Well, here we are again, with the Phillies and Rockies set to battle one another in the National League Division Series for the second time in three seasons. Just as it was in 2007, the Phillies enter the fray with a division title while the Rockies used an incredibly strong second half to win the NL Wild Card. Unlike that entertaining 2007 season, however, in which the Phillies ousted the Mets from the top spot of the NL East on the final day of the season, only to have their spotlight stolen soon thereafter by a Rockies team that won a controversial play-in game, this year’s Phillies controlled their division practically all season. In addition, the Rockies’ second-half surge proved so strong that they actually gave the division-leading Dodgers a run for their money in the final week. A good chunk of the 2007 cast of characters remains intact for each team, but enough has changed to merit a new writeup instead of a recycled version of the prior Phillies/Rockies preview.
The Phillies are a very left-handed team-in both the lineup and starting rotation-that will benefit from Jorge De La Rosa‘s absence from the Rockies’ rotation in this series, while the Rockies may have to do some shuffling to avoid the platoon disadvantage of facing the likes of Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and potentially J.A. Happ. Both teams can rake, as the Phillies and Rockies finished either first or second in the National League in runs scored, total bases, home runs, isolated power, and slugging percentage. The Rockies also finished second in on-base percentage, while the Phillies not only finished second with 119 total stolen bases but managed to only get caught 28 times, just two more failed attempts than the Braves, who led the league in fewest caught steals but who stole less than half as many bags as the Phillies. The pitching staffs were very even in the aggregate in QERA (4.25 for the Rockies against the Phillies’ 4.35), ERA (4.22 Rockies, 4.16 Phillies), WHIP (1.36 Rockies, 1.36 Phillies), and total strikeouts (1154 Rockies, 1153 Phillies), but as we will explore below, the components of each staff makes for a much more compelling drama. The teams are quite evenly matched, and this has the makings of a very entertaining first round series.
Rockies AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA VORP LF-L Carlos Gonzalez .284/.353/.525 .288 22.4 CF-S Dexter Fowler .266/.363/.406 .268 18.8 1B-L Todd Helton .325/.416/.489 .300 40.9 SS-R Troy Tulowitzki .297/.377/.552 .306 59.5 RF-L Brad Hawpe .285/.384/.519 .295 36.1 3B-R Garrett Atkins .226/.308/.342 .225 -8.2 C-R Yorvit Torrealba .291/.351/.380 .252 6.2 2B-R Clint Barmes .245/.294/.440 .243 4.6 Phillies AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA VORP SS-S Jimmy Rollins .250/.296/.423 .251 19.7 CF-S Shane Victorino .292/.358/.445 .281 38.3 2B-L Chase Utley .282/.397/.508 .315 62.2 1B-L Ryan Howard .279/.360/.571 .308 48.3 LF-L Raul Ibañez .272/.347/.552 .298 38.9 RF-R Jayson Werth .268/.373/.506 .301 43.3 3B-R Pedro Feliz .266/.308/.366 .240 4.0 C-R Carlos Ruiz .255/.355/.425 .270 15.8
Right off the bat, the lineups are interesting in the sense that the starting eight posted above for the Rockies is a mere estimate given the constant shuffling by both Clint Hurdle and Jim Tracy, and the likelihood that even more parts-swapping will occur for the Rox in particular, based on the multitude of lefties in the Phillies’ rotation. The Rockies’ most common lineup throughout the entire season was only penciled in on six different occasions. Compare that to the Phillies, where Charlie Manuel either stuck to the lineup above or switched Ibañez and Werth with everything else the same a grand total of 49 times, almost one third of the entire season. Ian Stewart played more often at third base than Atkins (for good reason), but do not be surprised if Jim Tracy opts to go with another righty in the lineup as a means of counteracting the natural platoon advantage of Lee, Hamels, and Happ with a lefty in that spot.
Carlos Gonzalez, after being traded what seemed like 17 times in two seasons, really turned it on in the second half of the year, combining power, speed, and all-around solid defense. Again, he bats lefty, so Tracy may push Fowler into the leadoff spot and pluck Ryan Spilborghs from the bench to man left field. Tracy could also decide to just stick with the lineup that made him seem like a genius manager and leave CarGo and Stewart alone, a potential stroke of non-genius. Perhaps the Rockies will shift CarGo to center and instead opt for Seth Smith in left field, sustaining the left-handedness of the position while losing another righty in the lineup as Fowler bats from both sides. Much is up in the air.
The question pointed in the Rockies’ direction most often-why isn’t Chris Iannetta playing?-deserves to be asked repeatedly, as it isn’t like he bats from the left side while Torrealba hits right-handed. Both are right-handed, and while Yorvit did reach base at a decent .351 clip, it’s more batting average-inflated. Not using Iannetta hamstrings their lineup from the get-go, but since Tracy is unlikely to come to his senses in this area after months of relying on Torrealba-the Rockies’ starting catcher back in 2007-one of baseball’s better offensive catchers will be forced to take in the festivities from the sidelines.
The Phillies may have frequented the lineup cards with the configuration above or one close to it-just flip-flopping Ibañez and Werth-but Charlie Manuel really needs to split up his lefties in the middle of the order. With two switch-hitters in Rollins and Victorino atop the order and three straight lefties to follow, they are in a solid position to pounce on right-handed pitchers with five consecutive lefty hitters. However, Werth is no slouch at the plate, leading the league in DVR-fast-forwards per plate appearance, which translated into a nice .373 OBP, in addition to 36 home runs, so it isn’t as if the Phillies will be settling if they move him to the fifth spot and bump Ibañez down in order to avoid allowing Tracy to let Joe Beimel or Franklin Morales feast late in the game.
Rockies AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA VORP OF-R Ryan Spilborghs .241/.310/.395 .265 14.2 OF-L Seth Smith .293/.378/.510 .294 25.8 C-R Chris Iannetta .228/.344/.460 .269 13.4 3B-L Ian Stewart .228/.322/.464 .261 11.8 1B-L Jason Giambi* .201/.343/.382 .263 -1.7 2B/OF-S Eric Young Jr. .246/.295/.316 .206 -2.9 *: Combined full-season stats. Phillies AVG/ OBP/ SLG EqA VORP OF-R Ben Francisco* .257/.332/.447 .274 13.0 INF-R Miguel Cairo .267/.283/.422 .239 0.5 OF-L Matt Stairs .194/.357/.379 .261 1.4 C-L Paul Bako .224/.308/.336 .232 -1.6 4C-L Greg Dobbs .247/.296/.383 .238 -0.7 @ PH *: Combined full-season stats.
Sure, this section may be titled “Bench,” but for the Rockies it might as well have be called “Potential Starters.” Iannetta belongs in the lineup, Smith started much of the year and still very well may be called upon come 2:37 p.m., Spilborghs could add another solid right-handed bat to a sea of lefties, and Stewart started most of the year at the hot corner, yet he might be relegated to the bench in order to let the right-handed Atkins face the Phillies’ barrage of southpaws. Suffice to say, the Rockies’ bench is going to play a much more prominent role in this series. Even if we make all of the aforementioned swaps, their bench emerges as a vastly superior unit to the Phillies’, who really only have balance working in their favor with an infielder and outfielder from each side of the plate. Only Ben Francisco made a meaningful contribution from the bench this season after coming over as the add-on in the Lee trade, and that was only on display in a rather minuscule sample of plate appearances.
Note the absence of Eric Bruntlett from the Phillies’ playoff roster. While this was not necessarily the controversy of the century, many in the Philadelphia area speculated as to whether or not Manuel would play the hotter hand. Don’t get me wrong, neither player is anything more than the 25th of 25 players, but Cairo’s level of offensive suckitude slightly outweighed that of Bruntlett, who is no longer needed as a defensive replacement for the lead-footed Pat Burrell, and who isn’t even fast enough of a baserunner to merit roster inclusion as a late-inning speedster. Simply put, Cairo can hit slightly better and provides the same defensive versatility, and if it gets to the point where this decision actually makes a difference then the Phillies probably aren’t in a position they want to be in anyway.
Rockies IP ERA SNLVAR SNWP RHP Ubaldo Jimenez 218.0 3.47 6.0 .568 RHP Aaron Cook 158.0 4.16 3.6 .512 RHP Jason Hammel 176.2 4.33 2.5 .469 RHP Jason Marquis* 216.0 4.04 4.4 .520 *: Jim Tracy has not yet named a Game Four starter. Phillies IP ERA SNLVAR SNWP LHP Cliff Lee* 231.2 3.22 7.4 .605 LHP Cole Hamels 193.2 4.32 3.8 .502 RHP Joe Blanton 195.1 4.05 4.3 .520 LHP J.A. Happ 166.0 2.93 5.1 .601 *: Combined full-season stats.
Oh, how things change. Two years ago the Phillies sent out Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, and Jamie Moyer to face Jeff Francis and a pair of rookies-the erratic Franklin Morales and young horse Ubaldo Jimenez. This time around, Kendrick was a surprise addition to the Phillies’ bullpen, likely taking the long-relief spot from Moyer, who was relegated to the pen for a stretch, and finished the year with an injury that could potentially end his career. Meanwhile, over in Denver, Francis missed the entire year recovering from an injury, Morales began to show signs of harnessing the raw stuff that made scouts gush, but mostly working out of the pen, while Jimenez emerged into a legitimate staff ace.
The series will open up today with Lee squaring off against Jimenez, a matchup of two of the best pitchers in the game. Jimenez relies on one of the speediest fastballs for any starting pitcher whereas Lee earns his paycheck on guile, mixing a 92 mph fastball with a slider and changeup, each of which can be thrown with precision to any part of the zone in any given count. The question on the minds of Phillies fans is whether or not Lee will come closer to resembling the dominant force that took the senior circuit by storm in July and August, or the struggling southpaw who provided a 5.97 RA/9 in his final six starts. Fortunately, even the latter version of Lee proved stingy enough with free passes and generated whiffs with relative ease, posting a 30/4 K/BB ratio in 34
Arguably the matchup of the series will occur in the second game, however, with Hamels squaring off against Aaron Cook. Hamels struggled for much of the season, but seemed to find his groove in August and September before a couple of rough outings to close out the campaign. If the Phillies want to have any shot at repeating, he will need to regain some semblance of the magic that made him World Series MVP last October. Cook stayed true to his skill set once again, inducing worm-beaters with regularity while refusing to miss bats. He represents the sneaky type of pitcher the Phillies struggle with, as the lack of strikeouts lead many to believe they should be able to tee off; two hours later, half of the hitters are 0-for-3 with ground outs and popups. They were a patient team all season, and need to hone in on his elevated pitches or else this could be a long game for one of the best offenses in the game.
After that, things get a little dicey. Tracy has named Hammel his Game Three starter-if only he switched in Cook, allowing a Hamels-Hammel matchup-at the expense of Jason Marquis. The latter made the All-Star team this season on the heels of a strong first half, but he has foundered down the stretch. It was quite refreshing to hear Tracy acknowledge that it would be a disservice to the team to not go with Hammel simply because Marquis performed well in April and May. The decision does raise questions for the fourth game, if the series gets to that point, because Tracy will either need to bring Jimenez back on short rest, revert to Jose Contreras, or give Marquis a start. Though Marquis will technically start the series in the bullpen, do not expect him to be a major player in the event they need him to start.
Speaking of starters in the bullpen, the big decision the Phillies had to make with regards to their rotation was whether to go with the rookie Happ or the veteran Pedro Martinez, especially since the losses of Moyer and J.C. Romero meant that Scott Eyre would be the lone trustworthy lefty in the pen. Manuel has been non-committal on Happ’s specific role because… well, because he doesn’t have a specific role in this post-season series. Though the odds are that Happ starts Game Four should the series reach that point, Manuel hinted that his Rookie of the Year candidate would start the series in the bullpen and has been toying with the notion that Happ could theoretically pitch in relief in one of the first two games and still be able to start in the fourth game. Given the employ of eight relievers, it is highly unlikely for this to come to fruition, but it would sure be interesting nonetheless. The bottom line is that the Phillies need their aces to actually pitch like aces, while the Rockies need to hope their righty-skewed rotation can handle an incredibly powerful, lefty-heavy lineup of the Phillies for three or four games.
Rockies IP ERA WXRL FRA RHP Huston Street 61.2 3.06 4.11 3.48 RHP Rafael Betancourt* 56.0 2.73 1.77 3.10 LHP Franklin Morales 40.0 4.50 1.04 5.06 LHP Joe Beimel* 55.1 3.58 0.09 3.75 RHP Matt Daley 51.0 4.24 0.25 4.51 RHP Jose Contreras 131.2 4.92 0.49 1.54* RHP Matt Belisle 31.0 5.52 0.36 6.74 *: Relief-only FRA. Phillies IP ERA WXRL FRA RHP Ryan Madson 77.1 3.26 2.32 3.08 RHP Brad Lidge 58.2 7.21 -3.26 8.44 LHP Scott Eyre 30.0 1.50 1.55 2.17 RHP Chad Durbin 69.2 4.39 0.95 4.96 RHP Brett Myers 70.2 4.84 0.39 4.52 RHP Pedro Martinez 44.2 3.63 ---- ---- LHP Antonio Bastardo 23.2 6.46 0.04 ---- RHP Kyle Kendrick 26.1 3.42 0.17 4.30 *: Pedro's FRA is as a starting pitcher; Bastardo's as a reliever.
The Phillies are a very strong team, but their bullpen is without a doubt a weakness. As has been discussed here before, Lidge put together the worst closed season in the history of baseball. No other closer to be given as many opportunities to hold late leads has turned in a worse performance, and no worse performers have ever been given as many opportunities. He has reportedly added a cutter to his fastball/slider arsenal, but color me skeptical that the new pitch is going to make much of a difference this late in the game. He could end up getting back to last year’s success in the 2010 campaign, but he should not be trusted with the ball in the eighth or ninth innings right now, even with the loyalty knob cranked to full volume. Expect Ryan Madson to close with a motley crew setting him up. The injuries to Romero and Moyer truly hurt the club’s left side of the bullpen, especially when you consider that Eyre is likely to be handled with kid gloves given the presence of a loose body in his elbow. No, it isn’t literally what it sounds like (I already checked). Because of the certain absences and the uncertain presences, Antonio Bastardo will be appearing on his first post-season roster. Also curious was the decision to go with Kyle Kendrick in place of either Clay Condrey or Tyler Walker. Perhaps Kendrick will be serving the dreaded role of bullpen long man-which, in the playoffs means pitching when you’re getting blown out-but then do they plan on using Pedro Martinez in a one-inning role? Too much is up in the air right now to speculate but Phillies Bullpen v.2009 was the software upgrade with massive bugs, not improvements.
On the other side, half of the Rockies’ bullpen wasn’t even in the team’s employ on Opening Day, with Jose Contreras having come over from the White Sox, Joe Beimel from the Nationals, and Rafael Betancourt from the Indians. The latter of these three has been virtually unhittable since joining the fray, with Beimel being counted upon to pay dividends in the latter stages of the game when the Phillies serve up the Utley-Howard-Ibañez sampler. The Rockies can also turn to Franklin Morales when such situations present themselves as the hard-throwing lefty put on the shoes of a closer in the beginning of September when Huston Street began to fatigue. Though Street turned in a very solid season, reports have been surfacing that his actual stuff looks tired, so look for Tracy to monitor him closely. The bullpen advantage goes to the Rockies, as they accrued a higher WXRL tally and have fewer question marks. Some will jump to the “but what if you remove Street and Lidge?” question, but the fact of the matter is that this exclusion cannot take place given that both pitchers are on the post-season rosters.
The Phillies are hands down one of the top defensive teams in the game, with quality defenders at just about every position. Shane Victorino has one of the more sterling defensive reputations, leading many to believe that his lower marks from both Plus/Minus and UZR are a byproduct of improvements at the position instead of an extreme decline in his own range. Even if this doesn’t ring true, he is not nearly as poor a fielder as the data would lead you to believe, and he still fares much better than Dexter Fowler up the middle. Pedro Feliz is consistently one of the best hot-corner handlers in the sport, and as will get noticed on tough plays there, the difference between him and either Ian Stewart or Garret Atkins is quite vast.
On the whole, the Phillies’ collective +28 UZR ranks almost four entire wins better than the Rockies -13 mark, but when you switch references to Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, you wind up with a much tighter ranking, with the clubs ranking seventh and eighth in the majors. A good portion of the difference in UZR comes from its estimation of right fielder Brad Hawpe, who posted an historically low UZR this season. However, this isn’t exactly foreign to him, indicating that perhaps Pat Burrell was a better outfielder than someone.
The Rockies have a strong double play combo in Tulo and Barmes that matches up well against Rollins and Utley, and arguing over the virtues of Helton vs. Howard comes out a wash, with the former losing a step or two, and the latter Italian BMT-ing his way to a more svelte physique and thus more range. He still struggles for whatever reason with making the throw to second base, but Howard has been a veritable vacuum at first base this season.
Yes, the managerial position is perhaps almost as overrated as that of the closer, and no, managers are not going to affect more than a handful of games in a season, but in a short series like this, slavishly sticking to old-fashioned wisdom could get in the way of a team performing optimally. Charlie Manuel surely knows how to motivate his players, but his handling of the bullpen was atrocious this season, and he is lucky the Phillies didn’t phold down the stretch. Had Lidge been removed from the closer’s role in July, the Phillies may have extended their divisional lead to double digits. Instead, Lidge blew game after game with literally zero signs of improvement and the team started to feel the heat of the surging Braves and Marlins in the final two weeks of the season. Manuel also needs to use Happ wisely here, and not toy around with the young lefty. Let him start, or let him relieve, but what is the purpose of an eight-man relief corps if you are ultimately just going to pluck a solid starting pitcher in crucial situations?
Offensively, they really need to break up the three lefties in the middle of the order. Jayson Werth hit 36 home runs, stole 20 bases, and put up a .301 EqA that bested Ibañez’s season mark. While the Rockies’ starters all pitch from the right of the mound, swapping him and Raul in the batting order would aid the Phillies in late-game situations without doing much damage throughout the rest. No, Franklin Morales and Huston Street are not Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, but the Phillies have already seen what dominant lefty-righty reliever combos can do to their team late in games, and now is the perfect time to prove this understanding exists.
Across the field, Jim Tracy’s impact on this series is largely going to involve who plays and who doesn’t. He has several decisions to make with regards to his lineup that are not necessarily easy. Carlos Gonzalez has been on fire, but do you move him to center field, bump Fowler out completely, and put Seth Smith in left? Does Ryan Spilborghs start against many of the Phillies’ lefties? Garrett Atkins put up absolutely terrible numbers, but will his right-handedness push Ian Stewart from third-base starts? These are questions that are much, much more important than whether or not Matt Belisle will make the bullpen, and unlike the Belisle situation these questions could actually determine the Rockies’ fate. Tracy must find a way for Iannetta to play, and Rockies fans should be hoping that it doesn’t take him too long to reach this epiphany.
Each team has their respective strengths and weaknesses, but on paper-at least for me-the strengths of the Phillies seem to outweigh those of the Rockies. They arguably played better defense in the regular season, boast a lineup more potent in relation to the opposing starting pitchers, and, as much as I originally cringed upon typing this, they have more playoff experience. While I would usually be inclined to write off an aspect like that, parts of the game that do not show up in stat sheets cannot be ignored entirely, especially if the players truly buy into it, creating sort of a placebo effect in the process. Much of the issues surrounding the Phillies deal with their bullpen, but if their aces, Lee and Hamels, pitch well and Blanton, their most consistent pitcher down the stretch, holds fort, then the issue may be moot. This might not bode well for the Rockies given that this area contained their only true advantage.
Still, anything can happen in the playoffs. Lee and Hamels could both show up as Mr. Hyde while the offense-which heavily relied on the long ball-might find itself mired in a power-sapped slump. However, neither team should abandon what got them to this point in the first place, suddenly deciding to go the small-ball route after avoiding that practice for five or six months. They get on base, run, and knock the ball around the yard, and while the Phillies are technically the higher seed, do not be fooled into thinking a series win for the Rockies would constitute an upset. Everything here tells me the Phillies should emerge victorious but that it will not be easy. All told, the Phillies will win in four games, but expect at least one to go into extra innings, with the games very tight throughout.