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October 15, 2009
Dodgers vs. Phillies LCS
It's déjā vû all over again. For the second year in a row, the Phillies and Dodgers face off in the National League Championship Series. Last year, Charlie Manuel's club beat Joe Torre and company in five games en route to their first World Championship in 28 years, with the series turning on Matt Stairs' pinch homer off of Jonathan Broxton in the eighth inning of Game Four. This time, the Dodgers have the home-field advantage, having compiled the best record in the league and then swept the Cardinals in the first round in convincing fashion, shaking out of a brief slump which saw them lose a season-high five straight games between clinching a spot in the playoffs on September 26 and wrapping up the NL West flag on October 3. The Phillies shook off a late-season slump of their own to squeak by the Rockies in four games during their first-round matchup.
These two powerhouses had the league's best run differentials (+169 for the Dodgers, +111 for the Phils). Both teams return to the NLCS after having held first place in their respective divisions for the majority of the season. The Dodgers held sole possession of first place from April 19 onward, the Phils regained first place for good on May 30. Yet both teams' presences here required their manager to navigate around injuries (Jamie Moyer, Brett Myers, Hiroki Kuroda), suspensions (Manny Ramirez, J.C. Romero), and alarming slumps (Brad Lidge, Russell Martin), and general managers to fortify their playoff-bound clubs with significant late-season upgrades, whether at a substantial cost of prospects (Philly's acquisition of Cliff Lee) or through astute use of the waiver wire (LA's pickups of Vicente Padilla and Ronnie Belliard).
Adding color to what's sure to be another a competitive series, the Phillies/Dodgers matchup remains steeped in LCS history. The two teams battled three times for the NL pennant from 1977 to 1983, with the Dodgers taking the first two series in memorable and sometimes bizarre fashion, and the Phils getting the last laugh in 1983. Echoes of those matchups reverberate from the coaching boxes, with former Phillies pepperpot Larry Bowa coaching third base for the Dodgers in his inimitably aggressive style, and former Dodgers base thief extraordinaire Davey Lopes schooling the Phils in the fine art of baserunning as the Phillies' first-base coach. More recently, Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino was astutely plucked from the Dodgers' system via the Rule 5 draft in 2004, right fielder Jayson Werth spent three years in LA before landing in Philadelphia, righty Chan Ho Park served two stints with the Dodgers before becoming a Philly, and righty Pedro Martinez began his career as a reliever whom Tommy Lasorda (himself a Pennsylvania native and 1945 Phillies free-agent signing) deemed too small to withstand the rigors of starting pitching. Dodgers Padilla and Randy Wolf spent the first half of this decade as mainstays of the Phillies' rotation under Bowa, and pinch hitter Jim Thome spent three years as their first baseman before yielding to a young slugger named Ryan Howard.
In terms of more recent history, the Dodgers took the season series 4-3, beating the Phils two times out of three at Citizens Bank Park in mid-May, then splitting four games at Dodgers Stadium in early June.
Dodgers AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA VORP SS-S Rafael Furcal .269/.335/.375 .257 18.4 CF-R Matt Kemp .297/.352/.490 .298 49.6 RF-L Andre Ethier .272/.361/.508 .300 38.4 LF-R Manny Ramirez .290/.418/.531 .327 38.5 1B-L James Loney .281/.357/.399 .272 9.7 3B-R Casey Blake .280/.363/.468 .293 31.6 2B-R Ronnie Belliard .277/.325/.451 .274 11.2* C-R Russell Martin .250/.352/.329 .251 7.5 Phillies AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA VORP SS-S Jimmy Rollins .250/.296/.423 .251 19.7 CF-S Shane Victorino .292/.358/.445 .281 38.3 2B-L Chase Utley .282/.397/.508 .315 62.2 1B-L Ryan Howard .279/.360/.571 .308 48.3 RF-R Jayson Werth .268/.373/.506 .301 43.3 LF-L Raul Ibaņez .272/.347/.552 .298 38.9 3B-R Pedro Feliz .266/.308/.366 .240 4.0 C-R Carlos Ruiz .255/.355/.425 .270 15.8 * Full-season statistics
Both of these offenses can put up runs. The Phillies led the NL in scoring at 5.1 runs per game, while the Dodgers placed fourth at 4.8. Adjusting for ballpark-the Phils play in a hitter-friendy venue, the Dodgers in a pitcher-friendly one-closes that gap to the point where the two teams are essentially even; the Dodgers finished second in the league in EqA at .273, the Phils third at .272. How they get there is another matter.
The Dodger offense relies on its hitters' ability to get on base far more than it does the long ball. Though they ranked just seventh in slugging percentage (.412), 11th in home runs (145), and 14th in percentage of runs via homers (30.1), the team led the league in both batting average (.270) and OBP (.346), and there simply isn't an easy out in the lineup. Furcal went 6-for-12 in the LDS, an extension of the torrid September/October performance (.330/.400/.491) which suggested he'd finally regained confidence in his surgically-repaired back after five months of tentative play. Belliard, who stole Orlando Hudson's job with a .351/.398/.636 September/October after being acquired on waivers in late August, likewise maintained his hot streak, getting on base five times in 13 plate appearances against the Cardinals. Ramirez, whose productivity dipped after being hit on the left wrist by a pitch in late July, showed signs of life via three doubles in the first round, including two in the final game. Regardless of recent history, his .533/.682/1.067 showing in last year's NLCS should be on the Phillies' minds.
Given that just two of their eight regulars are lefties, the Dodger lineup matches up well with a Phillies' rotation whose top three hurlers-Cole Hamels, Lee and J.A. Happ-are all southpaws. The Dodgers hit .272/.359/.427 against lefties, good for the third-highest OPS in the league, whereas their .270/.342/.407 showing against righties was just sixth. Ethier is the only regular here whose performance suffers significantly southpaws; he was manhandled by them at a .194/.283/.345 clip this year, but his .281/.335/.401 showing prior suggests that's an extreme aberration. He carried the Dodgers in the Division Series with 16 total bases, so don't expect Torre to bench him, but a move to a lower lineup spot when facing lefties would seem to be in order. Meanwhile, Furcal (.296/.365/.451), Kemp (.362/.429/.616), and Blake (.320/.442/.563) were all decidedly stronger against lefties than against righties this year, consistent with their career trends. Ramirez has actually posted higher OPS marks against righties than lefties in each of the past two years, though with just 87 plate appearances against southpaws this year, that's a small sample from which one can draw conclusions.
Yadier Molina's presence quieted the Dodgers on the basepaths in the Division Series; they didn't attempt a single steal. Still, they present a threat, if not an entirely productive one. They ranked third in the league in steals (116) but second in caught stealing (48), owing to the fact that they were second in the league in hit-and-run plays; they were just 19-for-42 (45 percent) when batters swung and missed, the third-worst rate in the majors. The price of their overall 71 percent success rate was 8.4 runs, ranking them 28th in EqSBR. Without Juan Pierre in the lineup, their baserunning threat is concentrated in Kemp (34-for-42) and Furcal, who tallied six of his 12 steals in the season's final three weeks, another sign that he's got his groove back.
The Phillies' offense is much more reliant on the home run, with a major league high 45.1 percent of their runs coming via big flies. They ran away with the league lead in long balls; their 224 were 34 more than the second-ranked Rockies. They topped the league in slugging percentage (.447), but ranked just seventh in OBP (.334) and ninth in batting average (.258). Howard, Werth, Ibaņez, and Utley all topped 30 homers, the 12th such quartet in major league history to do so. Rollins, though his batting average and OBP suffered from becoming too pull-happy added 21 dingers as well.
The lineup, or at least the meat of it, tilts heavily to the left, but a 17-point drop in BABIP against southpaws (.291 to .274) is the main driver of what's ultimately a rather minor difference between the unit's overall performance against righties (.262/.334/.445) and against lefties (.248/.335/.452). As has been discussed ad nauseum since Monday night, Howard is a monster against righties (.319/.395/.691 this year), but a mouse against lefties (.207/.298/.356). At the other end of the spectrum, Werth mashes lefties to a paste (.302/.436/.644), but is considerably less dangerous against righties (.256/.347/.457). The rest of the splits aren't so extreme. Victorino hit better against lefties than righties, as has been his career trend. Utley and Ibaņez, on the other hand, broke from recent trends to show reverse platoon splits, as did Rollins, who hit a bit better against righties than lefties.
Don't mistake the Phillies' reliance upon power for a one-dimensional offense. Recall that their 2007 and 2008 clubs posted two of the top four EqSBR totals of the Retrosheet era, and first-base coach Davey Lopes is one of the great high-percentage basestealers of all time. The 2009 edition of the Phils ranked second in the league in stolen bases (119), and were successful 81 percent of the time, by far the league's top mark, though the net gain of that was just 2.7 runs according to EqSBR, in part because they were just 21 for 29 stealing third base. Four players swiped at least 20 bags, and all were successful at least 75 percent of the time: Rollins was 31-for-39, Victorino 25-for-33, Utley a perfect 23-for-23 (a modern-day record for steals in a season without being caught), and Werth 20-for-23. Even Howard was eight for nine. In the Division Series, Utley swiped a pair, Victorino and Cliff Lee (!) each added one, and Howard was caught. Also, it's worth noting that the team favors hit-and-run attempts, ranking fourth in the league in such plays, and that they went 24-for-37 (65 percent) on swings and misses, the second-best success rate in the league.
Dodgers AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA VORP LF-L Juan Pierre .308/.365/.392 .277 16.4 2B-S Orlando Hudson .283/.357/.417 .280 27.4 PH-L Jim Thome* .249/.366/.481 .287 23.5 @ DH PH-R Mark Loretta .232/.309/.276 .211 -7.6 SS-R Juan Castro .277/.311/.339 .232 0.2 C-R Brad Ausmus .295/.343/.368 .260 3.1 Phillies AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA VORP OF-R Ben Francisco* .257/.332/.447 .274 13.0 INF-R Miguel Cairo .267/.283/.422 .239 0.5 @ PH OF-L Matt Stairs .194/.357/.379 .261 1.4 C-L Paul Bako .224/.308/.336 .232 -1.6 4C-L Greg Dobbs .247/.296/.383 .238 -0.7 @ PH UT-R Eric Bruntlett .171/.224/.238 .170 -9.3 @ PH *: Full-season combined statistics
The Dodger bench drew just four plate appearances during the Division Series, but earned its moment in the sun thanks to Loretta's game-winning pinch hit in Game Two. Compared to Torre's latter-day Yankees squads, it's a decent collection of players. Pierre did an admirable job filling in during Ramirez's suspension as well as coming off the pine, hitting .326/.396/.419 in 51 pinch-hitting appearances. Though just 30-for-42 in stolen bases, his ability to beat out an infield hit and steal his way into scoring position shouldn't be underestimated if the Dodgers need to manufacture a run. In the last round, he hit the reserve's trifecta, being called upon in all three games: once to sacrifice, once to pinch-run, and once to replace Ramirez defensively.
Hudson was consigned to pinch-running and defensive-replacement duty in the Division Series, as Torre chose to stay with the hot-handed Belliard at second. It wouldn't be surprising to see the O-Dog re-enter the lineup if Belliard cools off, but for now he's riding the pine. Loretta fell out of favor by going just 7-for-50 in the pinch following a 7-for-10 start, but earned some redemption with his knock. Thome was acquired to be the Dodgers' answer to Stairs; he's a tantalizing bench threat thanks to those 564 career home runs, but he's just 4-for-19 since being acquired from the White Sox, and has been dealing with plantar fasciitis. Castro and Ausmus are here mainly for their skills as organ donors.
The Phillies' bench went a combined 0-for-8 in their Division Series, with Francisco's eighth-inning catch of a Troy Tulowitzki bloop its only real moment of note. While his presence-whether as a defensive caddy for Ibaņez, pinch hitter or pinch runner-is appreciated, this isn't quite as useful a collection of players as Manuel brought to the dance last year. Cairo has less utility than
Dodgers IP ERA SNLVAR SNWP LHP Clayton Kershaw 171.0 2.79 6.5 .600 RHP Vicente Padilla* 147.1 4.46 3.1 .508 RHP Hiroki Kuroda 117.1 3.76 2.2 .500 LHP Randy Wolf 214.1 3.23 6.0 .564 Phillies IP ERA SNLVAR SNWP LHP Cole Hamels 193.2 4.32 3.8 .502 RHP Pedro Martinez 44.2 3.63 1.3 .536 LHP Cliff Lee* 231.2 3.22 7.4 .605 LHP J.A. Happ 166.0 2.93 5.1 .601 RHP Joe Blanton 195.1 4.05 4.3 .520 *: Full-season combined statistics
A changing-of-the-guard moment has arrived for the Dodgers. After making it no secret that Kershaw was their go-to guy in a potential fifth game following his performance against the Cardinals in Game Two, the 21-year-old now gets the call to pitch the opener. Forget the 8-8 record, the kid can pitch; he posted by far the league's lowest hit rate (6.3 per nine), was second in homer rate (0.4 per nine), and fifth in both strikeout rate (9.7 per nine) and ERA. Righties had better luck against him than lefties (.208/.325/.291, to .173/.237/.252), but only relatively speaking. Fans may salivate or foam at the mouth over the sight of Kershaw's numbers against the Phils early this year (0-2, 5.23 ERA), but the young Jedi has harnessed the Force since he last faced them, putting up a 1.97 ERA and 10.3 strikeouts per nine in 19 starts.
Beyond Kershaw, things get more peculiar thanks to the Dodgers' depth. So peculiar, in fact, that the choices to round out the rotation appear to have hinged on last year's NLCS results and a reunion of the 2004 Phillies' rotation (assuming injured Eric Milton shows up as well). Kuroda, who missed the Division Series due to a herniated cervical disc, received a glowing report from Torre following a five-inning simulated game on Monday, and has been penciled in for Game Three. Injuries cost him about one-third of the 2009 season, but Torre certainly remembers his strong 2008 postseason, particularly the six-inning effort he gave the Dodgers in their lone NLCS win. Meanwhile Chad Billingsley, who went 0-2 with an 18.00 ERA in that series, has been bypassed this time around. Despite leading the team in wins (12) and finishing just six strikeouts behind Kershaw, the nominal staff ace struggled in the second half, with a 5.20 ERA, six quality starts out of 13, and eroding peripherals. His woes may owe something to a hyperextended knee suffered early in August, or simply a lack of stamina; his ERA in the sixth inning during that stretch was an astounding 16.61. That's how you wind up in the bullpen.
The surprise of that decision is compounded by the shock of Padilla getting the ball in Game Two following his seven shutout innings to close out the Cardinals, but then focus and a mid-90s fastball have a way of making an impression. The former Ranger certainly pitched well (3.20 ERA, .553 SNWP and 8.7 K/9) upon being picked up on waivers in August, owing much to the easier league and the friendlier park. Phellow phormer Phil Wolf has been pushed back to Game Four. After finishing a strong 11th in the league in SNLVAR, tying for fourth with 24 quality starts, and tossing at least six innings in 17 straight outings, his quick hook in Game One of the Division Series-after issuing five walks (two intentional) in just 3
Hamels beat the Dodgers twice in last year's NLCS, and will oppose Kershaw in the opener. Despite the notion that he suffered a champagne hangover following a career-high 262 innings through the end of last year's World Series, his strikeout, walk, and homer rates were all virtually identical to his 2008 numbers. A BABIP that rose from .262 to .321 despite similarly consistent batted-ball rates is responsible for his rising ERA, if not his drop in stamina. His five-inning, four-run performance in Game Two of the Division Series against the Rockies is excused by the fact that his wife went into labor during the game. Martinez, literally frozen out of a first-round start, hasn't pitched in a game since September 30, but gets the call in Game Two. His storyline-the legendary hurler in his twilight years getting to face the team that traded him away at the beginning of his career-can't be beat; perhaps Tommy Lasorda or older brother Ramon could throw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium. Though he's shown excellent command (37/8 K/BB ratio) during his abbreviated comeback, it's come against a particularly weak slate of opposing hitters, and even so, he's still averaged less than five innings per start. Expect Manuel to keep him on a short leash, and to follow him with either Blanton or Happ in case a multi-inning effort is necessary.
Game Three starter Lee came into the Division Series having been tagged for a 6.13 ERA over his final seven starts, a span during which he allowed seven of his season's 17 total homers, but nonetheless maintained a stellar 35/4 K/BB ratio. He assuaged most concerns with a near-shutout in the opener and a gritty 7
Dodgers IP ERA WXRL rFRA RHP Jonathan Broxton 76.0 2.61 4.89 2.63 LHP George Sherrill* 69.0 1.70 4.30 1.83 RHP Ramon Troncoso 82.2 2.72 3.50 2.79 RHP Ronald Belisario 70.2 2.04 0.19 2.99 LHP Hong-Chih Kuo 30.0 3.00 1.10 2.32 RHP Jeff Weaver 79.0 3.65 1.75** 4.02 RHP Chad Billingsley 196.1 4.03 3.72** 4.38 Phillies IP ERA WXRL rFRA RHP Brad Lidge 58.2 7.21 -3.26 8.44 RHP Ryan Madson 77.1 3.26 2.32 3.08 LHP Scott Eyre 30.0 1.50 1.55 2.17 RHP Chan Ho Park 83.1 4.43 1.93** 3.00 RHP Chad Durbin 69.2 4.39 0.95 4.96 LHP Antonio Bastardo 23.2 6.46 -0.10# 7.06 rFRA: Relief-only FRA *: Full-season combined statistics **: SNLVAR + WXRL #: SNLVAR
Let us not mince words: given the Dodger rotation's limited stamina, this team's post-season fate falls squarely on the shoulders of their bullpen. Fortunately, those are big shoulders, and Torre demonstrated his knack for using his relief corps to shorten games in the Division Series. Their bullpen has such depth that they were able to withstand the early hook of Wolf, and to match up Broxton with Albert Pujols in the late innings of all three games, regardless of whether it was the eighth or ninth. Dodger relievers tossed 9
Not that it should be a great surprise, given that the team led the league with 13.2 WXRL, and that Broxton not only led the league in that category, but led all relievers in strikeouts (114) and strikeout rate (13.5 per nine). The deadline addition of Sherrill was key, as it prevented Torre from burning out the likes of Belisario and Troncoso while offering him a hurler who smothers lefties (.163/.226/.261 career) and has experience closing; Sherrill put up a 0.70 FRA in high-leverage duty after coming over. Fellow southpaw Kuo's second-half return to form (2.19 ERA, 28/9 K/BB ratio in 24
By contrast the Phillies' bullpen rates as a serious concern, even after Manuel successfully navigated it through the Colorado series. One year after converting every save opportunity en route to a World Championship, Lidge blew 11 saves and set a record for the lowest single-season WXRL. The Phils mulled various options during the season's final weeks, but ultimately Manuel gave him the ball to close out the final two games, albeit with a caveat. Reintroducing a cut fastball into his repertoire against lefties, Lidge worked around a pair of walks while pitching the entire ninth inning in Game Three, and came on with two outs and two on in Game Four-following Manuel's situationally-based choice to start the inning with the lefty Eyre-to strike out Troy Tulowiztki, closing out the series.
Part of the reason Manuel wound up returning to Lidge is because of the rest of the bullpen's limitations, primarily due to injuries. Madson remains his top set-up man, capable of missing bats and getting more than three outs when the need dictates. The most obvious choice to supplant Lidge-he saved 10 games this year-Madson's move to the ninth leaves a vacuum that the Phils couldn't fill. The Phils had hoped Brett Myers could assume a high-leverage role, but he remains less than 100 percent following hip surgery. Trouble finding the strike zone in his sole Division Series appearance, as well as doubts about his ability to pitch consecutive days, have cost him a roster spot in favor of Park. The team's second most effective reliever (2.1 WXRL, 3.00 FRA, 9.4 K/9 after moving from the rotation), Park hasn't pitched in a game since September 16 due to a hamstring strain. Durbin's a lower-leverage righty who walks far too many hitters for his own good (5.8 UIBB/9); he nonetheless saw eighth-inning duty in Game Three, after Manuel used Madson to put out a fire lit by Eyre in the seventh. Eyre, of course, is now the top lefty due to J.C. Romero's torn flexor tendon; he doesn't stifle lefties to quite the extent of most specialists (.240/.321/.396 career), nor does he miss many bats. Bastardo is a rookie who showed little platoon difference during his June in the rotation, but he did whiff 7.2 per nine.
How Manuel will use Blanton and Happ, his two options to start Game Four, remains to be seen. Blanton served in middle relief in Game Two and as the long man in Game Three, surrendering a run each time. Happ faced one batter in Game Two, gave up a hit, and served up a dud of a start (three innings, seven baserunners, three runs) under frigid conditions before departing due to a comebacker off of his shin. The summer's rotation savior scuffled down the stretch, with a 4.83 ERA and zero quality starts after August 27.
The Dodgers topped the majors' in Defensive Efficiency (.714) and finished second in Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (2.55), a vast improvement over 2008 owing to Furcal's return to regular duty, the upgrade from Jeff Kent to Hudson at second, and a surprisingly strong season at the hot corner from Casey Blake. Belliard actually rated better than Hudson according to both UZR and FRAA, though he appeared to suffer a communication breakdown with Matt Kemp on Ryan Ludwick's bloop single in Game Two of the Division Series; Plus/Minus gives the O-Dog the advantage, mainly due to his skill handling balls in the air. Whatever the numbers say, Torre did use Hudson as a late-inning defensive replacement in all three games. As for the outfield, the consensus of those three metrics shows Kemp as rating above average in center field, Ramirez as below average (but not drastically so), and Ethier all over the map, ranging from -14.1 runs (UZR) to +10 (FRAA). Behind the plate, Martin does a good job of keeping the running game in check, cutting down 30.8 percent of would-be base thieves. While his bat has suffered plenty, he remains nimble afield.
The Phillies ranked sixth in the league in both Defensive Efficiency (.694) and PADE (0.32). Their infield features a pair of major assets in Utley and Feliz, both of whom were above average via all three metrics. Rollins and Howard both rate a couple of runs above average in UZR but below average in the other two, though not enough to lose sleep over. Where things get a bit less clear is the outfield. Werth's a strong enough fielder to spot in center, and rates above average across the board, but Victorino, who won a
Derided for bringing an 84-win team to the playoffs last year, Torre showed up for his record-tying 14th consecutive trip with a much stronger team this time around, one that plays to his strengths, with a deep bullpen that appears to be engineered for October, and few decisions to make regarding the lineup. Thus far, he's demonstrated that even without a Mariano Rivera to call upon, his handling of a bullpen in October remains a signature skill. He's utilized his bullpen to shorten games, deviating from orthodoxy by calling upon his closer before the ninth when the situation merit-even if that means bringing in another pitcher to work the ninth. The streaking Belliard has made his choice to bench Hudson, who earned All-Star honors for a strong first half, look like the right one thus far. In light of Ethier's struggles against lefties, it will be interesting to see if he breaks from his late-season tendency to bat him third nonetheless, or to move him lower in the order.
As noted last time around, Manuel won't draw comparisons to Tony La Russa for tactical acumen or Lou Piniella for his dramatic flair, but he certainly quieted some of his critics by bringing home a World Championship last year. In contrast to years past, when he's cobbled together some interesting platoons, he's had the benefit of a set lineup this year; Ibaņez's groin strain was the only DL-worthy injury the Phillies' lineup suffered all year. The pitching was another story, as he had to work around rotation injuries and Lidge's collapse. A few weeks ago, his decision to stick with Lidge looked like madness, but given the closer's minor resurgence in the Division Series, Manuel's low-pressure style may yet produce a better result than all of the Piniella tantrums put together.
The Dodgers posted the majors' best run differential this year, 58 runs better than the Phillies. That's a massive gap that hasn't been undone by the latter's addition of Lee, particularly given their bullpen muddle, nor by the matchups here. With their righty-heavy lineup and a deep bullpen, the Dodgers are simply better set up to attack the Phillies' weaknesses-and counteract their strengths-than vice versa, and they have the benefit of home-field advantage as well. Dodgers in six.