is not wrong for being skeptical and he should not have been lambasted the way he was minutes after his round of tweets. When we start blindly accepting Sabermetric tenets, the science stagnates. Sabermetrics cannot improve without skeptics who look at stats, ask questions, and seek improvement.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Stairs Retires

CBC News:

Matt Stairs, New Brunswick’s biggest baseball star, is ready to retire after almost two decades playing in Major League Baseball.

Stairs, 43, hasn’t made the official announcement yet but he told CBC News in an interview on Wednesday that his playing days are now done.

“I’m not sad. I had a great career, a long career,” Stairs said.

“And it’s one of those things where I can walk away today and not be sad about it.”

Stairs played for 13 different teams, a Major League record. He made a name for himself in the late 1990’s with the Oakland A’s and reached the post-season on four different occasions with three teams. The highlight of his career is, undoubtedly, the two-run home run he hit off of Jonathan Broxton in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS. The homer broke a 5-5 tie and helped propel the Phillies to the World Series, which they eventually won.

Watch the full video here.

Stairs was a mercenary throughout the past decade, but all it took was one swing to make himself an important figure in Phillies history. Perhaps most impressively, he made Joe Buck sound vaguely human if for one brief moment.

He may not have been in Philly for long, but he is deserving of a toast as he hangs up his spikes. Here’s to you, Matt Stairs.

Checking Historical Trends with Vance Worley

On July 18, I posted what I thought were reasonable expectations of Vance Worley going forward. I compared the start to his Major League career to that of J.A. Happ, noting the many similarities between the two. In the ensuing two weeks, Worley continued to have success, throwing eight innings of one-run baseball against the Chicago Cubs in the sweltering heat, and tossing a complete game against the San Francisco Giants at home.

As a result, Worley was crowned the next DIPS-defiant pitcher. Despite a sub-.240 BABIP and strikeout and walk rates that were good but not good enough to merit a 2.02 ERA, Worley just couldn’t be captured by ERA retrodictors. Worley had a rare mediocre outing against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday, allowing four runs in six innings. While that is neither confirmation nor denial of anything, it was an example of what should be expected of the right-hander moving forward.

Due to the complexity of stats like SIERA, some people will be forever skeptical. For those people, I would like to instead illustrate the matter using historical data from pitchers who posted numbers similar to Worley in a single season. Using Baseball Reference’s Play Index, I searched 2000-10 for ERA-title-qualified pitchers that started 80 percent of their games with a K/9 below 7.0 and BABIP below .250. The results:

Rk Player ERA SO/9 BAbip Year Age Tm GS
1 Derek Lowe 2.58 5.20 .237 2002 29 BOS 32
2 Trevor Cahill 2.97 5.40 .237 2010 22 OAK 30
3 Joe Mays 3.16 4.74 .246 2001 25 MIN 34
4 Al Leiter 3.21 6.06 .244 2004 38 NYM 30
5 Mark Buehrle 3.29 5.12 .245 2001 22 CHW 32
6 Barry Zito 3.30 5.67 .242 2003 25 OAK 35
7 Jamie Moyer 3.32 5.74 .246 2002 39 SEA 34
8 Damian Moss 3.42 5.58 .238 2002 25 ATL 29
9 Joe Blanton 3.53 5.19 .249 2005 24 OAK 33
10 Ryan Franklin 3.57 4.20 .248 2003 30 SEA 32
11 Armando Galarraga 3.73 6.35 .237 2008 26 DET 28
12 Ramon Ortiz 3.77 6.71 .239 2002 29 ANA 32
13 Barry Zito 3.86 6.74 .246 2005 27 OAK 35
14 Bronson Arroyo 3.88 5.05 .241 2010 33 CIN 33
15 Tim Wakefield 4.13 5.82 .240 2008 41 BOS 30
16 David Bush 4.18 5.30 .238 2008 28 MIL 29
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/1/2011.

Certainly some recognizable players there, including many pitchers who went on to have long, productive Major League careers. But most of them fall on the wrong side of “average”.

How did those pitchers fare in the following year?

(nyERA stands for Next Year ERA and nyE-ERA is the difference between nyERA and ERA)

Player

ERA

Year

nyERA

nyE-ERA

Leiter

3.21

2004

6.13

2.92

Mays

3.16

2001

5.38

2.22

Bush

4.18

2008

6.38

2.20

Galarraga

3.73

2008

5.64

1.91

Lowe

2.58

2002

4.47

1.89

Moss

3.42

2002

5.16

1.74

Arroyo

3.88

2010

5.58

1.70

Ortiz

3.77

2002

5.20

1.43

Franklin

3.57

2003

4.90

1.33

Blanton

3.53

2005

4.82

1.29

Zito

3.3

2003

4.48

1.18

Cahill

2.97

2010

3.58

0.61

Wakefield

4.13

2008

4.58

0.45

Buehrle

3.29

2001

3.58

0.29

Zito

3.86

2005

3.83

-0.03

Moyer

3.32

2002

3.27

-0.05

For those of you who process information better visually (click to enlarge):

All but two pitchers regressed, and those two barely didn’t regress. 11 of the 16 pitchers regressed by more than one run in ERA. The big reason was that their BABIP normalized. Pitchers don’t have much control over BABIP, so it will regress back to .300 the overwhelming majority of the time. Worley’s BABIP is currently 45 points below the league average.

There are pitchers out there, like Matt Cain, that DIPS doesn’t analyze properly. Those pitchers, however, are few and far between. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to identify them without multiple seasons of data. Despite all of my negative prognostications of Worley, it still remains possible that he is the next DIPS-defiant pitcher. It is extremely unlikely, though, given all of the information presently available that say otherwise.

Chase Utley Is Good

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

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

WAR

PA

WAR/700 PA

Pedroia

6.5

484

9.40

Utley

3.3

246

9.39

Zobrist

5.5

451

8.54

Kendrick

4.2

382

7.70

Kinsler

4.5

478

6.59

Weeks

3.8

469

5.67

Phillips

3.4

460

5.17

Espinosa

3.2

441

5.08

Cano

3.2

443

5.06

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

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

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

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

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