Mike Ferrin talks with Matt Swartz in this special edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.
Mike Ferrin: It’s our weekly chat on “On Deck” with one of the folks from Baseball Prospectus, Matt Swartz is our guest today as Matt’s taken up some writing duties for BP. I know you’re Philadelphia-based and have had your eye on the Phils well, for probably the better of your life…
Matt Swartz: Yeah.
MF: …but watching what’s been a fascinating team this year in a lot of respects because they’re able to continue to lead this division despite what has really been a crapshoot in their rotation. What do you see is the biggest key for the Phillies to try and stay atop the National League East at this point?
MS: You know, I mean, the Phillies are a team that hits very, very well and pitches very not so well.
MS: So I mean you know they’re going to keep hittin’ the ball and it’s just a matter of keeping the opponent’s score down a good bit. I mean certainly adding pitching help would be good but you know in a division that’s pretty weak this year, it might not be the smartest thing to go all-out, empty out the minor league system and get a pitcher that’s going to help you win a divison that you were going to win anyway, not that they’re necessarily going to win, but certainly, it’s a risk to empty out the system for a pitcher.
MF: Can pitch but they can’t hit at all.
MF: And Flor..
MS: Yeah they have a really weak outfield.
MF: Flor… Florida is just so young that there is still a bit of unpredictability despite the fact that these young guys have three and four years of service time at this point. But I am interested in what you said about a pitcher. About not going all out for a pitcher. Listen, we’ve heard them linked to guys like Jeremy Guthrie, and and you know Doug Davis is certainly available. I’m not sure how much of an upgrade he really serves in a…
MF: fly-ball ballpark like Citi… like, you like you know…
MS: Citizen’s Bank, yeah.
MF: Citizen’s Bank but… you look at an article that you wrote earlier this year about mortgaging your future, so to speak for players to help you reach the postseason. And I’m interested in your take in the idea that a guy like Jason Donald or Lou Marson, who have certainly had a fair amount of hype surrounding them, could land a piece that helps put the Phillies in a better position to repeat as World Champions.
MS: Yeah, I mean for the right deal absolutely. It’s not, I mean, you know. The impatient part of me wants to just be like, ‘Get get get whatever you can get, go-go-go.’ And it’s true that the Phillies window to win really is 2009, 2010, and 2011. At the end of 2011, you know, all these guys contracts comes up. Howard, Rollins, Victorino, Lidge, there’s other people that I can’t… there’s there all they have all these contracts, Ibanez, contracts. All these contracts end after 2011 so it’s not a terrible idea to to start to make a push I think you just have to evaluate the deal specifically. You don’t want to trade top prospects for a for a middling pitcher. And it might not be the most unreasonable thing to just try to go for two mid-level guys. You know, I don’t I don’t know about Doug Davis’s peripherals. They’re kind of scaring me right now. But I think that, you know, a couple of mid-rotation guys without emptying out the farm system might be the kind of guys that could, you know, throw three-run, six innings and stuff like that and then let the offense do the trick and that might be better than emptying the farm system for Cliff Lee or something like that.
MF: How often do teams that get a pitcher midseason see that guy help them in the World Series?
MS: Yeah you know I mean I think I use a very specific criteria in one of my articles to look at that. There have been… I forget what the timeframe I looked at, it was something like 30 years. There were only two people that were ever traded midseason to a team and won a World Series game for that team. I mean, you know, the sheer magnitude of that when everyone’s like ‘Who’s going to pitch Game Two of the World Series after Cole Hamels?” Well, who knows? But just because they get Cliff Lee that doesn’t mean he’s going to secure them a win because every year there is a few teams that pick up a pitcher midseason, and those teams aren’t doing it, and the two guys who have done it in history were Jeff Weaver who was, I mean, certainly wasn’t a big mid-season pickup that everyone everyone thought was gonna take things over, and Joe Blanton in a trade that was pretty heavily criticized. So I mean not only is there randomness to it but there’s just, you know, you can’t trust a pitcher to magically have a good game in the World Series, and you can’t trust a team to win two short series before that.
MF: We’re talking to Matt Swartz from Baseball Prospectus. A little about Phillies, the National League East, and I’m sure one thing that’s fascinated you as a Phillies fan has to do with the way this team is built so much through the draft. Why is it you think that teams are unwilling even in large markets to bust slot in the draft for a a better potential player than one that’s easily signable?
MS: You know, I think that it’s collusion. I mean, the player’s union…
MF: Collusion, really?
MF: Between the players… between the owners and the Player’s Association?
MS: I think between the owners within the division. I mean, if you look at a division like the AL East. The Yankees and Red Sox constantly bust slot, and hey so do the Rays, and they don’t have much money. You know, the Phillies and the Mets have plenty of money, and neither of them do it. It’s not like they’re best friends but both of them know that, you know, maybe they’re a weak division but someone’s going to win it. And so the the tendency ends up being that, you know, teams will kind of just follow what each other are doing and you can kind of work work out that collusion. It’s a much easier collusion to work. You know in the ’80s they tried collusion on free-agent contracts, and the player’s union, you know, exploded. They they went insane over something like that because the player’s union is representing players, but the player’s union doesn’t represent draftees who are currently in high school. Not until they are actual major league signees yet. So with the bonus that they get makes to get there they’re representing themselves. You know, the draft by itself is an anti-competitive process. It’s not designed to have teams bidding up for players. And so you get this this end result that you know teams aren’t maybe best friends, we’ll kind of follow what each other are doing.
MF: So it’s not necessarily collusion in the sense that the teams are making a premeditated act to spend this in the draft.
MF: But more if a team a team is willing to spend in the draft you need to be able to spend to keep up with the Joneses, right?
MS: Absolutely and…
MF: So then why don’t teams in other divisons do that then? I mean, why don’t you look at a team like in the National League Central and see, you know, the Brewers, that are a very good team at drafting. Why aren’t they out there busting slot when they have an opportunity to in an effort to try and get people to either, (A) spend more money in the draft to keep up with them, or (B) run away from,,, you know, end up adding a year’s worth of talent above or beyond what other teams can do?
MS: Yeah I mean even a year’s worth of talent would be tough to get because, you know, everybody knows who the tough guys to sign are. These are the guys with, you know, football scholarships or whatever else that that they have as a good opportunity, and you know they sign themselves a big-name agent that’s going to, you know, keep an eye and get a big bonus for them. I mean when you draft someone like that in the first round, hey, there’s guys available in the second round that might do that. So you might not even really get that much of a comparative edge. And what you’ve done, even if you can take one year’s worth of talent, you know, draft picks are random. You’re not guaranteed to get more than one or two really good players, you know, if that. And you know then it then it flips back, Then all of a sudden the Cardinals and the Cubs and everyone else are paying like crazy because they know the Brewers aren’t keeping an eye on what they’re doing.
MF: We’re talking with Matt Swartz from Baseball Prospectus for a couple minutes here. And another thing and you know and I want to get back more directly with the Phillies here but interesting article that you wrote talking about, Matt, about Ryan Howard and the idea of Ryan Howard being clutch. Now I know you know that’s a word that in in stathead circles kind of makes people go “eyew.”
MF: You know, grab the collar of the neck like it’s a cartoon. So why is Ryan Howard clutch, and how can you prove that he is clutch?
MS: Well, I mean, to look at any individual being clutch, that kind of way of looking things is going to come to mistakes, because even if you use some sort of like random statistical benchmark that you need to be, you know, in the in the top five percent of what you’d expect if people weren’t clutch. If it’s so unreasonable that 95 percent of the time, people people would be, ah, would not succeed this much in that story, you’re going to be wrong five percent of the time if you make that rule that you need such an extreme view. So there’s really… it’s really to me, it’s not about trying to get into the psyche of these guys that, you know, have a five-second sound bite on the radio, and you’re like, ‘oh ,it seems like he’s a tough guy. It seems like he can deal under pressure.’ I mean, every one of these guys, when the scout came out to see them when they were seventeen years old and trying to decide whether they were going to make them a multi-millionaire, that was when then the pressure was on. I might be someone who completely freezes in slow-pitch softball when the bases are loaded, but I would never have been drafted in the first place.
MS: The type of guys that are in the league, I mean these, this, the, I guess the… just the mental fortitude they have to have been there, there’s not much difference between them. So what you look for is situations where people are, because of characteristics they have, are prone to succeed. If you look at left-handed power hitters… Barry Bonds. You know, Giambi. I’m trying to think of other ones. Ortiz. These guys have histories that show that with men on base, they hit better than with [the] bases empty. And the reason doesn’t seem to be more home runs, because they’re not. They’re not striking out less. They’re striking out the same amount. What they’re doing is they’re getting more hits on balls is play. And the reason is with guys like that, and Howard is a is a great example, is that you know, they shift all the infielders over to one side when there’s no one on base. When there’s a guy on, when there’s bases loaded, you can’t really put all the infielders on one side of the infield. They’d, you know, they’d double-steal, you know.
MS: They could run all over the place. So, you know, what you get is this limited ability to play defense against them. And when you get this limited ability to play to play defense against them, when there are men on base, those are the high-leverage situations. Those are the situations when they can knock in some runs.
MS: And you know David Ortiz has been, you know, exalted, like he’s been the most Mr. Clutch according to according to every publication. And really, it’s not that he’s hitting more home runs in these situations. Though he has, because he’s a home-run hitter. It’s that he’s getting singles and doubles to fall in where maybe the second baseman will be in some peculiar position in short right field, and would’ve kept him being out if there was no one on base and the situation wasn’t as important.
MF: So you’re finding… are you finding then that these guys are actually just hitting the ball in those spots? I mean, do you do you have research that shows that?
MS: I mean I don’t have hit charts on on these guys. I looked at Howard, and certainly if you look at where he hits his ground balls…. I think it was a game yesterday. He hit a single to left field when the shift was on. And I think that he said to the first-base coach that he wanted the game ball.
MS: I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure that’s what he said. And I think the announcers thought that he had mouthed those words too. It’s a rare thing, I mean, he hits his home runs the other way. But it’s rare that he actually hits a low line drive or a ground ball the other way. He just hits them to the right side, and that’s why that’s why the infielders play over there, and that’s why they do it with guys like Bonds and Ortiz and Giambi.
MF: Matt, I appreciate the time. Some interesting stuff you brought up tonight. Matt Swartz from Baseball Prospectus. Wrap things up after this here on “On Deck.”
Mike talks with Matt in this special edition of BP Radio:
Click to download mp3