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October 21, 2008

World Series Prospectus

Rays versus Phillies

by Joe Sheehan

The Rays were the better team playing in the toughest division of the better league. They went through two division winners, including the best or second-best team in baseball, to get here. They have more talent, 1 through 25, than the Phillies do.

The Phillies played very well in the NL postseason, but there's no way to avoid the fact that had you seeded the playoff teams 1-8, the Brewers and Dodgers would have been seventh and eighth, in some order. That's how you can go 7-2 with Ryan Howard slugging .323, among other so-so performances. The Phillies shut down their opponents to get here, allowing just over three runs per game. That's not likely to continue.

One entertaining aspect of this matchup is that we have two teams that steal bases very well, but that get their offense from power rather than speed. The Rays have gone 17-for-19 on the bases after leading the AL in steals, but their offensive strengths are walks and home-run power-they've hit 22 bombs in October. The Phillies have famously been the best base-stealing team in history, successful on 86 percent of their attempts over the last two seasons. However, they also led the NL in home runs, and were second in slugging. In short, you cannot put either of these teams in a box.

Lineups


Phillies                 AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
SS-S Jimmy Rollins      .277/.349/.437  .282   43.4
RF-R Jayson Werth       .273/.363/.498  .295   30.4
2B-L Chase Utley        .292/.380/.535  .309   62.3
1B-L Ryan Howard        .251/.339/.543  .290   35.2
LF-R Pat Burrell        .250/.367/.507  .294   33.4
CF-S Shane Victorino    .293/.352/.447  .275   33.4
DH-L Matt Stairs        .252/.341/.409  .264    7.4
3B-R Pedro Feliz        .249/.302/.402  .240    0.1
C-R  Carlos Ruiz        .219/.320/.300  .223   -7.0

Rays                     AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
2B-L Akinori Iwamura    .274/.349/.380  .264   16.0
CF-R B.J. Upton         .273/.383/.401  .291   32.1
1B-L Carlos Pena        .247/.377/.494  .306   32.0
3B-R Evan Longoria      .272/.343/.531  .302   34.8
LF-L Carl Crawford      .273/.319/.400  .262    7.1
DH-S Willy Aybar        .253/.327/.410  .262    5.2 @ 3B
C-S  Dioner Navarro     .295/.349/.407  .268   17.8
RF-R Rocco Baldelli     .263/.344/.475  .286    4.0 @ DH
SS-R Jason Bartlett     .286/.329/.361  .255   12.9

For the Phillies, Charlie Manuel will sometimes use Victorino in the second slot, moving Werth down to sixth. He will also sometimes split Utley and Howard by using Werth between them. While he has eschewed doing so in the postseason, the tactic is almost mandatory in this series. With the emergence of David Price, the Rays have three effective left-handed relievers. In terms of their splits, Utley slips against southpaws, while Howard collapses; Manuel has to make Joe Maddon work harder by not batting them back-to-back. If he doesn't, the two will rarely see a right-handed pitcher in any leveraged situation. This is a key element in this series.

One important difference between the two teams is how much the Phillies' lineup falls off at the end. The Feliz/Ruiz duo provides an escape hatch for most pitchers, with Feliz a hacker who occasionally runs into a fastball, and Ruiz a singles hitter with minimal power. Both are significant double-play threats, so look for Victorino to run if he gets on in front of the bottom of the lineup. Greg Dobbs occasionally plays third base against right-handers, but not all right-handers; Manuel seems to prefer using him when his own starter is right-handed as well. Whatever the defensive considerations may be, the Phillies need his bat in the lineup.

Unlike a number of recent NL entrants, the Phillies actually have a pretty good DH option. It should be Stairs against right-handers, although it might be Dobbs. Against Scott Kazmir, they can DH Burrell and use Eric Bruntett or So Taguchi in left field; that's a much weaker choice than Stairs or Dobbs. The Phillies, as a team, were stronger against lefties than righties this season, but with Utley and Howard's splits and the gap at DH, Kazmir and the southpaw relievers seem like a good matchup.

The Rays platoon Gabe Gross and Baldelli in right field, and Cliff Floyd and Aybar at DH. Other than that, it's been a set lineup since Carl Crawford returned and dropped into the fifth slot. The Rays' speed in front of the bottom of the lineup is a nice touch. They do steal bases well, an AL-leading 142 at a 74-percent clip. The ability to use their speed and stay out of double-play situations in the bottom of the lineup-which features slow ground-ball hitters-keeps the offense going.

The Rays beat the Red Sox in part because they went a bit nuts at the plate, hitting 16 homers and slugging .508. That's a bit outside their range, but the Phillies' starters do get the ball in the air and allow their share of home runs, while their relievers have had an odd year with respect to their HR/FB rates-very low as a bullpen. It would not be surprising, and in fact, it may be another key to the series, if the Rays were to continue bashing their way through October.

Benches


Phillies                 AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
C-R  Chris Coste        .263/.324/.423  .257    8.0
UT-R Eric Bruntlett     .217/.297/.297  .215   -6.0
4C-L Greg Dobbs         .301/.333/.491  .278   12.7
RF-L Geoff Jenkins      .246/.301/.392  .240   -4.4
OF-R So Taguchi         .220/.283/.297  .193   -4.1

Rays                     AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   VORP
DH-L Cliff Floyd        .268/.349/.455  .286   12.6
RF-L Gabe Gross         .238/.336/.414  .271    3.9
UT-S Ben Zobrist        .253/.339/.505  .294   14.7 @ SS
CF-S Fernando Perez*    .249/.323/.351  .244    NA
C-R  Michel Hernandez*  .220/.267/.315  .198    NA
*: Translated minor league performance

The Phillies' bench is not a strength. They have virtually no speed or defense, and their backup catcher is about the third-best hitter over there. Bruntlett emerged as the defensive replacement for Burrell, leaving Taguchi as a fifth outfielder with no discernable justification for his roster spot. He and Geoff Jenkins would have made a nice platoon a couple of years ago; now they hit for pitchers, and maybe for Ruiz, and even "hit" is inappropriate to describe what they do for you. Dobbs is an effective pinch-hitter, though he should be starting, and Stairs will be on the bench about half the time.

The Rays have a bit more flexibility. Floyd and Gross are the other halves of platoons, while Perez has emerged as a pinch-runner with significant tactical value, and he might be the best defensive right fielder on the team. Zobrist won't play much, but as a switch-hitter with a little pop gets called on occasionally to hit for Bartlett or Gross, and his ability to fake the outfield has given Joe Maddon some in-game options. Hernandez is trying to get a ring on the Chris Turner Plan.

Rotations


Phillies                IP      ERA SNLVAR   SNW%
LHP Cole Hamels        227.1   3.09   7.1   .621
RHP Brett Myers        190.0   4.55   3.5   .522
LHP Jamie Moyer        196.1   3.71   5.0   .556
RHP Joe Blanton        197.2   4.69   3.0   .495

Rays                    IP      ERA SNLVAR   SNW%
LHP Scott Kazmir       152.1   3.49   4.8   .600
RHP James Shields      215.0   3.56   5.4   .636
RHP Matt Garza         184.2   3.70   4.9   .550
RHP Andy Sonnanstine   193.1   4.38   3.0   .591

The decision to flip Kazmir and Shields in the ALCS rotation costs the Rays now, as they can't go with Shields in Game One against Hamels. They have yet to announce their rotation, but there's no reason for them not to just run Kazmir out there, followed by a rested Shields and Garza. Kazmir has his command issues, but a power left-hander isn't a bad idea against the Phillies. The Rays have gotten very good starting pitching in this postseason, with Garza the breakout star with two excellent outings against the Red Sox. If there's a concern, it's that everyone but Garza can be beat with the long ball. That Game Four matchup of Sonnanstine and Blanton looms as a long night in Philadelphia.

For the Phillies, it's really all about Hamels. The lefty has three of the team's seven wins in October, and he hasn't been challenged in any of them. For the Phillies to win the World Series, they'll need to win both of his starts. In fact, were I in charge, I'd push Hamels to 1-4-7 and either drop Blanton from the rotation or use him in Game Five and put Myers in the bullpen after his start. The gap between Hamels and every other Phillies' starter is large, and the gap between Hamels and Blanton, given the Rays' team-level platoon split, is massive. If the Rays beat Hamels even once, they should win the Series handily. This makes Game One even more significant than it usually is.

Bullpens


Phillies                IP     ERA   WXRL    FRA
RHP Brad Lidge         69.1   1.95   7.59   2.32
RHP Ryan Madson        82.2   3.05   2.00   3.43
LHP J.C. Romero        59.0   2.75   2.23   3.02
RHP Chad Durbin        87.2   2.87   1.75   2.90
LHP Scott Eyre         25.1   4.21   1.06   3.39
LHP James Happ         31.2   3.69  -0.02   3.82
RHP Clay Condrey       69.0   3.26   0.26   3.75

Rays                    IP     ERA   WXRL    FRA
RHP Dan Wheeler        66.1   3.12   2.09   2.94
LHP J.P. Howell        89.1   2.22   4.64   2.78
RHP Grant Balfour      58.1   1.54   3.43   0.96
LHP David Price        14.0   1.93   0.09   2.47
RHP Chad Bradford      59.1   2.12   1.52   2.65
LHP Trever Miller      43.1   4.15   1.52   3.32
RHP Edwin Jackson     183.1   4.42    4.2*  4.62
*: SNLVAR

The Phillies' full set of lefty relievers could come in handy, as a redundancy in lefty specialists that was overkill in the NLDS and moderately helpful in the NLCS becomes a key feature in the World Series. Happ is more of a long reliever for low-leverage situations, but the ability to turn a lineup around if you fall behind 4-0 in the third has its benefits. Lidge, of course, is the story here, perfect in save situations in 2008 on the strength of allowing just two homers all season long. If you're tired of that note, consider this one: Lidge walked 31 men unintentionally in 69 2/3 innings, a very high rate for a closer. There's no way around it; when he comes in, Phillies fans are going to be nervous, because his combination of free passes and fly balls is scary. All the Phillies relievers save Madson and Eyre are prone to walking the park, and the Rays are as patient as they come.

We've seen the Rays' bullpen in action, and it's a very good one, with power arms missing bats, two effective tactical guys, and now David Price added to the mix. It's not clear how Maddon will use Price in the Series, although given the importance of his last two appearances, it seems fair to say that Maddon is comfortable with his rookie in high-leverage situations. If Price supplants Wheeler as the closer, that's probably a good thing. Wheeler may move into Grant Balfour's spot, at least at the beginning of the Series; Balfour pointedly did not pitch in Sunday's Game Seven, on the heels of a couple of rough outings. He's still the biggest strikeout threat in the pen, and would be an overpowering reliever against the bottom of the Phillies' lineup. The Rays' pen, on the whole, is a considerable advantage for them in this series, maybe their biggest one.

Defense

Let's not let a few high-profile mistakes drive the story-the Rays were one of the best defensive teams in baseball in 2008, and remain so right now. We saw some flaws close up over the last few weeks: Longoria can get sloppy on his throws; Upton tends to drift back, rather than run, on fly balls; Gross isn't a fast man. Still, the Rays don't let you beat them on balls in play. Gross' metrics aren't bad, but Fernando Perez or Rocco Baldelli should be in right field late in games.

The Phillies were also strong defensively, finishing sixth in the majors in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Their highs are higher and their lows lower than the Rays: Utley is a fantastic if unheralded second baseman; Victorino is excellent in center, and while I'm no Pedro Feliz fan, he is a very good glove man at third. On the other hand, no Ray anywhere on the diamond is as bad as Ryan Howard is at first base, and Pat Burrell is below-average in left field. Neither team has an overall edge here, although if I had to pick, I'd probably take the Phillies' defense because of Utley's skill.

Managers

Joe Maddon is entertaining, and I think the one thing you can say for him is that he's not going to get tied down to roles. That was Mike Scioscia's defining trait at the start of his career as well. Maddon used Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell in the fifth inning of Game Two of the ALCS. David Price went from an extra guy to the man he chose to save his season. Dan Wheeler was asked to get ten outs. That kind of flexibility is admirable. However, Maddon has occasionally sat on his hands in the wrong spots, passing up a chance to gain an edge. I suspect we're seeing a learning curve here, and a very steep one, but there's always the possibility that Maddon will make a mistake along the way with the pen. Otherwise, he's a very good manager, not overly enamored of smallball, and by all accounts he's good at the off-field stuff.

I'd mentioned earlier in the postseason that Charlie Manuel was growing on me. Increasingly, I think the drawl has us all fooled; the man knows what he's doing. The refusal to separate Utley and Howard in the lineup is grating, as is the refusal to play Dobbs more often. Outside of that, though, he runs his pitching staff well, even using Brad Lidge for four outs for the first time all year because the situation warranted it. There was one massive gaffe in the NLCS, asking Victorino to bunt in a clear swing situation. That seems to reflect less an affinity for one-run strategies as an inflated opinion of the bottom of his lineup. That's not fatal.

Both of these guys are assets, and the only thing I'd note is that Maddon might be more likely to make a costly mistake. He is the man who issued a bases-loaded intentional walk during the season, and let David Ortiz face a right-hander in a few critical situations last week.

Prediction

For all of the detail above, I keep coming back to one point: the Rays are a much better baseball team than the Phillies are. The gap between the leagues is real, and when you adjust for it and other factors-as third-order wins do-you find that the Rays were actually ten games better than the Phillies this season. They've also beaten better teams to get to the Series. Compare the rosters, and while the Phillies have their share of frontline talent, perhaps even more than the Rays have, the Rays have almost no dead spots on the roster, and are much stronger towards the bottom of the lineup, the back of the rotation, the bullpen, and the bench.

Three of the last four World Series have been AL sweeps. The presence of Hamels makes that result unlikely, but even he won't be enough. Rays in six.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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