“Comcast Week” continues…

While I’ve avoided saying so until now, the Phillies have to be considered the favorites in the National League East. It’s not clear that any team is better than them, but this isn’t the AL Central. There are basically five teams who look to be no worse than 75-87, and four who should be over .500. The Braves have fallen back to the pack, the Marlins should decline a little from last year’s 91-71 performance, and the Mets could rise to .500 if their new acquisitions, Kazuo Matsui and Mike Cameron, meet expectations. Even the Expos have a chance to stay in the Wild Card chase, thanks to a balanced offense and Frank Robinson’s demonstrated ability to get a lot from no-name bullpens.

The Phillies do stand out as the class of the group. They return basically the same starting eight from last year. Of those, two should be much better in 2004, one should be at least a game worse, and…let’s just run a chart:

                     2004 PECOTA           2003 performance
                 AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP     AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP    Diff.
Marlon Byrd     .283 .351 .454  22.4    .303 .366 .418  25.8    -3.4
Placido Polanco .293 .348 .419  27.7    .289 .352 .447  29.7    -2.0
Bobby Abreu     .299 .402 .513  45.6    .300 .409 .468  39.1    +6.5
Jim Thome       .273 .402 .592  53.9    .266 .385 .573  52.1    +1.8
Mike Lieberthal .278 .344 .423  20.2    .313 .373 .453  36.4   -16.2
Pat Burrell     .263 .356 .506  25.2    .209 .309 .404 -11.7   +36.9
David Bell      .256 .329 .398  11.4    .195 .296 .283 -12.3   +23.7
Jimmy Rollins   .270 .331 .411  24.5    .263 .320 .387  14.1   +10.4

It’s hard to underestimate the impact that just getting improved performance from third base and left field will have. Those two positions were wastelands for the ’03 Phillies; in 2004, the Phils should be six wins better just at those spots. If PECOTA is right, the Phillies should have the best offense in the league, with everyone at least one win above replacement level and the low OBP Bell’s .329. That’s a recipe for 850-900 runs.

The Phillies also return four-fifths of their ’03 rotation, with the #5 slot up for grabs in the spring. The team’s starters aren’t as impressive as the offense is; despite Kevin Millwood‘s $11 million price tag, he’s been more an innings guy than a superstar in most seasons. The same can be said for Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla. Brett Myers could be the team’s best starter by the All-Star break, and provide the Phillies an ace they haven’t had since Curt Schilling was traded. It’s an above-average rotation, and more than good enough to support this lineup.

Most of the excitement in Philadelphia has to do with an improved bullpen, recent versions of which have been the perceived bane of the city’s existence. So out with Jose Mesa, in with Billy Wagner. Given how much of the blame for the Phillies’ disappointing performances the last two seasons has been placed at the foot of the relief staff, it’s easy to understand why fans, media, and the team itself is so eager to have the hard-throwing lefty closing games.

I actually agreed that the move would help the Phillies, although not exactly for the reasons generally given. Closers are overrated as a class, and as great as Wagner is, using him solely to protect ninth-inning leads and the occasional ninth-inning tie is a suboptimal application of his talent. However, I also know that Larry Bowa is one of the most temperamental managers in the game, and I strongly believe that his emotional style has been a detriment to this team over the past two seasons.

One of my character flaws is that I don’t handle adversity well in competition. I used to play a lot of table baseball, and when something, or a series of somethings, would go against me, it would affect my decision-making. Even now, when I play poker, that same character flaw creeps in, and I am prone to going on “tilt.”

Now, I don’t mean to equate running a real baseball team with playing Strat-O-Matic. However, the ability to control your emotions when things aren’t going well is a big part of being a successful manager. What I see in Bowa is what I see in myself: someone who loses his composure when the breaks don’t go his way. It’s a manifestation of both a competitive nature and a raging insecurity; the desire to win coupled with the fear that you won’t be able to overcome something going wrong.

Bowa’s temper helped force a terrible trade in 2002, when the Phillies dispatched Scott Rolen. It contributed to their fade in September of 2001, when Mesa blew back-to-back games in the first week of September, and to their loss of the Wild Card lead in 2003. Bowa’s persona was a distraction, rather than a positive influence. When the Phillies needed someone to lead, he wasn’t their guy.

So when the Phillies imported Wagner, I thought it might take away one reason for Bowa going on tilt. My impression was that Bowa allowed Mesa’s failures to have too great an impact on the team, and was unable to handle the fact that he’d done his job-put the game in the closer’s hands-only to watch his closer fail. While the closer strategy is a suboptimal one, if you’re going to have a manager who is that committed to it and prone to losing his composure when it doesn’t work, it’s best to have a guy like Wagner.

Admittedly, I didn’t have much evidence for this, so I did some research to find out what happened to the Phillies when Mesa blew a save. Did they win the game? The next one? The next few? How did their performance–Bowa’s performance–compare to that of other managers when their closers failed them?

Eleven closers met the criteria of having at least 40 saves in 2002-03 for the same team and the same manager. (Buddy Bell managed the Rockies for 22 games in ’02, but Jose Jimenez didn’t blow a save under him, so I included him in the study.)

What I expected to find was that when Mesa blew a save, the Phillies fell apart over the next couple of days because Bowa wasn’t able to handle it, and that trickled down to the players.

I was wrong.

First, let’s look at the overall stats of the 11 closers in the study:

                      Saves   Blown    Pct.
Jose Mesa               69      13    84.1%

Eric Gagne             107       4    96.4%
John Smoltz            100       8    92.6%
Troy Percival           73       8    90.1%
Billy Wagner            79       9    89.8%
Eddie Guardado          86      10    89.6%
Mariano Rivera          68      10    87.2%
Jose Jimenez            61       9    87.1%
Jason Isringhausen      54       8    87.1%
Jorge Julio             61      14    81.3%
Kazuhiro Sasaki         47      12    79.7%

Mesa has the third-worst save percentage in the group, and the second-worst of anyone who pitched two full seasons. He blew more saves than any of the others as well. These closers blew a total of 105 saves. In those games, their teams actually went 38-67, which alone should tell you that a blown save isn’t as devastating as it’s made out to be.

               Team Record in BSv    Pct.
Jose Mesa             5-8           .385

Kazuhiro Sasaki       8-4           .667
Billy Wagner          4-5           .444
Mariano Rivera        4-6           .400
Jason Isringhausen    3-5           .375
Eddie Guardado        3-7           .300
Jorge Julio          4-10           .286
Eric Gagne            1-3           .250
John Smoltz           2-6           .250
Troy Percival         2-6           .250
Jose Jimenez          2-7           .222

That the Phillies pulled out five of Mesa’s blown saves is one strong indication that they didn’t have a debilitating effect on the team. The difference between Mesa and top closers like Mariano Rivera and John Smoltz was just two losses over two seasons. The difference between him and Wagner: just three losses.

Was there a carryover effect? The following chart shows the team records in the game after a blown save:

               Team Record in BSv+1    Pct.
Jose Mesa             8-5             .615

Jason Isringhausen    8-0            1.000
Kazuhiro Sasaki      11-1             .917
Eric Gagne            3-1             .750
John Smoltz           6-2             .750
Mariano Rivera        7-3             .700
Jorge Julio           7-7             .500
Troy Percival         3-5             .375
Jose Jimenez          3-6             .333
Eddie Guardado        3-7             .300
Billy Wagner          2-7             .222

The Phillies fall right in the middle of the group, with an 8-5 record in the game after Mesa blows a save. That’s actually better than their overall percentage of .514 for the two seasons. Looking a couple more games down the road doesn’t change much; all you really see is that the better teams outperform the lesser ones, which is what you’d expect in a random three-game stretch:

               Team Record in BSv+3    Pct.    Overall
Jose Mesa            25-14            .641      .514

John Smoltz           16-6            .727      .627
Kazuhiro Sasaki      25-11            .694      .574
Eric Gagne             8-4            .667      .546
Mariano Rivera       18-12            .600      .632
Jason Isringhausen   14-10            .583      .562
Troy Percival        14-10            .583      .543
Billy Wagner         14-13            .519      .528
Eddie Guardado       15-14            .517      .570
Jose Jimenez         13-14            .481      .454
Jorge Julio          19-23            .452      .426

Note: In a couple of cases, a blown save occurred with less than three games to play in the season.

What’s pretty clear is that Mesa’s inability to get saves didn’t carry over into the Phillies’ next few games. Whatever reactions Bowa was having, Mesa’s struggles did not cause the Phillies to go into tailspins. They actually had a better record in the immediate aftermath of a blown save than they did the rest of the time.

I’m still not convinced that Bowa can handle the pressure of a pennant race. If the Phillies start out 24-6 or something–and I’d say there’s maybe a 25% chance they’ll do that–then he might be fine. This team could actually run away with the division, because the talent is there, in which case Bowa shouldn’t have much opportunity to blow it.

But if they don’t, and it’s July and they’ve lost six of seven, and Wagner is down five MPH, and Marlon Byrd is 7-for-his-last-48, I expect that 2004 is going to look a lot like 2001 and 2003 for this team. Maybe his influence hasn’t manifested itself in the numbers above, but this is a manager who has never won anything, and who was atop a division in early September three years ago and atop a Wild Card race with 10 games left last year, only to come away with nothing both times.

If it’s close, Bowa will be the difference, and not in a good way.