About Last Night…

So, just about everybody will have you covered with what went on last night, and I don’t have too much to add. The Nationals’ six-run ninth inning was one part Ryan Madson getting unlucky and one part Madson pitching poorly. (All right, maybe a dash of credit to the Nats for rallying in the first place.) Based on the reactions I saw on Twitter, there was a lot of knee-jerking, so I just want all of Philadelphia to know I have a rolled-up newspaper and I’m not afraid to hit you with it if you get out of line.

Remember: crashburnalley.com/2011/07/25/phillies-pitching-dominant-including-the-bullpen/

Take the loss in stride, like Chase Utley.

Is J-Roll Losing A Step?

Jimmy Rollins has often been a target for criticism throughout his Phillies career. Early in his career, he was a bit schizophrenic, resulting in fans referring to him as “Good Jimmy” when he was mechanically sound and “Bad Jimmy” when he was completely off-kilter. More recently, fans grew agitated when he would swing at the first pitch, calling him “First Pitch Jimmy” derisively. One area that has never been a reason for concern is his base running.

From 2001-10, Rollins has stolen 340 bases in 410 attempts, good for a success rate at 83 percent. Only six other players have stolen 300 bases dating back to 2001; none of them have a better success rate.

Player SB CS SB% From To Age Team
Juan Pierre 520 167 76% 2001 2010 23-32 COL-FLA-CHC-LAD-CHW
Carl Crawford 409 90 82% 2002 2010 20-28 TBD-TBR
Ichiro Suzuki 383 88 81% 2001 2010 27-36 SEA
Jimmy Rollins 340 70 83% 2001 2010 22-31 PHI
Jose Reyes 331 85 80% 2003 2010 20-27 NYM
Chone Figgins 322 111 74% 2002 2010 24-32 ANA-LAA-SEA
Scott Podsednik 301 102 75% 2001 2010 25-34 SEA-MIL-CHW-COL
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/19/2011.

While many have rightfully given credit to Davey Lopes for the Phillies’ overall base running excellence as of late, Rollins has always been aggressive and efficient. From 2001-06, before the Lopes era, Rollins stole 30 or more bases in five of six seasons with an aggregate stolen base success rate at 80 percent. However, from 2007-10, Rollins stole 30-plus bases in three of four seasons (the other season was injury-shortened) with a success rate at 88 percent.

Lopes left the Phillies for the smoggier atmosphere of Los Angeles before the 2011 season, but Rollins didn’t seem to be affected. From the start of the season to July 24, Rollins had stolen 21 bases in 23 attempts (91 percent). Not only did Rollins not need Lopes, he had also put to rest any questions pertaining to lingering injuries — calf and thigh injuries ruined his 2010 season. Since July 24, however, Rollins has only stolen seven bases in 12 attempts (58 percent). Most of the time he has been caught recently, such as one on August 17 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he was out by a mile.

While, at least in the .gif above, credit should be given to catcher Henry Blanco on a great throw, Rollins never gets thrown out that badly. That, along with his overall recent woes on the base paths as of late, makes me wonder if J-Roll is losing a step. He is, after all, 32 years old, his prime drifting out of sight in the rear view mirror.

At the same time, Rollins still looks fine at the plate (.743 OPS since July 25) and has been playing nothing short of stellar defense at shortstop. If he was injured, particularly experiencing a re-aggravation of the calf or thigh injuries from last year, then we would see him slip in other areas, but that has not been the case. It’s certainly not the absence of Lopes, as Rollins was just as good without him in the first three and a half months.

Everyone is aware of J-Roll’s contract situation: he is eligible for free agency after the season, ostensibly his last chance for a lucrative multi-year contract. Negotiations between Rollins and the Phillies have been few and far between. If the Phillies were wary of his durability, Rollins has passed every test with flying colors. However, if it is true that Rollins has simply “lost a step”, it is a legitimate reason for concern — players don’t recapture those lost steps, after all. J-Roll has the final six weeks of the regular season and the post-season to assuage our concerns; otherwise, a wrench will be thrown into the free agent market for shortstops.

More 9th Inning Shenanigans

Superficially, it’s difficult to get upset about the Phillies’ 3-2 loss to the Diamondbacks last night. Actually, it’s difficult to get upset about any one game at all these days. The regular season is far from over, and more than a few people probably won’t appreciate me saying this, but these final weeks feel like elaborate dress rehearsals for the playoffs. There is some fine tuning to do, some roster moves to be made, some valuable reps to be had, but, at least per Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds, the Phillies have a one hundred percent chance to play in October. Not one time, in the thousands of their simulations, did the digital Phillies fall out of the race. Even once the playoffs arrive, for all the hair-pulling, hand-wringing, and second-guessing that will occur, the Phillies are essentially throwing the best roster in the league at a swirling cyclone of small sample variance and unpredictable machinations and hoping that they’re spit out on the other side as World Champions. They may instead be torn apart and ejected in pieces, but that’s no more ignominious than a house laid to waste by tornado — the ones that survive aren’t necessarily the most well-built.

Still, there are plenty of things you can do in the playoffs to nudge the percentages in your favor, and that is what makes last night’s loss, on more careful inspection, particularly hard to stomach. Because if the personnel management we witnessed makes an encore appearance in the playoffs, the Phillies will be handicapping themselves needlessly and inexplicably.

Charlie Manuel’s decision to leave Halladay in to start the 9th inning, with the Phillies leading the Diamondbacks 2-1, is not one that I care to question. Per win expectancy, the Phillies were 84% likely to win the game, and it goes without saying that Roy Halladay is a master of his craft at 20 pitches or 100. Not having anyone warming up to start the inning, though, suggests a lack of foresight. Even after he surrendered back-to-back singles to Justin Upton and Miguel Montero, I find it hard to argue with leaving Halladay in. With runners at 1st and 2nd and nobody out, the most desirable outcomes for the team on the field are strikeouts and ground balls, and this year Halladay has achieved those with a collective 60% of the batters he has faced. His opponent in this instance, Lyle Overbay, had done one of those two things in 52% of his plate appearances. But hey, sometimes the batless fleck of roster garbage stumbles upon success. That’s baseball. Charlie Manuel can’t defend against that.

The truly inexcusable decision came next. With the lead surrendered, and Halladay sitting on 110 pitches, Manuel made no move; he elected to let Roy pitch the rest of the inning. They weren’t easy pitches to make, either. With a runner on third and one out, he was lucky enough to retire Sean Burroughs on two pitches, but, after an intentional walk to Gerardo Parra, labored through six pitches to get Paul Goldschmidt on a strikeout. That may not seem like a lot, but they were completely unnecessary. There is just no justification, with the entire bullpen on two days of rest, to make him finish that inning. Manuel had no idea how many more batters the Diamondbacks would send to the plate, and it begs the question of how long he would have let Halladay persist, had the Phillies been less fortunate. Bill has written about similar instances quite a few times before, to very mixed responses. The debate rolls endlessly on (and, for the record, I side perpetually with risk aversion), but there must be a certain threshold at which all of us agree that common sense points to one obvious move. What hidden benefit could the Phillies gain by leaving Halladay in after Overbay’s double? What possible justification exists for it?

What occurred in the bottom of that inning was arguably worse. The Phillies were down one run with Carlos Ruiz, Michael Martinez, and then the pitcher’s spot due to bat. At this point, they had John Mayberry Jr., Ben Francisco, Ross Gload, Wilson Valdez, and Brian Schneider available on the bench. Per wOBA, the only player of this bunch with an above average bat is Mayberry. In fact, Mayberry is 17% above average, and an extra-base machine — over half of his hits, both this year and in his career, get him to second base or further. So at least to me, mere blogger that I am, the best strategy seems obvious: hope that Carlos Ruiz gets on base, as he had at a respectable .357 clip entering the game in question. Pinch hit the power threat Mayberry for the glove-only Michael Martinez, who had compiled a laughable .255 wOBA up to this point. Hope that Mayberry produces yet another extra-base knock, and then send Ben Francisco to the plate, who, maligned as he has been this season, has still managed a .304 wOBA, and would be the best of the remaining options. You could also have elected to pinch run Wilson Valdez for Carlos Ruiz prior to the Mayberry at-bat, and, should extra-innings have ensued, placed him at third and brought in Schneider behind the dish. You can quibble over the details, but I think that would have been a perfectly reasonable protocol to give the Phillies the best chance at success.

What actually happened would have been an admirable ballpark troll had Charlie Manuel not been completely sincere. Rick Astley popping up on the HD video screen wouldn’t have been out of place. Ruiz did indeed get on base, drawing a walk from J.J. Putz on five pitches. Manuel chose to leave Martinez in the game and advance Ruiz to second via the sacrifice bunt. Any run expectancy matrix will demonstrate that this actually reduced the number of runs that the Phillies could have expected to score. The natural rebuttal is that, since the Phillies only needed one run to tie and another to walk off with the win, the extra value of advancing Ruiz to second outstripped the cost of the out surrendered. But win expectancy for a home team down by a run, which takes into account this added bit of context, is also reduced by the bunt, from .331 with a runner on first and no outs to .282 with a runner on second and one out. And all of this assumes that the parties involved are league average. The Phillies could have brought in Mayberry, who gets on base almost 33% of the time against righties like Putz, but instead opted for a strategy that gets the runner on base nearly 0% of the time.

As a grand finale, Manuel pinch ran Mayberry for Ruiz once Martinez had bunted him over, ensuring that Mayberry could not step to the plate at all during the Phillies’ last gasp. He sent Ross Gload, who has been battling a hip injury and wallowing in ineffectiveness all season, to the plate for Halladay. Gload had a .257 wOBA against righties entering the game, and, even after the misallocation of Mayberry, was still a worse choice than Ben Francisco. So it isn’t surprising that he struck out swinging, and, after Rollins did the same, the game was over.

Manuel’s justification for leaving Halladay in to finish the ninth was, as reported by Todd Zolecki, “it’s kind of his game, isn’t it? That’s my ace.” Similarly, he would probably respond to criticisms about his handling of the ninth inning bats with a reminder that he’s been in the game of baseball for a long time, and he knows more than a little bit about it. He’s earned that. I wouldn’t presume to take that away from him. I wouldn’t tell Chase Utley to alter his plate approach, or Roy Halladay to modify his pitch sequencing. But unlike the mechanics that go into pitching and hitting, managing a baseball team involves a discrete beginning state, a tangible manipulation, and a discrete end state. Observing the change that occurs through these three steps, we can make objective observations about the effect a manager has produced. And that is where folksy rejoinders fail in the face of readily available data. There are surely elements to Manuel’s managerial ability that we will never be able to quantify, but the ones that we can clash so fiercely with simple baseball axioms that they’re impossible to let slide.

Last night’s loss, on its face, is ridiculously easy to get over. It’s not even a bump in the road. In all but the most paranoid of projections, it costs the Phillies nothing. The poor strategy that made it so distinctly frustrating, should it be allowed to play out in the postseason, could inflict serious damage to their World Series hopes. And there’s nothing to indicate that this is the last we’ll see of it.

The Chart That Launched A Thousand Ships

Much has been made about Sean Forman’s article in the New York Times that took Ryan Howard down a peg. Forman deconstructed Howard’s glamorous RBI totals, illustrating that the statistic is more a function of opportunity than skill. I don’t wish to rehash the arguments about Howard and RBI that I’ve had before, but I made a chart that I found quite interesting.

The above plots every qualified player’s WAR along with his RBI total. As the trend line indicates, you can see a positive relationship. The more RBI you have, generally the more valuable you are to your team. The r-square, or coefficient of determination, is 0.2265. That is to say, generally speaking, 23 percent of a player’s value is explained by RBI (and factors relating to RBI).

To traditionalists, that will seem very low; to Saberists, it will seem high. There are a bunch of caveats with this, of course, such as a biased sample (only one year), but it paints a good enough picture. That red diamond you see is Ryan Howard. He is all by himself, with the most RBI but not nearly as much WAR as other players with similar RBI totals. In fact, a lot less.

That Howard is an outlier is enough to make people take one look and swear off Sabermetrics forever. But to immediately discard a theory because it doesn’t match up with your preconceived notions is a fool’s errand. All progress you see and have seen is because people set aside what they think they know about their world and open their mind to new possibilities.

In statistics, we accept that in every sample, there are going to be outliers, pretty much no matter what. The 68-95-99.7 rule tells us that in normally distributed data, approximately 68 percent of the data will be found within +/- one standard deviation of the mean; 95 percent within two standard deviations, and 99.7 percent within three. If you take a look at this table for higher deviations, you’ll see that all of the data can never be found within any deviation range.

To laypeople, an outlier is a sign of failure, that the stat is doing something wrong. Unless your statistic claims to account for all universal factors, how can that make any logical sense? I believe this is the biggest obstacle for laypeople when it comes to accepting Sabermetric principles. They see Howard with a MLB-best 95 RBI and comparatively-low 1.4 WAR and cannot reconcile the two.

Wins Above Replacement is far from a perfect metric and anyone that tells you otherwise does not understand the statistic. In fact, any self-proclaimed Sabermetrics adherent that tells you that the stats we have now can explain anything and everything is a crazy person. However, Sabermetrics are a cut above traditional stats, such as RBI and won-lost records. Sabermetric stats don’t have to be perfect, or even extremely accurate, for you to discard your older, more familiar but incredibly flawed metrics.

Let’s do some critical analysis of the RBI stat. Runs batted in. What does it tell us? Simply, how many teammates the player in question helped reach home plate.

Now, what does RBI not tell us? It doesn’t tell us:

  • How often the player in question has other runners on base
  • The base running skill of the runners the player is driving in
  • The scoring opportunities of the player’s hits (i.e. a player who gets a lot of extra-base hits is more likely to drive in runners than a singles hitter)
  • The player’s common spot in the batting order
  • The quality of opposition
  • Effects of ballparks on run-scoring

The Phillies’ number one, two, and three hitters in the batting order have on-base percentages of .336, .348, and .343, respectively. If, instead, Howard had hit fourth in the batting order for the Washington Nationals, with 1-3 OBP’s of .269, .289, and .352, would we still expect him to have 95 RBI?

In another alternate reality, let’s imagine that the OBP stays constant, but in one lineup Howard has three Jose Reyes clones ahead of him; in the other, three Adam Dunn clones. Each has an OBP of .340. Would we expect Howard to drive in the same amount of runs with each team?

Let’s imagine Howard switches over to the AL West. Everything stays constant except the ballparks. Instead of playing at Turner Field, Citi Field, Sun Life Stadium, and Nationals Park, Howard is now hitting in Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Safeco Field, Angel Stadium of Anaheim, and the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Don’t you think that the more pitcher-friendly parks of the AL West would have an impact on Howard’s RBI total?

If any of the examples above make sense — and I should hope that they do — then the flaws in RBI are apparent. Saberists are often accused of holding up particular stats — flawed ones — as the be-all, end-all of player evaluation. But when the same people making those accusations fall back on RBI, they are holding Sabermetrics up to a double standard. You don’t have to accept every tenet of Sabermetrics, or even Sabermetrics at all, to admit that the RBI stat is extremely flawed. All Saberists ask of you is to be consistent when you apply your criticism. I think this is at the crux of the emotional debates that pop up every time Howard and WAR and RBI are mentioned in consecutive sentences.

Be critical of Sabermetrics. It is always good to look at the world from a skeptical point of view; it is a necessary biological trait that has allowed the human species to prosper. But be level when you do so. Don’t hold Sabermetrics up to a standard you wouldn’t be willing to or are incapable of living up to yourself.

NLDS Choices: Diamondbacks vs. Giants

As Phillies fans looked towards this three-game set with the Arizona Diamondbacks, there was one suggestion frequently made: the Phillies should tank the series to screw over the San Francisco Giants. The Giants, of course, kicked the Phillies out of the NLCS last year. Additionally, they unnecessarily started a bench-clearing brawl with the Phillies recently, adding to the bad blood between the two teams’ fans. At the moment, the Diamondbacks lead the Giants by two games and would match up with the Phillies in the NLDS if the season ended today. The only way the Phillies wouldn’t face an NL West team is if the winner of the NL Central finished with a worse winning percentage than the winner of the NL West (assuming the Atlanta Braves take the Wild Card).

But are the D-Backs enough of a pushover where the Phillies should want to meet up with them over the Giants in the post-season? I’m not so sure. The D-Backs have a +27 run differential, better than the Giants’ -9. While the Phillies smash both of them at +137, the D-Backs are the tougher match-up simply based on run differential.

Comparing both teams’ starters at each position reinforces this point.

Going by wRC+ (the wOBA-based version of OPS+ where 100 is average and above is above-average, below is below-average), the D-Backs have the better hitter at six of eight positions. Note that the D-Backs have had to use various first basemen, now sitting with Paul Goldschmidt at the moment. The Giants have had their share of turnover as well, with Eli Whiteside getting the lion’s share of the playing time at catcher since Buster Posey was railroaded by Scott Cousins in late May. Recent acquisition Carlos Beltran has been sidelined as well and may go on the disabled list soon if he doesn’t see improvement.

This comparison uses xFIP-, which is an xFIP-based version of wRC+ where lower is better and 100 is average. It should come as no surprise that the Giants grade out better here, but the D-Backs are no pushovers. Currently, three of their starters are vastly out-performing their xFIP: Ian Kennedy (-0.48), Joe Saunders (-0.56), and Josh Collmenter (-0.59). While Giants pitchers are also out-performing their xFIP, some of it is better explained by batted ball abilities, defense, and park effects. (See my examination of Matt Cain at Baseball Prospectus from February.) On an interesting note, the D-Backs recently had to deal with the injury to Jason Marquis. They have many options to choose from, including Zach Duke and Micah Owings, as well as prospects Jarrod Parker and Wade Miley.

Again, not really a surprise that the Giants lead here. However, closer Brian Wilson has been vastly out-performing his xFIP. Compared to the last couple years, Wilson’s strikeouts are way down and the walks are way up, but he is still getting results. That could have a lot to do with the cavernous confines of AT&T Park as much as anything — Wilson’s road ERA is more than a full run higher than his home ERA. The Giants’ real stud has been Sergio Romo, whose 1.67 ERA is, stunningly, exactly in line with his 1.63 xFIP. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is over 13. The D-Backs don’t have nearly as much dominance late in the game, but J.J. Putz has been solid with good peripherals including a 3.47 xFIP.

From the Phillies’ perspective, choosing between the two teams is a bit of “pick your own poison”. While the Phillies would be the overwhelming favorites in any match-up, they would need to muster up some offense against the Giants, or they would have to attempt to completely silence the potent D-Back bats, something few teams have done so far this year. Either way, the Phillies’ biggest opponents in the post-season will be themselves and randomness in the universe. Whether it’s the D-Backs or Giants, the Phillies have to take care of themselves first.

Phillies Record When…

Every so often, you will be given a statistic featuring a team’s record when a specific player does something. It is most commonly featured in the NFL. For instance, when Ray Lewis sacks the quarterback, you will very quickly be given the Baltimore Ravens’ record when Lewis records a sack. When the numbers are abnormal, they become their own narrative, and writers and fans alike run wild with them. Recently, the stat has been imported to baseball. The popular one floating around now shows that the Phillies are undefeated when Hunter Pence records a hit.

David S. Cohen of The Good Phight debunked a similar stat a few years ago, but I decided to take it a couple steps further and include the Phillies’ winning percentage when each player scores a run, records a hit, hits a home run, or drives in a run. (Click to enlarge)

Upon looking at the various charts, you should notice a couple things. One is that the players with fewer plate appearances (or fewer events recorded) are on either side of the players who get regular time in the lineup. This is the effect of a small sample size: the variance is much higher. Once the sample becomes larger, players tend to cluster around the mean.

Secondly, the records reflect the importance of each event as well as sampling bias. There are a lot of high winning percentages when a player hits a home run because  home runs are the most potent event in baseball, on average. Additionally, players hit home runs off of either bad pitchers or good pitchers not pitching at their normal level (example: the Phillies hit four homers off of San Diego Padres pitching on July 23). As a result, the game is more easily winnable than normal. When teams face good pitchers, they tend not to hit home runs and lose more games.

What the “Team Record when Player X Does Something” stat tells you is… nothing. It may look like the Phillies’ .933 winning percentage when Raul Ibanez hits a home run is vastly superior to that of Carlos Ruiz and his .750 winning percentage, but Ibanez has only homered in 15 games. The winning percentage differential of .183 only accounts for roughly three games. When you consider the hefty amount of variance with such a small sample, it comes out as not being meaningful in the least.

Logan Morrison Involved in More Drama

Logan Morrison, once scolded by the Florida Marlins for being so candid on Twitter, found himself in more hot water yesterday as he was demoted to Triple-A New Orleans. The Marlins lost 3-0 to the San Francisco Giants, their eighth loss in their last nine games. While Morrison had been dreadful at the plate in June and July, he posted an .836 OPS in August. Overall, he has been a big part of the Marlins’ offense with the third-highest wOBA among Marlin hitters with at least 100 plate appearances.

Joe Capozzi, the Marlins beat writer for the Palm Beach Post, tweeted that Morrison thought he was demoted because of “an off-field issue” as opposed to his recent offensive struggles. Morrison refused to go any further on the issue, but based on what has been in the news lately, we can make some deductions.

From the Miami Herald on June 22:

Logan Morrison gave Hanley Ramirez an earful when the shortstop was the last to stroll in before new manager Jack McKeon addressed the team for the first time on Monday. Sources said that Morrison ripped into Ramirez, saying his tardy behavior could be the reason why he is hitting just .200.

Ramirez was scratched from Monday’s lineup, though McKeon said the reason was because he didn’t care for the way Ramirez ran the bases in St. Petersburg on Sunday. On Tuesday, Ramirez was not only in the lineup, but batting cleanup for the first time since Little League.

It is no secret that Ramirez means more to the Marlins going forward than Morrison. At his best, Ramirez is a top-five player in all of baseball playing a premium position, and the Marlins owe him $46 million over the next three seasons with a new ballpark on the horizon. Morrison, a 22nd-round pick in the 2005 draft, is a corner outfielder with limited offensive potential. While many people defended Morrison upon hearing the news of his demotion, the Marlin front office defended the player who means more to the franchise in the long run.

Based on everything that has happened between Morrison and the Marlins, it is hard to envision the relationship working out. Morrison will not just accept his demotion as if it was completely justified. And the Marlins will not want to retain a player who is combative to cornerstone players and his superiors. Eventually, the  Marlins will need to trade Morrison. If and when they do make him available, 29 teams will be waiting anxiously for a shot at the young outfielder who is cost-controlled through at least 2016. Worst of all for the Marlins, they will have little leverage as their hand has been revealed.

Could the Phillies get involved? With the acquisition of right fielder Hunter Pence, the Phillies’ outfield is set through at least 2012 with Domonic Brown in left and Shane Victorino in center. But Victorino is a free agent going into ’13 and, given his MVP-caliber season thus far, could become quite expensive. It is hard to imagine Brown moving to center, but Pence has over 844 innings of experience playing center field at the Major League level and an additional 112 games in the Minors. If the Phillies feel that their odds of (or interest in) re-signing Victorino are low, they could try to pick up Morrison as a left-handed bench bat and back-up outfielder/first baseman for the 2012 season, then move him to left field in ’13 with Brown moving back to right field and putting Pence in center.

The Phillies recently signed lefty Jack Cust as Triple-A filler and a potential replacement for the injured Ross Gload. Via Comcast SportsNet, GM Ruben Amaro said,

We don’t have a ton of power off the bench. We don’t have a guy who can pop the ball out of the ballpark—we don’t have that threat, so we thought it was worth a shot.

Cust, a noted power bat, has a career ISO only two points higher than Morrison, .197 to .195. While having both is redundant, Morrison would obviously supersede Cust if acquired; Cust was a no-risk, medium-reward signing — the Phillies can get rid of him at any time.

Additionally, Morrison has a good fan following within the Phillies community, certainly not common for someone playing for a division rival. Needless to say, Morrison wouldn’t need to find ways to get fans to the ballpark, and he would be a boon to merchandise sales in jerseys and t-shirts. This is one aspect of Morrison’s repertoire that applies to the Phillies and no one else, just one more reason why the Phillies should at least strongly consider acquiring Morrison.

As for what he would cost, given that the rift between Morrison and the Marlins’ front office is public, and they demoted him for “performance issues“, the Marlins simply cannot ask for much. And the longer they wait to resolve the situation, the worse off the team is and the worse off the team looks in the public eye. Already, Marlins fans on Twitter are trying to organize a “no show” until Morrison is brought back to the Majors. With what little attendance they get now, they cannot afford to hemorrhage any more.

There are only two worries: the Phillies are a division rival, so the Marlins may be hesitant to deal with the soon-to-be NL East champions five consecutive years running. The other worry is that there will be a lot of interest in Morrison as mentioned previously, so the more teams that are interested, the more expensive he becomes.

It is unfortunate that an energetic, fan-friendly player had a falling-out with his team, but the Phillies can use that to their advantage and improve their team through 2016. A lot of pieces have to fall in the right place, but it is certainly possible and something Amaro and his front office pals should be watching closely.

A Mean Bastardo At Heart

Antonio Bastardo‘s emergence has been just one highlight among many for the 2011 Phillies. Out of a group that has endured plenty of injuries and ineffectiveness, Bastardo, along with Michael Stutes, has been one half of a young, cost-controlled duo that serves as a sturdy bulwark for the Phillies in the late innings. With Ryan Madson returning from injury in mid-July, the ability to call on Bastardo’s reliable out-getting whenever the situation demands gives Charlie Manuel an extra queen on the chessboard. With 44 and 2/3rds innings pitched, Bastardo currently boasts a 1.41 ERA. And it’s far from smoke and mirrors — he’s shown an elite ability to miss bats, posting a 30.7% strikeout rate, good for 12th among qualified MLB relievers. It would be easy (and not entirely wrong) to point to his .156 BABIP and crow about another unsustainable reliever season built on batted ball fortune. But SIERA, for its part, likes him to the tune of 2.57, and there are a few quirks to his underlying numbers that merit a closer look.

You would expect a southpaw with good velocity and a high strikeout rate to be particularly nightmarish for left-handed hitters. Broadcast crews, though, are fond of pointing out that lefties opposing Bastardo hit for a higher average than righties. The more comprehensive wOBA metric agrees — left-handed batters are 64 points better, .240 to .176 (it’s worth taking a moment to stop and appreciate just how good both of those figures are). This is particularly unexpected when considering Bastardo’s approach. The changeup would be a good weapon against righties, but, in Bastardo’s case, it’s the weakest pitch in his arsenal. So he boosts his reliance on his greatest asset, the fastball, when facing righties, opting for it about 66% of the time, as opposed to 60% against lefties. He doesn’t dial down his selection of the slider as much as you might think, but his location of it differs substantially:

With the slider breaking in on right-handed batters, Bastardo is likely trying to avoid plunking them. The result is that a good deal more of them are left in what could be called the middle of the plate, or at least in areas where they appear a lot more hittable. There’s some indication that they are — lefties have yet to manage a line drive off of Bastardo’s slider, while righties have done it 11% of the time. Yet righties still whiff prodigiously against it (41.8%) and ground out quite a bit on it (33.3%) which, considering the juicier locations, must in part speak to its substantial “bite.” In terms of outcomes, it hasn’t mattered. Righties haven’t managed any substantial power off of Bastardo, posting just a .064 ISO and managing only four extra-base hits in 108 plate appearances. This could be an area where lady luck is especially forgiving, though. None of the line drives or flyballs hit on Bastardo’s slider have fallen for hits thus far. His overall BABIP against right-handed hitters is just .141. As that creeps back up, all three pitch types to righties will find different areas of the park, and likely the outfield seats as well. Since his BABIP against lefties stands at .200, it’s reasonable to expect his odd platoon split to reverse itself.

Here’s one thing that will always help your BABIP: Bastardo has been an inveterate inducer of the infield fly this season. Currently, almost 20% of his flyballs stay in the infield, good for 7th among qualified MLB relievers. Pop-ups are outs all but some negligible percentage of the time (the Luis Castillo caveat), so, in combination with his strikeout rate, the infield flies allow Bastardo to have more success with such a low groundball rate than he otherwise might. There’s plenty of varying opinions on how much of a repeatable skill the induction of infield flies actually is. Last year, David Appelman of Fangraphs offered some evidence that higher infield fly rates are just a natural byproduct for pitchers with higher overall flyball rates, a category which Bastardo certainly fits.

This year, Derek Carty at Baseball Prospectus searched for thresholds at which we could consider various statistics to be “stable,” and included a pitcher’s infield fly rate in his endeavors. He found that it stabilizes once the pitcher has amassed a combination of groundballs, flyballs, and line drives totaling 288. Bastardo stands at 97. So while the infield fly rate is encouraging, it’s far from a sure thing just yet. Don’t underrate its importance. If Bastardo can maintain it at around 15% or above, he can keep his HR/FB% down and mitigate the damage of his high overall flyball rate.

No matter how you slice it, Bastardo is due for some backsliding in metrics that no pitcher can really control. In cases such as his, though, we can step away from the batted ball data and pitch f/x and reach into our old reliable peripherals toolbox. Bastardo has an elite strikeout rate and a slightly below average walk rate. In most cases, that will give you a solid foundation for effectiveness as a reliever. In his case, any ERA retrodictor you might care to ask — FIP, xFIP, SIERA — likes what he has to offer, to varying degrees. His highest, the 3.31 xFIP, doesn’t account for some of the above mentioned factors that could keep his home run rate down. But even if he settles down around that figure, that’s more than enough to make him a valuable high leverage asset for the Phillies, and, should Ryan Madson depart for top dollar this offseason, the cornerstone of a new bullpen.

Big ups to Texas Leaguers Pitch F/X and Joe Lefkowitz’s Pitch F/X Tool for some crucial data.

Phillies Dominating, Time to Take It Easy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2011 Phillies and Their Place In History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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