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October 3, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

Rockies versus Phillies

by Christina Kahrl

I suppose I could ask if this series isn't something like Will Carroll talking about having Alyssa Milano and Jenn Sterger as his guests on BPR-who's hotter, and who's hottest? The Phillies and Rockies might be the two hottest teams in baseball, having both managed to knock off their divisions' defending champs to make it into the playoffs, the Phillies as the NL East winners, the Rockies as the circuit's Wild Card team. Since I'm more the crème brulee type anyway, I suggest we skip past the cheesecake observation and focus on the meat in what figures to be a high-scoring bloodbath where most of the moundsmen are in danger of getting splattered.

Lineups


Rockies                 AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
2B-S Kazuo Matsui      .288/.342/.405   .258   16.9
SS-R Troy Tulowitzki   .291/.359/.479   .269   37.8
LF-R Matt Holliday     .340/.405/.607   .318   75.0
1B-L Todd Helton       .320/.434/.494   .308   51.9
3B-R Garrett Atkins    .301/.367/.486   .278   34.8
RF-L Brad Hawpe        .291/.387/.539   .297   37.4
CF-R Ryan Spilborghs   .299/.363/.485   .283   16.5
C-R  Yorvit Torrealba  .255/.323/.376   .235    4.6

Phillies              AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
SS-S Jimmy Rollins   .296/.344/.531   .290   66.1
2B-L Chase Utley     .332/.410/.566   .321   68.8
LF-R Pat Burrell     .256/.400/.502   .303   34.5
1B-L Ryan Howard     .268/.392/.584   .315   53.6
CF-R Aaron Rowand    .309/.374/.515   .293   52.0
RF-R Jayson Werth    .298/.404/.459   .297   18.3
3B-R Wes Helms       .246/.297/.368   .228   -5.1
C-R  Carlos Ruiz     .259/.340/.396   .255   13.0

Werth and Helms are here as my best guesstimate of what Charlie Manuel might decided to do going into an initial game against a lefty ace; he could also decide to plug in Abraham Nunez at third base for defensive purposes (and batting eighth), and he could also possibly start a somewhat-recovered Shane Victorino instead of Werth in right field. The latter's not that likely; Werth's team-leading .591 SLG against lefties isn't something Manuel's likely to want out of the lineup, especially not in a pair of parks where big flies become crooked numbers. The real point here is that when the Phillies face a lefty, they like to sometimes bump Utley up from the third-hole and insert Burrell between the star second baseman and Howard. Manuel has been able to overlook Burrell's occasional problems with a tough right-hander, taking his times on base as a big-inning building block, but Burrell's also improved his situational hitting; his percentage of runners on base that he's plated increased from 14.7 percent in 2006 to 16.5 percent in 2007, the third-best mark on the team, behind only the much more highly-regarded Howard and Utley.

As sabermetrically orthodox as it might be to perpetuate the assumption that lineup design doesn't matter, when it comes to in-game tactics and bench management when the stakes are high, you can bet that managers are going to sweat the small stuff. In a nutshell, that's also why the Phillies have their three-headed third base platoon, with Helms spotting against most lefties, hackmaster Greg Dobbs taking his cuts against right-handers, and Nunez handling defensive responsibilities because the other two are really more like light-hitting first basemen trying to avoid getting into too much trouble at third. Instead of a quandary, the Phillies have a slot in which they use limited, relatively cheap players to their advantage.

The Rockies lineup is a much more straightforward animal, but also not nearly as good, rating a comparatively modest sixth in EqA in the league at .263, well behind the Phillies' league-leading .278. Even with Matt Holliday's breakthrough season and Helton's modest renaissance, the Rox can't match the Phillies in terms of offensive firepower. Another major problem is that one of their most important supporting players, Brad Hawpe, is really a platoon player without value against lefties, hitting only .214/.283/.397 against them. Matsui also takes a hit, at which point you get down to a lineup against Cole Hamels with only five genuinely useful bats. Another recent regular, stretch-drive hero Ryan Spilborghs, is in danger of being exposed as your basic solid fourth outfield type coming down from a good run. Add that up, and you've got an offense in danger of becoming a short-sequence unit against a quality left-hander, basically Tulo through Atkins, but happily, the Phillies only have one of those.

Benches


Rockies                 AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
CF-L  Cory Sullivan    .286/.336/.386   .246    2.9
C-R   Chris Iannetta   .218/.330/.350   .234    0.2
INF-R Jamey Carroll    .225/.317/.300   .218   -7.6 @2B
plus two of
4C-R  Jeff Baker       .222/.296/.347   .216   -5.1 @PH
UT-R  Clint Barmes     .216/.237/.297   .170   -2.3 @PH
MI-L  Omar Quintanilla .229/.280/.286   .186   -3.7 @2B
OF-L  Seth Smith*      .270/.333/.445   .267     NA
* translated minor league stats

Phillies                 AVG/ OBP/ SLG    EqA   VORP
4C-L  Greg Dobbs        .272/.330/.451   .263   10.0 @3B
OF-S  Shane Victorino   .281/.347/.423   .271   17.1 @RF
INF-S Abraham Nunez     .234/.318/.282   .214   -9.4 @3B
2B-R  Tadahito Iguchi*  .267/.347/.400   .272   14.9
C-R   Chris Coste       .279/.311/.419   .244    3.6
plus two of
OF-L  Michael Bourn     .277/.348/.378   .272    6.0 @LF
OF-S  Chris Roberson    .286/.310/.286   .222   -0.4 @RF
C-R   Rod Barajas       .230/.352/.393   .255    3.4
*: combined stats

This is an area of significant advantage for the Phillies, and not simply because they've decided to go with a full seven-man bench. Qualitatively, the Phillies have an advantage in having the other halves of their third base platoon and their right field job-share, as well as Iguchi, a solid enough hitter to start at second for a majority of clubs. Beyond that, carrying Bourn and/or Roberson will give Manuel pinch-runners to use in specifically those roles; don't be surprised when you see Bourn act as Burrell's fresh set of legs in the eighth inning or so on the road, and perhaps even the sixth or seventh at home. Finally, they even have the advantage of hitters with some track record of success in the always-difficult pinch-hitting role; Dobbs has hit .277/.375/.489 with 17 RBI in 56 pinch-hit appearances, and Iguchi and even Helms (albeit not this year) have had success in the role. With this mix of power, speed, plate coverage, and defensive utility, it's safe to say that Manuel has a pretty deep arsenal to help pull off big innings or play for one run, and force Hurdle to make quick pitching changes to keep up with certain matchups.

In contrast, the Rockies have Sullivan as a relatively weak lefty-hitting alternative to Spilborghs in center, but he does have the sort of skills as a speedster that might make him a useful enough pinch-hitter in inning lead-off situations. Iannetta may be the catcher of the future, and he may have repaired his good name with some solid production during a brief demotion, but he's not likely to draw much time behind the plate. Carroll's mostly harmless, and the designated defensive replacement for Atkins at third. Baker didn't really blossom in his opportunity to be Hawpe's platoon partner in right; if he had, he'd be a more certain member of the playoff roster. It's because of these weak options that we might see Smith stick, especially in light of his heroics on Monday against the Padres, but also because this bench could use a lefty bat with some sock.

Rotations


Rockies                  IP    ERA   SNLVAR  QERA
LHP Jeff Francis       215.1  4.22    5.4    3.90
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez      82.0  4.28    1.8    4.24
LHP Franklin Morales    39.1  3.43    1.3    4.12
RHP Josh Fogg          165.2  4.94    2.3    4.97

Phillies                 IP    ERA   SNLVAR  QERA
LHP Cole Hamels        183.1  3.39    5.2    3.21
RHP Kyle Kendrick      121.0  3.87    3.2    4.69
RHP Kyle Lohse*        192.2  4.62    3.5    4.67
LHP Jamie Moyer        199.1  5.01    3.2    4.61
*: combined stats

Going up against two tough lineups will be a pair of rotations with at least two things in common-they both have lefty aces who will be able to go in the series opener, and they both have ad hoc setups beyond those aces. The Game One matchup between Hamels and Francis-perhaps to be repeated in Game Five-might have the makings of a great pitcher's duel in the abstract. Unfortunately, they'll be pitching in a bandbox, and against those lineups. Add in that the Phillies drub lefty pitching, and that they've crushed Francis both times they've seen him this year, and you can probably dispense with the hope that there's going to be even one pitcher's duel in this series. Hamels seems to have healed up, and as he's never yet had to face the Rockies during his brief career, he should be a pretty tough assignment for them, with a very solid shot at overpowering them to give Philly a 1-0 head start in the series.

The problems really start from there, as the Rockies have to pick between a pair of hard-throwing rookies-righty Ubaldo Jimenez and lefty Franklin Morales-for the Game Two assignment, while the Phillies will turn to their own rookie reinforcement, Kyle Kendrick. Kendrick doesn't have the same kind of power assortment as either Jimenez or Morales, but he's fit right in with veterans Kyle Lohse and Jamie Moyer as far as delivering good-enough starts and frequent-enough quality starts, games that the Phillies' offense can turn into wins.

The wild card here is whether either Jimenez or Morales might be able to bushwhack the Phillies' lineup, something I actually find likely, and because the Rockies should be able to score off of all of the non-Hamels starters the Phillies run up against them, there's a chance for one of the two of them to catch a break by being handed a huge lead, and then just pumping gas over the plate. I especially like the odds once the series moves back to Denver, because there things could get really ugly. Lohse and Moyer will be hard-pressed to succeed in Coors Field, while the Rockies will go with the other rookie and journeyman mediocrity Josh Fogg.

Bullpens


Rockies                  IP    ERA    WXRL   QERA
RHP Manny Corpas        78.0  2.08   4.158   3.35
LHP Brian Fuentes       61.1  3.08   0.392   3.98
RHP LaTroy Hawkins      59.0  3.42   0.271   4.12
LHP Jeremy Affeldt      55.1  3.51  -0.647   4.64
RHP Jorge Julio*        62.0  5.23  -1.302   4.04
RHP Matt Herges         48.2  2.96   1.927   4.37
RHP Ryan Speier         18.0  4.00   0.252   4.62
RHP Taylor Buchholz     93.2  4.23   0.828   3.99
*: combined stats

Phillies                 IP    ERA    WXRL   QERA
RHP Brett Myers         68.2  4.33   1.647   3.09
RHP Tom Gordon          40.0  4.73   1.269   4.00
LHP J.C. Romero*        56.1  1.92   2.822   5.31
RHP Clay Condrey        50.0  5.04   1.607   4.65
RHP Jose Mesa*          50.2  7.11  -0.193   5.48
RHP Antonio Alfonseca   49.2  5.44  -0.099   5.57
RHP Geoff Geary         67.1  4.41   0.726   4.84 out this round
*: combined stats

Both rotations are a recipe for early exits and a battle between the two teams' bullpens, where things get a lot more interesting, and perhaps slightly less gory. The problem is that where the Rockies enjoy the benefit of a fully-stocked pen, the Phillies most definitely do not.

Sometimes, statheads need to learn to be careful what they wish for, because we finally have a club willing to come down to ten pitchers on a postseason series roster, only to be left with the reminder that what really matters is which pitchers you have. When your bullpen's down to three guys you're not too frightened of using, and three other guys who scare you enough to make sure that you do rely almost entirely on the first three, that's not exactly optimal. If the Phillies had a rotation that consistently delivered leads into the seventh and eighth innings, who those last three relievers were might not have mattered much. The problem is that the Phillies don't have that rotation, and there are going to be games where either Romero gets worked too long, or Pulpo or Mesa have to protect a lead, and the results might be about as appetizing as a petroleum jelly martini-sticky, unappetizing, and the sort of experience that leaves asking yourself at what point you thought it was a good idea. There's also the open question of whether or not Myers, Gordon, and Romero might not be worn down already, if not by their total workloads-all three men have managed heavier across entire seasons-than by their more recent heavy usage.

In contrast, the Rockies can help their more unpredictable rotation with a pen that has both more talent and much more depth. They boast a nice mix of talent and pitching types, with late-game duties going to homegrown flamethrower Manny Corpas. The Rockies have a pen seemingly made up almost entirely of ex-closers, all of whom seem to have adapted reasonably well to pitching at altitude. While Jorge Julio's control problems will probably keep him out of the really close games, look for Rockies manager Clint Hurdle to play matchup games effectively, especially using lefties Brian Fuentes and Jeremy Affeldt to minimize the damage the sluggers like Utley and Howard can do in the middle innings.

[Ed. note: As it turns out, Jorge Julio didn't make the playoff roster; in his place, the Rockies have plugged in Mark Redman. Yes, that Mark Redman. Whether Julio commits seppuku remains to be seen, but let's just assume that the odds of Redman being a difference-maker are low.]

Defense

Both clubs can boast athletic defenders at key positions-for the Rockies, at short, Tulo is the rangy type with the arm to make tremendous throws from the hole, while Rollins is perhaps the more classically dextrous alternative for the Phillies. Neither team has some infamously rag-armed outfielder begging to be exploited by opposing baserunners; instead, everybody throws pretty well, and some-Brad Hawpe in particular-have strong, accurate guns.

The Rockies' rise to among the top teams in Defensive Efficiency hasn't simply been the product of employing gifted defenders; they've also benefited from some committed efforts at improvement, as Atkins has become better-not good, but better-at third, Hawpe has gone from an obviously converted first baseman to adequate, and Matt Holliday no longer looks like he's trying to catch passes in left field, generally showing better routes and range. Losing Willy Taveras' glove in center field might have been a problem, except that Spilborghs has proven to be every bit as talented in covering the gaps. With Helton still pretty mobile at first, and Atkins making a better effort (especially at starting the deuce), the Rockies' defense is probably the better of the two in terms of generating key double-plays and being able to respond to sac bunt attempts.

In contrast, the Phillies have some specific weaknesses. Both Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell might make lovely DHs someday, and the platoon at third base can't really pick it at the hot corner, at least not until Nunez comes in for Dobbs or Helms. Problems at the corners can come back to haunt you in tight games or in extra innings; don't be surprised if somebody on the Phillies has a Russell Branyan playoff moment, not unlike the one that Branyan had for San Diego last year, which helped put the Cardinals in the World Series.

Behind the plate, Carlos Ruiz does a good job of helping control the running game, seeing less than one attempt against him per game, and throwing out more than 31 percent of the would-be bandits. In contrast, Torrealba (and Iannetta) work with their pitchers to keep runners close, limiting opportunities, but allowing almost 80 percent of attempts to succeed.

Managers

Given the likely roster selections, the matchup between Manuel and Hurdle has unusual and unexpectedly interesting possibilities. Will Manuel use his position players faster than he can force Hurdle to run through his bullpen? Will this create some sort of late-inning mismatch? Neither manager is ever going to be accused of genius, but this matchup speaks to what each man has done exceptionally well this year.

Manuel has managed to find uses and create playing time for flotsam like Dobbs and Werth, but he's also gone where no Bowa has gone before, and valued Burrell's ability to get on base and kill lefty pitching, while also creating a flexible lineup role in which Burrell has been able to shine. Manuel also has some really useful double-switch options, relying on his small horde of outfielders.

Both managers like to run a bit, but Manuel basically lets his best runners (Rollins, Victorino) run free, employs Bourn aggressively when he needs that extra base, but also isn't afraid to let guys like Carlos Ruiz or Jayson Werth take their chances, with almost uniformly admirable results. In contrast, the Rockies really only have Kazuo Matsui to run with as long as Willy Taveras is out, and as noted before, Ruiz isn't someone you can run wild on.

On defense, both managers also like to employ the intentional pass, which might prove dangerous to both men, albeit for different reasons. Where the Phillies have too few reliable relievers to afford the extra baserunners (and the likely runs they represent when guys like Pulpo or Joe Table are on the mound), Hurdle might end up using the free pass as a way to buy time and space in which he can avoid making too many pitching changes too early on.

Prediction

It's a series any former beer leaguer-or anyone who remembers the '93 Phillies-can warm up to. In the end, a healthy Hamels is what's going to make the difference, giving them a 1-0 advantage that will allow them to survive their having to go back to Denver and see the veteran moundsmen take a beating or two; expect double-digit scoring in at least one of the games in Coors, and perhaps another lost to the Phillies' ghastly middle relief options. As a result, Philly is going to need to have to go back to their ace in a fifth game. In what might end up being a pyrrhic victory, the Phillies will win it in five when Hamels beats the Rockies a second time.

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

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