Talkin’ Nats with Fire Jim Bowden

Jim Bowden may not have been fired (he resigned) but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to read about on the blog Fire Jim Bowden anymore. On the contrary: it’s chock full of anything you’d ever want to know about the Washington Nationals: scouting reports, stats, humor, and more.

With the Phillies on their way to Washington, Steven Biel — the author of FJB — was nice enough to answer a few questions about the Nationals. My questions in bold, his responses follow in normal typeface.

. . .

The Nationals clearly have talent on the roster with players like Ryan Zimmerman, Jesus Flores, and John Lannan. Why can’t they ever seem to put it together despite the talent?

FJB: The Nationals have some talented players, but the overall is not good. Their bats have definitely come on strong. Zimmerman, still just 24, is having the breakout year we’ve been waiting for. Dunn has been as good or better than advertised. Johnson is just always on base. Dukes is a special player. But this year, their pitching staff is just cripplingly bad. Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera just don’t give you any chance to win. The bullpen is almost half a run worse in ERA than the next worse group in the NL, but that doesn’t even tel the tale. In key situations, they’ve been just heinous. Late and close, hitters are batting .302 / .418 / .492 against them. Their bullpen is a total -3.02 win probability added for the season.

The bullpen has been in disarray seemingly all season. Can the ‘pen be fixed internally, or are the Nationals going to have to shop around for someone who can pitch the late innings?

FJB: Late innings? With our rotation you need to start looking to the bullpen in the 5th, which doesn’t help. You can’t fault Rizzo for not trying though. Joel Hanrahan, Julian Tavarez, and Joe Beimel are the only guys back there who broke camp with the major league team. Gone: Wil Ledezma, Steve Shell, Mike Hinckley, and Saul Rivera. Figure Logan Kensing will be gone soon too. Jason Bergmann’s been up and back down. In: Ron Villone, Kip Wells, Kensing, and Garrett Mock. There are some guys at AAA who will get a look. Tyler Clippard actually is doing very well in the early going. Jason Bergmann and Jesus Colome are there. They took a flier on Mike McDougal. Craig Stammen, J.D. Martin, Preston Larrison and Marco Estrada are all young guys who could get chances, though some of these guys may be needed in the rotation. But if any of these guys were obvious solutions, they’d be here.

Also, Manny Acta has taken some deserved heat for his bullpen usage. When he lets Saul Rivera pitch to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the 7th inning of a tie game with 2 lefties rotting on the bench… well, it would have been dumb even if Howard hadn’t hit a 3-run homer. And he’s got a rediculously quick hook, which made sense in 2007 when the rotation was terrible and the bullpen was very good, but this year he’s just exacerbating the team’s weaknesses.

On Monday, Sky Kalkman did some research at Beyond the Box Score and concluded that the Nationals were the unluckiest team in the National League. Do you buy that? Also, are there any Nats who you think are playing way above or way below their ability?

FJB: No, I don’t buy that at all. Their late-inning relief has been awful. When you just have miserable players in key roles, that means you’re going to have bad situational performances in key situations. That’s poor planning, not bad luck.

In fact, the Nationals are second in baseball with a .330 BABIP. Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman, Cristian Guzman, and Anderson Hernandez have all been as good as they’ll ever be. Elijah Dukes, Jesus Flores, and Nick Johnson certainly have room to fall, when the slumps come. Their offense is ok, but it isn’t this good. Their pitching IS this bad.

Shairon Martis: Aside from the Ryan Howard grand slam on April 27, the Phillies don’t seem to hit him well. No one else has really hit him hard so far, either. Does he have a deceptive delivery, or a vast arsenal of pitches that would help explain his success? From watching him in his two starts as well as his WBC performance, he doesn’t seem like a guy who can shut down a lineup three times around.

FJB: His change-up is his best pitch. His command has been good, but he’s not missing bats at all. His 6.4% HR/FB rate is due for a correction, and he’s a pretty extreme flyball pitcher. He’s really struggled against lefties, so he’s a bad match-up for the Phillies, regardless of what’s happened to date. He gets a lot of credit for “poise” and “makeup.” Personally, I’m still a real skeptic about the Wowin’ Curacaoan, but I’d love to be wrong.

Last year, the team-high home run total was 14 from both Ryan Zimmerman and Lastings Milledge. Adam Dunn has 11 already and we’re only halfway into the month! What’s it like seeing someone who actually has that kind of power? The Nats haven’t seen it since Alfonso Soriano in 2006!

FJB: Yeah, it’s fun, no doubt. The Mighty Zimm is still the fan favorite though. It’s so great to see him healthy and hitting. And personally I can’t bring myself to ignore Dunn’s fielding enough to really fall in love. But he’s been a very good signing so far.

Okay, be honest: Is John Lannan being paid to injure Phillies players? In 2007, he broke Chase Utley’s hand with a fastball. Three weeks ago, he made Cole Hamels turn his ankle attempting to field a bunt. What’s up with that?

FJB: Philadelphians won’t like this, but when you crowd the plate the way Utley does, he’s going to get hit. If you like his toughness, fine. But you can’t get all riled up with he gets hit. It’s part of his game. But these days umps protect batters, don’t let pitchers throw on the inside corner, issue warnings for no reason, and it’s really not fair I don’t think. I don’t like the old school ethic of throwing at guys either though. Personally I think there should be a zone where the hitter isn’t allowed to enter, and if the hitter crosses into the “no crowding” zone, then the pitch would be automatically called a strike. That would make it fair for pitchers and also prevent injuries.

Which Nationals could we see dealt by the trading deadline?

FJB: Clearly the Kearns/Willingham/Johnson logjam needs to be cleared up. They won’t get a whole lot for either, but I can’t imagine Rizzo won’t figure out a way to make a move. Frankly, I could stand to ship out both Kearns and Willingham. I would also like to see them move Guzman–they should be able to get something back for him. He’s just a different guy since the Lasik. The $8 mil a year is a bad contract, though, especially given what happened with the free agent market last year.

. . .

Great thanks to Steven and make sure you stay on top of his work at Fire Jim Bowden. In his latest post, he breaks down San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy’s flawed logic in intentionally walking Ryan Zimmerman.

Phillies/Nationals Series Preview III

The Phillies have dropped their last three series, winning only 2 of the eight games. The bright spot is that Cole Hamels had a great start, his second since rolling his ankle against the Nationals on April 28. The Phillies will head into Washington, meet with President Obama, and then bunker down for four games in three days against the pesky Nationals.

As you might expect, the Phillies have good success against National pitching but the favor is returned, as the Nats love to hit against Joe Blanton and Brett Myers.

J.A. Happ will get the spot start in Saturday’s double-header. It is unknown who he will oppose (T.B.A. for now; could be Shairon Martis). Chan Ho Park and Daniel Cabrera will also pitch on Saturday.

If you’re looking for great insight on the Nationals’ side, check out my next post — an interview with Steven Biel who writes for the blog Fire Jim Bowden. For now, enjoy numbers!

Hitting:

Philadelphia Phillies @ Washington Nationals, May 15-17

Philadelphia Phillies @ Washington Nationals, May 15-17

Pitching:

Philadelphia Phillies @ Washington Nationals, May 15-17

Philadelphia Phillies @ Washington Nationals, May 15-17

Jayson Werth and Pedro Feliz Astound

Jayson Werth is a damn good baseball player: he can hit for average, he can hit for power, he plays above-average defense, he has a cannon for an arm, and he’s very efficient on the base paths. That last tool of his was very evident during tonight’s game against the L.A. Dodgers — a 5-3 victory for the Phillies.

J-Dub already had a stolen base next to his name in the box score going into the seventh inning. With one out against Dodgers lefty reliever Will Ohman, Werth hit a single to left field. Ryan Howard followed up with a strike out for the second out. That gave Werth good reason to move into scoring position with Jimmy Rollins due up (Rollins had been moved down in the batting order to try and get him out of his slump).

After Rollins worked a 1-1 count, Werth stole second. After the count ran to 3-1, Rollins was intentionally walked, putting runners on first and second for Raul Ibanez. That still wasn’t enough for Werth, though, as he led a double steal after the count went to 2-1. Ibanez worked a walk, loading the bases for Pedro Feliz.

This is where it got really interesting. Werth must have noticed that Dodgers catcher Russell Martin lackadaisically returned the ball to the pitcher. With Feliz facing a 2-1 count, he took a strike, and Martin took his time returning the ball to pitcher Ronald Belisario. As soon as Martin released the ball, Werth broke to the plate, and Belisario couldn’t flip it back to Martin quick enough for the out.

Jayson Werth stole home. And four bases in one night: second, third (twice), and home.

There were a couple other surprises in the game as well: Ryan Howard stole a base, and Pedro Feliz walked four — yes, four — times.

Feliz only walked more than once in a game three times last season: two apiece on April 19, June 6, and July 11. He walked twice once in 2007; thrice once and twice once in ’06 and ’04; and thrice once and twice four times in ’05. This marks the third game already this season (30 games) where he’s walked multiple times in a game.

His on-base percentage is now at .377. Consider that, since 2004 when he started playing every day, his OBP has finished under .300 in three of those five seasons, his newfound plate discipline is quite remarkable.

Phillies/Dodgers Series Preview

Despite that Manny Ramirez will not be in the Los Angeles lineup for a rematch of last year’s NLDS, the Phillies still have their work cut out for them against the 22-11 Dodgers. They’ll be facing starters Clayton Kershaw (4.91 ERA), Randy Wolf (2.95 ERA), and Chad Billingsley (2.45 ERA) as well as the best bullpen in baseball (3.85 runs per game).

You see that two of the three slated Dodger starters have an ERA under 3. Well, the Phillies are going to counter with three starters with ERA’s over 6: Chan Ho Park (6.67), Jamie Moyer (7.26), and Cole Hamels (6.17). Oh, and the National League’s second-worst bullpen (5.38 runs per game).

The two have comparable offenses: the Phils average 5.66 runs per game and the Dodgers average 5.58. Of course, the absence of Manny Ramirez widens that gap. He last played on May 6. Since then, the Dodgers have lost three of four, but surprisingly have averaged 5.75 runs per game. Their pitching has allowed 21 runs in that span, contributing greatly to the skid.

Time for data. I’ve made another “upgrade” — I’ve added in the number of plate appearances for each hitter against each pitcher, found to the right of their OPS. As usual, only regular season stats are included, so no NLCS stuff.

The hitting:

Los Angeles Dodgers @ Philadelphia Phillies, May 12-14

The Phillies have hit quite well off of the Dodgers’ pitchers historically. Small samples, of course, but still a great sign. Even ignoring post-season numbers, Chad Billingsley has been lit up. Yet, as you will see below, his ERA would tell you differently.

Los Angeles Dodgers @ Philadelphia Phillies, May 12-14

Those who have had more exposure to Chan Ho Park have had decent success against him, especially Juan Pierre. Moyer generally has handled the Dodgers well.  He tends to have more success against younger, more aggressive teams. And expectedly, Cole Hamels keeps his opponents under control.

The pitching:

Los Angeles Dodgers @ Philadelphia Phillies, May 12-14

Even though he was great in his last start, Park could still be pitching for his starting job. The Phillies have a double-header against the Washington Nationals on May 16 and it’s likely that J.A. Happ will get a spot start so as not to upset the amount of rest the other starters get. If Park pitches poorly against the Dodgers and Happ pitches well against the Nationals, that could provide more than enough incentive for the old switcheroo in the rotation.

Despite the 5.19 ERA, Moyer has handled the current batch of Dodgers effectively.

Cole Hamels is Cole Hamels. Just hold your breath and hope that bad luck doesn’t continue to follow him: hope that a shard of wood from a broken bat doesn’t impale him through his pitching arm.

Los Angeles Dodgers @ Philadelphia Phillies, May 12-14

Despite what you might judge from the ERA, Kershaw has pitched well against the Phillies. They faced him twice last year in the span of about ten days. The first start was of the quality nature: 6 innings, three earned runs. It was when they faced him in Philadelphia that they really got to him.

They have only faced former Phillie Randy Wolf once and it was last year when he was a member of the San Diego Padres. Wolf pitched well but only earned a no-decision.

Billingsley was battered around by Phillies hitters in the playoffs last season, but in the regular season, he’s been decent against them.

The Phillies next face the Dodgers in a four-game set in Los Angeles June 4-7. Manny Ramirez will still be serving his suspension, so the Phillies are fortunate in that regard, especially when you figure that the Phillies not only faced Manny Ramirez eight times in two four-game series last year against the Dodgers, but three other times earlier in the season when he was still with the Boston Red Sox.

On behalf of all Phillies fans, I say to Ramirez: thanks for using women’s fertility drugs. Thank you.

My Soapbox, Please

Hat tip to both Deadspin and The Hardball Times for this: Angry Journalist is Angry!

Kurt Streeter of the L.A. Times is wondering why a large segment of the Dodgers fan base isn’t more upset about Manny Ramirez failing a drug test. Colin Wyers pretty much summed up the reason at THT:

[...] a fan has only a few limited options in how to deal with this. He could turn into a perpetual fountain of outrage – but that’s not very condusive to the enjoyment of baseball. He could quit baseball altogether – but again, that (without it being a massive, widespread action) deprives the fan of enjoyment without really punishing the player or the sport.

Or he could become calloused. He could stop caring about steroids. And he can sit down and enjoy watching a baseball game.

That just about sums it up. Yep, that’s it.

Oh, where’s the fun in that? Let’s run over Streeter’s article with a fine-tooth comb and FJM it.

Striking how many are willing to treat their favorite player as if he’s just gone off on a nice holiday. All will be forgiven, as long as No. 99 comes back swinging a fat bat.

It is, after all, only baseball. For as much as we — and I mean we in reference to journalists, bloggers, and fans of any other nature — make each individual baseball game out to be a life-or-death event, they’re really not that meaningful in the long run.

It’s an escape, nothing more and nothing less. They’re fun.

I save my outrage for the times when my taxpayer dollars are being wastefully spent or my country is getting involved in a conflict it can only lose. When you put baseball under the same light as war and human rights, you can see the contrast and how outrage over anything in baseball seems rather excessive.

“Save the moral panic,” read another [e-mail from a reader]. “Most of your readers under the age of 70 have done the same long ago. . . . Is taking steroids cheating? Sure, maybe.”

Sure, maybe? Ho-hum, la-di-da , who cares . . .

How sad.

That’s really the crux of the issue, at least for me. Whenever I write about the steroid “issue” I ask ad nauseam about the evidence that they are performance-enhancing.

I’m completely open to the fact that I could be wrong, but I have not seen any evidence whatsoever that connects steroid use to an increase in performance, whether it’s more home runs or more strikeouts, or something else. We take it on a leap of faith that any time a player uses steroids, they’re magically going to get bigger and faster and stronger, as if it was a mushroom from Super Mario Bros.

The problem, though, is that Manny Ramirez didn’t test positive for steroids; he tested positive for a fertility drug (HCG) used primarily by women. Any connections you make between that drug and steroids are ancillary and assumptive (though I don’t dispute that the connections may be logical).

Did Manny cheat? He used a substance that was on the banned substances list, so by that nature, yes — he did cheat. But did it enhance his performance? We need to see the evidence, and that involves a lot more than saying, “He’s in his late 30’s, there’s no way he can be this productive.”

So, sitting here in the press box during the Dodgers’ Saturday win against the Giants, the question comes. Am I, along with the other journalists who are breathing fire about this sordid story, simply out of touch with a huge slice of our audience, the who-cares-who-takes-what crowd?

Yes. The answer would still be yes if we cut the question down to “Am I, along with the other journalists,  simply out of touch with a huge slice of our audience?”

It’s a fault, but it’s not really one that can be avoided. Journalists are paid to make big issues out of minor details as well as to dwell on the past.

It used to be that journalists had lots of access in areas that their audience simply did not, and that’s what they’d report on. With the advent of 24/7 media coverage by many companies both nationally and locally, blogs, Twitter, social networking and such, the access these journalists have is not nearly as valuable as it was ten years ago.

So, in order to attract readers, they have to make a big deal out of all of the details they get.

Imagine this hypothetical: you, in this case the average consumer of sports media, are presented with two media representatives: one from the L.A. Times and one from ESPN. Both have exclusive details on the Manny Ramirez failed drug test, and they’re both trying to get you to consume their media — in LAT’s case, it’s their newspaper and website; in ESPN’s case, it’s their TV shows and website.

You’ve long known ESPN as the go-to place for anything sports, and you like a few of their shows like Around the Horn and Baseball Tonight. Out of familiarity and comfort, you’re going to choose “the world-wide leader”. But the L.A. Times isn’t done with its sales pitch. In sheer desperation and frustration, the representative shouts, “But they’re not getting upset! This is a big deal! They’re a faceless corporation; I’m a human being with human emotions and I’m mad at Manny!”

You become more interested in the L.A. Times coverage, naturally.

That’s pretty much all it is anymore: who can shout the loudest with the most righteous indignation.

Facts are not valuable anymore because they’re not hard to find. Journalists have to come up with creative ways to attract readers, and going all Bill Plaschke is one way.

[...] it’s important everyone in the media keep laying the wood to the rule-breakers and ne’er-do-wells. Someone has to draw the line. Someone has to keep hold of standards.

I realize the importance of rules in anything, but to lend this level of importance to a game where grown men run around a field while other grown men chase a ball is just absurd.

Different people, but where were the journalists chanting this credo when our Bill of Rights was trampled? When the 2000 and ’04 Presidential elections were stolen?

I apologize for harping on this but I think it’s important we keep this all in perspective. Baseball is not as important as we’re making it out to be. Yes, it’s a multi-billion dollar enterprise but not at all deserving of wasting taxpayer money and our elected representatives’ time twice in an attempt to clean up steroid use in baseball by holding Congressional hearings.

Someone has to give voice to those who know there’s more to life than winning.

In sports, there is no more important goal than winning. A competition without a winner and a loser is not a competition.

How you win, how you prepare, the ethics you bring to the ballpark and yes, to life . . . guess what? That matters.

It matters if you’re a journalist who covers the same players 162 games year in and year out. You run out of stuff to write about.

Does it really matter who Pat Burrell sleeps with? That Barry Bonds has — um, had — his own recliner in the Giants clubhouse? That MLB players eat a lot of fast food on road trips?

No.

Some players wake up in the morning and can’t wait to show up to the stadium early to take some extra swings and field a few more ground balls. Others show up as late and leave as early as possible. If both of the guys are doing their jobs correctly, their habits aren’t causing a decline in production, and aren’t creating undue stress on the rest of the team, then it doesn’t matter at all.

It’s when we lose track of this, when we as a society are willing to cut too much slack, when we in the press stop drawing a hard line, that deep trouble comes. You get the last eight years, probably longer: a fool’s paradise, not just in sports and entertainment, but in politics and the economy.

It’s not like a lax view on drug use in baseball is linked to a lax view on everything else.

What’s funny is that most of the same people who are for controlling what people put into their bodies (a.k.a. drug prohibitionists) voted for the President responsible for “the last eight years, probably longer.”

I’m not going to turn this into a general “legalize all drugs” screed, but I do want to point out that prohibition (of anything) has never worked. Alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s and ’30’s caused an increase in crime of all kinds; the decriminalization of production, distribution, and consumption of alcohol caused a decline in violent crimes.

Really? My wife teaches third grade at a school a mile from Dodger Stadium. Is this what she should tell her kids, a group that has adored Ramirez since he arrived in town? “Kids, it doesn’t matter if you cheat.”

This is a dishonest argument. No one is advocating that cheating is okay, not even me with my liberal views.

Manny Ramirez was suspended 50 games and stands to lose $7 million from his current two-year deal with the Dodgers, and potentially a lot more in lost endorsements as well as a dry market when he does become a free agent.

Not having righteous indignation towards players who use banned substances isn’t implicitly condoning said use of banned substances. I don’t have righteous indignation towards businesspeople who dupe customers by putting a bunch of clauses in extremely fine print on page 49 of 221, knowing that it will never be read. But that doesn’t mean I condone it.

I say it’s partly because “performance enhancement” is a sin committed in private. We don’t see needles plunging into forearms, don’t watch our favorite slugger downing Dianabol with the morning orange juice.

As mentioned before, we take the term “performance-enhancing” on a leap of faith — that the substances are, in fact, performance-enhancing. I have never seen any evidence connecting steroid use directly to an increase in production. If you have, please send it my way and I will look it over and publish an “I’m sorry” blog.

Streeter says that part of the lack of outrage at Ramirez is because we didn’t get to see him actually take the banned substance. That doesn’t really make sense because we — in general — had a lot of outrage towards Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, right? Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa. We have poured out a lot of rage on athletes and we never got to see them use the drugs either.

We don’t get to witness how this stuff works its magic; helping a guy approaching age 40 wake each and every day during the off-season, spry as a high school senior, primed for two hours of heavy lifting, an hour of sprints, three hours in the batting cage and then more weights.

You also don’t get to see how the other 39-year-old uses steroids, but doesn’t increase his workload by much because he lacks the desire and the work ethic. While his compadre, spry as a high school senior, is working harder and more often, this guy isn’t doing much more and isn’t seeing the results.

As I said, performance-enhancing drugs are not like the mushrooms in Super Mario Bros. where you just take it and poof! You can now hit 50 homers! Steroid use requires a lot of work. It can be said that those who use performance-enhancing drugs work harder than those who do not. You can’t just inject the needle and sit on the couch and watch cartoons.

And even then, even if you work out like a madman, you still may not see the necessary results because you still have to have a lot of talent to play the game of baseball at the Major League Level. Rey Ordonez could take all the steroids left in the world and he still couldn’t hit better than Eric Bruntlett.

How would you feel about Tiger Woods if you saw him take a mulligan every time he sprayed a drive? How’d you like it if, when the Cavaliers played the Lakers, they started six players and L.A. started five?

Apples and oranges.

Actually, it’s more like apples and, uh… (come on, think of something completely irrelevant)… the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.

Rules are rules. They exist for a reason. We might not like them. They might make our games less interesting. We might wish they were different, but we either abide by them or we get chaos.

Streeter is right, but we don’t have to burst a blood vessel in our collective forehead every time a rule is broken.

Have you ever had a teacher who was so dictatorial with the enforcement of his or her rules that the class was just alienated? Or, the question should be, have you ever had a teacher who got so upset every single time a rule was broken that the class did not become alienated?

We get Bernie Madoff; fake, flimsy loans; economic Armageddon. We get Bonds, Clemens, A-Rod and now, Manny Ramirez.

This is comparing apples to oranges. Really, really big apples, to smaller-than-average oranges.

The current reality is that any player on the juice is a rule-breaker, a crooked scofflaw getting a leg up on colleagues who rightly won’t go there. Case closed.

It’s not quite as bad as Streeter painted it, but yes, anyone who uses a banned subtance is breaking the rules and should be punished. Who is disputing this?

Even worse, the cheats are sending the ugliest possible message about living healthily, especially to the kids who deify them.

If a kid starts taking steroids because he saw that Rafael Palmeiro tested positive, then that kid has bad parents. That’s not Palmeiro’s fault; that’s his parents’ fault.

Also note that earlier, Streeter said that we never get to see the athletes use the banned substances. So how do “the kids who deify them” get “the ugliest possible message”?

Ah, it’s because we publicize the names of players who test positive and smarmy journalists wax poetic about the days of yore and call for the decapitation of any and all rule-breakers.

Like prohibition creates a black market, baseball’s “prohibition” on these drugs creates a “black market” for messages to be sent to kids. Go back to 1999, the year after McGwire and Sosa broke the single-season home run record of Roger Maris. How many kids do you think knew both were using steroids*?

* It’s still unknown if they were on something. McGwire was found using androstenedione, which was legal at the time. Sosa once corked a bat, that’s about it. Neither have been caught red-handed using an illegal substance.

In short, parents need to take responsibility for their kids and stop placing the blame on celebrities. Kids need to take responsibility for themselves as well. We’re teaching them to place blame on everybody else first before placing it on themselves.

“I’m afraid people don’t really understand how horrific this stuff is, they don’t know what it does, they don’t know that it can kill you,” said Dr. Anthony Butch, director of the UCLA Olympic Analytic Laboratory.

You know, based on the context of what’s been discussed, that Dr. Butch is referring to steroids. Ironically, this is found in an article mainly about Manny Ramirez, who did not test positive for steroids.

Anyway, imagine this quote placed inside an article on another subject, like tobacco, alcohol, fast food, carbon monoxide, high fructose corn syrup, etc.

Yeah, it applies to many different areas. Steroids can kill you, but so can just about everything else. Pillows can kill you, for crying out loud.

[Dr. Butch] equated the amount of steroids most pro athlete abusers take to smoking four packs of cigarettes a day; you don’t die right away, but your chances of making it past age 55 drip away with each puff. Butch ran through the heightened health risks. Out-of-control rage, liver damage, heart damage, lung damage, prostate damage, cancer, diabetes, infertility . . . on and on.

Yes, steroids have lots of potential health risks.

Unfortunately, we’re not really concerned about the health of our athletes. We allow them to get Cortisone shots to get them out on the field faster, knowing that Cortisone is a steroid that suppresses the immune system.

New Phillies left fielder Raul Ibanez is beloved by his new city despite that he always has a wad of tobacco in his mouth.

It took the death of Josh Hancock, who was involved in a fatal car crash while intoxicated,  for some Major League teams to ban alcohol from their clubhouses. Some still have not banned alcohol from their clubhouses.

We say we care about the health of our athletes, but we really don’t. We pick and choose when it’s convenient to care.

. . .

That’s it, I’ll step off of my soapbox for now.

I’ll have a series preview for the Phillies-Dodgers series up between tonight and tomorrow evening.

BDD: All-Star Hypotheticals

At Baseball Daily Digest, I look through the leaders in Wins Above Replacement and construct 33-man rosters for each league for the All-Star Game if the break started after last night’s games. It’s a fun hypothetical.

American League

  • C: Victor Martinez, Cleveland (1.8 WAR)
  • 1B: Kevin Youkilis, Boston (1.9)
  • 2B: Ian Kinsler, Texas (1.8)
  • 3B: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay (2.9)
  • SS: Marco Scutaro, Toronto (1.7)
  • OF: Carl Crawford, Tampa Bay (1.7)
  • OF: Adam Jones, Baltimore (1.4)
  • OF: Nick Swisher, New York (1.2)
  • SP: Zack Grienke, Kansas City (3.0)

National League

  • C: Yadier Molina, St. Louis (1.0 WAR)
  • 1B: Albert Pujols, St. Louis (1.8)
  • 2B: Chase Utley, Philadelphia (1.7)
  • 3B: Ryan Zimmerman, Washington (1.9)
  • SS: Hanley Ramirez, Florida (1.9)
  • OF: Raul Ibanez, Philadelphia (2.0)
  • OF: Mike Cameron, Milwaukee (1.9)
  • OF: Carlos Beltran, New York (1.6)
  • SP: Dan Haren, Arizona (1.9)

Suggestions for the Strugglin’ Phils

The Phillies have lost four of their last five games. In those four losses, the Phillies are averaging just over two runs a game and are allowing four and a half. Their pitching has slightly improved, but the offense has gone cold. Meanwhile, the New York Mets have won seven games in a row, having swept the Braves and Phillies in two-game series and the Pirates in a three-game series. As a result, the Phils are 1.5 games behind in the standings.

No, it’s not time to panic, but it is time to correct some little things that have been contributing to the failure. Here are a few suggestions for starters:

1. Designate Miguel Cairo for assignment.

With his hit in today’s game, Cairo now has two hits — both singles, of course — in 15 at-bats. He is utterly useless as he’s a poor man’s Eric Bruntlett. Cairo’s poor performance is no aberration, either. His OPS+ since 2005? 64, 55, 66, and 75.

Cairo is taking away what could be useful Major League experience for Jason Donald. Donald isn’t exactly setting the world on fire in AAA, as he only has a .680 OPS, but that’s nearly five times better than Cairo’s .143 OPS. The Phillies have no legitimate right-handed bench player, and Cairo has no power. Donald is no Ryan Howard, but he does have the ability to go yard once in a while.

2. Acquire a right-handed bat with power potential.

If the Phillies don’t plan on promoting Donald until September, or even next season, then they need to acquire a RH bat that can hit some extra-base hits once in a while.

The Washington Nationals have a glut of outfielders, with Lastings Milledge and Josh Willingham seeming to be the most expendable. It would not be costly to acquire either and the Nationals would likely be happy to take a fringe prospect to save a few bucks.

Austin Kearns is another option but he would be more costly to the Phillies either in terms of talent given up or in salary taken. It’s also unlikely Kearns would be happy with merely getting one at-bat per game.

3. Designate Jack Taschner for assignment

4. Move Chan Ho Park to the bullpen

5. Move J.A. Happ to the starting rotation

The Phillies currently have three left-handers in the bullpen: Scott Eyre, Jack Taschner, and J.A. Happ. Since J.C. Romero has been serving his 50-game suspension, Eyre has been the de facto LOOGY, and Taschner has been the secondary lefty. Happ has been used as the long reliever.

There’s no reason to stockpile three lefties in the bullpen. Coupled with the fact that Happ has been pitching well and Park, for the most part, has been awful, it makes a lot of sense to flip the two and cut Taschner. Romero has less than three weeks left before he returns to the team. Looking at the schedule, the move could be made now since the only team they play, between now and Romero’s return, that has a lefty-heavy lineup is the New York Yankees.

Happ will likely need to make a spot start anyway with the doubleheader in Washington on May 16, so there’s a quick and easy way to transition him into the rotation. He definitely has the stuff to succeed there as a middle- or back-of-the-rotation starter.

6. Designate Chris Coste for assignment

We all love Coste and his remarkable story of having overcome many years in relative obscurity in independent league baseball. He’s been really unproductive this season and has been taking awful at-bats. Of his 58 plate appearances, he’s gone 0-2 nine times (15%). Overall, he’s been in pitchers’ counts 24 times (41%). Further, he’s swung at the first pitch 8 times (14%).

Since Marson has already been in the Majors, his arbitration clock has already started, so there’s really no reason to keep him in the Minors anymore. Marson showed the ability to handle Major League pitching, though he could definitely use some improvement. His development as a catcher and as a hitter is more important to the Phillies both this year and in the future than the minuscule advantage in offense Coste will provide.

7. Re-work the lineup until Jimmy Rollins starts hitting consistently

Rollins has led off in 26 of the Phillies’ 29 games and has only a .520 OPS to show for it. That OPS, by the way, will shrink even more after an 0-for-5 performance today.

Instead of giving Rollins the majority of at-bats with his flawed approach, drop him down in the order until he starts hitting again. Meanwhile, those that are hitting — which seems to be everyone else — are moved up in the order and get more at-bats.

A new lineup might look like this:

CF Victorino
2B Utley
1B Howard
RF Werth
LF Ibanez
3B Feliz
SS Rollins
C Ruiz

According to this lineup analysis tool, the most efficient lineup would actually be:

2B Utley
RF Werth
3B Feliz
LF Ibanez
1B Howard
SS Rollins
CF Victorino
P Pitcher
C Ruiz

Rollins, like Coste, has been taking a terrible approach to each plate appearance. With 126 PA under his belt, Rollins has been in the following counts:

  • Swung at the first pitch: 10 PA (8%)
  • 0-1: 17 PA (13.5%)
  • 0-2: 9 PA (7%)
  • 1-2: 14 PA (11%)

Overall, that adds up to 50 PA, or about 40% of his plate appearances.

. . .

Those are some of my thoughts on how the team could be improved. There are some easy ones, like “Trade for Jake Peavy and/or Roy Halladay,” but I tried to keep them realistic.

Feel free to share your thoughts on what the Phillies should do or on the validity of my suggestions.

A Pitch F/X Look at J.A. Happ

Philadelphia Phillies left-hander J.A. HappWhen Chan Ho Park was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies during the off-season, many thought it was a frivolous acquisition, since lefty J.A. Happ had pretty much done all he could do in the Minors and had shown decent stuff and poise in his brief Major League stints. Happ went into spring training in competition with Park as well as Kyle Kendrick and Carlos Carrasco for the #5 spot in the rotation.

Kendrick and Carrasco fell out of contention rather quickly, leaving Happ and Park to duel it out for the rotation spot. At the end of spring training, both had performed very well, but since the Phillies had made an informal promise to Park that he would get to start (and they’re paying him up to $5 million), they awarded him the position.

We’re now past the first week in May and Park has made five starts. In only two of them did he reach the sixth inning. Overall, he has a 6.67 ERA and has allowed five home runs. He’s been disappointing, to say the least.

Prior to his recent quality outing against the New York Mets, there was a lot of speculation that Park’s job was in jeopardy, especially if he put up another clunker. Fortunately for him, and perhaps unfortunately for the Phillies down the road, he did not, instead earning a reprieve for at least another couple starts.

Despite the roadblock, it would not be surprising to see Happ inserted into the Phillies starting rotation at some point during the season. He’s pitched very well this season as the long reliever, putting up a 2.84 ERA in 19 innings. Happ would most likely benefit the Phillies better by leveraging his talent over a span of five or six innings as opposed to two to four when one of the Phillies’ starters gets shelled.

I thought it’d be a good idea to get familiar with Happ using Pitch F/X. While he is no Cole Hamels, he bears a resemblance to former Phillie Randy Wolf in that he doesn’t have anything overpowering and relies more on out-thinking the hitter. Happ throws a fastball, a slider, and a change-up which have averaged 90, 83, and 81 MPH respectively. So far, he’s used his fastball a lot: 78%. He’s used his slider and change-up 17% and 4% respectively.

His fastball usage is so high because of the way he’s been used so far: he mostly appears in games when the Phillies fall behind by a lot early. As a result, his job is to just throw strikes and avoid putting base runners on for free. If he were a starter, his fastball usage would be down in the low 60’s.

To the charts!

The above chart shows the horizontal and vertical movement of Happ’s three pitches. As you can see, his fastball has a lot more vertical movement than his slider — about six and a half inches more on average. His change-up is, as you might expect, similar to his fastball in terms of movement.

Happ isn’t as consistent with his release point but I would be surprised if that was unintentional. Notice the two blue diamonds that stand out. That’s his change-up. It’s a small sample, but this might be something to keep an eye on: his release point for his change-up is about as high as that of his fastball, but it’s more towards the left-handed batter’s box. If hitters pick this up, his change-up will be much less effective.

The next three charts show his pitch locations overall, to left-handers, and to right-handers. All of the remaining pitch location graphs are from the catcher’s perspective.

Use those charts with this table of data:

According to the data, it seems like Happ has better control over his slider than his fastball. Eyeballing the charts, Happ has been wild up and out of the strike zone frequently with it, especially to right-handed hitters.

However, he has gotten better results with the fastball. His slider is more effective against left-handers, unsurprisingly.

That one change-up he threw to a left-handed hitter? A home run to Jordan Schafer.

Overall, right-handed hitters have a paltry .381 OPS against Happ in 59 plate appearances while lefties have a .978 OPS in 17 plate appearances. It’s a small sample size, but still interesting to note the reverse platoon split. Last season, right-handers and left-handers performed equally as poorly against Happ with a meager .656 OPS.

This chart shows the location of pitches that batters have not made contact with:

CStrike is a called strike and SStrike is a swinging strike.

Overall, there’s nothing surprising about the results. Hitters have a good idea of the strike zone against Happ, as you don’t see a lot of swinging strikes out of the zone.

This chart shows the location of pitches that hitters have made contact with:

Happ gets a lot of swinging strikes up in the zone with the fastball and tends to have more success when his pitches end up on the inside part of the plate to a right-hander. As much as Happ throws up and out of the zone, most of them have been taken for balls, indicating that he probably needs to bring his pitches down a bit or try something else.

In summary…

The Good

  • Happ’s reverse platoon split suggests he is not a good candidate for the bullpen if manager Charlie Manuel thinks he can get left-handers out on a consistent basis (he hasn’t been used as a LOOGY so far). This is a good thing because he belongs in the starting rotation. And if he’s moved to the starting rotation, he’ll face more right-handers.
  • He has an effective fastball with decent velocity. If he can improve his change-up, his fastball would become that much better.
  • He has good control over his sliders, but…

The Bad

  • Happ needs to throw his sliders for strikes more often (this doesn’t mean he lacks control of them), especially to left-handers. The number is somewhat artificially high since he throws a lot of low sliders in an attempt to get them to chase, but they’ll never get swung at if he can’t find the zone with them.
  • He isn’t deceiving anyone with his fastballs up and out of the zone.
  • His change-up, at this point in time, isn’t doing much for him at the rate he’s using it. He should either scrap the pitch altogether or work on improving it. Unfortunately, the latter option isn’t realistic since he’ll likely be in the Majors all season.

Phillies/Braves Series Preview II

Ugh, the Atlanta Braves again. Sure, the Phillies may have gone 14-4 against them last season, but they have always played the Phillies tough and this year is no different. The Bravos got off to a surprising start that prompted Dayn Perry to call the Braves the favorites in the NL East on April 14. Immediately after that article hit the Web, the Braves lost five in a row and seven of their next eight games. Overall, they’re 8-14 since Dayn’s article. (Braves fans: do not send him hate mail and do not create a D.P. voodoo doll. Dayn is awesome — I’m just busting his chops.)

Since the Braves left Philly when the regular season opened, Brian McCann got glasses, Jordan Schafer stopped hitting, and Jeff Francoeur has been… well… Jeff Francoeur.

The Phillies, meanwhile, haven’t been getting any decent starting pitching save Chan Ho Park’s impressive, job-saving outing against Johan Santana and the New York Mets. Overall, Phillies pitching has a 5.39 ERA, which is the 15th-best, or the second-worst, in the National League behind only the Washington Nationals at 5.40. They’ve allowed 49 home runs, which pales in comparison to the next-highest total of 32 shared by three teams.

The Braves’ pitchers have allowed the league’s fewest home runs, a stark contrast to say the least. However, while the Braves have a much better staff, the Phillies’ offense is tops in the N.L. (5.77 runs per game) and the Braves’ is below the league average. In other words, the series is going to come down to whose weakness is least significant. If the Phillies can hit despite the flurry of home runs that will probably be allowed, things will be looking up when they welcome in the now-Manny-less Los Angeles Dodgers.

Let’s get to those charts now, shall we? You know the drill: first two charts show the hitters against the probable starters using career OPS; the second pair of charts show the pitchers’ success against their respective opponents.

Atlanta Braves @ Philadelphia Phillies, May 8-10

Atlanta Braves @ Philadelphia Phillies, May 8-10

Atlanta Braves @ Philadelphia Phillies, May 8-10

Atlanta Braves @ Philadelphia Phillies, May 8-10

Apologies to those of you who were looking for the series previews for the Cardinals and Mets. At least they were short!

BDD: On Ibanez, Defensive Sabermetrics

With a hat tip to commenter EH, I’ve dissected an article written by Jeff Passan, who illustrates the dichotomy between what Ibanez was supposed to do and what he is currently doing.

Not too long ago, talking airhead Rush Limbaugh was in some hot water for saying that he hopes that the Obama administration fails because their ideas largely differ from his own. Instead of saying, “While we may disagree, I want what’s best for my country even if that means implementing your ideas and seeing them succeed,” Limbaugh was more concerned with the success of his ideology.

I see the same thing happening with the Sabermetrics vs. Traditional stats/Scouting debate. It’s really not about who’s right or who’s wrong; it should be about finding the most logical, objective, consistently accurate method of analyzing players and teams. Sometimes, Sabermetrics do the job very well. Other times, you need a scout to pinpoint something. So far, no one ideology has proven itself worthy of a monopoly.