Five Questions: Philadelphia Phillies

Heading into 2003, the Phillies looked like one of the best teams in the National League. They had just added Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood, and David Bell, and expectations were high. Philadelphia did well enough for half a season, with a 52-40 record and the Wild Card lead at the All-Star break. After the break, however, the Phillies lost more games than they won, and watched a surging Marlins team rally into the playoffs.

Despite the disappointment, there are all kinds of silver linings. While the Phillies won just 86 games, their Pythagorean record was 90-72. Marlon Byrd had a nice rookie year, batting .303, and Mike Lieberthal had his best year since 1999. Not content with last year’s showing, GM Ed Wade bolstered the bullpen by acquiring flamethrower Billy Wagner and steady Tim Worrell. To strengthen the starting rotation, Wade picked up talented-but-often-injured Eric Milton from the Twins. At this point, Philadelphia has few (if any) glaring weaknesses at the major-league level.

1) Does Philadelphia have the best starting rotation in the National League? If not, then who does?

Rob Neyer addressed this issue back in December… The Phillie starting five goes like this: Millwood-Wolf-Padilla-Milton-Myers. That’s a deep rotation, but as Rob pointed out, only one of those five guys (Vicente Padilla) had a sub-4.00 ERA last year.

Of course, that question was a lot more interesting before mid-February, when the Cubs picked up Greg Maddux. Wood-Maddux-Prior-Zambrano-Clement trumps pretty much any rotation out there, except possibly those in Boston and the Bronx. As for the rest of the National League, the Astros also have a superior starting five to Philly. Oswalt-Miller-Pettitte-Clemens, plus one of Redding/Duckworth puts Houston ahead of the Phils in the Best Rotation competition.

2) How about the bullpen? Best in the NL? In baseball?

Last season, the trio of Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell, and Rheal Cormier combined to go 13-8 with 83 saves. They pitched a total of 249 innings, struck out 237 batters while walking 76, and compiled an ERA of 2.10. Of course, last year Wagner was in Houston and Worrell in San Francisco, and this season they’ll all be wearing Philadelphia duds. The fourth guy out of the Phillie pen will be Roberto Hernandez, who is no longer a star reliever but is adequate enough as a middle man.

As for 2004, Wagner and Worrell are as reliable as relief pitchers can be, and I expect little dropoff from last year. Cormier is another story; he had a 5.25 ERA just two years ago, and his career mark is over four. The Phils bullpen has a chance to be real good, but I’d rather go into the year with Anaheim or L.A.‘s pen.

3) Has Jim Thome’s decline begun?

From 2002 to 2003, Thome’s batting average fell 38 points and his Offensive Winning Percentage dropped from .834 to .743. He turned 33 in August, so he’s no spring chicken. Still, the guy led the league in home runs, had 131 RBIs, and collected 30 Win Shares – not a bad decline year, if that’s what it is.

To tackle the question, “Has Jim Thome’s decline begun?” I decided to check for historical players with similar value patterns – guys with 200+ Win Shares through their age-32 season, whose value pattern from 30-32 most closely resembles that of Thome (weighted toward the most recent year). Thome’s offense has accounted for about 90% of his career value, so to find similar players, we’ll eliminate guys with less than 80% of their career value from offense.

Jim Thome’s Win Shares the last three years are 31, 34, and 30. The most-similar player is actually Jason Giambi, which doesn’t tell us anything. Looking just at non-active players, Thome’s 10 most-similar players (by value pattern) through age 32 are the following:

Hank Aaron
Al Kaline
Pete Rose
Keith Hernandez
Roy Thomas
Harry Heilmann
Billy Hamilton
Willie McCovey
Stan Musial
Ken Singleton
Frank Howard

Okay, that was 11, but Thome and Howard are very similar players. Here is Thome compared to the group average:

          30   31   32   Wt. Avg.  Thru 32  Post-32
Thome     31   34   30    31.5       256       ?
Group     31   32   31    31.3       296      114

Now, some of the guys on that list kept on trucking for years to come – Aaron, Rose, and Musial all had at least 200 more Win Shares left in the tank. On the other hand, 6 of the 11 comps earned fewer than 100 Win Shares the rest of their careers. While Thome is great, he’s not in the class of Aaron and Musial, and though it’s not impossible, I’d be surprised if he duplicated their post-prime success. He’s more likely to follow the path of Frank Howard, who had 30 and 23 Win Shares at ages 33-34 before fading. By 2007, Thome’s fat contract will be a liability for the Phils.

4) Can Pat Burrell bounce back from his horrible 2003?

Burrell in 2002 – 25 Win Shares, .282/.376/.544, 37 homers, 116 RBI
Burrell in 2003 – 9 Win Shares, .209/.309/.404, 21 homers, 64 RBI

Wow. Now, that’s a collapse. Pat Burrell lost 39% of his singles and 43% of his home runs from 2002-2003, though his doubles rate was about the same. The other thing that held steady was his (unintentional) walk rate – in both 2002 and 2003, Burrell drew an unintentional walk in 11.7% of his plate appearances.

Pat the Bat has always had his fair share of strikeouts, and with the drop in the other stats, I assumed his strikeout total would skyrocket. I assumed wrong, though – Burrell’s K-rate was virtually the same in both 2002 and 2003.

I found only two other players who 1) were 1B/DH/corner OFs, 2) had 20 or more Win Shares in their Age 25 season, 3) had a dropoff in Win Shares of at least 50% at 26, 4) played a full season (at least 130 games) at 26, and 5) hit at least 20 home runs at age 26 (so we don’t include guys like Joe Vosmik, who clearly aren’t similar to Burrell).

It makes sense that a Burrell-level implosion is historically rare among 26-year-old sluggers. The two other guys who fell apart at 26? A couple familiar names – Rocky Colavito and Willie McCovey.

Colavito had a career year with Cleveland in 1958, and followed it up by leading the AL in homers in 1959, when he was 25. That season, he earned 29 Win Shares. Just before Opening Day, 1960, he was infamously traded to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn, the defending batting champ. With his new team, Rocky’s offense took a hit and he finished the year with just 13 Win Shares.

Really, though, Colavito’s decline wasn’t all that similar to Burrell’s. Colavito lost only 8 points of batting average, 20 points of OBP, 38 points of slugging, and 7 home runs. Yes, Detroit was a better hitting environment than Cleveland, but Colavito was still an above-average hitter in 1960. For what it’s worth, Colavito bounced back to have a big year at 27.

Willie McCovey’s collapse was actually more similar to Colavito’s than Burrell’s in terms of relative offense, though looking only at the raw stats it’s and intriguing comparison. McCovey earned 29 Win Shares and hit .280/.350/.566 with 44 homers in 1963, when he was 25. In 130 games the following season, McCovey fell to .220/.336/.412 with just 18 home runs and 11 Win Shares. The biggest difference between Stretch McCovey and Burrell is that, while Burrell’s decline is virtually inexplicable, McCovey’s dropoff was injury-related. Weeks of wearing ill-fitting cleats resulted in chronically sore feet that season for McCovey, who suffered in pain because he was too shy to tell anyone there was a problem. Of course, he went on to have a monster six-year run from ages 27-32.

It’s hard to learn much from two vague comparables. Both players rebounded to have great years at 27, and I expect Burrell to recover as well. He won’t be an MVP candidate, but .260/.350/.480 with around 30 homers is a reasonable expectation for Burrell (and I won’t be shocked if he’s much better than that). I’m especially encouraged by his steady walk and doubles rates, and the fact that his strikeouts didn’t go up when his batting average went down.

5) Can Chase Utley be a major-league regular?

Yes, he can. Chase Utley is a former first-round pick and was an All-American at UCLA. He’s hit pretty much everywhere he’s gone… Here are Utley’s minor league stats for the past two years, expressed in their Major League Equivalency (MLE) form, into Philadelphia:

Year   Age  AB    R    H    2B  3B  HR  RBI   BB  SO   Avg    OBP    Slg    GPA
2002   23   452   62  110   36   1  14   59   39  93  .244   .304   .422   .242
2003   24   420   71  128   25   2  16   68   36  79  .306   .361   .485   .284

Pretty impressive. Utley has also been hit by 31 pitches in his last two minor-league seasons, but those aren’t included in his MLE on-base percentage. In 2003, the average GPA for a major-league second baseman was .251. Utley’s .284 mark would have ranked fifth in the majors, right between Alfonso Soriano and Jeff Kent – pretty select company, to be sure.

Of course, Utley’s offense has never been his problem. Defensively, he’s probably in the Todd Walker class of fielders (i.e. not good), though I think he’s got enough hitting ability to off-set the mediocre fielding. With David Bell stinking up the hot corner and Placido Polanco not the long-term solution at either second or third, Utley should get a chance real soon. And if he does get that chance, I fully expect Utley to establish himself as one of the best-hitting second (or third) basemen in the game. Plus, the guy has a Dickens-worthy name.

For more on Utley and the way the Phils have jerked him around so far, I’d recommend reading this article from PhillyBaseballNews.com.

In Closing…

At the risk of ending up with pie on my face when the Braves win yet another division title, I think the Phillies are the team to beat in the National League East. They are certainly the most complete team in the Senior Circuit, with a balanced offense, solid starting pitching, and a strong bullpen. This is a team that needs to have a good start to the season; if they go 6-14 in their first 20 games, heads could roll (namely, Larry Bowa’s head). Anything short of the postseason will be a major disappointment for Philly: with this team, the time to win is NOW.

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