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August 17, 2010

Ahead in the Count

Only Two Games Worse

by Matt Swartz and Eric Seidman

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It was terribly difficult to not be optimistic following the Phillies' season opener this year. They beat the Nationals 11-1 in what would serve as a microcosm of off-season expectations regarding their campaign. Roy Halladay tossed seven brilliant innings. Placido Polanco recorded three hits. Ryan Howard smashed a home run off of a left-handed starter. Everyone in the lineup, Halladay included, had at least one hit. This was to be the framework of the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies. No, they were not going to win every game by a touchdown and a field goal, nor were they going to score 1,000 runs, and with Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick sniffing the rotation it was unlikely their starting pitching would be unhittable. But it seemed very plausible that the Phillies would once again sport the best offense in the National League, with a pitching staff primed to keep the team in most games.

Unfortunately, the one area in which the Phillies have absolutely excelled over the last few seasons - health - became a literal sore spot this season. Fresh off of receiving the 2009 Dick Martin Award—handed out by Baseball Prospectus' Will Carroll to the training staff that keeps its team the healthiest during the season—the Phillies have been bitten by a swarm of injury bugs, as if there was some type of infestation spreading. The worst part was that the players spending time on the disabled list were true impact players; as in Chase Utley and Howard getting hurt, not Greg Dobbs and David Herndon. When Halladay tossed his perfect game on May 29, the left side of the infield consisted of Wilson Valdez and Juan Castro; not exactly how the Phillies drew it up before the season began.

Don’t believe us that the health straits have been dire? Well, consider that the lineup trotted out on opening day—Carlos Ruiz at catcher, Howard at first base, Utley at second base, Jimmy Rollins at shortstop, Polanco at third base, and an outfield of Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth—has been intact for a grand total of seven games this season. Entering tonight’s game against the Giants, the Phillies have played 117 games, meaning that the lineup expected to carry them back to the promised land of a third straight World Series appearance has been together in a measly 5.9 percent of their games. Last year, their standard lineup was used on 60 occasions, which amounts to 37 percent of the time.

Yet, the Phillies are 66-51, 15 games over .500, tied for the National League wild card lead, and just two games back of the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves. Their record through 117 games last season was 68-49, placing them just two games worse than their pace of a year ago, despite missing every member of their infield, their catcher, and their center fielder for extended periods of time. Today we’ll take a look at the injuries  to illustrate how tough a year it has been as well as quantify just how much production has been lost in an attempt to deduce how a team as seemingly unlucky when it comes to injuries has managed to keep winning.

Who and When?

Before the season even began, Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero and Joe Blanton hit the 15-day disabled list while respectively recovering from knee surgery, elbow surgery, and a strained oblique. On April 12, before the team’s home opener, Rollins strained his right calf, a terrible turn of events for a player whose primary skills are speed and defensive range. He hit the 15-day disabled list and did not return until May 17. Just a few days after being activated, Rollins left a game against the Red Sox with the same injury, hitting the DL again until June 22. All told, the Phillies were without their shortstop for the better part of two months.

Shortly after Rollins’ first trip to the injured list, lefty starter J.A. Happ suffered a left forearm strain and would be out of major-league action for a few months, splitting his time between the DL and the minor leagues. Two weeks after Happ went down, Ryan Madson broke his toe when he kicked a chair in the visiting clubhouse at AT&T Park in San Francisco in a fit of rage landing him on the 60-day disabled list. In May—yeah, the other injuries were all just in April—backup catcher Brian Schneider strained his left Achilles; Lidge suffered right elbow inflammation; and the second of Rollins’ DL stints came about. The following month, lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo fell prey to ulnar neuritis in his left elbow; Ruiz got conked in the head with a bat on the follow through of a swing and suffered a concussion; stalwart reliever Chad Durbin strained his right hamstring; Polanco missed 3-4 weeks with left elbow inflammation; and Utley had surgery on his right thumb after sliding head first into second base.  He was expected to miss eight weeks in total; he will likely return to the lineup this week.

More recently, Moyer suffered a season-ending elbow injury, Victorino strained his abdominal muscle making what seemed to be a routine catch, and Howard sprained his ankle in a fairly gruesome manner. If this has given you a headache, imagine dealing with these injuries as a Phillies fan, where Ross Gload and Valdez have become such common sights that it feels strange when they aren’t playing. With the who and the when out of the way, let’s move onto the what.

What Have the Injuries Cost?

Well, injuries have cost the Phillies plenty of runs.  Utley has stepped to the plate 170 fewer times through 117 games than he had at the same point last year.  Using a rough estimate of Colin Wyers’ linear weights formula, Utley has provided 20 fewer runs above average this year. Of course, his .296/.418/.530 line last year exceeds his .277/.383/.466 line right now. However, his replacement has been primarily Valdez, who is 7.4 runs below average through 274 plate appearances, meaning that the time he was replacing Utley was probably about five runs below average, close to replacement level for a second baseman over the duration of Utley’s absence.  The difference between Utley and Valdez has likely cost the Phillies a couple of games even in that short time span.

Now, we will mention this because it is an important concept that fits well with comparing Utley and Valdez, and that is that determining lost productivity is not nearly as linear as it might seem. For instance, it might be easy to assume that quantifying the loss of Utley is contingent upon finding who played second base while he was gone and adding up their numbers. The issue is that Polanco played some second base over the last couple of months, meaning that the real replacement was whoever manned third base in those games. Additionally, what numbers do you use to compare the players? Surely, Utley is much better than a .277/.383/.466 hitter, but that is what he produced prior to the trip to the disabled list. Might it be prudent to use a combination of his numbers and his true talent level, like an in-season projection? Suffice it to say, measuring lost productivity is difficult, and the numbers used in this article should be treated more as guesstimates than incredibly accurate quantifications.

Through 117 games last year, Howard was hitting .263/.345/.521 in 487 PA. This year, Howard is hitting .292/.356/.528, a stronger line in both the on-base and slugging departments. And while the increases in both slash-line components are not very substantial, when coupled with the solid performances from both Gload and Mike Sweeney as fill-in first basemen, it stands to reason that the Phillies haven’t really lost much yet from Howard’s absence. Maybe they win a couple of other games or get more than one hit against R.A. Dickey with Howard's bat in the lineup, from a run value standpoint this has been more of a wash.

Rollins’ absence, however, has cost the Phillies dearly.  Two stints on the disabled list dropped him from 527 PA last year to just 267 this season, and recalibrating his swing after his long absence has cost him performance. However, a terrible start to 2009 left Rollins at an ugly .242/.290/.410 through 117 games, as compared to his current .242/.337/.359. His numbers alone suggest the Phillies have lost a ton of production.  Adding in that he was replaced by Valdez and Juan Castro, who hit .198/.237/.238 through 136 PA, and the difference in performance still is quite larger yet, and that is before even getting into the defensive side of the spectrum. Valdez and Castro are decent defenders, but they aren’t Rollins.

Pedro Feliz provided nowhere near the same caliber of performance last year at third base that Polanco has so far, but the former stayed free of the disabled list; Polanco has 45 fewer PA than Feliz did at this stage last year.  Victorino currently has 61 fewer PA through 117 games than he did a year ago due to his injury. In fact, the only Phillies starters who have not been on the disabled list are Ibanez and Werth and we all know Ibanez began his season in a terrible slump.

The Phillies so far have handed out 136 PA to Castro and 274 PA to Valdez. They have dished out 153 PA to Dobbs (.191/.250/.319), 108 to Schneider (.226/.321/.376), 46 PA to Cody Ransom (.190/.244/.333), 40 PA to Dane Sardinha (.205/.225/.487), 21 PA to Paul Hoover (.278/.381/.389), and 25 PA to Sweeney (.261/.320/.261).  The amount of replacement-level performance was documented in a lot of detail recently by Corey Seidman at Phillies Nation (yes, relation).  When Corey wrote the article on August 4, the Phillies had given out 617 PAs to replacement-level players, as compared to the 618 they had given to replacement-level players in all of 2009! Obviously, that number has risen over the last week and a half.

Comparing the 3,130 PA that the starting eight have gotten so far this season with the 3,657 that last year’s starting eight had received at this point in the season, it would be a vast understatement to say that offensive and defensive production have been depleted by injuries.  All told, the Phillies' lineup has been about 28 runs worse this year, while their bench and all its extra plate appearances has accumulated 17 more runs below average.  The pitchers haven’t helped either, hitting seven runs more below average in their PA versus the 2009 squad, and while pitcher hitting isn’t exactly reliable, it did happen and cannot be pushed aside.  This implies that the Phillies have lost about 52 runs with their bats compared to last year.  In fact, they have scored 62 runs fewer, however, as we mentioned, they are only two games off of their pace a year ago in spite of the health problems.

Uh, How!?

Simply put, the answer is pitching, especially from a starting standpoint. The team has allowed 33 fewer runs, cutting the deficit of production lost from the lineup in half. And this is in spite of suffering injuries on the pitching side of the ledger as well, losing Blanton, Lidge, Madson, Moyer and Happ for various periods. Last year, the Phillies starters had racked up 698 innings and a 4.35 ERA through 117 games; this year, they have thrown 751 2/3 innings with a 3.82 ERA. Considering they have arguably the best pitcher in baseball in Halladay as well as a dominant Cole Hamels, the improvement makes sense.

At this point in 2009, the Phillies did not have a starter from their opening day rotation with  a sub-4.00 ERA aside from Blanton’s 3.88 mark.  Otherwise, none of the opening day starting five had an ERA below 4.66, and the owner of that ERA, Brett Myers, was injured and set to return as a reliever.  The Phillies had gotten some BABIP-fortunate outings from Happ, who had a 2.64 ERA during his 16 starts, but Hamels’s poor BABIP left his ERA nearly two runs above that.  The Phillies actively tried to improve their rotation, signing Pedro Martinez and trading for Cliff Lee. Through 117 games, Martinez had made two starts with Lee making four, and the Phillies won all six of those games.

Moving Forward

The difference between the 2009 and 2010 squads boils down to a weak starting rotation in 2009 and an injured squad in 2010.  The 2009 rotation had been bolstered by mid-August, but with Utley and Howard probably returning this week, the Phillies may have their 2010 weakness fixed as well. 

At this stage, the Phillies have 45 games to make up the two-game deficit on the Braves in the NL East race and they are in a multi-team race with the Giants, Cardinals and Reds for the wild card. Keeping the team healthy the rest of the way is an obvious essential for the Phillies, because few parts of baseball are more frustrating than missing the playoffs for reasons aside from production.  When completely healthy, the Phillies, with the addition of Oswalt in a trade with the Astros last month and reemergence of Hamels, are an incredibly tough team to beat, but health is in no way assured from here on out.

It is fairly poetic that a team set to get their big guns back in the lineup, and with a third ace now in the fold in Oswalt, would enter tonight’s action tied with the Giants, whom they are playing, for the wild card spot. It is as if the “real” season begins right now, with the opening day lineup intact for just the eighth time all season. Then again, recent reports suggest that Howard’s return may be pushed back until the end of the week, further delaying the reunion of the starting eight. Either way, if the number of times that group plays together doesn’t reach 20 by the end of the season, the Phillies won’t be making the playoffs, ending their hopes of becoming the first NL team in over 60 years to make three consecutive World Series appearances.

Matt Swartz is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matt's other articles. You can contact Matt by clicking here
Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

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