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March 20, 2007

Hope and Faith

How the Philadelphia Phillies Can Win the World Series

by Steven Goldman

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Brad talks with Steven Goldman about the Phillies' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

I am not a devoted Phillies fan, but in the years before I became publicly associated with the Yankees I did expend a decent amount of hope on them-hope that they'd be entertaining. At times, they were the only baseball I could get.

When I was growing up my father was inexplicably hostile to cable television-I finally got the house wired when he was convalescing from multiple bypass surgery and wasn't in a position to say no-so for years I was limited to watching whatever baseball I could get over the air in central New Jersey.

There was no WGN or TBS for me. My first choice was always the Yankees, but they were moving an increasing number of games over to cable in those years, so on days when MSG exercised their monopoly I was stuck with either the Mets or the Phillies. Being a baseball junkie, when I could I would watch both, or all three, or catch the Yankees on the radio and one of the National League clubs on the tube. In this way I ended up seeing a great deal more of the Phillies than was necessary or even interesting.

At that time, directly after their 1983 "Wheeze Kids" division winners (and, with the exception of 1993, most of the years since), the Phillies were a bland team. From 1984 through 1987 they were, give or take, a .500 club. My main goals in tuning them in were

(1) See some baseball, any baseball;
(2) See a Mike Schmidt home run;
(3) See some interesting players on the visitors' squad.

To this day I feel frustrated about Goal #2. I saw many more Juan Samuel strikeouts and Steve Jeltz groundouts than I did Schmidt round-trippers. Of course, I had come to the party late; by 1988, Schmidt was fading, and by early 1989 he was gone. He hit six home runs before quitting that year, and though I watched a plethora of Phillies games I didn't see any of them. By then the Phillies were a 95-loss team with few vital players. Still, I retain some fond memories of games past, especially the night of August 21, 1990, when I returned home from a night at the movies and turned on the TV hoping to catch the last few innings of the Phillies-Dodgers west coast game. The Phillies entered the top of the ninth trailing 11-3, but the Dodgers bullpen could not protect an eight-run lead. The Dodgers went down 12-11 (the big blow coming on a John Kruk three-run homer), unleashing a memorable Tommy Lasorda temper tantrum.

In the mid-1990s I started attending a lot of Phillies games as well, often on impulse. I was temporarily living closer to Philly, and as few Philadelphians seemed interested in going to the Vet, you could always get your pick of seats. If an interesting team was visiting, I'd grab a seat behind home plate, enjoy the feeling of being at a ballgame, and watch Jeff Bagwell or Barry Bonds poke a couple out of the park.

Since then I've moved closer to New York and the Yankees have bought a near-monopoly on my time, yet I still often manage to watch the Phillies out of old habit. The thought of nipping down to Philadelphia for a game as in the old days remains a temptation, and I'm told by locals that even with the new ballpark it's still possible to get good seats whenever you want them.

This state of affairs may soon be changing. The Phillies have a good team, one that has every chance of winning a weakened National League East. It won't take hope and faith so much as solid execution, a few breaks, and an aggressive stance on the part of their general manager. By September, Phillies seats could be tough to come by.

Actually, even if the Phillies do break out on top, don't fret too much about being able to secure tickets. That new ballpark glow faded quickly, leaving the Phillies with an average of 33,000 a game for the last two years (they were ninth in attendance in 2005, seventh in 2006), and even with good teams at times they last led the National League in attendance in 1950.

Let's start by talking about the three franchise-best talents that will push the Phillies forward. Ryan Howard is the greatest offensive first baseman in Phillies history, at least on the evidence of one season.

TOP 10 PHILLIES 1B SINGLE-SEASON EQA (min. 350 PA)

                YEAR        EqA
Ryan Howard     2006        .346
Dolph Camilli   1937        .338
Dolph Camilli   1936        .331
John Kruk       1992        .330
Dick Allen      1969        .330
Roger Connor    1892        .323
John Kruk       1993        .323
Nick Etten      1941        .323
Jim Thome       2003        .322
Mike Schmidt    1985        .315

Chase Utley is the greatest offensive second baseman in Phillies history, period-including eminent Victorian Nap Lajoie.

TOP 10 PHILLIES 2B SINGLE-SEASON EQA (min. 350 PA)

                YEAR        EqA
Chase Utley     2005        .306
Nap Lajoie      1900        .305
Chase Utley     2006        .303
Solly Hemus     1958        .296
Joe Morgan      1983        .293
Nap Lajoie      1898        .291
Tony Taylor     1970        .290
Placido Polanco 2003        .285
Cookie Rojas    1965        .282
Juan Samuel     1987        .282

Jimmy Rollins is the greatest offensive shortstop in the history of the Phillies, a fluke late-career season by Dickie Thon aside. This one is pretty easy, because the Phillies have rarely had a shortstop who could hit.

TOP 10 PHILLIES SS SINGLE-SEASON EQA (min. 350 PA)

                YEAR        EQA
Dickie Thon     1989        .282
Jimmy Rollins   2006        .279
Bobby Morgan    1954        .274
Jimmy Rollins   2004        .272
Jimmy Rollin    2005        .271
Dick Bartell    1932        .270
Jimmy Rollins   2001        .266
Dick Bartell    1934        .265
Bob Allen       1893        .262
Larry Bowa      1975        .260

That concludes the list of top position players the Phillies have-maybe. Few in Philadelphia seem to want to hear praise, but Pat Burrell is a good hitter. Since the Phillies have moved into Citizens Bank ballpark, he's hit .266/.381/.488. He's taken advantage of the stadium, batting .281/.404/.524 at home, but hasn't been a pushover on the road, hitting .252/.359/.454. Last year, he actually hit with more power on the road, slugging .517 when incurring roaming charges vs. .487 when staying in his calling area. Burrell is not a good defender, his strikeouts can be frustrating, and he gives off a pheromone that causes itchy eyes, runny noses, and feelings of extreme revulsion when combined with the nighttime wind off the Delaware, but he is helpful, not harmful, to the Phillies.

There has been a great deal of prodding by fans and the media to trade Burrell over the years, but had he been dealt without an impact bat coming back, the Phillies offense would have been badly wounded. As it is, there might be trouble if Howard and Utley don't play as well as they did last season and the remaining Phillies don't meet or exceed their PECOTA projections:

                             PECOTA RATES
PLAYER          POS        AVG        OBP         SLG
Rod Barajas     C         .255        .308        .452
Wes Helms       3B        .287        .355        .477
Aaron Rowand    CF        .280        .334        .457
Shane Victorino RF        .293        .350        .459

Victorino's projection looks particularly exciting until you realize he's slotted in right field so that Rowand, who the Phillies never needed to acquire in the first place (had they not been focused on Jim Thome salary relief), can play center. Last year, the average NL right fielder had an OBP/SLG of .345/.453, making Victorino an unexceptional bat at that position if he merely meets his projection. NL centerfielders, however, hit only .335/.418, and there's a good chance that the Hawaiian Hustler can give the Phils a greater edge there than Rowand can provide.

Alternatives in right, including a possible Karim Garcia/Jayson Werth platoon, do not look promising, while Michael Bourn, a future fourth outfielder having a hot spring, is a temptation to be avoided.

The fate of the Phillies outfield ties into that of their pitching. They currently have six starters and will need to shed one before the season begins. The top three, Non-Man of the Year Brett Myers (no, we're not letting that go, not just yet, if ever), the perennially on-the-cusp Cole "The Brawler" Hamels (we probably aren't going to let that go either), and Freddy Garcia (no arrests, no convictions, so he's a bit out of place) should be good. These will be followed by Adam Eaton, who last had a good season never and can be injured by such disparate forces as ennui, schadenfreude, and onion dip.

The last starter, assuming that Eaton doesn't undergo surgery to correct sad silent movie strain syndrome before spring training is over (the Phillies have banned Chaplin's "The Kid" from team flights), will be one of two starters from the Foagy Brigade of Jamie Moyer and Jon Lieber.

It will most likely be Moyer-though he's seven years older than Lieber and in baseball terms is so ancient as to predate the birth of the universe, Lieber cheesed off the Phillies by maintaining the shape of a donut shop last year. Despite this, because his expiration date is somewhat more recent than Moyer's, he's presumed to be the more tradable pitcher.

The bullpen after Tom Gordon looks a bit thin, and Gordon himself could start acting his age any day, or at least spend time on the DL, as he did last year. If GM Pat Gillick shucks his Stand Pat rep and makes a deal involving Lieber that brings back a solid corner-style bat and/or a reliever of substance, then the Phillies will increase their chances. That seems like a lot to ask for Lieber, and it is, but if Gillick could give away Bobby Abreu for nothing, maybe he can acquire another right fielder on the same terms.

As it is, though, Philadelphia's chances are pretty good. The division is there for the taking. The Nats could lose 100 games, and the Marlins will have to get very lucky with their pitching (and acquire a centerfielder) to make a real run of it. That leaves the Braves and the Mets.

The Braves should have a fine offense, and the bullpen should be improved from last season, but the starting rotation remains questionable.

The Mets remain strong, but are due for disappointment. It's probably too much to expect oldsters like Moises Alou, Shawn Green, and Jose Valentin to be both healthy and productive, and Lastings Milledge can only take over for one of them. The starting rotation also contains a spectacular number of "ifs"-will Pedro Martinez come back, and if so, how good will he be? Can Tom Glavine pitch well again at 41? Will Orlando Hernandez pitch like he's 50, or will he pitch like he's 60? Can Oliver Perez be salvaged? How about Chan Ho Park? (The answers to these last two questions currently seem to be "Yes" and "No" respectively.) If they fail, is Mike Pelfrey ready?

The Phillies have fewer questions than the Mets or the Braves. The bottom of their lineup is unspectacular, but even should Gillick fail to acquire a bat they shouldn't be disastrous. They should get solid results from at least three of their five starters, which is more than the Mets or Braves can count on right now. PECOTA sees the trio's current alignments producing these results:

Phillies, 87-75
Mets, 85-77
Braves, 82-80

The lack of separation between the contenders seems about right. These are flawed teams, and it's impossible at this point to know which luck will favor. What is certain is that the Phillies should be right in the thick of things. They haven't built a great club, but they have a good one, and with an intelligent move or two they'll be worth watching for more compelling reasons than being the only ballgame on free TV that night.

Brad talks with Steven Goldman about the Phillies' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.


Click to download mp3

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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