Philadelphia Phillies: Bobby Abreu has treated pitchers this season the way Jason Bourne treats CIA agents. Abreu, as consistent performer as there is in the game, has been one of the three best players in baseball this year by Value Over Replacement Player. Despite his impressive resumé, Abreu is set to out-do himself this year. Two months into the season, his VORPr is the highest it has been in his career:

Year     G   VORPr   VORP   MLB   PHI
2005    59    .653   39.9     3     1
2004   159    .521   83.8     7     1
2003   158    .333   53.3    34     2 (Thome 65.8)
2002   157    .448   70.4    18     1
2001   162    .393   64.9    27     1
2000   154    .459   72.5    25     1
1999   152    .502   75.8    12     1
1998   151    .322   43.9    59     3 (Schilling 68.5, Rolen 67.0)

Abreu is on pace for his first 100+ VORP season, a level that only Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols have reached in the past three years. Looking at Abreu’s numbers, it is hard to imagine that last year was the first year he made an All-Star team, and he had to survive a fan vote to do that. This year, though, people are paying attention. Abreu was named NL Player of the Month for May, and this week he passed Ken Griffey Jr. for third in NL outfield voting.

One wonders if Abreu is getting all the attention because of his performance or the lack of same from Jim Thome. Thome’s ineffectiveness–he’s hitting .210/.323/.377, by far the slowest start of his career–has been a major story, but Abreu has picked up the slack and has been more than a full win better than the next best Phillie, Brett Myers. His contributions have allowed the Phillies to remain a viable playoff candidate.

Perhaps Abreu needs a better publicist. The quintessential five-tool right fielder who also mixes in a healthy dose of skills, Abreu deserves far more recognition than he currently receives.

In other news from the City of Brotherly Love, the Phillies pulled off an interesting trade, swapping out Placido Polanco for Ugueth Urbina and Ramon Martinez. Without getting into the Tigers’ motivation for the deal, this trade signals three things for the Phillies:

  1. Chase Utley has done well and deserves to play every day;
  2. Unfortunately, Tim Worrell may not be coming back anytime soon;
  3. Billy Wagner is now all the more tradeable should the Phillies fall out of contention.

While the Phillies have lost some flexibility in the deal, it is hard to question the decision to give Utley a full-time gig, who’s now at .315/.385/.564 in 169 PAs. Furthermore, the Phillies bullpen was underperforming. Entering Wednesday’s action, Phillies’ relievers had accounted for a combined Wins Expected above Replacement Level (WXRL) of -.46. Urbina’s numbers in this area have been exceptional this season, as he currently ranks in the top 10 in WXRL. One concern is his incredibly high walk rate (14 in 27 1/3 innings), but he has balanced that by striking out 31 batters. While it’s not easy to talk up Martinez as a throw-in, at least he’s better than Tomas Perez. Perhaps the Phillies could have received more swag for Polanco had they waited, but they did fill a need here. Geoff Geary will probably lose some innings to Urbina; though Geary’s a good bet to start performing better–low HR/9, excellent strikeout rate, absurdly high .359 BABIP–Urbina will still be an improvement..

Paul Swydan

Pittsburgh Pirates: Perception is reality. Do a word association with a casual baseball fan about the 2005 Pirates, and you will probably hear words like “awful,” “doomed,” or the ever-popular “dismal.”

This is the power of first impressions. The Bucs started out this season poorly, posting an 8-14 record in April, scoring an abysmal 65 runs for the whole month. That kind of performance will draw a lot of unwanted attention and leave a lasting impression on the public.

But as a thought experiment, let’s consider what the public’s impression of the Pirates would have been if the major-league season started in May, rather than April. The Bizarro Pirates, instead of starting off 1-4 against the Brewers and Padres the first week of the season, would have had a 4-3 opening week against the Giants, Astros and Diamondbacks. Two weeks into the season, the Pirates would have been in first place in the NL Central, with a 9-5 record, a half-game ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers and a full game ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals would eventually catch the Bucs, but the team would still finish the month in second place. Here are your Bizarro NL Central standings:

Team         Record   WP    GB
St. Louis    18-11   .620   --
Pittsburgh   15-13   .535   2.5
Chicago      14-13   .518   3
Milwaukee    14-14   .500   3.5
Cincinnati   11-18   .379   7
Houston      10-19   .345   8

At this point, the Pirates would have been second in the league in OPS with an 802 mark. Jason Bay would finish the month tied for second in the league in home runs, with nine, behind Player of the Month Bobby Abreu. Daryle Ward would also finish in the top 10 with eight homers. Pittsburgh’s 3.86 ERA for the month ranked fifth in the National League, and was anchored by a 4-1, 2.59 ERA performance by Dave Williams.

Back in the real world, the Pirates stand roughly even with the Milwaukee Brewers in the standings, three games under .500. Aside from the standouts mentioned above, their turnaround from oblivion to near-respectability has been keyed by the return of Jose Castillo (5.4 VORP in 33 games) from the disabled list in early May, and the recovery of Kip Wells (0-3, 7.23 ERA in his first three starts, 4-1, 2.38 ERA since) from an early-season slump. Matt Lawton (13.8 VORP in 55 games) has provided a solid performance so far, Mark Redman (24.3 VORP, 2.82 ERA) has been an unlikely rotation anchor, and super-utilityman Rob Mackowiak (19.3 VORP in 171 PA) has been a revelation, posting a .415 OBP that PECOTA didn’t see coming in its most optimistic mood.

While Mackowiak’s performance has been keyed by a high batting average (.333) and may therefore prove ephemeral, those extra hits and walks seem to have come at the expense of strikeouts. Until this year, Mackowiak had averaged a strikeout every 4.2 plate appearances, this year he’s whiffing once per 6.3 PA. The extra balls that Mackowiak is putting in play are finding holes and going for hits. Whether the reduction in strikeouts is for real or merely a sample-size illusion is an open question, but one that Pirates fans must be happy to ask.

Those are some good stories here that risk being overlooked because of the shape of the Pirates’ performance, and the fact that their tailspin was earlier and much more conspicuous than their recovery.

Derek Jacques

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