Archive: April 29th, 2010

Inside Look: Phillies

The Mets are in first place, and the first-place Mets will be facing the second-place Phillies for a 3-game weekend series for the right to first place.

Yes, I am going to harp on the “first place” thing as much as possible, since we don’t know how long it will last. May as well take advantage while we can.

Since we have all day today and most of tomorrow to bask in the glow of Mets’ first-place status, I thought you might enjoy reading some of the thoughts of fellow SweetSpot Blogger Bill Baer, whose blog Crashburn Alley focuses on the second-place Phillies.

(You can also see a similar Q&A over at Bill’s blog, where I answer his questions about the Mets.)

To reiterate, the second-place Phillies. Boy that feels good!

Anyway, here is our Q&A … and here’s to hoping the first-place Mets can remain in first place!

1. The Phillies were looking like world-beaters before the season began and through the first two weeks. However, they are 4-6 over their last 10 games. What’s going on?

It’s a little worrisome, but I would attribute part of the misfortune on injuries (Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero, and Joe Blanton started the season on the DL; Jimmy Rollins and J.A. Happ soon joined them) and bad luck. Shane Victorino, Cole Hamels, Ryan Madson, and David Herndon have been the unluckiest so far.

I think the starting rotation (when it includes Joe Blanton) is better than people think.

Doesn’t help that the Phillies have played 15 of their first 21 games on the road, either.

2. Jimmy Rollins made a preseason goal of 50 stolen bases. He stole 2 before going on the DL. Is his goal realistic, considering both Rollins’ skills and the Phillies’ overall offensive style / strategy?

It wasn’t realistic then and it certainly isn’t realistic now that he has missed two weeks. The most realistic goal of his is 200 hits since he gets so many at-bats at the top of a high-octane offense.

3. Ryan Madson is the closer while Brad Lidge is on the mend. Are you confident in Madson in the ninth? Do you have more confidence in Madson, or Lidge? How about the next option, Danys Baez?

If Lidge was completely healthy and he had the same velocity on his fastball and bite on his slider that he had in 2008, I may be slightly more confident in him than Madson. However, Lidge has just been squeaking above the 90’s while rehabbing and I really question his ability to handle high-leverage innings. I have much, much more confidence in Ryan Madson than anybody else in the bullpen. It’s a shame because many Phillies fans have labeled Madson unfit to close as a result of their armchair psychoanalysis.

4. Much was made about Ryan Howard getting tutored by Barry Bonds over the winter. Are you seeing any results from that?

Not really. As you know, Barry Bonds was a maven of plate discipline. Howard hasn’t brought that into the 2010 season as he is drawing walks at more than half the rate he had over the course of his career. So far, he has increased the rate at which he swings at pitches outside of the strike zone and he has decreased the rate of swings at pitches inside the strike zone. It is nice that he cut his strikeout rate by ten percent, but to be quite honest, I would prefer to take the strikeouts with his prodigious power, something we have barely seen this season.

5. We know all about Roy Halladay. But after him, the Philly starting rotation has been questionable. Even JA Happ, who hasn’t given up an earned run, has walked 8 in 10 IP. Is it simply a slow start by everyone, or is there valid concern that the current personnel will not be sufficient to pitch the Phillies into the postseason?

As mentioned above, Hamels has been unlucky in his four starts so far. Pitchers can’t control the rate at which balls put in play turn into hits (BABIP), so it tends to hover around .300 give or take a few thousandths of a point. Hamels last year sat at .325; it is .357 so far in 2010. Additionally, pitchers cannot control the rate at which fly balls land beyond outfield fences, so it tends to hover around 10% give or take a couple percentage points. Hamels so far has a HR/FB% of 20.6%. Hamels will come around.

Stats people are not expecting J.A. Happ to come anywhere close to the success he had last season. Despite the 0.00 ERA, he had pitched poorly in his two starts before landing on the DL. As you mentioned, he walked eight batters in ten innings and he was also striking out fewer than four and a half per nine innings. Happ doesn’t induce too many ground balls, so it is not good that hitters have been making contact as often as they have been.

Jamie Moyer is hit or miss but there worse ways to round out the back of a starting rotation. Speaking of which, I am counting the days until Kyle Kendrick returns to AAA Lehigh Valley.

6. Further to the previous question, what is wrong with Cole Hamels, and is he fixable?

Very fixable. He’s been unlucky. I know that answer doesn’t sit will with a lot of people, but them’s the facts. Phillies fans need to just ride it out — he’ll improve. Just don’t expect him to finish the season with Tim Lincecum-esque numbers. His true talent level is somewhere around a 3.50-3.75 ERA.

7. In 2009, the Phillies benefitted greatly by a scorching hot start by Raul Ibanez. This year, though, the story is quite the opposite. Have opposing pitchers “figured him out”, is he streaky by nature, or simply a slow starter?

Ibanez is streaky by nature, but I think part of the slow part is aging as well. From what I’ve seen, his bat looks slower and he’s having trouble catching up to fastballs. Since he started playing regularly in 2002, Ibanez has finished all but one season with above-average numbers against the fastball according to FanGraphs’ pitch type linear weights. Through April, Ibanez has been two runs below average per 100 fastballs.

I’m hoping that Ibanez gets on one of his patented hot streaks and he becomes a palatable option to move at the trading deadline. However, I doubt that many teams would be willing and able to take on the remainder of his contract (about $6 million by the 2010 trading deadline and $11.5 million next year). Trading Ibanez and clearing his contract may give the Phillies the ability to re-sign Jayson Werth after the season, in which case prospect Domonic Brown would take over in left field.

8. For the first time in a year, the Phillies are chasing the Mets. Do you think that will be the case for most of the season? Why or why not?

No, I don’t. The Mets just don’t have a good lineup or a good starting rotation (outside of Johan Santana) or a good bullpen. It sounds like I’m being a biased, hateful Philly fan, but it’s true.

The Mets had a $126.5 million payroll to open the season, and their most recent batting order was: Pagan, Cora, Reyes, Bay, Wright, Davis, Francoeur, and Barajas. That’s just not a good lineup. Pagan and Cora are back-ups on most other teams; Davis would be unknown if he were in a less-prominent team’s farm system, Francoeur is overrated, and — okay — I irrationally dislike Barajas because he didn’t block the plate during a game in Florida when he was with the Phillies. Hey, at least I’m honest.

Additionally, Mike Pelfrey has been extremely lucky. His BABIP is only .249 and he’s yet to allow a home run. His 0.69 ERA is not backed up by ERA postdictors like xFIP (4.31) and SIERA (4.38). That’s not to say that a 4.38 ERA level of production is not acceptable, it’s just that Pelfrey’s recent success is completely and utterly unsustainable.

Jonathon Niese has pitched over his head as well. His 4.40 SIERA is more realistic than his 3.68 ERA. Niese needs to harness his control before he can be considered an above-average pitcher.

Finally, while the ERA’s have mostly been good with the Mets’ relievers, one cannot expect them to maintain that level of success over the course of a 162-game season. Takahashi has really been the only true bright spot in the bullpen — he has pitched exceptionally well. Fernando Nieve and Jenrry Mejia have not pitched well while K-Rod and Pedro Feliciano have been average at best and that may be too lenient given their bad walk rates.

Thanks again to Bill Baer for his insight. You can read more of his commentary and stat-driven analysis regarding the Phillies at Crashburn Alley. I’m sure you would like to comment on some of his answers, so please do so below.