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June 15, 2010

Expanded Horizons

In the Red

by Tommy Bennett

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A boo in Philadelphia often begins as a lonely protest. One frustrated fan will stand and register his discontent with the play on the field. “Boo,” he will say; “I don’t care for this one bit,” he thinks. But boos can take on a life of their own. They multiply and grow until what was once a single moment of frustration and disappointment precipitates from the sky like a deafening cold front. Philadelphia athletes are baptized in this cacophony of dissatisfaction (one that certainly needs no one-dollar accoutrement).

The boo birds have returned to Philadelphia. Many wondered if their traditional migratory patterns had been disrupted by post-season success in 2008 and 2009, but it appears that their noted directional skills and the stupefyingly poor play of the Phillies have conspired to bring them home to roost. Raul Ibañez—.247/.335/.394 and just 4 home runs—that’s a booing. Joe Blanton—7.28 ERA and 11 home runs allowed in 47 innings—that’s a booing. Greg Dobbs—.143/.206/.238 in 69 plate appearances—that’s definitely a booing.

For DeMille, Young Fur-henchmen Can't be Rowing

Since May 22, a date to which we’ll return to in a moment, the Phillies have gone 6-13, a span during which they have fallen from a division lead of 3 ½ games to third place, three games back of the rejuvenated Braves and a game behind the suddenly hot Mets. Over the same period, they’ve allowed 5.2 runs while scoring 2.5 runs a game. They even, in a series of events previously unimaginable to Broad Street denizens, managed to get swept by the Mets without the benefit of scoring even a single run. It is stretch that has, at the least, led prognosticators to cast about for answers.

The first thought of most number-happy calculator-slingers when they see a team go on a skid is that some element of it has been luck. Teams are rarely as good as they look when they’re winning, nor are they as bad as they look when losing, right? But the Phillies' Pythagenpat record over those last 19 games is an even worse 4-15. Perhaps more surprisingly, it has been the Phillies vaunted offense—supposedly the best in the NL—that has failed them. Over the same period, Chase Utley has hit .153/.253/.208; Ryan Howard, .230/.305/.365; and Jayson Werth, .164/.261/.262. You’d boo too, wouldn’t you?

We may not need advanced metrics to tell us that the Phillies’ recent performance has been bad, but it can help identify just how much they have struggled. First, let’s apply David Smyth’s BaseRuns run estimator to the Phillies’ offense and run prevention since May 22. This method, which relies on an intuitive model of run scoring, allows for analysis even in unusual run scoring environments, such as when a team has struggled to score runs. Doing so, we estimate that over this stretch the Phillies would have been expected to score 54 runs and allow 90, a slight improvement on their actual marks of 48 and 98, respectively, but still quite bad (a conclusion verified by the equivalent Pythagenpat record of 5-14).

Pardon Me, Roy, Is That the Cat That Chewed Your New Shoes?

What about opponent strength? Over our 19 game sample, the Phillies have faced (most recent combined Hit List ranking in parentheses) the Red Sox (7), Mets (15), Marlins (17), Braves (6), Padres (3), Marlins again, and Red Sox again. That’s a total of four series played against top-10 teams, and the rest against teams that are about average. You might expect many teams to struggle against a tough slate like that, but you might also reasonably expect a team most expected to make the playoffs to hold its own as well. After all, we’re talking about 11 games against the three strongest teams in the Phillies’ own division. To paraphrase Lester Freamon, that, right there, that is the job—to beat your division rivals, not just in September, but all season long.

To truly understand the magnitude of the Phillies’ struggles, I think it is instructive to visualize their performance over the course of the season. The chart below plots the Phillies’ runs scored and runs allowed for each game (filled dots are runs scored, unfilled dots are runs allowed) and applies a local regression trend line to each data set.

As should be clear from the chart, the team’s struggles began about 20 games ago, which coincides relatively well with our chosen date of May 22. Notice that the trend line for runs scored falls below that for runs allowed at approximately that point, and the runs-scored line has only recently begun to turn upwards. (Note for the curious: I applied a smoothing factor of 3/5 in my LOWESS curve; more sensitive smoothing factors show a more marked uptick in run scoring lately, in large part because of the 10-run effort against the Marlins on June 8.)

On May 22, the Phils faced Daisuke Matsuzaka and got shut out. The next day, they faced Tim Wakefield, who went eight innings without giving up a run. It’s possible the Phillies hit the mother of all funks by facing two of the junk-ballingest pitchers around—and in a day game after a night game, no less. But do effectively wild pitchers really have the ability to bewitch an entire, and otherwise potent, lineup?

One reason the Phillies’ sluggers are prone to extended slumps is because they are not high-contact hitters. In particular, two of the Phillies’ better hitters have high strikeout rates: Howard is at 32.2 percent for his career, and Werth (29.5 percent) isn’t far behind. And while we know the strikeouts by themselves don’t much affect their overall level of performance, what it does do is make it lumpier. Because they put the ball in play less often, the statistical variance on balls in play takes longer to play out, meaning that slumps themselves last longer.

Of course, that doesn’t explain everything. Chase Utley’s struggles can’t be blamed on strikeouts, since he strikes out less than the league average (15.3 percent of PAs this year). There exists legitimate debate about the degree to which Ibañez’s struggles signal an irreversible decline at age 38. While Domonic Brown has put together a nice season at Double-A Reading (.308/.382/.556 through Sunday), he has yet to see time at Triple-A or in the majors. Taking struggles as a cue to call for a shakeup works well enough because of the perceived lack of downside (“what’s the worst that can happen?”), but in reality, it can cause long-term damage to the team.

Sorting out exactly which players are set to rebound and which are struggling requires knowledge only the Phillies have, particularly including medical data. Absent some external reason to think that all of a sudden, the team’s hitters have gotten noticeably and permanently worse, there’s room to think the Phillies will go back to scoring runs—Utley, Werth, and Howard are hitters with good pedigrees and excellent skills. Without other information, it is difficult to believe that three weeks has changed all that.

Silly Rabbi, Kicks are for Trids

So what hope can there be in the Quaker City (other than the new Roots record, of course)? Well, for one thing, the run prevention should actually improve. Blanton’s very unseemly 7.28 ERA is a far cry from his useful-enough 4.82 SIERA. Jamie Moyer shares Blanton’s SIERA despite a 5.02 ERA (inflated to that level only after last Friday's nine-run drubbing). Cole Hamels, who often teeters on the edge of becoming the object of boo-bird ire, has pitched well of late and ranks 18th among starters in SIERA. While Roy Halladay’s SIERA (2.92) is a run above his actual ERA (1.96), perfect games tend to have that sort of effect.

It strikes me that the most likely outcome a week ago was that the Phillies’ offense would improve, and simply because that didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true today as well. Another week of futility should cause fans to temper their optimism some, but not altogether. With J.A. Happ in Double-A on a rehab assignment, and Jimmy Rollins set to begin one tonight, there are signs the Phillies could be ready to improve by the end of the month. After that comes the long, hard work of getting back to where they hoped to be. After all, there was always reason to think the Braves would be good.

Question of the Day

OK, doctors, what’s your diagnosis? How should the Phillies get the red line above the blue line? Will it happen in the natural course of things, or do more drastic measures need to be taken?

Related Content:  Philadelphia Phillies,  Phillies,  Stretch Run

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