Radical Pitcher-Usage Theory

The title is exaggerating, but in the discussion that ensued on my finger-wagging article about the misuse of Cole Hamels, reader and commenter Pete got the hamster wheel a-spinnin’. If you haven’t read the article, click here, or perhaps the following synopsis will suffice.

My argument was that Charlie Manuel was wrong to use Hamels with an eight-run lead going into the eighth inning, when the Phillies had a 99.7 percent chance to win. Many counter-arguments were made in the comments, such as that there was a double-header coming up where the bullpen would presumably be needed (the bullpen pitched a combined five innings in both games), or that Hamels needed to be “conditioned to throw more pitches”.

In reality, though, there is no counter-argument to the claim that using Hamels in that situation was unnecessary (sparing the obvious semantic debate about the definition of “necessary”). With two innings of regulation left and an eight-run lead, to abstain from using the bullpen implies that they were worse than a 36.00 ERA pitcher. I’m not exactly confident in David Herndon, but I trust him and his bullpen compatriots to not allow eight runs in two innings.

In the comments, Pete wrote:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems you are a step away from advocating for having pitchers pitch towards a certain expected win percentage? What percentage would that be? 99%? 95%? X%? Any way you fixed it, it would be a minor revolution in the game if managers started following this line of thinking (and probably the last straw for those people who already hate pitch counts and pitching towards anything other than a win). I can imagine a scenario where the Phillies score 10 runs in the top of the 1st inning and a newly Baer-schooled Charlie Manuel doesn’t send Hamels out to pitch the bottom of the 1st. I am imagining also that Charlie’s decision would be a misinterpretation of the Baer rule, but we better start preparing now to see Charlie muck it up.

I like that way of thinking. Not so static, but the overall principle makes a lot of sense. Contract stipulations (money, years, incentives, etc.) should — and do — play a huge role in player usage; this is one such case. Hamels has one more year of arbitration before he is eligible for free agency, and the Phillies will want to lock up a player of his caliber before he is able to test the open market. As much as it may pain the traditionalists, Hamels should absolutely be pampered, as should anyone else to whom the Phillies do or could owe a lot of money over many years (e.g. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, etc.). Protecting investments is one big factor in the current and continued success of a franchise.

As for specifics on when to yank a starter, it should be a case-by-case decision. The manager will need to assess a lot of details. By how many runs does my team lead? What inning is it? Do I trust my bullpen? Which relievers will I use? What are the long-term effects of employing this strategy? (e.g. does my bullpen need more time to recover?) How many runs can I expect my team to tack on before the end of the game?

As an example, according to Tom Tango’s “The Book”, the home team has a 16.7 percent chance to win if it is behind four runs entering the top of the second inning. The road manager should expect his team to score more runs, making things worse for the home team. After all, the average National League team averages 4.1 runs per nine innings, and even the worst team in the league averages 3.3 runs per nine.

The biggest problem here is the uncertainty. With the thousands of innings of data we have from the current season, we can make fairly accurate assessments about what to expect in the big picture. Unfortunately, in the span of eight innings, our ability to make correct predictions drops precipitously. In a vacuum, where average players play on average teams and they face similarly average players on similarly average teams, we can improve our odds, but since — as the traditionalists will tell you — baseball is not played in a vacuum, those eight innings are highly prone to all of the variables that makes it such a great sport. Temperature, wind, strength of the opponent, the lineups that are being employed, the opposing pitchers, etc.

In that first inning scenario, I am much more confident pulling Homer Bailey of the Cincinnati Reds since they are more likely to tack on more runs (4.9 per game) than the Atlanta Braves (3.3). I am much more confident pulling Hamels if I am playing the Houston Astros (allow 5.0 runs per game) than if I am playing the Braves (allow 3.3). If it is cold and the wind is blowing in, I would expect to score fewer runs, so I would be hesitant to pull my starter again. If my bullpen is bad like the Los Angeles Dodgers (4.84 ERA), I would lean on my starters, but if my bullpen is great like the San Diego Padres (2.44 ERA), I would be quicker to make a call to the ‘pen. Those are just the broad strokes; we haven’t even gotten into the specifics, such as pitcher batted ball splits, or batter/pitcher platoon match-ups.

So, you can see the initial problems with this practical use of starting and relief pitching. Many situations will not be as cut-and-dried as the Hamels situation, where you have just 0.3 percent left to ensure a victory. However, this would be a gigantic step in the right direction. It would, undoubtedly, reduce the number of superfluous injuries that occur to pitchers throughout the course of the season.

Maybe Hamels doesn’t finish off the last two innings of that game, but he also doesn’t leave the game with a back injury. If the injury had been more serious, he lands on the disabled list and the Phillies have to rely more on Kyle Kendrick, as well as Vance Worley. A rotation of Halladay/Lee/Oswalt/Hamels/Kendrick leads to fewer losses than Halladay/Lee/Oswalt/Kendrick/Worley. Theoretically, being highly risk-averse leads to more wins. With players to whom you are paying many millions of dollars over the course of many years, more wins over many years means a more successful franchise, happier fans, and increased revenue.

In summation, the above was a long way of saying, “Don’t use your starting pitching superfluously, especially if they’re important.” Want to run Kendrick out there with an eight-run lead in the eighth inning? Knock yourself out. But Hamels, or Halladay, or Lee? Protect them! The implementation doesn’t have to be nearly as scientific as I have described it; all that is required is a broad recognition of your team’s chances to win the current game, the side-effects of your decisions on games in the immediate future, and the overall health of your team in the big picture. Yes, it’s so easy, even a Charlie Manuel could do it.

Raul Failbanez (Alternate Title: .gifs!)

Yesterday was a good day for the Phillies. They swept both games of a day-night doubleheader against the Florida Marlins, which included a dramatic comeback in the ninth inning of the nightcap. To break up the run of super-serious analytic posts recently, enjoy some lol-worthy .gifs from Raul Ibanez and Ryan Howard.

Warning: lots of .gifs after the jump. If you’re on a slow computer, it may explode.

Continue reading…

Hamels Scare Should Provide A Lesson

I don’t brag about being right often; I prefer to let words speak for themselves. But I want to bring up the topic of unnecessary overuse of the starting pitching again to reinforce a point, because it’s very important* — at least, I think it is. Several times this year, Charlie Manuel has been criticized on this blog for some questionable decisions regarding the pitching staff. He redeemed himself recently, but I once again took umbrage with a Manuel decision during last night’s game against the Florida Marlins.

* Important inasmuch as anything about baseball can be deemed important.

The start of the game was delayed an hour and 15 minutes due to rain, meaning starters Cole Hamels and Chris Volstad had to make sure they stayed loose enough to take the mound later than they expected. Hamels was brilliant, holding the Marlins to one run and three hits through seven innings. Of the 99 pitches he threw, 17 of them caused batters to swing and miss (17 percent, a season-high), according to Brooks Baseball. Overall, he struck out six and walked one, while lowering his ERA to 2.49 and earning his ninth victory of the season.

Along with Hamels’ stellar performance came a surge of offense. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Domonic Brown combined for five home runs. The Phillies scored in every inning except the second and eighth. After the seventh, the Phillies were up 9-1. FanGraphs gave them a 0.3 percent chance to lose the game. The game was so over that the Marlins hadn’t faced a situation with a leverage index greater than 0.65 since the top of the fourth inning, when Logan Morrison led off with the score at 4-1.

Situations like that — eighth inning, up by eight runs — are why you have David Herndon on your roster. It is the typical spot for a mop-up reliever. In fact, if the Phillies had a slightly larger lead, using an infielder to pitch (ahem, Wilson Valdez) would have been justified.

A few weeks ago, I joined Spike Eskin and Chris Johnson on “What’s the Word?” on Phillies 24/7 HD radio. (You can listen to the entire segment here.) At the time, I had written two consecutive articles criticizing Manuel, so that was the basis of much of the discussion that morning. They asked for my thoughts on the risk-reward of pulling a pitcher too soon, to which I said, “I think you always err on the side of safety.”

Manuel did not err on the side of safety last night, as he sent Hamels back out to the mound for the eighth inning, to cinch that last 0.3 percent. On most nights, Hamels gets through the inning with little effort, and I look like a grouch on Twitter for whining about it. Unfortunately, the lack of caution last night came back to bite the Phillies. After walking Wes Helms to lead off the eighth, Hamels conferred with catcher Carlos Ruiz, then left the game with what would later be diagnosed as tightness in the middle of his back.

The good news is that Hamels is confident that he will make his next start — it is not a serious injury. It easily could have been, though, and it is a lesson to be learned for Manuel and anyone out there in the “rub some dirt on it” crowd. There is no reason to take unnecessary risks in mid-June with a division lead, and certainly not in the eighth inning of a game in which your team leads by eight runs.

Andrew Carnegie once said, “The wise man puts all his eggs in one basket and watches the basket.” The Phillies, who are paying a combined $67 million to their Opening Day starting rotation (40 percent of the team’s payroll), would be wise to watch their basket closely.

Hamels photo courtesy Ted Berg’s amazing “Embarrassing photos of Cole Hamels” gallery.

Josh Willingham: Proceed With Caution

The following is a guest post from Jeff Barnes. I consider him a must-follow on Twitter.

Ever since Jayson Werth took his talents to D.C., the Phillies have been rumored to be interested in a host of right-handed outfielders.   From offseason rumors of Michael Morse, Manny Ramirez, Magglio Ordonez and (my favorite) Jeff Francoeur, there was no shortage of possible fill-ins for the bearded one.  The Phillies ultimately decided those options were tempting enough, and decided to stay inhouse with Ben Francisco and Domonic Brown.

Now we are 66 games into the 2011 season, and the Phils rank 7th in the NL in runs scored.  Their outfield production looks like this:

Given this production (excluding Shane Victorino), it’s no surprise the Phillies are rumored to be back in the market for an outfielder.  According to this tweet from Buster Olney, the new target is Josh Willingham of the Oakland A’s.  Ruben Amaro should absolutely go get Willingham on one condition, Charlie Manuel passes a “how to use Willingham” test.

Its been mentioned in this blog as well as others, how much proper usage impacts a players value.  J.C. Romero has all the ability to be a perfectly fine LOOGY out of the Phillies pen, but by facing right-handed batters too often (45 RH Batters faced vs 27 LH), he has become the source of a ton of fan frustration.  The same risk applies with Willingham.

With Shane Victorino firmly entrenched in center, Raul and his 11.5 million dollar contract in left, the fear is Willingham’s at-bats will come at the expense of Domonic Brown.  This is concerning for a few reasons.  For starters, Dom’s development is possibly the Phillies best hope at improving their offense.  Allowing him to get 500 PAs this year, could turn the former #1 in all of baseball prospect into a huge weapon come October.

The second, and more urgent issue is outfield defense.   Willingham is undoubtedly a good hitter, as his career .833 OPS suggests.  He is unfortunately not quite as gifted with the glove.  There are varying opinion about advanced defensive stats, but whether you use them or prefer the ol’ eyeball test, there is little debate he’s a below average fielder.

Willingham’s UZR (theoretical runs above or below an average fielder) has been -5.7, -1.9, -4.0 the last three years.  The -4.0 this year is admittedly a small sample size, but its still not a great sign.  Even worse, this negative opinion on his defense has formed while Josh spent his whole career in left field.  One can only imagine the fielding would get worse moving to the more difficult right field.

To complicate the issue, the Phillies already employ one of the worst defensive left fielders in the league.  Running Willingham-Victorino-Ibanez out there may be enough for Roy Halladay to demand a trade back to Toronto.  This is simply not a sustainable defensive team, even with the Phab Four’s excellent ground ball rate.

Brought in as a platoon partner for Raul, and a power bat off the bench, Willingham could provide good value over the next 100 games and hopefully 3 playoff series.  Using him as the new RF at the expense of Domonic Brown’s development and our pitcher’s sanity, and Willingham is a stone better left unturned.  So go ahead Ruben, make the call, right after Charlie tells you what he’d do with him.

Time to Give Roy Oswalt a Breather

Something’s wrong with Roy Oswalt. Everyone can see it, including those in both the traditional and Sabermetric crowds. Ever since he took a short leave of absence in late April (which was followed by a stint on the 15-day disabled list), Oswalt has not been the same. In his five starts prior to leaving, he had a 7.0 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, and induced swings-and-misses at a nine percent rate. In his five starts after returning, he had a 3.7 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, and induced swings-and-misses at a six percent rate.

The velocity on Oswalt’s fastball declined precipitously as well, even prior to his short time away from the team. Take a look at this chart from FanGraphs (click to enlarge).

Aside from the fastball, Oswalt’s other pitches are slower across the board as well. His average slider is down 0.7 MPH from last year; the curve is down 2.7 MPH; and the change-up is down 0.9 MPH.

Despite the discouraging trends, Oswalt was getting results. Going into yesterday’s game against the Chicago Cubs, Oswalt had a 3.05 ERA, tied for 21st in baseball among pitchers with 50 or more innings pitched. Meanwhile, his SIERA was less enthusiastic, at 4.27, good for 77th in baseball.

The disparity between performance and results continued in Oswalts’ start yesterday. While his fastball barely topped 90 MPH, Oswalt worked around three first-inning runs, shutting the Cubs out in the subsequent six innings. Between the second and fifth innings, Oswalt did not strike out a batter, adding to the concern. In the final two innings, Oswalt got four of his six outs on strikeouts, but that is hardly sustainable and nor does it make up for the overall lack of strikeouts over the past six weeks.

Oswalt needed time to deal with back problems in late April and throughout the second-half of the 2009 season as well. It is possible that his back is still bothering him, and it could be causing him to overcompensate in other areas. It could be a completely new injury, or the return of another chronic injury. Whatever the case, the continued use of Oswalt puts him at a much higher risk of serious injury.

It is in the team’s best interest to give Oswalt some time off. That would mean Kyle Kendrick stays in the rotation and Vance Worley returns, but the Phillies cannot afford to lose Oswalt to a serious injury later in the season when he could be a vital key to post-season berth. Should the Phillies reach the promised land, Oswalt would give the Phillies additional firepower in the playoffs.

Bullpen Management

Every year, I seem to pick up a pet cause. In 2009, it was Cole Hamels; last year, it was Ryan Madson. This year, that cause is bullpen management. I’ve made no secret that I think Charlie Manuel‘s bullpen management leaves a lot to be desired. In particular, I’ve stressed that J.C. Romero needs to be used exclusively against left-handed hitters as there is such a disparity in performance depending on the handedness of the batter. Additionally, I have been critical of Manuel’s willingness to leave his starters in the game unnecessarily (particularly Roy Halladay).

The last two days have seen some bullpen meltdowns, both literally and figuratively. If you recall, a “meltdown” is a statistic that goes hand-in-hand with a “shutdown”, measuring the effect a reliever had on his team’s chances to win the game. From FanGraphs:

In short, if a player increased his team’s win probability by 6% (0.06 WPA), then they get a Shutdown. If a player made his team 6% more likely to lose (-0.06), they get a Meltdown.

The Phillies entered tonight’s game with the second-fewest meltdowns in baseball with 18, trailing the Cleveland Indians by two. They also had the ninth-most shutdowns with 54. On the whole, the bullpen had been doing a great job in the relatively few innings required of them thanks to the impressive starting rotation.

The last two games, however, have been a different story. After Kyle Kendrick was removed from the game following a rain delay, the Phillies bullpen slowly brought the game back to the Cubs. Eventually, the Cubs would tie the game at 3-3 on a Geovany Soto ninth-inning home run against Ryan Madson. They very nearly took the lead when Tyler Colvin hit a fly ball to right field that was touched by a fan. Initially, it was ruled a home run but was overturned upon video review. David Herndon allowed the fourth and game-winning run in the 11th when Placido Polanco made a poor throw to first base. Herndon and Madson earned meltdowns with -.172 and -.208 WPA, respectively.

Tonight, the Phillies staked Roy Halladay to a 7-0 lead and it looked like smooth sailing going into the eighth. Manuel removed Halladay for pinch-hitter Ben Francisco, figuring his bullpen was adequate for the job. The combination of a not-quite-right Jose Contreras and J.C. Romero (who faced two right-handed hitters) allowed five runs in the eighth inning and were lucky that was the extent of the damage. Michael Stutes came in to get two outs in the eighth and two outs in the ninth before Bastardo finished the game with a strikeout.

In the last two games, the bullpen has pitched ten innings and allowed nine runs. Yet, despite the results, I was mostly pleased with Manuel’s bullpen management. Let’s take a look at the specifics:

Thursday

– Used Danys Baez after the rain delay. Conservative; smart. Asking Kendrick to go back out after a 77-minute rain delay would have been completely unnecessary.

– Used Romero (LH) to face Carlos Pena (LH) in the sixth inning with a runner on second base and two outs in a 3-1 game. This is how you use Romero properly.

– Used Stutes to pitch the seventh inning. Nothing wrong with that.

– Used Bastardo to pitch to the left-handed pinch-hitter Brad Snyder. Cubs manager Mike Quade countered with right-handed pinch-hitter Lou Montanez. Nothing you can do about that, since the manager of the batting team gets the last “move”. Besides, Bastardo is somewhat good against right-handed hitters, unlike Romero. Manuel left Bastardo in to start the eighth inning against Kosuke Fukudome. Smart.

– Used Contreras to finish out the eighth, as three of the Cubs’ next four hitters were right-handed. Unfortunately, Contreras didn’t have his best stuff and allowed a run on two consecutive two-out doubles.

– Used Madson in the ninth. It sucks that he allowed the tying run and almost allowed the go-ahead run, but Madson had been lights out up to this point. Absolutely nothing to complain about here.

– Used Herndon, his last reliever in the bullpen, to pitch the 10th and 11th innings. You manage the game assuming regulation. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have additional depth going into extra innings, but if you manage in anticipation of going extra innings, you will unnecessarily lose more games in regulation. This is essentially what I was asking for when I criticized Manuel earlier in the season when Madson was left sitting on the bench against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Friday

– Took Halladay out after seven innings and 107 pitches. Smart move. No need to leave Halladay in there with such a high pitch count in a game that the Phillies were 95% to win. To leave Halladay in there would imply that the Phillies’ bullpen has the collective skill level of a 31.50 ERA pitcher (seven runs in two innings) or worse. I will take selective match-ups in the final two innings than Halladay after 107 pitches, with all due respect.

– Used Contreras to start the eighth inning. Again, he didn’t look sharp. Fortunately, it was a low-leverage situation — he started the inning with a 0.06 leverage index — so he had room to work through his struggles. He faced five batters, four of them reached base on two walks and two hits; two of them scored.

– Manuel went to Romero to face Blake DeWitt (LH). Romero walked DeWitt. That should have been the end of his night right there, as the Cubs had the right-handed Geovany Soto (career .407 wOBA vs. LHP) due up. The Cubs had the bases loaded and one out, and were clearly not going to pinch-hit for Soto. Perfect opportunity to use Michael Stutes. However, Romero stayed out there and promptly allowed an RBI single. Quade pinch-hit for Tyler Colvin (LH) with Montanez (RH), who sliced a two-run single to right field, bringing the score to 7-5.

– Finally, Stutes was brought in and the game was calmed down. He recorded the next four outs. Bastardo (LH) was brought in to face Pena (LH) and struck him out to end the game.

Overall, the bullpen was managed optimally by Manuel. The only hiccup was leaving Romero in the game against Soto. It is unfortunate that Manuel’s good decision-making was punished, as it may deter him from making these decisions as often in the future. Despite the results, I was encouraged as it shows an evolution in Manuel’s managing style. Of course, it could also be completely random, but I’m betting on someone — maybe even Charlie himself — influencing his bullpen management.

Phillies Just Aren’t Clutch!

Last night’s extra-innings loss to the Chicago Cubs was about as frustrating as they come. The offense once again did not contribute — a Raul Ibanez hit in the 10th inning was the team’s first since the fourth inning — while the bullpen finally had a meltdown. Adding to the frustration was a rain delay lasting longer than an hour and the prospect of having to use another position player on the mound as the Phillies were ill-prepared for a long extra-innings game. At the Good Phight, FuquaManuel recaps the game about as well as one can expect after that sordid affair.

While tweeting during the game, I came across an interesting stat on Baseball Reference. Also depressing, but interesting.

Coming into tonight, the Phillies had managed just a .452 OPS in extra innings, worst in the NL. League average is .701.

With two walks and two singles in the 10th and 11th innings last night, the Phillies actually raised that OPS all the way up to .473, still last in the league.

Team G PA BA OBP SLG OPS
LAD 5 46 .417 .512 .667 1.178
HOU 2 16 .333 .500 .583 1.083
WSN 10 82 .304 .380 .565 .945
CIN 7 87 .260 .372 .425 .797
NYM 5 49 .279 .354 .395 .750
ARI 7 68 .298 .385 .351 .735
ATL 13 110 .266 .355 .362 .717
MIL 6 50 .179 .292 .410 .702
SFG 10 84 .257 .329 .338 .667
SDP 10 83 .217 .341 .304 .646
PIT 5 51 .222 .300 .333 .633
STL 9 70 .161 .319 .304 .622
FLA 11 72 .265 .292 .309 .600
CHC 4 21 .150 .190 .350 .540
COL 4 58 .173 .246 .250 .496
PHI 6 94 .171 .242 .232 .473

* Phillies stats updated for last night’s game; other teams were not updated.

The Phillies also rank last in the league in OPS in situations deemed “late and close”. They have a .573 OPS, well under the league average .693 and still well behind the 15th-place Washington Nationals at .627.

In tie games, the Phillies have posted a .634 OPS, which ranks 15th out of 16 in the NL, under the .710 league average.

They are great front-runners: when they are ahead, they have the league’s best OPS at .770, more than 70 points higher than the .699 league average. When they’re behind, they leave no hope as their .645 OPS is 14th out of 16.

While the stats would indicate to a layperson that the Phillies aren’t clutch, the real problem lies with the personnel. As mentioned several times here on the blog, Ryan Howard is the team’s only legitimate power hitter left now that Jayson Werth is gone and Chase Utley is on the mend from patellar tendinitis. Few players have a significant on-base skill, such as hitting for a high average or drawing a lot of walks. Most of the players are slow; Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino have accounted for more than half of the team’s stolen bases just by themselves.

The goal in baseball, in terms of offense, is to get on base and to advance around the bases as efficiently as possible. In the past, the Phillies had the personnel to do this. In 2007, when the Phillies paced the National League with 892 runs scored, four of eight regulars had an on-base percentage at .370 or higher. Five of them had a slugging percentage at .500 or higher. The Phillies’ current on-base percentage leaders are Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz at .362 and .361, respectively. The slugging percentage leaders are Ryan Howard at .479 and Shane Victorino at .472.

If the Phillies want to start scoring runs again, they need to make personnel changes. Whether that involves making a call to Lehigh Valley or making a trade for a bat remains to be seen. We do know, however, that if the Phillies stand pat, they will continue to struggle to score runs. They are currently on pace to score 640 runs. With the great starting rotation, that may just be enough, but it’s a risky proposition.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

Last night, Cole Hamels pitched brilliantly against the Los Angeles Dodgers, tossing eight shut-out innings while striking out nine and not issuing a single walk. He earned a game score of 79, something he has done only 15 times in his 162 career starts (9.25%). Hamels’ brilliant season continues; his 2.72 SIERA is .05 behind the MLB lead in SIERA, trailing Roy Halladay (2.68) and Cliff Lee (2.71).

Prior to the season, many wondered if Hamels could repeat or even improve on his great 2010 season. It’s very hard to improve on a 3.06 ERA with a 9.1 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9, but Hamels has done it. His strikeout rate is at the same level, but he has drastically decreased his walk rate (1.8) and is inducing even more ground balls (52 percent) thanks to his cut fastball.

Hamels is for real, and he is one of a triumvirate of potential Cy Young candidates in Philadelphia. Thus, it is no surprise that the Phillies are near or at the top of every major pitching category:

  • K/9: 8.3 (leads MLB)
  • BB/9: 1.9 (leads MLB)
  • K/BB: 2.8 (leads MLB)
  • HR/9: 0.65 (4th in MLB)
  • GB%: 49.5% (3rd in MLB)
  • HR/FB: 7.8% (8th in MLB)
  • FIP: 2.77 (leads MLB)
  • xFIP: 2.88 (leads MLB)

Starts like last night’s — eight innings, one or fewer runs allowed — have been commonplace for the Phillies. They have tossed nine of them thus far, the second-highest total in the Majors. Hamels is responsible for five of them, while Halladay and Lee have two apiece.

Here’s a look at the team totals for such starts.

Only five pitchers have accumulated four or more such starts: Hamels and Kyle Lohse with five; and Jaime Garcia, Ian Kennedy, and James Shields with four apiece. Unlike Lohse, Hamels isn’t getting by with luck (.268 BABIP is only 16 points below his career average); he is consistently dominating hitters start after start.

Hamels hasn’t been included in the same conversation as Halladay and Lee, but with his performance to date, it may be time to recognize him as an elite pitcher. He is arguably the best left-handed starter in baseball, and one very critical piece of the Phillies’ elite starting rotation.

Update: Lots of commentary on Hamels today, so here are some links:

Drew Fairservice, Getting Blanked: Cole Hamels Stands in the Shadow of No Man

It’s weird to think of a former World Series MVP as overlooked or underrated, yet Hamels operates in the shadow of his high profile teammates. On the field, Hamels lets his incredible play speak for him. Off the field, his great love of glamorous photo shoots take him places his cutter never could. It’s the price of being handsome, I suppose. And what a toll it takes.

Dave Cameron, FanGraphs: Which NL Southpaw is Greatest?

I don’t think I can do it, honestly. Lee or Hamels, the hairs are too thin to split. I don’t know that I can declare that either is better than the other. The only thing we can say is that the Phillies probably have the best left-handed pitcher in the National League – it’s just impossible to say who it is.

David Golebiewski, RotoGraphs: Cole Hamels Staying Grounded

Hamels is getting many more grounders with his fastball this year, while also boosting his ground ball rate on cutters and curveballs thrown. His changeup already got a lot of grounders and has continued to do so in 2011. Hitters are putting the ball in the air less often against Hamels, which has helped the 27-year-old decrease his slugging percentage on contact nearly across the board.

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.

Ryan Madson and the Free Agent Closer Class of 2011-12

Please give a warm welcome to a new writer for Crashburn Alley, Paul Boye. Paul has written for Phillies Nation, worked as a video scout for Baseball Info Solutions, and spent time in the player development and video departments of a Major League team. You can follow him on Twitter @Phrontiersman and from now on will be able to get his highly-respected thoughts on the Phillies right here.

— Bill Baer

The emergence of Ryan Madson as a near-elite reliever has been both a welcome surprise and a key component of the Phillies’ recent success. You’re no stranger to this site singing the praises of Madson, and for good reason.

But with Mad Dog’s impending free agency looming, and the price tag elephant in the room seemingly growing larger with every multi-strikeout save, it’s worth wondering just where Madson fits in with some of the other top relievers set to be free agents this winter.

Among those relievers are names like Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton, Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Rodriguez, four hurlers who have spent the bulk of the last three seasons in the ninth inning. For better of for worse, these guys will all be signed to close games and earn saves, just as Madson seems primed to be.

Just as with Jayson Werth last season, speculation and curiosity abounds as to just how much Madson stands to make on the open market. It’s all but guaranteed he won’t be signing an extension this summer – credit that to Scott Boras or whomever you like – and any sort of hometown discount also seems unlikely at this point.

Bad news for Phils fans, but (potentially) great news for Madson. What’s more, Madson’s numbers since the start of the 2009 season match up quite favorably with the top names of the impending free agent class: the aforementioned Bell, Broxton, Papelbon and K-Rod. Just how favorably may even surprise you.

To put it visually, here are some abridged leaderboards. These are leaders among those who have relieved in at least 80 percent of their appearances since the start of 2009 with at least 120 innings pitched.

Strikeouts/9 IP

3. Broxton – 11.74
10. Papelbon – 10.51
13. Bell – 10.10
14. Rodriguez – 9.99
16. Madson – 9.90

Walks/9 IP

18. Madson – 2.48
41. Papelbon – 3.19
43. Bell – 3.26
75. Broxton – 3.93
t-86. Rodriguez – 4.24

Strikeout/Walk Ratio

8. Madson – 4.00
17. Papelbon – 3.30
21. Bell – 3.10
25. Broxton – 2.98
49. Rodriguez – 2.36

If you subtract intentional walks, Madson’s ration becomes even more impressive, and improves by a lot more than the others.

Strikeout/uIBB Ratio

Madson – 5.21 (+1.21)
Papelbon – 3.69 (+0.39)
Broxton – 3.40 (+0.42)
Bell – 3.32 (+0.22)
Rodriguez – 2.87 (+0.51)

And, finally, WAR (B-R)

5. Bell – 5.6
9. Papelbon – 4.4
13. Madson – 4.2
t-26. Rodriguez – 3.2
t-65. Broxton – 1.4

Madson’s early-season run of dominance has put him on the map, but this has been going on for a while now. Madson’s recent performance has put him in prime position to make a big wad of money in the coming years – especially with the reliever contracts doled out in recent years – but whether that money will come from the Phillies’ pockets remains to be seen.