Mariners Series Preview with Pro Ball NW

The Phillies travel to the West coast for some late-night baseball against the Seattle Mariners. The series will kick off at 10:10 PM ET with Roy Oswalt facing rookie phenom Michael Pineda. I caught up with two of the guys from Sweet Spot blog Pro Ball NW, Conor Dowley and Tayler Halperin, to shed some light on the M’s, who currently sit just a half-game out of first place in the AL West.

. . .

1. The Mariners have one of the few rotations in baseball that can go toe-to-toe with the Phillies’. In particular, people are fascinated with Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda. Can you give us a brief scouting report on those two?

Conor: Felix’s scouting report is pretty well known at this point. His fastball velocity isn’t what it was, but it’s still excellent and his command is fantastic when he’s on. Even when he’s not on, his curve and change are so good that those two pitches can get him through.
Pineda doesn’t have Felix’s polish, but his fastball is lethal, and the break on his slider only makes it harder to sit on. His changeup is still developing, but he had two distinct versions of it. The one he’s largely used this year is a power change not unlike Felix’s power change, sitting in the upper 80’s. Pineda’s version of the pitch is much straighter than Felix’s, however, and is not in my opinion as effective as the split-change he showed last year that was a devastating pitch at times. He doesn’t throw it as often as he did last year, but it’s drawn whiffs most of the time when he does.

Taylor: Felix Hernandez (he of the 2.6 WAR through 15 starts) is possibly the best pitcher in baseball.  He can throw his fastball, curve, change, and slider all for strikes (almost) all the time.  Excellent control and impeccable command.  He racks up groundballs, induces plenty of weak contact, and is 5th in all of baseball with 103 strikeouts.  He almost never gets flustered on the mound, and limits damage exceptionally well.  Oh, and he can throw up to 97 miles an hour when he wants to.  Despite having posted a lower ERA than Felix, Michael Pineda is not at his level.  Pineda throws a flaming heater and a nasty slider, but that’s about it.  Occasionally, he’ll throw his change, but that pitch is a work in progress.  Nonetheless, he’s been baseball’s best rookie hurler by an arguably wide margin (3.07 FIP) throwing only two pitches.  If his changeup develops nicely, Pineda will cement himself alongside Felix as one of the top 10 pitchers in baseball.

2. When will Erik Bedard break down again? He’s been great thus far, but do you anticipate more misfortune for the lefty? He seems to have always had a black cloud hovering over him.

Conor: I’m honestly a little bit surprised that Bedard hasn’t met with more difficulty. With how good he has been so far this season, e could break down tomorrow and I’d consider it to be a successful year for him. Bedard did have a rough go at the start of the year while he was still rebuilding his velocity and command, but he’s been awesome since he “found himself” in late April.

Taylor: Bedard appears to be healthy, as far as I can tell.  He even seems to be getting more dominant with every start.  He’s actually on pace to be worth over 3 wins above replacement, which is absolutely phenomenal for a fifth starter.  In any case, the French Canadian’s mechanics seem fine and he might net the M’s a sweet return should they decide to deal him at the deadline.

3. Ichiro, of the career .328 average, is hitting .258. Has he noticeably declined, or is it just a fluke?

Conor: Ichiro has visibly lost a step speed-wise, and it’s really shown up in the field. At the plate, however, I think it’s largely been poor luck. His BABIP on line drives has been far off his career rate, and he lives on those liners that drop in just past the infielders. He’s been coming around of late, with five straight multi-hit games, so hopefully the Ichiro of old is back to stay.

Taylor: Ichiro admittedly has looked lost at times this season.  He’s slugging only .325 and he has yet to club his first long ball of the season, but things are looking up for the Mariners’ beloved right-fielder.  He’s been hitting the ball superbly in the last 6-8 games, and I imagine his batting average will return to .300 by season’s end.  Sure, he’s getting older, but I don’t think Ichiro would just fall off a metaphorical/statistical cliff.

4. The Mariners’ home ballpark, unlike the Phillies’, is known for being pitcher-friendly. Do you expect the spacious confines of Safeco Field to provide a home-field advantage in this series?

Conor: While SafeCo limits right-handed power, it’s much friendlier to lefties. The Phillies have hitters that I think can really take advantage of that, so it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest if they put on a power show in this series.

Taylor: Honestly both the M’s and Phillies haven’t hit as well as they should be hitting in 2011.  I foresee three low-scoring games, and Safeco’s dimensions can only serve to further that.

5. Dustin Ackley was recently called up. What are your expectations for him at the Major League level in 2011?

Conor: I’m much more bearish than most M’s fans are. Where many seem to expect an impact bat right away, I’d expect a line more like .265/.385/.390 for the remainder of this season.

Too many people ate expecting Utley-like power from him, and that’s just not the kind of hitter that Ackley is. He is going to hit homers now and then, but they’re most often going to be the result of his patience. Every now and then, he’ll get just the right pitch that he can turn on and crank, but his natural strength and swing limit him to mostly just those. While pitches like that can be plentiful in AAA, they’re much harder to come by in the majors.

Taylor: I’d expect something around .250/.340/.390 with decent glove-work.  It’s not fancy, but getting on base 34 percent of the time is nothing to scoff at.  As for power, Ackley has the potential to hit 20 homers a year, but I really doubt he’ll tap into that potential in his first season.

6. Chone Figgins is dead-last in baseball with -1.1 WAR. Ichiro is right behind at -0.8 (tied with Raul Ibanez, oddly enough). How would you go about fixing the Mariners’ outfield?

Conor: The Mariners’ outfield is mostly fixing itself right now. With Ichiro finally coming around and Gutierrez returning to full health, that gives them a lot of leeway for the left field situation. Carlos Peguero gives them some thump and occasional clutch hits, but his defense and consistency leave much to be desired right now. Frankly, he’d be best served playing every day in AAA Tacoma right now.

Among current roster options, a platoon of Mike Carp and Greg Halman would probably be the M’s best bet right now. Both offer above-average power, and while Carp gives a better approach at the plate, Halman is the far better defender.  If the M’s were to upgrade any position on the trade market, it would be left field.

Taylor: Though I reference WAR in one of my previous answers, I’ll caution the reader by mentioning that WAR is screwed up by small sample sizes of UZR data.  Ichiro is not really a -0.8 WAR player.  He just isn’t.  Small sample sizes of UZR can wreak havoc on WAR tallies.  Now then, the Mariners’ outfield doesn’t necessarily need fixing.  I certainly wouldn’t mind if the team acquired a big bat with an average glove to play left, but Carlos Peguero has actually done a decent job so far.  If I were Jack Zduriencik (which I’m not, for the record), I would demote Peguero and let Halman platoon in left with Mike Carp for the time being, and if the team is still contending on July 15th, trade for the Orioles’ Luke Scott.  Then again, Halman still appears to have pitch recognition deficiencies, but he appears to be the best choice for the righty in the left field platoon.  As for center field and right field, Gutierrez and Ichiro will be fine (I think).  It’s best to let those two play every day.  Gutierrez is possibly the best defensive center fielder in the majors, and he hit 32 homers over the last two seasons, and Ichiro has racked up 200+ hits literally every season he’s been in the majors.

7. Grab your crystal ball and give us a prediction for this series? Who wins?

Conor: The M’s have played exceedingly well of late, but if they have to face Cole Hamels and Roy Osawalt, it’ll be hard to scratch out wins against them if they’re on. I see this going 2-1 in favor of the Phillies.

Taylor: I’ll go out on a limb and say the M’s win the series 2 games to 1, despite only scoring 7 total runs.

. . .

Thanks to Conor and Taylor for taking the time to talk about the Mariners. Make sure to stop by Pro Ball NW to see what they have to say throughout the series, and also check out Mariners Farm Review if you have the time. You can follow the PBNW crew on Twitter as well: @ProBallNW@C_Dowley, and @TaylorRobot.

Cubs Series Preview with Joe Aiello

Phillies fans have been a bit frustrated with the team’s performance as of late, but Cubs fans have had much more to lament. The Cubs are 12 games under .500 and ended an eight-game losing streak yesterday. Along with that, there’s the always-present clubhouse turmoil found with any under-performing team, as Carlos Zambrano called his team “embarrassing”. To get some more perspective on the Cubs, I caught up with fellow SweetSpot blogger Joe Aiello, of View from the Bleachers, and asked him a few questions to help preview this upcoming series.

. . .

1. The Phillies and Cubs contrast sharply in that the Phillies allow the fewest runs on average while the Cubs allow the most. To what do you attribute the poor performance on the mound?

When you look at the starting rotations, the first major difference is in talent. A rotation that includes guys like Halladay, Oswalt, Lee, etc far surpasses a rotation that includes Doug Davis, Rodrigo Lopez, James Russell, etc. The Cubs have been riddled with injuries in the rotation and have, as a result, given up way to many runs in an area that was penciled in as a strength for the team at the beginning of the season.

2. If the season ended today, Carlos Zambrano’s 2.8 BB/9 would be a career-low. For that control, though, he has sacrificed strikeouts, as his 6.2 K/9 would also be a career low. Do you like his new style, and is it necessary for future success?

I’m rather indifferent to a pitcher’s style. All I care about is the win. A few years ago, Edwin Jackson threw a dreadfully ugly no-hitter that was littered with walks. All that mattered was that he got the win. The same is true for Zambrano. What I think we’ll see going forward is the way he’s pitched lately. His velocity from his youth is gone. He routinely sits in the high 80’s and low 90’s for his fastball.

3. Matt Garza has been a favorite of Saberists as he is at or near the top of every list for stats like FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. Did the Cubs work with him on anything specifically that caused his strikeout rate to balloon?

I’m not a saber guy, which makes me laugh because I couldn’t even wager a guess at what those stats are or how to evaluate them. I’d be interested in seeing how many of Garza’s strikeouts have come at the hand of a pitcher. That would be my partial explanation for the increase in strikeouts. In the end, I think we’ll see a regression to the mean (trying to bring out what little saber talk I have) in the strikeout category with a slight increase due to league change.

4. After a great rookie campaign in 2010, Tyler Colvin hasn’t been able to rekindle that magic. What’s gone wrong for him? Could his struggles possibly be related to his getting hit with a shard of a broken bat last year?

I’m glad you mentioned the second part of the question because it was the first thing that crossed my mind. It’s hard to know what the cause of the decline is, but I would wager a guess with three factors. First, a lack of consistent playing time, being blocked by Soriano, Byrd and Fukudome early in the season. Second, the infamous sophomore slump, and third the shard of bat.

5. The Cubs have stolen 15 bases in 23 attempts, base running futility matched and exceeded only by the Atlanta Braves. Do you think the Cubs need to be more aggressive and efficient on the bases?

The problem is that it’s not a lineup built for base stealing. The only true base stealing threat on the team is Tony Campana. Guys like Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro have potential to steal 15 bases in a season, but none really light it up.

6. The Cubs will get to face Kyle Kendrick, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee. If you were given the privilege of choosing, which three Phillies starters would you choose to give the Cubs the best chance of winning? I assume Kyle Kendrick is an immediate first pick.

I’d like them to face Spahn, Sain, and then pray for rain. I figure we can muster at least a split with those guys since they’re dead. That would mean a series that wasn’t a loss. In all seriousness, look at our record and play of late. We aren’t beating any starters. Kyle Kendrick has the potential to toss a perfect game.

7. Put on your prognostication glasses and give us your prediction for this series. Who wins?

Phillies in a sweep and it’s not even close.

. . .

Thanks to Joe for taking the time to provide some insight on the Cubs. Be sure to stop by VFTB to catch my take on the series as well as further Cubs news and analysis during the season.

Braves Series Preview with Peter Hjort

Don’t look now, but the team giving the Phillies a run for their money when it comes to pitching is the Atlanta Braves. Going into yesterday’s games, the two teams were tied in ERA and had nearly identical marks in xFIP. While the Phillies’ starters have received fanfare, the Braves’ starters have quietly been getting the job done. Of their five starters, Derek Lowe has the highest ERA at 3.72. Jair Jurrjens is shocking the world, currently sitting at 1.52. Is that for real? I asked that and a few other questions to Capitol Avenue Club‘s Peter Hjort, ESPN’s resident Braves expert as part of the SweetSpot blog network. We swapped questions and answers, so make it a point to click through to CAC to see my responses to his questions as well.

. . .

1. The offense has been stagnant for the Braves so far, ranking 11th or worse in the NL in AVG, OBP, SLG, and of course, OPS. Do you see it turning around?

Yeah, I do. For the first couple of weeks they were walking like, once every other game. As of late they’ve gotten back to taking their free passes with regularity, something they need to do to succeed. I also think they’ll hit better as the year goes on. Some of their sub-par batting average/slugging average can be attributed to a bit of poor luck, some of it to simply not squaring the ball, but I think in the end they’ll put it together and finish near the top of the league in all three categories.

2. One surprising bright spot with the offense has been Chipper Jones. Many of us assumed he was on the last legs of his career. If he has a good 2011 season, do you think he will come back in 2012?

Who knows. I don’t think Chipper Jones is in any hurry to retire and he’s said he’ll keep playing as long as he’s enjoying the game and can be as productive as he wants to, but I could see him hanging up the spikes after this year even if he keeps what he’s doing now up. I don’t have a good answer for you. I’ll say yes but it’s nothing more than a guess.

3. Some Braves fans were unhappy with Jason Heyward‘s spot in the lineup, but in mid-April, Fredi Gonzalez moved him from the #5-6 spots to #2-3. Do you like the change?

I do. Jason Heyward needs to be hitting second or fourth, period. That hitting him sixth thing was completely senseless and the justification for doing so was maddening and stupid. Since Heyward was moved to the top of the order the Braves have scored 5.11 runs/game and gone 10-7, before the move they were 7-8 and had scored 3.40 runs/game. Batting order obviously doesn’t explain that big of a jump in run production, but it’s completely unsurprising to me that the team’s offense got better once their best hitter started hitting towards the top of the line-up.

4. The Braves are neck-and-neck with the Phillies in aggregate xFIP for the pitching staff. In fact, prior to Thursday’s games, the two teams were tied exactly in ERA at 3.03. Do the Braves have the most underrated pitching?

Hmm, possibly. The Phillies have four K/BB machines on their staff, the Braves rely a bit more on ground balls than the Phillies do (the Braves currently lead the game in GB%, the Phillies in K/BB, though neither team is far off from the other). It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that the Braves are generally associated with starting pitching and the notion that they have an underrated staff, but considering the pre-season storyline was this team’s calling card would be its’ offense I don’t think it’s that crazy to say they’re underrated. Brandon Beachy has been a really nice surprise, Derek Lowe has continued his late-2010 pattern of throwing more sliders and it has worked for him, and Jair Jurrjens, Tim Hudson, and Tommy Hanson have all been great. All five of the starters have met or exceeded expectations so far. I expect the Phillies to finish the year with the better ERA/xFIP, and probably by a pretty substantial margin, but you could make a good argument that the Braves have the most underrated pitching staff in the league.

5. Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels will be toeing the slab in the series. The Braves miss Roy Halladay, but also miss the #5 starter, which was Vance Worley and will soon be Joe Blanton. If you could pick, which three pitchers would you prefer to match-up against the Braves?

True story: this showed up in my brain when I first saw the question.

The Braves have been destroyed by left-handed pitching for a few years now. Acquiring Dan Uggla was supposed to fix that, but so far he’s been their worst hitter: .218/.276/.395. If you replace Lee with Halladay and Hamels with Worley/Blanton, I guess the three right-handers are the group I’d take. Hamels is on a roll right now and he’s probably the one I’m dreading the Braves facing the most. There is no right answer, though, facing Roy Halladay always sucks.

6. Jair Jurrjens, who pitches Saturday, looks remarkable so far — his control is much, much better. His 3.47 xFIP puts him among some of the best in baseball. His 52 percent ground ball rate is significantly higher than his rate the past two years. Do you buy the new and improved Jurrjens?

He was injured to start the year and he’s only made four starts so far, but they’ve all been really, really good. He’s only walked 5 of the 115 batters he’s faced, that’s Cliff Lee-like. The rest of his game has been OK–his strikeout rate is down and his fastball isn’t moving like it has been in years past–but the improved control is what’s made him successful so far. If he can keep this up I expect him to have a very good year. Whether or not he can is closer to your question, and I really don’t know the answer to that.

7. There is nothing I fear more than watching the Phillies going up against Craig Kimbrel or Jonny Venters, trailing in the late innings of a close game. Give me some dirt on those guys — how can they be conquered in the batter’s box?

You can’t beat Jonny Venters. Not really, but he’s a tough one to face, especially with Alex Gonzalez backing him with great defense. The likelihood of a batter putting the ball in play against Venters small to begin with, and once it’s put in play it’s usually on the ground. I guess just hope you hit it to Dan Uggla and he boots it or the ball finds a hole somewhere, because solid contact off Venters isn’t something you see very often. He’s historically had a high walk rate, so the option of hoping his control is off is also there.

Craig Kimbrel is an easier one to face if you can catch up to mid-90’s heat. What you have to do to defeat him is this: let him beat himself before you try to beat him. This is a guy whose historically had beyond awful command, so early in the count I’d be extremely selective against him. There’s a chance you’re quickly down 0-2 on account of that, there’s also a decent chance you’ve put yourself in a position for the PA to end in a hitter’s count, received a free pass, or gotten the pitch you were looking for before he has a chance to put you away. Guys with command issues like Kimbrel has had in the past are always in trouble until the moment the batter lets them off the hook, even if they have plus-plus stuff, so remembering whose in trouble can do the batter a world of good.

. . .

Thanks as usual to Peter for taking some time to share his insight on the Braves. Follow him on Twitter (@CapitolAvenue) and bookmark Capitol Avenue Club for some of the best team-specific statistical analysis (and podcasts!) around. Before you finish your coffee, head over to CAC to read my take on the series from the Phillies’ point of view.

Talking Mets-Phillies with SNY.tv

I took a few minutes to chat about the upcoming Mets and Phillies series with Ted Berg (@OGTedBerg) of SNY.tv. We briefly talked about some injuries, the Phillies’ offensive decline, and the great pitching staff. (Now with more Worley!)

You can listen here:

Consider that a taste of what you can get every Tuesday at 3 PM ET and Wednesday at 2 PM ET on WOGL 98.1 HD-4 with the “Stathead” show.

Be sure to check out the series preview with Joe Janish. Click here for his answers to my questions, and click here for my answers to his questions.

Mets Series Preview with Joe Janish

The Phillies begin a trek through the NL East today, starting with the surprisingly hot New York Mets. Their six-game winning streak was snapped by the Washington Nationals last night behind a strong start from Livan Hernandez. The Mets have benefited from the incredible production of Ike Davis and a strong bullpen, covering up a lackluster starting rotation. Meanwhile, the Phillies only recently broke out of an offensive slump and will look to overpower the Mets in the upcoming three-game set.

I swapped questions with Joe Janish of Mets Today (@MetsToday) to help preview the series with our readers, so be sure to jump over to his blog to see what I had to say about the Phillies.

. . .

1. The Mets have gone on a roll recently, although their six-game winning streak came to a halt last night. To what do you attribute the success?

Part one is timing; they caught a so-so Diamondbacks club that was regressing to their mean and when their bullpen was a little shorthanded. Then they went to DC to play a terrible Nationals team that was further decimated by the absences of Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman and the idiotic managing of Jim Riggleman. Part two is that the Mets’ offense woke up, possibly sparked by the return of Jason Bay. Bay, Ike Davis, and David Wright are red-hot, and nearly everyone else in the lineup is hitting well lately — in particular, Jose Reyes, Dan Murphy, and Carlos Beltran, who despite making a lot of outs recently is getting good at-bats and hitting the ball hard. And the bullpen is suddenly pitching lights-out, though I attribute some of that to the slumping opposing hitters.

2. I think everyone who follows baseball is amazed at just how good Ike Davis has been. Is this a breakout year for him?

I hope so. It’s early and Ike is red-hot right now. He’s been going to left field frequently and that’s definitely helped his batting average. If he keeps doing that he may be able to avoid the streakiness that comes with his long swing.

3. David Wright catches a lot of heat in New York, but has been producing thus far. Is any of the criticism justified, or is he just a pariah as a result of the team’s recent misery?

David Wright will forever have “haters”, and part of it is because the Mets have positioned him as the face of the franchise and the franchise has yet to win a pennant since he’s been in New York. It doesn’t help that in the past two years Wright has been more streaky than ever before and he seems to pick up more detractors when he’s cold. Another part of the negativity is due to Wright not being perceived as leader. The Mets have not had enough strong personalities who give the press good stories and you need to have those types playing in the media capital of the world. Due to his ability to provide story-worthy quotes, R.A. Dickey has been a media darling and as a result is perceived by the public as a “leader”. In contrast, Wright has always provided the “right” quotes — you know, the typical cliches — and as a result is a boring interview and ergo, not seen by fans as a leader. In New York, you can’t get away with that unless you are getting “clutch” hits in World Series games. Wright regularly makes “big” plays and gets “clutch” hits but many fans tend to focus on his failures.

4. Carlos Beltran has been hitting well to start the season. Do you expect that to continue?

Yes. Beltran has been a great hitter for almost 15 years now and his bat speed and discipline are as good as they’ve ever been. You’ll notice he often gets close calls from the home plate umpires, which doesn’t hurt, either. The only question is whether his knees will hold up long enough to convince other teams he’s worth trading for at the deadline.

5. The Mets will go up against Vance Worley, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee. Assuming you enjoy the match-up against Worley, would you rather the Mets face Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels? What combination of Phillies’ starters is most favorable for the Mets?

Speaking as a Mets fan, I’d prefer to see Chad Ogea, Brandon Duckworth, and Andy Ashby. As a baseball fan and pitching coach, I very much look forward to these Mets-Phillies games precisely because I enjoy watching great pitchers like Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Hamels.

6. Do you buy the Marlins’ early-season success?

I do, and though I won’t make any predictions, I won’t be surprised if they keep up their current pace. Their pitching — both the rotation and the bullpen — is as solid and deep as any in the NL. Javy Vazquez is the only weak link they have on the entire staff, and if all the pitchers stay healthy, they should carry the team to at least 85-90 wins. Further, their offense has yet to really get going. A few guys are hitting over their heads, but Hanley Ramirez, John Buck, and Omar Infante are all slumping, and Mike Stanton hasn’t yet flashed his power. If they ever learn to play decent fundamental baseball and get a real third baseman, they could win the division.

. . .

As usual, thanks to Joe for stopping by and answering some questions about the Mets. Make sure to visit Mets Today for news and analysis of the Mets during the season, and definitely check it out today to read my take on the Phillies for the Mets fans.

Braves Series Preview with Peter Hjort

The Phillies rebounded nicely from a disappointing start to the series with the New York Mets, scoring 21 runs in the last two games. After their blowout 11-0 win yesterday, the Phillies traveled down to Atlanta where they’ll start a three-game series against the Braves. They will have to get through three tough right-handed starters in Tim Hudson, Brandon Beachy, and Derek Lowe. The Phillies, of course, will counter with Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels.

I swapped questions and answers with Peter Hjort of the Braves-themed Sweet Spot blog Capitol Avenue Club to preview the series. You can find my answers to his questions over in his neck of the woods.

. . .

1. Freddie Freeman — my pick for NL Rookie of the Year — is off to a slow start. Do you expect him to turn it around?

Yes. He’s looked pretty good at the plate and had a few hits taken away by some good defense. He’s put a few too many balls on the ground and will have to make a few adjustments, but I expect him to be fine.

2. How has Chipper Jones looked so far?

Good. He’s being aggressive, almost too aggressive, early in the count. He’s Chipper Jones and knows what he’s doing so he gets a free pass, but you’d like to see him walk in more than 4 percent of his plate appearances. Most importantly he’s hitting, which is what Atlanta needs.

3. Many were expecting Nate McLouth to have a bounce-back year, but he hasn’t been effective thus far. Will the Braves stick with him, or is he on a short leash?

I don’t know. I assume he has a few months to prove he belongs in the majors before the Braves do something about it. They don’t have an acceptable replacement in-house, so that “something” would involve trading prospects for a CF’er. They don’t want to do that, and their offense can survive without McLouth hitting, so they have a lot of incentive to wait and see what he’s got.

4. Mike Minor struggled in Wednesday’s start against the Milwaukee Brewers, while Brandon Beachy held the Brew Crew to one run in six innings. Did you notice anything in particular that led to Minor’s failure and Beachy’s success? Do you expect both to end up in the rotation at some point? If not, who keeps the #5 spot?

Beachy’s command was way better. By the time I tuned in to Minor’s start he had walked the first three batters he faced and allowed a 2-run single. He settled down a bit thereafter, but by the fifth inning he was already facing the batting order for the third time. We both know that batters really start to rake during the starter’s third trip through the order, and it was too much for him to handle at that point.

They’ll eventually both be in the rotation on a more permanent basis once a starter goes down long-term. Right now I expect Minor to be sent down to AAA once Jair Jurrjens returns from his latest injury.

5. On your blog, you wrote about the “mistreatment” of Kenshin Kawakami. Most of the readers here are not familiar with the situation. Summarize for us how Kawakami has been mistreated and the implications on the Braves going forward.

Kenshin Kawakami is a major-league caliber starting pitcher who was ostracized last year because he got very poor run and defensive support. They exiled him to the bullpen for the last three months of the season where he was allowed to face all of 29 batters, including 18 in an emergency start which Bobby Cox publicly criticized Kawakami after. The ostracization continued this year when the team sent him to AA rather than AAA because he lives near the team’s AAA facility and they think that sending him to AA might anger him into accepting a transfer to a Japanese club. There are multiple pitchers in the AAA rotation that the club would be better off giving a rotation spot to Kawakami at their expense.

6. Craig Kimbrel. Daaaamn. Your thoughts?

If he can keep throwing strikes and stay healthy he’ll be one of the best relief pitchers in the game for awhile. I just hope he isn’t constantly saved for 3-run lead, 3-outs to get situations.

7. You said that you think the Phillies and Braves are the two best teams in the National League. Who do you expect to win the NL East?

The Braves. I picked the Phillies before the injuries to Domonic Brown and Chase Utley, but I think the latter in particular really hurts. The Braves are a younger team than Philadelphia and have more talent in AAA ready to help if needed. I think they’re built for the regular season better.

. . .

Thanks again to Peter for brushing us up on the Braves. They got lucky enough to avoid Roy Halladay, but they still have to deal with the Lee-Oswalt-Hamels buzzsaw. Normally, I’d be somewhat concerned, having to face Hudson-Beachy-Lowe, but it’s just not an issue anymore. Anyway, be sure to stop by Capitol Avenue Club to check out my answers to his Phillies-related questions, and throughout the season to keep a watch on our enemies.

Mets Series Preview with Joe Janish

The 3-0 Phillies square off against the 2-1 Mets for a three game series. I caught up with fellow SweetSpotter Joe Janish of Mets Today to get some info on the Mets.

1. The Mets are off to a 2-1 start. Obviously, just about everybody is picking against the Mets this year, but was there anything in those three games that provided some optimism?

As usual, it helped that the Marlins beat themselves in the opening series. The good news is that, unusually, the Mets didn’t beat themselves and took advantage of a fundamentally poor team’s mistakes. Also, it appears that R.A. Dickey‘s carriage has not turned to a pumpkin and Jon Niese may be poised for a breakout season. Additionally, Josh Thole continues to make strides both at and behind the plate. Carlos Beltran has taken the field twice, and Jose Reyes hasn’t yet injured himself. In short, I’m basking in a positive glow but waiting for the sky to fall at any minute.

2. I caught some heat on your blog last year because I called Mike Pelfrey a fluke. Are fans’ expectations of Pelfrey lowered after his decline last year, or do you expect him to emerge as one of the better pitchers in baseball this year?

Fans’ expectations are for Pelfrey to be as good or better than he was last year — he is the de facto “ace” after all. Unfortunately I’m seeing the same mechanical inconsistencies that affected his command and likely contributed to his shoulder woes last year. Oh, did you know Pelfrey pitched with a strained rotator cuff and posterior capsule last year, and took a pain-killing shot before every start? We didn’t either, not until a few days ago. Since he hasn’t yet made the mechanical correction, I fear his command issues will only worsen, and that he may further damage his shoulder. So, no, I don’t expect him to emerge as one of baseball’s better pitchers this year (but hope that I’m wrong).

3. Ike Davis is off to a fast start. What kind of year do you think he’ll have offensively? Does he make the list of baseball’s top-ten first basemen?

Davis has made a few adjustments as the NL adjusted to him — and that is how players succeed at this level. I don’t know if he’ll be a top-ten first baseman but he should improve upon last year’s numbers. I would peg him be somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25 HR, .270 – .280 AVG, .350 – .360 OBP, .450 – .475 SLG.

4. Francisco Rodriguez blew a save on Saturday. Is he over the hill? If he falters, who can the Mets use in the ninth inning?

K-Rod isn’t over the hill, but he’s rolling down it. His velocity has dropped markedly since putting on a Mets uniform — there were times last year that he struggled to hit 90 MPH. As a result he has relied heavily on his change-up and breaking stuff, and hitters have caught on. I believe much of his problems stem from the combination of an ankle injury that led to mechanical changes, and I don’t believe he’ll ever be a $17.5M closer. If he falters to the point where he needs to be replaced, the Mets will be overjoyed, as the previously alluded to $17.5M option is tied to games finished. I would guess that flamethrowing Bobby Parnell would get first crack at closing, though if Jason Isringhausen gets on the 25-man roster he would also be a candidate.

5. Do you expect Carlos Beltran to remain a Met throughout the season? What are the chances Jose Reyes is signed to a contract extension?

No and none. I’m making sure to fully appreciate every single at-bat of those two players early on, as I expect a fire sale come July.

6. The match-ups in this three-game series will be Chris Young/Cole Hamels, Mike Pelfrey/Joe Blanton, and Jon Niese/Roy Halladay. How do you see the series playing out — how many will the Mets win?

Young has pitched well in spring training and healthy so far, but I don’t like how his high-ball style will play in CBP. Unless Pelfrey does an absolute about-face, things could get ugly. Niese is the one who I have the most confidence in right now, but he’s going against Doc. How many will the Mets win? Let’s just say I’ll be pleased if they get out of Philly with one victory.

. . .

Thanks again to Joe for shedding some light on the new New York Mets. Hop over to his blog Mets Today for my answers to his questions, and to keep up on Mets-related stuff throughout the season.

Phillies-Giants NLCS Preview: Q & A with Chris Quick

Four wins separate the Phillies from their third consecutive World Series appearance. The confidence of Phillies fans is at a year-long high. Roy Halladay will start Game One fresh off of holding the National League’s best offense to zero hits, and hasn’t allowed a run since the seventh inning on September 21. Cole Hamels threw a complete game shut-out of his own to wrap up a series sweep of the Reds in Game Three. The bullpen is well-rested, and the walking wounded position players have had about a week to rest. Things couldn’t have come together any better for the Phillies.

The Giants, however, are no pushovers. They may not have the same caliber offense as the Phillies, but their pitching is not to be trifled with. To get an idea exactly what to expect from the Giants, I swapped questions with Chris Quick of ESPN SweetSpot blog Bay City Ball. His answers to my questions (in bold) are found below; my answers to his questions can be found over at his blog.

. . .

1. The Phillies are well-known for their fearsome trio of Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels, plus Joe Blanton. The Giants have some great starters of their own in Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez, plus Madison Bumgarner. How do the two staffs compare in your estimation?

I think both staffs are really close in terms of talent. Halladay and Lincecum are both top flight starters in the NL. It’s hard to beat either when it comes down to it. I would probably give a very slight nod to Oswalt over Cain. Sanchez has matured a lot this year and his K-rate for a LHP is rare. Cole Hamels, however, is the better pitcher. The Giants win in the 4th spot. Blanton is incredibly consistent each year, but Madison Bumgarner has more upside and he’s equaled Blanton in WAR — 1.9 to 2 wins — in about 50 fewer innings pitched.

Overall, two very talented staffs with some great arms. I think it’s going to be a coin-flip most likely.

2. Matt Cain has made a habit of out-performing his ERA retrodictors like xFIP and SIERA. Why do you think this is?

It’s really hard to say. I think part of it is the home park (LHB have a hard time hitting home runs to their pull-field) that Cain pitches in. Sportswriters like to say that Cain has ‘figured it out’ but he’s really been the same guy that he’s always been. His control has gotten better each year over the past three years. And, for things like xFIP, for whatever reason, he rarely gives up home runs even though he’s an extreme flyball pitcher.

3. The Phillies scored, on average, about a half-run more per game than the Giants. Are Giants fans apprehensive about the offense going into this best-of-seven series against the Phillies?

I think so, even if they wouldn’t like to admit it. In the NLDS against the Braves, the Giants never really hit the ball that well and every game was decided by one run. The Giants’ pitching has been fantastic this year, but pitching against an offensive team like the Phillies has got to be stressful for the pitchers. Too many mistakes and it’s going to be hard to make up the difference. It’s a fine line to walk. But, I think if anyone can contain the Phillies — it’s the Giants’ pitching staff.

4. The Giants finished last in the National League in stolen bases. Will they be able to manufacture runs in other ways?

Do double-plays count as manufacturing runs? The Giants don’t do a lot of the ‘little things’ and I doubt they’ll start in the playoffs. The team’s penchant for hitting into double-plays might mean that Bochy starts runners more often, but that’s about it.

5. Pat Burrell is making another homecoming to Philadelphia. We loved him when he was here and he’ll get a great reception when he steps to the plate for the first time in Game One. How have Giants fans warmed up to Pat the Bat?

Yes. Burrell has been one of the more pleasant surprises of this year. He looked terrible in Tampa Bay but since returning to the NL with the Giants, he’s been one of our best hitters. His defense is still bad — as Phillies’ fans know — but his approach to hitting is extremely refreshing on a ‘hack first, ask questions later’ team.

6. The Giants were rated by UZR as the second-best defensive team in Major League Baseball. Of players with at least 300 defensive innings at one position, none had a negative grade. Do you agree with UZR? Have the Giants emphasized defense as an organizational priority?

The Giants’ UZR rating is one of the weirder things that I’ve seen, statistically, this year. The defense is a weird mix. For whatever reason, it just works. I don’t know how, it just does. Andres Torres plays the best CF in the NL but often he’s flanked by guys like Pat Burrell or (thankfully not for the NLCS) Jose Guillen. The infield is also a mixed bag. Pablo Sandoval is average-ish but his defense has been spotty this year. Juan Uribe has filled in nicely at SS, but his days a full-time starter at SS are done. The right side of Sanchez-Huff has been solid and Posey has been very good behind the plate.

Huff, in particualr, has played really good defense for a guy that has been DH’ing for a good portion of the past three years. I was skeptical of his defense before the year, but he arrived at camp noticeably in better shape and he’s made every play that’s been asked of him. The Giants seem to emphasize defense but they aren’t chained to that idea. With the inconsistent offense this year, the team has often traded defense for offense.

7. Game One will see a match-up of the two-time defending NL Cy Young award winner and the likely 2010 winner. Would you take the over or under on: 1.5 combined runs scored; 17.5 combined strikeouts; 5.5 combined hits?

I’ll say: Over/Under/Over.

. . .

Thanks to Chris for providing some Giants-related insight. Make sure to keep up with the enemy over at Bay City Ball and on Twitter (@BayCityBall).

If you’re not following me on Twitter and want to hear my oftentimes snarky, sometimes serious thoughts, follow @CrashburnAlley.

Phillies-Giants NLCS Preview: Starting Rotations

On the whole, there will not be a match-up in the playoffs more heralded than the clashing of the Phillies’ and Giants’ starting rotations. The Phillies, of course, are given the edge as they have three pitchers in the top-15 of Major League Baseball in SIERA (with at least 100 innings). The Giants are no slouches, with their four found within the top-57. Overall, the list looks like:

As with yesterday’s look at the starting eight position players, rather than repeat what I’ve already said, I’ll direct you to the NLDS pitcher preview for comments on Hallday, Oswalt, and Hamels. Here, you’ll find only commentary on Blanton and the Giants’ four.

Joe Blanton

Blanton, now an overlooked member of the Phillies’ starting rotation, has been napping biding his time for his first appearance in the post-season. He missed the first month of the season due to an oblique injury, causing the notoriously slow starter to take even more time to regain his form. From May 3 through July 9, Blanton compiled a 6.41 ERA with a 5.7 K/9. Since then, in 15 starts, his ERA was 3.33 with a K/9 of 7.9.

Blanton will start Game Four in San Francisco unless the Phillies fall behind 1-2 or 0-3. It’s a good fit since Blanton isn’t a ground ball machine, so the fly balls are much more likely to stay in the yard in San Fran. The Giants will have only one true left-handed hitter in the lineup, two if they continue to start Mike Fontenot over Pablo Sandoval. Of the handedness match-ups, right-handed batters against right-handed pitchers is the Giants’ worst, producing a paltry .704 OPS.

It seems like the conditions for Game Four are about as good as they can get for Blanton.

Tim Lincecum

Andy from the Baseball Reference blog asked if Lincecum/Halladay is the best post-season match-up of starting pitchers ever. It very well may be. Lincecum is the two-time defending National League Cy Young award winner, while Halladay is on the verge of earning his second career Cy Young award himself. The only possible pitching match-up that would be more highly anticipated would be Cliff Lee and Halladay, and more so because of Lee’s odd departure from Philadelphia last off-season.

Lincecum had a down year, relative to his previous levels of production. He finished with a 3.43 ERA and 9.8 K/9. Those numbers are career years for most pitchers, but not for Timmy. Still, he was one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball as evidenced by his absolute domination of the Atlanta Braves in Game One of the NLDS, when he struck out 14 in a complete game shut-out.

He doesn’t have the velocity on his fastball that he used to have — he maxed out at 95 MPH on only five occasions this year, according to his FanGraphs velocity chart. Despite inducing grounders in nearly one out of every two batted balls, Lincecum is allowing home runs on about ten percent of his fly balls as opposed to 5.5 percent the previous two years. Additionally, his walk rate increased by 0.5 per nine innings. All of this caused him to average 6.1 innings per start compared to seven in 2008 and ’09.

Lincecum will be tough as always, but he is much more likely to falter with the way he has pitched in 2010. It will be a peaking Halladay against the Giants’ league average offense and a struggling (relatively speaking) Lincecum against the Phillies’ second-best offense in the league.

Jonathan Sanchez

Giants manager Bruce Bochy announced that Sanchez will start Game Two in Philadelphia and Matt Cain will start Game Three in San Francisco. This is smart on Bochy’s part because Citizens Bank Park is more hitter-friendly than AT&T Park according to the park factors found on Stat Corner (over 100 favors hitters):

Sanchez induced upwards of six percent more ground balls than Cain, and he misses bats nearly two percent more often with respective K/9 rates of 9.5 and 7.1. It will be much harder to hit a home run off of Sanchez than Cain in Philadelphia.

Sanchez has a low-90’s fastball that will occasionally reach 94-95 MPH. He complements that with a tilting slider and a mediocre change-up. The only Phillies that have hit him well are Chase Utley (1.192 OPS in 18 PA) and Shane Victorino (.904 OPS in 16 PA). Overall, current Phillies have an aggregate .517 OPS against him in 133 PA. Phillies fans are likely least confident about Game Two, and it seems to be justified.

However, Sanchez has benefited from a .262 BABIP in 2010, which helps explain the difference of more than a full run between his xFIP and his ERA. Sanchez is good, but not 3.07 ERA good.

Matt Cain

As mentioned above, Cain will start Game Three in San Francisco. The environment suits his relative fly ball tendency given the spacious confines of AT&T park. It will be much harder for the Phillies’ lefty-heavy line-up to go yard against him given the ballpark’s left-handed park factor of 82.

The Phillies hit Cain well in their 92 combined PA against him — well enough for a .974 OPS, including 12 of the 23 hits allowed going for extra bases.

Cain has a traditional pitcher’s arsenal of a low-90’s fastball, backed up by a curve, slider, and change-up. He’s used all four effectively according to the pitch type linear weights on FanGraphs.

The most puzzling part of Cain is that, whether you’re a baseball traditionalist or a Saberist, his success seems almost unexplainable. He posted very low ERA’s in each of the last two seasons, but appears to be nothing more than a Joe Blanton clone. In fact, Blanton has the lower career xFIP, including a lower xFIP in each of the past two seasons. Cain’s home ballpark likely has a lot to do with his success, but the Giants have also had an above-average defense (per UZR) in each of Cain’s five full seasons. He will pitch in Game Three with both advantages, unfortunately for the Phillies.

Madison Bumgarner

It’s not official yet, but Andrew Baggarly reports:

Bochy said rookie Madison Bumgarner wasn’t definite to start Game 4, “but it’s fair to say he’s penciled in.”

That means Barry Zito is almost certain to get the eraser again. Bochy was noncommittal when asked about Zito, who was left off the division series roster, but the manager said he isn’t looking to add a 12th pitcher to the staff.

“With the days off, you don’t need a fifth starter,” Bochy said. “I don’t see any difference as far as how we’re going to set things up.”

Bumgarner struggled at times since his call-up on June 26. But in his final six starts to end the season, Bumgarner posted a 1.18 ERA with a strikeout-to-walk ratio approaching five-to-one. He also threw six effective innings in Game Four of the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, doing his part to help the Giants advance to the NLCS.

He’s not as hard to hit as Sanchez but can be equally as effective. While Sanchez strikes out more hitters, he also walks twice as many batters as Bumgarner. The Phillies, a veteran-laden group that excels at working counts, are more likely to exploit Sanchez’s lack of control than Bumgarner’s general propensity for contact.

Overall, the Phillies definitely have the advantage with starting pitching, but it’s still very close. In my Q&A with Chad Dotson of Redleg Nation, I analogized the Phillies’ and Reds’ starting rotation to Maine lobster and Alpo. Against the Giants, the analogy is Maine lobster and filet mignon.

Phillies-Reds NLDS Preview: Q&A with Chad Dotson

Philadelphia is ready to enjoy yet another year of post-season baseball. I believe it was the great philosopher Sun Tzu Zack de la Rocha, of Rage Against the Machine, who once said “Know your enemy”. What better way to know the enemy than to speak directly to him? That’s what I did with Chad Dotson of Redleg Nation, a fellow member of the ESPN Sweetspot blog network. Below are Chad’s answers to some questions I tossed his way via e-mail. If you click over to his blog, you can see my answers to his questions as well.

(Language in the clip may be NSFW)

. . .

1. Scott Rolen seemed to be on fire in the first half, but he cooled off in August and September. Are the Reds concerned? Is the lack of production due to declining health?

There is certainly reason for concern, as there is a stark difference between Rolen’s first-half and second-half numbers. Some of that diminished production is likely due to age, as Rolen has gotten a bit worn down (only once in the last six seasons has Rolen played as many games as he’s played this year). Rolen’s diminished performance since the All-Star break, however, is partially a problem of perception. In other words, Rolen hasn’t really been that bad in the second half; his OPS+ after the break is 15. The problem is that you are comparing those numbers to a fluke first half, when Rolen unexpectedly hit 17 homers on his way to posting an OPS+ of 145.

Meanwhile, his defense has been very good. Yes, there is reason for concern, but the Scott Rolen of the second half has been a pretty good player in his own right.

2. Can the Reds still win the series if the Phillies neutralize Joey Votto?

Sure, but it makes things more difficult. One of the best things about this team is that someone different has stepped up to be the hero when needed. There are lots of guys who are comfortable in the tense moments.

That said, I’m not particularly concerned about the Phillies neutralizing Votto. No one has been able to neutralize Votto all season. Since April, Votto has put up an OPS over 1000 in each month, and he has been the steadiest, most professional player I’ve ever seen. Every single day, every single at-bat, every single pitch, Joey Votto is locked in. That’s why he has been the Most Valuable Player in the National League, even though Charlie Manuel didn’t think he was an All-Star.

3. The starting pitching match-ups don’t favor the Reds, to say the least. Will Dusty Baker have a quick trigger to take out a struggling starter and go to the bullpen?

Yes, and the Reds are particularly well-suited to weather that storm. The Reds don’t have a brilliant top of the rotation like the Phils, but they have a much deeper group of starting arms to call upon than most teams. Dusty Baker is going to go with a three-man rotation in this series: Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto. That means that Travis Wood and Homer Bailey will be pitching out of the bullpen. You remember Wood; he almost spun a perfect game against your guys back in June. Both he and Bailey are capable of coming in at a moment’s notice to take the ball if a starter falters.

4. If there is one thing that the Reds and Phillies have in common, it’s that both teams have watched their closers struggle at various points throughout the season. Do you trust the bullpen to hold down a one-run lead in the eighth and ninth innings?

No…and yes. I love the guy, but I just don’t trust Francisco Cordero in those tight spots right now; as good as CoCo has been the last few years, he’s been scary this season. I do, however, trust the other guys out there: Nick Masset, Arthur Rhodes, and a guy the Phillies should be dreading — Aroldis Chapman.

Chapman should have the ball in his hands in every crucial spot, because there’s no one like him in the world. A big lefty who throws up to 105 MPH and has the most unhittable slider I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to see Ryan Howard flail at one of those sliders.

Dusty Baker has made clear that CoCo is his guy, but he has also hinted that he won’t hesitate to go elsewhere if Cordero isn’t getting the job done. I’m going to go the wishful thinking route, and hope that Dusty give Cordero a very short leash in October.

5. The Reds are neither aggressive (90 SB; NL avg. 89) nor efficient (68% success rate) in terms of stealing bases. Do you expect the Reds to be more aggressive on the base paths in the NLDS, or will they be content to play station-to-station baseball?

While the Reds haven’t been an aggressive team when it comes to stolen bases, I think you’ll find that the Reds are the most aggressive team in the league when it comes to baserunning. Cincinnati leads the league in going first-to-third, taking an extra base almost every single time there is an opportunity.

Given Dusty Baker’s small-ball tendencies, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more base-stealing in the NLDS. One run could be very important against the type of pitching of which the Phillies can boast. Drew Stubbs, in particular, is a speed-burner, and I can see Dusty giving him the green light more often than usual. On the whole, however, the Reds are already pretty aggressive on the basepaths. I don’t expect that to change.

6. Let’s say the Reds get through the Phillies and advance to the NLCS. Who would you rather face, the San Francisco Giants or Atlanta Braves?

Who cares, as long as we’re there? A more serious answer: probably Atlanta. I feel like the Reds match up better with the Braves, especially given all the important injuries Atlanta has suffered. San Francisco has some good pitching that would scare me a bit.

If Cincinnati can beat the Phillies, however, I’ll be on cloud nine and probably won’t care who the next opponent is.

. . .

Thanks to Chad for taking the time to provide his insight into the NLDS. Be sure to click over to Redleg Nation to check out my replies to his queries.

There’s nothing quite like post-season baseball, and for the first time perhaps ever, the Phillies are prohibitive favorites to win it all. It starts today and who better to get the ball rolling than Roy Halladay?