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April 23, 2004
The Flailing Phillies
Today's column was supposed to be a game report from yesterday's Rangers/Angels tilt in Anaheim. Due to a series of events that, had they been filmed, would have been Oscar-worthy, my ticket went unused.
I'm disappointed not only because I haven't been to a game yet this year, but because I would have enjoyed the company. I was invited by Stephen Roney, who is the president of the Allan Roth chapter-the L.A. area chapter-of the Society for American Baseball Research. SABR might be one of the most misunderstood organizations in the country, associated as it is primarily with baseball's statistics. Sabermetrics is much more than this; performance analysis is just a subset of the field, and any time spent with the historians and biographers and researchers of SABR shows you just how broad a knowledge base is represented in the group.
I've been a SABR member for two years now, and I'd imagine I will be for life. Not because of the things I know; because of all the things I don't, and the many people in the group I can learn from.
For more information about SABR, check their Web site at www.sabr.org. If you're in the L.A. area, you can attend the next Allan Roth chapter meeting next Saturday. For more information on that event, go here.
So I was out a ballgame, out an afternoon with good company, and out a column topic. Like I said, one Handicam and I would have been all over Sundance this year. Chloe Sevigny will never know what she's missing.
Fortunately, there's always the Phillies. The team that I claimed could run away with the NL East, the one I said could start the year 23-7 or something, dropped its ninth game of the season yesterday. The loss was also their sixth to the Florida Marlins in just two weeks.
You try not to get too caught up in these things, but that makes nine in a row, and 18 of 20 games, that the Marlins have taken from the Phillies. A head-to-head sweep in the last week of the 2003 season catapulted the Fish into the playoffs, and this year's start has given them a three-game in the NL East, 5.5 over the Phillies.
When one team owns another like this, you want to find a reason why. I know it can just be a random stretch-we are selecting endpoints with some care-but even without attributing mental or emotional causes, something should show up in the record of these games that indicates why two pretty evenly matched teams have been so far apart in their last 20 games.
To ameliorate the endpoints issue a little, let's look at all 25 games the two teams have played in 2003 and '04. The Fish are 19-6 in those contests, having scored 137 runs and allowed 114.
RS/G RA/G Marlins vs. Phillies 5.5 4.6 Marlins other 4.5 4.1 Phillies vs. Marlins 4.6 5.5 Phillies other 4.8 4.1
The difference in these games, at least in the aggregate, has been the Marlins' bats. They've been an 800 OPS team against the Phillies, as opposed to a 740 OPS team the rest of the time. The gains are led by Mike Lowell (.338 AVG, .662 SLG) and Miguel Cabera (.353 AVG, .588 SLG).
Why do the Marlins hit the Phillies so well? I'm not sure; I was kicking around the idea that it's a skills thing-the Fish, especially last year's edition, strike me as a fastball-hitting team, and the Phillies' starters are primarily fastball pitchers. It's a scouty notion that makes sense, but isn't something I can test with much confidence. The Fish do own Brett Myers, a young fastball/curveball guy: 26 earned runs in 30 1/3 innings over six starts.
The runs scored and allowed should have set off some alarm bells. A 137-111 advantage in runs doesn't come close to projecting a 19-6 record. That's more like 15-12 or 16-11. The Marlins' dominance hasn't just been a product of runs; it's the distribution of those runs. They're just killing the Phillies in close games the past two years. They're 7-2 in one-run games, 5-0 in two-run games. All six of the games this year fall into those two categories, and in the current nine-game winning streak over the Phils, the Marlins have outscored them by just 16 runs. They've won four one-run games, four two-run games and one four-run game.
Why are the Marlins winning all the close games? At the micro level, you can identify a handful of factors. The Phillies have blown leads in six of the 14 games, and seven leads all told. Their bullpen has a 4.92 ERA against the Marlins the last two years, and there have been some high-profile collapses mixed in there, Wednesday night's game being just one of them. Additionally, the Marlins have cut out a big chunk of the Phillies' power, holding them to a .386 slugging average last year (the Phils slugged .419 on the season), and a mere .321 in the six games this season.
So what you have is the Marlins hitting for power and coming back from deficits, and the Phillies not doing either of those things. That's basically the difference between the two teams the past two seasons.
Is there anything the Phillies can do to help themselves beat the Marlins? I would have argued for adding a righty-killer in the bullpen, but Mike Williams was a disaster late last year and Roberto Hernandez hasn't been a factor this year. They might consider adjusting the rotation to keep Brett Myers away from the Fish while making sure Vicente Padilla's sinker is available in every series.
Really, though, 18 of 20 is just numbers, the kind of fluky thing that can happen even when two closely matched teams meet. We're seeing the picture at one point in time; it's entirely possible that by the end of this year the Phillies will have won seven or eight games from the Marlins, and what looks like dominance now will seem a lot less special.