It’s funny how you look at things when you don’t have the baggage.
As I’ve stated before, my Phillies phandom is a phairly phresh phenomenon; I phinally phound a new NL rooting interest after the demise of Nos Amours, the Montreal Expos. That being the case, while I’m aware of the history of the team and indeed witnessed the disappointments of 1976-78, 81-83 and 1993 (I was still “undergoing construction” in 1964) they never left any kind of scar on my psyche.
Due to this, I felt little anxiety about the Phillies during the regular season. Even when the Phillies were three games back of the Mets on the afternoon of September 10, I confidently predicted on ESPN 1450’s Mike Gill Show that they would win the division. The Mets’ surge that had gotten them to that point was partly due to an overachieving Billy Wagner-less bullpen and partly to an underachieving Phillies offense. I expected that neither situation would continue much longer and that the Phils would simply make up the ground.
Granted, I didn’t expect the Mets to win just eight more games from that point on.
However, now we’re into the postseason crapshoot. Last season I was already wondering who would play the Phillies in the NLCS figuring that the Colorado Rockies wouldn’t have much left in the tank after their incredible late-September run. I was brought back to earth with a resounding thud as the Rox pulled out the broom and swept the Phillies out of the postseason.
Anyway, Bryan Tsao asked if I’d be interested in covering the Phils’ 2008 postseason and to state the incredibly obvious—I accepted. The first order of business was to get in touch with my mentor in all things Phillies; Crashburn Alley‘s and Baseball Digest Daily’s Bill Baer for a cyber-sit down to discuss why we like their chances in the NLDS versus the Brewers.
As usual, Bill is a Joe Friday “just the facts ma’am” type while I’m surfing the ozone layer, looking for bulges in the karmic wheel and trying to sense disturbances in The Force in assessing why I feel the way I do about the upcoming series.
Me: Anyway Bill, thanks for taking the time to chat—so, what are your initial thoughts going in?
Bill: The Philadelphia Phillies know exactly where the Milwaukee Brewers are, having clinched their first playoff berth in God-knows-how-long. Twenty-six years for the Brewers actually, and it was 14 years for the Phillies. But then again, Brewers fans also had the Green Bay Packers in the meantime. Oh, this is supposed to be about why the Phillies are better than the Brewers?
Me: Why not? What’s to like in the Cholesterol Cup? Bratwurst vs. Philly cheese steak? The only losers are our arteries.
Bill: Let’s start off with run differential, the basis for the Pythagorean Win-Loss numbers-thingy. The Phils scored 4.93 runs per game on average and allowed 4.20, a run differential of 0.73, best in the National League behind only the Cubs (1.14). The Brewers scored 4.63 runs per game on average and allowed 4.25, a differential of 0.38, about half that of the Phillies’. As such, the Brew Crew out-performed their PWL by three games while the Phillies actually under-performed theirs by a game.
Me: Heh … good thing this isn’t about the Jays or I’d be going apoplectic at the very mention of ol’ Pythagoras.
Bill: Comparing starting lineups, six out of the eight regulars on the Phillies have an OPS+ over 100, compared to just four on the Brewers. Increase the standards to an OPS+ over 115, and the score is Phillies 4, Brewers 2. If you compare the regulars position-by-position, it’s essentially a wash everywhere except at second base (Chase Utley vs. Rickie Weeks) and right field (Jayson Werth vs. Corey Hart).
Me: Another advantage that I see the Phillies enjoying is their situational hitting—I’m going to use hitting with runners in scoring position as a blunt instrument since we know not all RISP are created equal, but it’s enough to illustrate the point:
Howard: .320/.439/.589 Ruiz: .240/.363/.293 Fielder: .261/.400/.490 Kendall: .246/.366/.303 Utley: .271/.383/.524 Burrell: .234/.358/.469 Weeks: .240/.336/.423 Braun: .273/.340/.521 Feliz: .245/.325/.364 Victorino: .271/.331/.424 Hall: .225/.317/.382 Cameron: .245/.346/.443 Rollins: .318/.449/.514 Werth: .274/.385/.453 Hardy: .221/.308/.301 Hart: .281/.325/.515
The only out-and-out advantages I see the Brew Crew has are at the outfield corners. Cameron has a better raw OPS than Victorino, but one place I do think batting average isn’t an overrated statistic is with RISP. We never hear about a bases-clearing walk, and this is where a hit is far more valuable than a base on balls. I had my readers boring their eyes out earlier this year with my whining about how the Blue Jays seemed more interested in walking than hitting with RISP, and it showed up in their run scoring.
Well, Victorino has almost 30 points of batting average on Cameron which (IMO) negates Cameron’s small advantage in OBP and SLG since Victorino is moving far more runners around for more bases than Cameron. It’s also why Hart has an advantage over Werth in right field—Hart’s superior BA/SLG with RISP probably generated more raw run scoring than Werth’s 60 points of OBP. I will add one caveat—my scarring from the Jays colors my perception since the Phillies’ offensive firepower translates into it not being a bad idea to take the walk since there are guys behind him that can get the job done—something that didn’t exist this year in Toronto for the most part.
Bill: The Phils also have a great advantage with their bench, which ranked second in the league in OPS at .727. Milwaukee ranked ninth with a bench OPS of .667, a good 60 points lower. Most of the bench production has come from Greg Dobbs, who has a .920 OPS as a pinch hitter (a split OPS+, or sOPS+, of 174, where 100 is average). Another left-handed threat lurks behind Dobbs, a man named Matt Stairs, who, in 17 at-bats with the Phillies, has put up a .706 SLG and OPS+ of 153.
The Brewers don’t have anyone too threatening on the bench. Russell Branyan has only had two at-bats since returning from an injury but is their top left-handed bat off the bench in terms of power potential. Ray Durham will platoon at second base with Rickie Weeks, so against right-handed starters (Brett Myers), Durham will not be available to pinch hit for obvious reasons, and Weeks just isn’t that scary.
Me: There’s not much I can add here save that I’m thrilled to see Matt Stairs in the postseason.
Me: OK let’s move on to the pitching. I think we can safely say that CC Sabathia is the 800-pound gorilla in the room in this discussion. What’s your take on the Phillies’ and Brewers’ staffs?
Bill: Starting pitching: finally an area where the Brewers can be considered favorites. Eh, not so much. After Sabathia, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Yovani Gallardo, while he’s been good in all four of his starts this season, missed time between May 1 and September 25, and he’s only made one start (four innings) since returning. Ben Sheets is officially done for the year and will be left off the postseason roster, so Dale Sveum will have to choose between Jeff Suppan, Manny Parra and Dave Bush. None has been terribly effective this season, with Bush posting the highest ERA+ at 104, just above the average. Nor have they had great success against the Phillies in their careers.
Me: While I agree with you, I’m still a little concerned. The Phillies will be seeing Sabathia twice, and that means that the Brewers may need only one win from somebody else. I mean, 185 innings of 104 ERA+ starting pitching (Dave Bush) isn’t exactly chopped bratwurst, and Jeff Suppan has been very solid in the postseason.
Bill: Cole Hamels, who has had a better statistical season than Brandon Webb whom many are lauding as the Cy Young favorite, will oppose Gallardo in Game 1 of the NLDS. Hamels threw up a quality start (6.2 IP, 3 ER) in his start in the NLDS opener against the Colorado Rockies last season. However, with that start, he had recently come off of the disabled list. This year, he hasn’t spent a day on the DL and ended the season with three straight starts of at least 6 IP and 2 ER or less allowed.
Me: Which is why I am only a little concerned—of course Brett Myers’ last games made me wonder if he’s reverted to his first half persona or it was just a blip on the screen. This isn’t something I like to be wondering about on the eve of the LDS. Are you at all worried about this?
Bill: Brett Myers, in his last two starts, has pitched 8.1 innings and allowed 14 earned runs. His start prior to those two, however, was against the Brewers and he went the distance allowing only one run on two hits. He was opposed by Jeff Suppan, who failed to make it into the fifth inning. Jamie Moyer, everybody’s favorite old guy, will pitch Game 3. Moyer’s 2008 campaign (120 ERA+) is his best since 2003 (132 ERA+), and he allowed only four runs and struck out nine in 11.2 IP against the Brewers this season.
Me: Well, I wish I shared your optimism on Myers, but we do have Hamels and Moyer, plus we know that Sveum will be riding Sabathia hard since the Brewers have a bullpen that makes Brewer fans re-live their celebration of the 2008 Wild Card whenever they’re called in to work. Fortunately, this hasn’t been a big problem for the Phillies—especially when it comes to ninth-inning duties.
Bill: When it comes to bullpens, the competition couldn’t be more lopsided. The Phillies have had stability all season long with Brad Lidge (41-for-41 in save opportunities) closing out games. All of their bullpen regulars have an ERA+ over 100. In fact, they all have an ERA+ over 120. They led the league in bullpen ERA at 3.19, topping the Los Angeles Dodgers in second place at 3.33. The Brewers aren’t too far off at 3.83 but their closer, Salomon Torres, has been putrid in September, putting up an 8.53 ERA for the month. Outside of Torres, the Brewers have lefty Brian Shouse and that’s about it. If it’s close late in the game, or worse yet the Phillies have the lead, the Brewers are in deep trouble.
Me: I do think there is something to be mindful of in all this. Brad Lidge is coming into this postseason with something to prove—that he has indeed exorcised the ghost of Albert Pujols. Personally, I think he’s past it because, it’s not like he gave up that blast to a Neifi Perez or a Doug Mirabelli; it was Albert F. Pujols, a man compared to Stan Musial as a hitter, a likely first ballot Hall of Famer, and if there’s any justice (David excepted) in this universe, a two-time MVP.
No shame there. Yet, you can bet the press will be reminding him of it and Lidge wants to bury that particular specter this year.
Me: Parting shots (O.K. technically not a question):
Bill: Lastly, let’s take a look at good ol’ home/away statistics.
At home, the Phillies are 48-33; the Brewers are 49-32—not much difference.
On the road, the Phillies are 44-37; the Brewers are 41-40—a small difference.
At home, the Phillies have a run differential of +0.92; the Brewers have a HRD of +0.55.
On the road, the Phillies have a run differential of +0.56; the Brewers have a RRD of +0.20.
There is just too much evidence pointing to the Phillies as prohibitive favorites in the NLDS. Given Sabathia, it’s unlikely that they’ll sweep, but three out of four is highly likely.
Me: It will be interesting to see how much the Phillies rely on the running game. Rollins swiped 47 of 50 bags, Victorino 36 of 47, Werth 20 of 21 and Utley 14 of 16—they pilfered (as a team) 136 bags with an almost 85 percent success rate in 2008. If I’m Charlie Manuel, I use that against Sabathia—not so much running wild on him but making him sweat when they reach base. Obviously, Rollins gets a green light but I definitely want to get into the heads of Sabathia/the pitching staff and Kendall; I’ve seen first hand in Rickey Henderson and in more recent years the damage a Carl Crawford or a Jacoby Ellsbury can inflict on a pitcher’s concentration. There’s nothing more frustrating than letting the one guy you absolutely wish to keep off base reach first.
There’s not much to go on with Sabathia vs. Phillies—he’s faced them once in the last five years but not in Philadelphia; he went six innings giving up for earned runs and got a win.
I have to imagine that the man is getting tired after three starts on three days rest—especially, the finale against the Cubs. However Sveum will likely ride his arm as long as he possibly can to keep the arsonists in the bullpen from torching their chances. The thing is, when I see the 2008 Brewers, I see the 2007 Phillies–a team that had to go all out in the waning days of the season just to get to this point.
That in itself is a major victory.
However, the Phillies have already been through that and aren’t content just getting back to the postseason. They learned from last year that they cannot let down after getting over the regular season hump and there’s a lot left to do—I’m not sure how much intensity the Brewers can muster after pretty much being involved in de facto playoff games for the better part of a week. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Milwaukee was 10-16 in September, hit just .227/.311/.370 and averaged fewer than four runs a game. The Phillies were 17-8 (11-4 to finish the season) this month, batted .263/.336/.457 with over five runs a game.
They also swept Milwaukee in a four game set outscoring them 26-10, hit .325/.421/.533 (Brewers: .169/.243/.387) and put up a 2.50 ERA (Brewers: 7.03 ERA).
The Brewers had a miracle finish thanks to C.C. Sabathia—they’ll need another miracle to win the LDS.
Thanks for the input Bill—go Phillies!