Today, I sat down — virtually, through the email machine — and asked Bill Baer, a fellow SweetSpotter and author of Crashburn Alley, a few questions about the Phillies. How good is their defense? Is their rotation as scary as it seems? Why does he irrationally hate Ryan Howard so much? And does Jayson Werth’s beard really house an entire family of chipmunks? Bill was kind enough to provide his insights with us on all things Phillies.
Without further ado, let’s ask and answer some questions.
1. Defensively, the Phillies seem like a mixed bag. In particular Ryan Howard (-12.6 runs) and Raul Ibanez (-6.9 runs) have been sub-par. However, they are offset by plus-defenders in Chase Utley (+10.3 runs), Placido Polanco (+10 runs), and Jimmy Rollins (+6.9 runs). Is the defense something that concerns you?
Only if the left side of the infield (Rollins and Polanco) isn’t particularly healthy. Rollins has been bitten by the injury bug three times this year, most recently with a hamstring injury. Watching him during the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds, it was obvious that he wasn’t even close to 100%. He ran very gingerly, although his defense didn’t appear to waver much. Polanco will require off-season surgery as he has bone chips floating around in his elbow thanks to Tim Hudson, who hit him with a pitch back in May. Like Rollins, Polanco’s defense didn’t appear to slip any in the NLDS, but their health will continue to be my biggest concern going forward.
Otherwise, I’m quite content with the defense as everyone except for Raul Ibanez is about average or better. Utley, despite a throwing error during the NLDS, is the best defensive second baseman in baseball and it’s not even close.
2. Over the past two years, Jimmy Rollins has posted wOBA’s of .316 and .317 in just over 1,000 plate appearances. Are his days as a .340+ wOBA over? Or is there something more to the situation?
I’m sure his bouts with injuries this year have hampered his offensive production, but I think he will have to have a lot go right in the future for him to return to his high level of offensive production from 2004-08. It was good to see, though, that he increased his walk rate substantially to over 10 percent, which is three percent higher than his career average. Of course, he finished with his lowest isolated power since ’03 and his lowest batting average ever (because he rarely hit line drives — 17 percent, also a career low).
3. The 2009 Phillies made it all the way to the World Series — ultimately losing to the Yankees. How does this year’s team compare to last?
The offense is worse and more inconsistent, and the pitching overall is much improved. The starting rotation, #1 through #4, last year was Cliff Lee, a bad Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, and Jamie Moyer. This year, it’s Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, a really good Hamels, and Blanton. You will be hard-pressed to find a starting rotation that improved so drastically in such a short amount of time.
I think the Phillies’ offense is underrated since most people look at aggregate statistics and don’t adjust for all of the time the hitters lost due to injury. Still, Ryan Howard had — arguably — the worst season of his career, as did Utley, who had a 50 point decline in ISO. When the Phillies score, they tend to score in bunches. A while ago, I looked at the run-scoring distribution of this year’s team compared to the teams from ’08 and ’09 and found that the ’10 squad scored three or fewer runs and nine or more runs much more frequently, while the 4-8 run games occurred less frequently. Again, injuries have a part in that but it doesn’t explain most or all of it.
4. Ryan Madson is one of my favorite relievers in baseball and I’m dreading watching the Giants take swings against him. What makes him so good? Can we get a quick scouting report for your relief ace?
I think Madson may be my favorite Phillie. For some reason, fans here hate him (or, perhaps, hated) because of a reliance on a small sample of innings where he faltered as the back-up closer to Brad Lidge when he was struggling and/or injured between last year and this year. Kicking a folding chair in frustration and breaking his toe earlier this year didn’t win over any fans either. (That happened after the Giants got to him, actually.)
Madson is one of the most efficient relievers in baseball, though. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, Madson finished 12th in the Majors in SIERA. (If you’re not familiar with SIERA, it’s an ERA retrodictor like FIP and xFIP, but much better in my opinion.) He finished with a strikeout-to-walk ratio approaching 5-to-1 (10.9 to 2.2).
He’s so good because his fastball reaches into the mid-to high-90′s and supplements it with an 83 MPH change-up that he’ll throw to right- and left-handed batters alike. A fastball/change-up combination with a velocity differential of 12 MPH is extremely hard to hit, even if you guess and sit on one particular pitch. He also throws a cut fastball but it’s there simply to keep hitters honest. Were I the manager, I’d make sure to use Madson in the high-leverage innings, which is sometimes not the case with Charlie Manuel.
5. The Phillies rotation — Halladay, Oswalt, Hamels, and Blanton — matches up well with the Giants rotation. Who do you think has the better rotation and why?
I think the Phillies have a better starting rotation, but as anyone can tell you, it’s close. Going by SIERA from Baseball Prospectus — which accounts for the factors a pitcher directly controls: strikeouts, walks, and batted ball splits; and neutralizes those which a pitcher does not directly control: hits, home run rate per fly ball, etc. — here’s how the two teams’ eight pitchers rank this year:
- Halladay: 2.93, 1st in MLB among pitchers with at least 100 IP
- Lincecum: 3.16, 9th
- Hamels: 3.19, 11th
- Oswalt: 3.33, 14th
- Sanchez: 3.70, 30th
- Bumgarner: 3.88, 55th
- Cain: 3.90, 57th
- Blanton: 4.01, 65th
You have three Phillies pitchers in the top 15 in all of baseball, while two Giants aren’t even in the top 54.
Cain, however, seems to make a habit out of out-performing his FIP/xFIP/SIERA. It’s boring to throw my hands up and call him a fluke, so my best attempt at an explanation is that he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher and pitches half his games in a very spacious home ballpark. His career home/road ERA is 3.19/3.76 but his career home/road xFIP is 3.35/3.38. Carlos Gonzalez was greatly aided by Coors Field, and I think Cain is similarly aided by AT&T park. It also helps that he’s had a good defense behind him every year. Cain is probably better than his SIERA indicates. It was smart of Bruce Bochy to start Sanchez in Game Two and Cain in Game Three, since Cain will start at home. Sanchez’s slight ground ball tendency and ability to miss bats is a good fit for Citizens Bank Park.
6. Carlos Ruiz’s year (.366 wOBA, 4.1 WAR) has been really surprising. What’s the deal? Going forward, what do you expect from Ruiz?
He seems to have really turned a corner. It’s hard to explain, and it’s really easy to look at his BABIP (.335; .280 career) and label him a fluke. However, he’s hitting five percent fewer ground balls, which has been split between an increase in line drives and ground balls, both of which have a higher natural BABIP than fly balls.
Pitchers are very comfortable with Ruiz now. I think before, it took a lot of time and effort on Ruiz’s part to have the pitching staff get comfortable relinquishing their autonomy on the mound. Perhaps Ruiz’s reputation allotted him more time to focus on hitting rather than game-calling and preparation. I have no idea if that’s true — it’s just a theory, based on the multitude of articles written on Ruiz this season. Roy Halladay in particular simply lets Ruiz take care of the game-calling, no questions asked.
7. A couple of the Phillies’ players (Polanco, Ruiz) are a little banged up. Any health concerns for the Phillies right now as they head into the NLCS?
Yeah, as mentioned above, I’m concerned about Rollins and Polanco. The two combined for two hits in 20 at-bats during the NLDS. Polanco and Rollins both ended the year in slumps as well. Polanco finished with an OPS of .644 and .651 in August and September, respectively. Rollins had a .598 OPS in his final 22 games.
Ruiz should be fine. He stayed in the game when he was hit in the knee by a pitch, and has had about a week to recuperate.
Thanks again to Bill for the thoughtful answers. Be sure to bookmark Crashburn Alley for the remainder of the NLCS and beyond.
My answers to the Giants questions on Crashburn Alley.