October 5, 2010
NLDS Preview : Phillies vs. Reds
Back in the '70s, the Phillies and the Reds were half of a quartet of clubs that basically owned the National League. Dial up National League post-season action, and you'd get the Reds or the Dodgers from the old NL West, and the Pirates or the Phillies from the old NL East. That foursome won nine pennants and 18 of the 20 playoff slots from 1970-79; get picky and run from 1971-80, and it's still niine of 10 and 17 of 20. Yet for all that, this will be just the second time two of the league's founding franchises get to square off. You have to be a fan of a certain age or owe a bit to Joe Posnanski to have much memory of the 1976 NLCS, which was the Big Red Machine's stepping stone to its second (and last) pennant—they had to go through crushing the Phillies first, sweeping three in the best-of-five, with the third game decided in Cincinnati after an exchange of blown saves.
We can keep all of that in mind here in the present, because history has a way of being an echo chamber. As the Reds were seen then, the Phillies of today are generally regarded as the best team in the league, although they are already a two-time defending pennant winner. The Reds of today, armed with a recently arrived crop of young talent, can cast themselves in an optimistic light not unlike the Phillies of the '70s. But will they do any better as today's obvious underdog than the Phillies did as yesterday's?
Much depends on how far you watch to stretch one brand of dogginess over another. The Reds actually didn't fall that far behind the Phillies in third-order winning percentage, with less than a win's worth of difference between the two clubs once you adjust for expected runs scored and allowed and strength of schedule. Indeed, take things to that level of analysis, and for all of the Phillies' star power, they wind up being the surprising underdog in their own division, outperforming their expected record by seven wins, the second-best bit of overperformance in the circuit. Viewed through that same lens, the Reds still win their division, but then with a 43-18 record against everyone in that crowd beyond the Cardinals, you've still got the perception that Reds won as handily as they did by lording it over a weak field of divisional rivals.
But full-season data doesn't necessarily tell you what the teams are coming into LDS with. The 162-game Phillies had to deal with a wave of injuries that cost them six of their eight everyday players in the lineup at varying junctures, but all six are available in this series. The 162-game Phillies also had to rely on Joe Blanton as their third starter for two-thirds of the year, but in light of the series' schedule and the acquisition of Roy Oswalt before the July deadline, Kentucky Joe might be little more than a paid witness to the proceedings in this round. In contrast, the Reds may not have their full assortment at full strength, and the virtue of their depth, so valuable over the six-month slog, counts for very little in these do-or-die proceedings.
While it might seem easy to discount both lineups because they play in parks that help hitters, it's important to keep in mind that the Reds rank first and the Phillies are tied for seventh in team-level True Average, so it isn't like either attack is a park-generated patsy. The Reds lose 35 points of slugging in road venues, the Phillies 32, and since none of this series' games are going to be played in Petco Park or the like, you can expect whatever mistakes the pitchers make to get punished, and not just die in an alley to be named later. In terms of their respective Guillen Numbers, the Reds rank eighth in the majors, scoring 37 percent of their runs on homers, while the Phillies rank 12th by plating just over 35 percent of their runs on taters.
There are also a lot of similarities beyond the parks between the two teams: monster lefty/righty power combos and plenty of OBP in the heart of the orders, flexibility and depth in both outfields, and even a pair of catchers who can add some offense at the bottom of both lineups. The most dangerous similarity here is that while both offenses rank among baseball's best, both clubs have nevertheless been very old-school when it comes to their lineups, favoring some of their worst sources of OBP this season atop the order for reasons of speed, bat control, past habit, and/or the reputations of the players involved. That might change with Jimmy Rollins at less than full speed, but pushing him down to the seventh slot in the postseason and leading off Shane Victorino, long a favorite hobbyhorse for fretting Phillies phans, has yet to happen anywhere outside of well-intentioned wishcasts. Still, Charlie Manuel's mooted the notion, so if you're someone not entirely resigned to that school of thought that batting order doesn't matter, you can retain equal measures of curiosity and comfort that Manuel's not passively pre-printing his lineup card.
It's a notion Dusty Baker might want to emulate, because running with Brandon Phillips and Orlando Cabrera atop the order hasn't done him that many favors. Reds leadoff hitters have produced an awful .306 OBP this season, and Phillips' second-half OBP in any slot is even worse (.305). During the month or so starting in August that Cabrera missed, Baker got creative with who he started in which slots, and went 18-9. Then Cabrera came back, and they went 13-15 the rest of the way, although Baker seemed to keep an open mind, experimenting with Drew Stubbs leading off and Cabrera second, with Phillips dropping down in the order.
Such fidgets aside, there are other things to love about how Manuel designs a lineup. Take the Chase Utley/Ryan Howard tandem; while many of Manuel's peers freak over the possibility of drawing a situational star with a pair of lefties (or three of four, if you extend this through Jayson Werth to Raul Ibanez), Manuel focuses on the things he can control: getting two of his best righty-killing sluggers set up to get at least three cuts at the opposing starter at the top of the order. You can leave the late-game fretting over platoon splits to later; the Phillies focus on getting their leads up front. Add in that Howard has managed to slug as well against southpaws as lefties this time around, while Utley has managed just a .380 SLG against right-handers this year.
Against that, the Reds have the Joey Votto-Scott Rolen-Jay Bruce combo that can plate people in any park, but this isn't quite a lineup that provides as much power top to bottom as its opponents. As noted, they're fronted by that weak duo of a banged-up Phillips and Cabrera, neither of whom were major OBP threats at the best of times, and lower in the order, hitters like Stubbs and Jonny Gomes owe much to their park and mashing against lefties, which should provide Baker with plenty of cause to continue mixing and matching, using Jim Edmonds if available and Laynce Nix if he must in-game. Bruce has had a huge second half, slugging .575 since the All-Star break, but with a 160-point ISO differential in his home/road split, how much of this plays in all parks will have to be proven instead of assumed.
Baserunning will be one of those things that a certain segment of the commentariat is going to chalk up as a clear Phillies advantage, but it's important to keep in mind that this isn't the same collection of speedsters of old. Since their all-time top 10 finishes in 2007 and 2008 in team baserunning, they dropped out of the top 10 of the major leagues in 2009 and 2010. They have a definite advantage when it comes to stealing bases when the opportunities arise, but the Phillies will also be running against a much stronger pair of throwers than the Reds will have to.
One strange factoid is that while the Phillies rank among the game's leaders in NetDP (fifth overall), it isn't like they're doing that much fussing over avoiding the deuce, nor should they. A big part of the problem was Wilson Valdez (11.32 NetDP), but the regulars are a lot less likely to hit into twin killings. Manuel isn't going to waste his time or yours with a lot of ticky-tack tactics, where Baker might find the temptation to try and create something unavoidable, especially running up against the Phillies' big three on the mound.
Both clubs boast strong benches, and both skippers haven't been shy about using them. In Manuel's case, much of that has been a matter of injury-driven need, but aside from Brian Schneider potentially getting a spot start, this crew may not draw a starting assignment in the series among them. The club's bench weapons are a matter of Ross Gload and Mike Sweeney as perhaps the team's high-leverage pinch-hitters, Ben Francisco filling in on double-switches late in games or pinch-hitting early, and Greg Dobbs being utilized as a disposable pinch-hitter as needed. That's if Dobbs is even carried; he might be punted for Domonic Brown in this or later rounds, but for the time being, let's assume his tenuous four-corner utility keeps him in play. Valdez is a necessity as insurance for Utley and Rollins, which may eliminate any chance for his employment as a pinch-hitter.
In contrast, Baker's collection gives him options that will allow him to play matchups on his lineup card as well as in-game. It would be especially significant if Edmonds can at least bat in the series, since that would provide the Reds with a Gibson-grade weapon for pinch-hitting assignments. Those could come batting for Cabrera in particular, but also for Gomes against some right-handers, or for either of the catchers. It would be the best way for them to exploit their big-inning opportunities. Happily, employing Paul Janish at shortstop or Nix and Chris Heisey in the outfield corners improves the defense in-game, and it isn't like any of the three represent major steps down from Gomes or Stubbs at the plate. Double-switching Ryan Hanigan into games to avoid the pitcher's slot coming up is another obvious gambit that spares Baker from burning through his pinch-hitters too soon, but Hanigan should also start as Bronson Arroyo's catcher in Game Two at the very least.
So, in one corner you've got the best trio you'll find on any post-season roster, and perhaps on any post-season roster since those mid-Aughties Astros clubs that Roy Oswalt was a part of. Back then, he was teamed up with Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, but providing oxygen to the H2O phenomenon is hardly a case of slumming in comparison. It's the trio nobody wants to face, what with Doc Halladay's first shot at October, Cole Hamels' to remind people of his '08 heroics, and Oswalt's bid to play as important a role here as he did in 2004 and 2005 for a pennant-winning Astros team.
Against that, you've got Baker's collection and his initial trio of Edinson Volquez, Arroyo, and Johnny Cueto. They've been selected for a jumble of reasons, some good, some less so, and some merely hopeful albeit without a wish upon a star—when it comes to starting pitching, let's face it, the Reds don't got one of d'ose. The decision to patch in Volquez to lead off the series is a straightforward bid to ride the hot hand: Volquez has four straight quality starts, with 31 strikeouts, no homers, and less than a baserunner per frame in 27 2/3 IP. After that, there's reason to wonder why the Reds are making a big deal out of Arroyo's post-season exposure, since it wasn't special, but he is the staff's veteran, and what would you expect Baker to do? The question there is whether Baker is going to exert a quick hook, or truly give his weakest yet most experienced starter enough rope to hang himself. Cueto provided a pair of quality starts against the Phillies this summer, but his overall record against them is poor, and his fly-ball rate is always going to be cause for concern, but especially in this venue against this lineup now that it's relatively healthy. It's a matter of desperate choices being made by a manager confronted with a desperate scenario, considering who his team is up against.
I've speculated in the past about pushing Travis Wood, the rotation's lone lefty, into an assignment against the Phillies. That's in large part on the basis of the Phillies' past rep for struggling with southpaws, as well as the fact that Wood nearly attained perfection against them on July 10, in just his third big-league start. However, it's worth noting that the Phillies' offensive performance this season has been much stronger against lefties (.269/.339/.429), with much weaker production against right-handers (.256/.329/.407) that owed much to Utley's power outage much of the year. Even so, it wouldn't be shocking to see Wood get a Game Four start if he goes unused in the early games, especially if either Volquez or Arroyo struggle and Baker elects to use the one of them who did not pitch in a fifth game.
The Phillies' bullpen is often cause for concern, but one thing that has radically changed for the better is that the Phillies don't have cause to worry about it nearly as often. Handily the least-used pen in the circuit after throwing just 421 innings, the question of whether they have even one reliable situational lefty almost doesn't end up getting asked, because by the time they get to that point, they're almost into Madson-to-Lidge territory for generating holds, saves, and high-fives. If the front three don't disappoint, that won't really change any. To put it another way, if games depend on the outcomes of Bastardo vs. Bruce matchups earlier on, something will have gone very wrong indeed. Manuel can employ Chad Durbin for righty platoon purposes if he isn't just sponging up middle innings, and Jose Contreras serves as the relief crew's utilityman, stepping into save situations, set-up assignments, or long relief as needed.
In contrast, Baker has run one of the most active pens in baseball, using more relievers than all but three other managers. In doing so, and in reliably pursuing situational advantages with overlapping waves of lefty/righty combos, he's also steered clear of the intentional pass, tying with Tony La Russa for being the least likely skipper to call for one, and instead just focusing on getting his matchups. With Nick Masset and Arthur Rhodes doing yeoman's work all season setting up Francisco Cordero, Baker has landed on the earlier combo of Bill Bray and Logan Ondrusek (and sometimes right-hander Jordan Smith), allowing him to mix and match by the sixth inning on. One fun factoid to be found among this is that Bray may have Howard's number, having retired him all eight times they've matched up, with four strikeouts.
The obvious wild card in all of this is Aroldis Chapman, but you can add Wood and Homer Bailey to that mix, in that Baker will have the freedom to hook any of his starters early and turn a game over to a trio of hard throwers who might do exactly what the Reds will need if they're down before the middle innings: keeping the ball out of play by settling situations at home plate, overpowering batters, and helping keep scores from getting out of reach. Whether Chapman is pre-selected to be this October's Livan Hernandez or K-Rod is less important than whether or not he can give the Phillies' lineup fits. With this sort of talent in the pen, it should certainly tempt Baker to go with a more full-staff approach to the series, rather than handing games to individual starters. Whether or not he has that sort of high-wire act in him as a skipper, let alone whether or not it would be enough to beat the Phillies, is entirely speculative.
The other interesting dilemma is whether or not both clubs have closers you'd really want to count on. Brade Lidge's bipolar performance record, swinging from dominance to despair and back again, has had people counting him out (and in) again and again; both failure and success on a post-season stage would be nothing new for the man. Cordero's strikeout rate has been dropping for years, and fooling fewer and fewer people is tough work in a bopper's ballpark. If we wind up with a re-enactment of the 1976 Game Three outcome, where both teams blew saves, color me entirely unsurprised.
Here's another area where the two clubs are much closer than you might expect at first blush. The Reds rank above the Phillies in PADE, but both are in the majors' top 10. For the Reds, they owe much to the fact that they're solid around the horn, without a weak fielder among any of the four regulars; in the outfield, Stubbs and Bruce are excellent, which helps to cover for Gomes' immobility. In contrast, the Phillies have obvious strengths and weaknesses in the infield, with Rollins and Utley ranking among the better middle-infield combos via several metrics, while Ryan Howard continues to try to do as little harm as possible in the best circumstances. As with the Reds, Victorino and Werth cover plenty of ground in center and right, but Ibanez deserves being hooked for defensive purposes. Behind the plate, Chooch might be beloved in Philly, but he's far from the cleanest receiver around, where both Reds' receivers rank as better throwers than catchers.
As noted, the Phillies managed to outperform their expected record by more than every other team in the league but one (the Astros). Manuel continues to amiably mumble his way through his proffered explanations, but he remains among the sharpest skippers around, rarely letting an unnecessary tactic get in the way of a great ballclub. He's an effective in-game manager with plenty of post-season experience, so the "must win today" mindset that so many skippers forget when they shouldn't isn't a problem here.
In contrast, Baker deserves as much credit as he's been accorded, and I say that as someone who predicted he'd win the Manager of the Year Award before the season. If anything, I underrated the man, pegging the Reds for a second-place finish, but through his handling a number of young players and pitchers as well. He landed upon a series of effective combinations in the pen to let him project his relief crew's impact to an earlier point in-game while getting full value of a relatively unheralded starters. It's easy to criticize his starting assignments for the series, but trying to steer his way through this series might well be the operational equivalent of trying to solve the Gordian knot with a set of disposable utensils. Nothing against his options, since he's gotten this far with them, but if he goes for the spork instead of the knife, does it really matter? If Baker insinuates himself into the action with a lot of little-ball options to try to create something, you can blame him or not as you see fit, but the impact on the outcome looms small.
There's not a lot of shock value here. The Phillies are heavy favorites because they're the defending champs, because they boast the league's best record, but perhaps most of all because they may be stronger now than they were at any point of the regular season. The Reds simply have the misfortune of drawing the first-round matchup, and while I think they'll put a few scares into the Phillies after the seventh inning in the first two games, and have a Game Three win in them, this is going to be Phillies in four.