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June 13, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL East

Cole Hamels is the Whole Camel, and Other Tales of a Desultory Divisional Race

by Michael Jong

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The Philadelphia Phillies bounced back from a poor week two weeks ago, including a four-game losing streak to the likes of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals, to pick up five of seven games since last Sunday. This was partly due to the continued success of Cole Hamels, who has turned in one of his best seasons so far in 2011, recording a 2.58 ERA and winning eight games for the NL East leaders.

Of course, this has brought up conversation about Hamels once again regaining “consistency” or “growing up into a man,” the same sort of commentary people were making when he became the 2008 World Series MVP. Hamels’ consistency, or lack thereof, has always been a point of contention. If you look at his career in terms of ERA, it certainly does seem to have been a wild ride, but as Baseball Prospectus author and resident Philly Phanatic Bill Baer has repeated often, Hamels has been a very good pitcher with some varying streaks of luck over the last four seasons:

Year

ERA

FIP

SIERA

2007

3.39

3.83

3.20

2008

3.09

3.72

3.52

2009

4.36

3.72

3.55

2010

3.06

3.67

3.21

Even within seasons, the so-called inconsistency does not bear much weight. Even though the ERA figures seem to oscillate since 2007, Hamels has been consistent in his results in every year except for 2009. When tabulating his Game Scores for each of those seasons, the standard deviations between seasons vary very little:

Year

Game Score Average

Game Score Std Deviation

2007

57.9

15.4

2008

58.8

16.2

2009

51.5

19.2

2010

58.3

15.8

Given what we know about Hamels' BABIP in 2009 (.317) and in the seasons outside of 2009 (.274) and his peripherals during the same time period, we can assume Hamels mostly ran into some bad luck and not necessarily problems of consistency. However, that does not mean that his 2011 outcomes will be as fickle as his previous seasons and regress. The drop in SIERA in 2010 from his 2008-2009 levels could be attributed to an increased ground ball rate from a three-year rate of 41 percent up to 44 percent. This season, that mark is up to 51 percent, and it could be attributed directly to an increase in the use of the cutter that entered his repertoire in 2010. Hamels is now throwing that pitch 14 percent of the time, and is using it to force ground-ball outs in 23 percent of his pitches thrown. This is clearly helping Hamels to a career-low home run rate and a possible conversion into a devastating ground ball pitcher.

---

The Atlanta Braves gained ground on the Phillies in their recent sweep of the Florida Marlins, but they received bad news on the injury front once again, as Martin Prado was placed on the disabled list with a staph infection in his left leg. This brought down the only remaining Opening Day outfield starter for the Braves, putting all three of them on the DL.

Of course, the most important outfielder the team has is Jason Heyward, and he is nursing his injury carefully. Unfortunately, this has not gone over well with veteran Chipper Jones, who implores Heyward to help the team because a partially healthy Heyward is better than no Heyward at all.

What Jason needs to realize is that Jason at 80 percent is a force, and Jason at 80 percent is better than a lot of people in this league. And that there are a bunch of his teammates that are out there playing with discomfort and not healthy.

 Sure, Jones is right. If Heyward were indeed currently at 80 percent, he would certainly be better than any replacement-level players the Braves might send out there (no offense, Matt Young, Jordan Schafer, and Eric Hinske). Right now PECOTA projects Heyward to hit .269/.360/.426, and while that line may not approach the early season expectations many people had for the 22-year-old, that would still be worth something to the Braves. The team could be losing out on 0.3 wins if Heyward returned now instead of two weeks later, and that is something.

But Jones of all people should also be aware of the consequences if Heyward should aggravate an injury that has already been bothering him since the beginning of the season. If there is one player who is aware of injury and how to best manage it, it should be the namesake of BP's injury projection system. Since 2008, Jones has missed 146 days to injury, and not once was he questioned about the level of healthiness he attained when he finally decided to return. Is it not understandable that a player like Heyward, who himself has experienced nagging health issues before 2011, would want to minimize further injury risk by avoiding play until he feels ready? If Heyward is unwilling to play while unhealthy, he may cost his team 0.3 wins in the short run by forcing a Matt Young out there every day, but could potentially save them a lot more by healing completely instead of rushing onto the field.

---

The Marlins were recipients of an eight-game losing streak extending from the previous Arizona Diamondbacks series and lasting through two series sweeps at the hands of the Braves and Milwaukee Brewers. Overall, the Marlins had suffered eight straight losses in one-run games, something that was previously unprecedented for the team. Prior to the season, manager Edwin Rodriguez made it a point for the team to learn how to win the one-run games:

The second thing we’re going to be working on is we’re going to teach them to win those close games… You’re not going to see those guys on Philadelphia allowing a three-run home run too often… So, whenever they give us a chance, we have to make sure we score one or two runs. A big inning for those guys is two runs. So we have to make sure we score that run, stay away from the big inning defensively.

The problem is, that entire idea does not make sense. Players are always trying to get runs. That is, after all, the entire point of the game. Close games just happen to include teams that currently have similar run totals. They likely have similar run totals because they have hit and pitched similarly and, as a result, played about as well as each other.

There is no real secret to winning one-run games other than simple regression to the mean; over time, one-run games even out, and the Marlins were due for a stretch of equalizer games. Prior to this seven-game stretch, the Marlins had won eight straight one-run decisions, dating back to the end of April. During this recent stretch of losses, however, the team did not perform particularly better or worse than their opponents. To illustrate, here are the Marlins' and their opponents' offensive performance during the Fish's eight-game one-run losing streak.

Team

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS

Team 1

.219

.304

.338

.642

Team 2

.223

.275

.376

.650

It is fair to say that both of these performances are atrocious, but neither of them stand out as significantly better than the other. The majority of us would be hard-pressed to determine which of those two “teams” lost eight straight games against the other. It turns out the Marlins were “Team 1,” with a higher OBP and a slightly lower OPS. Was that offensive gap the difference between winning and losing eight straight? I doubt it, but it was enough for owner Jeffrey Loria to put the final nail on the coffin of hitting coach John Mallee. What exactly is new hitting coach Eduardo Perez supposed to do with a team whose TAv of .265 is not only above average for the season when adjusted for park, but is also exactly the same as the TAv of last season's team, a team that came complete with a working Hanley Ramirez?

---

Was Bryce Harper and his taunt to the pitcheroverblown? It sure does not seem like it, and you wonder why when things like Alex Rodriguez walking across pitching mounds sets off a firestorm of debate. Googling “Bryce Harper blows kiss” yields 88,100 results for this past week. In comparison, Googling “Manny Acta Joe Girardi argue” nets just 12,000 results, which seems reasonable for a story that happened two days ago.

Was Bryce Harper wrong to do such a thing? Probably, but who is here to argue about the moral code of grown men playing an enjoyable kid's game for a living? Perhaps the real shame in all of this is not what we may or may not have learned about the maturity of Bryce Harper or the leash that the Washington Nationals have for him or whether the scouts were correct in assessing his bad temperament, but rather that this incident could overshadow what is otherwise an amazing season by Harper. He is currently hitting .341/.433/.607 as an 18-year-old in the Sally League. This sort of play is something about which all of us should be raving, just like we did when Stephen Strasburg tore up Double-A on his way to a big-league call-up at the end of last year. Harper may himself get a call-up in September of this season, and we may get a glimpse of what winning baseball in Washington may one day look like, and I hope that this little incident does not prevent what should be an enjoyable event.

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

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