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June 24, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Trouble at Home

by Jay Jaffe

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On Sunday, the Phillies fell to the Orioles for their second consecutive sweep and third straight series loss at the hands of an American League team. Though they remained atop the NL East, the defending world champions finished their latest homestand with a 1-8 record, their worst since 2004. Indeed, Citizens Bank Ballpark hasn't lavished much brotherly love on the Phillies this year, and not because of their notoriously leather-lunged fans. The Phillies have gone just 13-22 at home, with a .371 winning percentage that ranks 29th in the majors, surpassing only the Nationals. On the other hand, their 23-9 road record, good for a .719 winning percentage, is the majors' best. What in the name of the Phillie Phanatic is going on?

First, a bit of background. In the full seasons since the 1994-95 players' strike, home teams have won at a .539 clip, setting a single-season high-water mark for the era last year at .556. This year, home teams are winning at a .549 clip, .555 if you exclude the Phillies. Over the course of a season, home-field advantages-the differences between a team's home and road winning percentages-in excess of 150 points are quite common; 63 teams posted such margins from 1996 through 2008, about five per year.

On the other hand, the Phillies' 348-point "home-field disadvantage" is more than double the largest such gap in the post-1960 expansion era of 162-game seasons. That record belongs to the 1998 Royals, who went 29-51 at home and 43-38 on the road, for a difference of 168 points. Note that schedule length makes a huge difference here; eight of the 20 largest gaps have come in strike-affected seasons (1972, 1981, 1994, 1995). That the Phils have played just 41 percent of their schedule strongly suggests their drastic home/road splits are a function of small sample size. Need further evidence? Consider that 12 teams have put up 150-point home-field advantages thus far this year, more than in the last two combined.

Nonetheless, it's worth examining just how anomalous things are. Compare this year's team to last:


      ----------Home----------    ----------Road----------
Year   RS    RA   Pyth  Actual     RS    RA   Pyth  Actual
2008  5.09  4.17  .590  .593      4.78  4.22  .556  .543
2009  4.69  5.69  .412  .371      6.00  4.28  .650  .719

Over the course of a full season, the 2008 squad's home and road records closely reflected their Pythagorean records. This year, they differ wildly, lagging 41 points behind their projected record at home, but 69 points ahead on the road. Those gaps are even more out of line when one considers that the other 29 teams are outperforming their Pythagorean records at home (and thus underperforming on the road) by an average of 29 points, a margin consistent within the post-strike era. In other words, given a .412 Pythagorean winning percentage at home, the Phillies should be winning at around a .441 clip.

Looking more closely at the team's home/road splits and their overall numbers, it's worth remembering that these aren't the 2008 Phillies. The flaws of this year's squad start with the fact that while they're outscoring all other NL teams with 5.3 runs per game, they're allowing runs at the second-highest rate (5.0). The pitching staff has been in disarray all season long thanks to injuries, from Cole Hamels' elbow to Brett Myers' hip to Brad Lidge's knee, and, while healthy, neither Joe Blanton nor Jamie Moyer have lived up to last year's solid performances.

The main problem is that their staff isn't well suited to its home park. Where last year's pitchers generated ground balls on 46.4 percent of all batted balls, good for seventh in the league, this year's model is getting ground balls on only 42.9 percent of batted balls, the league's lowest rate. With Myers possibly out for the year, they lack a single starter above 46.0 percent; it doesn't help that his replacement, rookie Antonio Bastardo, is at 30.0 percent. Blanton, in his first full year with the team, is at 41.1 percent. Chan Ho Park, whose career-best 52.6 percent last year offered hope-both that he could survive outside Dodger Stadium and that the Phillies could add a ground-baller-regressed significantly and was blitzed out of the rotation. Park was replaced by J.A. Happ, who at 38.2 percent is another extreme fly-baller.

Particularly at Citizens Bank Park, those fly balls means more home runs. While its 1002 Park Factor in Clay Davenport's translations means that it's basically neutral as far as scoring is concerned, CBP is very home run-friendly. The park ranked in the top five in home runs in four of the past five seasons, including the major league lead in 2007. It dipped to seventh last year because the Phillies' staff allowed only 0.96 homers per nine at home, 0.37 lower than in any year since the park's 2004 introduction. They're yielding an astronomical 1.65 HR/9 at home this year, as 19.2 percent of all fly balls off of opponents' bats have left the CBP field of play, a rate 50 percent higher than the major league average.

Meanwhile, though Raul Ibañez and Ryan Howard are both getting their share of home cooking (with 29.0 percent and 27.6 percent of their fly balls at Citizens leaving the yard), the Phillies' offense as a whole isn't getting nearly so much love. As a team, just 16.1 percent of their fly balls at Citizens are landing in the seats, versus 17.3 percent on the road. By comparison, Phillies pitchers are yielding homers on 15.9 percent of road fly balls. Luck and defense on balls in play are having their effects on the splits as well. The pitching staff is yielding a .318 BABIP at home, against a .288 mark on the road. Their own hitters, on the other hand, are at .273 at home, .291 on the road. The team's line-drive rates don't fully explain such gaps. The pitchers' rates hardly differ (19.1 percent at home, 19.2 on the road), while the hitters' rates do so by just a little (18.2 percent at home, 19.6 percent on the road).

Given large enough samples, this drastic home/road split will likely settle down and return to something more closely approximating normalcy. Fly balls won't turn into homers as often, and the hits will fall in for the offense, helping to restore order. While Ibañez and Chase Utley may be playing over their heads at the moment, Jimmy Rollins has particularly stunk up the joint at CBP, hitting .192/.247/.338 with a .189 BABIP despite a line-drive rate that's just 0.8 percent lower than on the road (16.8 percent to 17.6 percent). Sooner or later he's likely to modify the pull-happy approach that's pulled down his numbers. Meanwhile, as GM Ruben Amaro Jr. works the phones for another starting pitcher, he'd do well to consider adding a ground-baller.

The bottom line is that if the world champions want a shot at defending their crown, they'll have to find a way to win at home. In the expansion era, only one team has made the playoffs with a sub-.500 home record over a full season, the 2001 Braves (40-41), and no team has ever won a pennant while finishing with a home record worse than 43-38, the mark achieved by the 1973 Mets. The thought of beating the Mets always seems to bring out the best in the Phillies these days; maybe it will do so again.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

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