The Phillies cruised through the regular season on the backs of their superlative starting rotation. They will hope to ride that unit to their third World Series championship.
Statistically speaking, the Phillies rotation has been the best to grace baseball since 1997 when Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Denny Neagle, and Tom Glavine anchored what was arguably the best starting rotation in the modern era of baseball.
The Phillies rotation leads baseball in almost all major categories. Those include wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, fewest walks allowed, complete games, shutouts and ERA. Prefer FIP? They lead the league in that, along with xFIP, SIERA, tERA, and WAR. Below are two graphics that show how the Phillies stacked up against the second-best team in these statistics.
Charlie Manuel and the Phillies have it easy this postseason in regards to setting the rotation. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels will start the first three contests. Roy Oswalt has been named the fourth starter, putting to rest the small online rebellion in support of Vance Worley.
It will be interesting to see how often the Phillies make use of Oswalt. Manuel will have the option to throw his aces on three days’ rest to avoid Oswalt if he’s uncomfortable using the veteran. Phillies fans should probably hope that Manuel is aware of the information uncovered by Matt Swartz last week, where he observed that Oswalt’s varying velocity has been correlated with his performance. When his average fastball velocity has exceeded 91.5 MPH, his performance has been substantially better.
Obviously, the Phillies will be leaning heavily on their starting rotation. The opposition also will need to be wary of the Phillies top-heavy bullpen.
Ryan Madson has emerged as one of the best relievers in baseball over the past few seasons and has finally succeeded in the role of closer. With the presence of veteran closer Brad Lidge, who is still whiffing opponents at a prodigious rate (15 percent swinging strike rate, 11.57 strikeouts per nine innings pitcher), Manuel has the option to bring Madson in to put out fires earlier in the game.
Antonio Bastardo could also cover for Madson in the ninth, if needed. He put together a very impressive season by striking out well over a batter per inning (10.80 K/9) and limiting opposing hitters to an anemic .133/.229/.250 batting line. Bastardo benefited from a .168 balls in play average (BABIP), but an infield fly rate of nearly 20 percent goes a long way towards explaining that.
After that trio, the bullpen weakens significantly. The Phillies are hoping that Worley, Michael Stutes, David Herndon, Joe Blanton and Kyle Kendrick aren’t needed to pitch any important innings. If they are, it means that the game is in extra innings or one of the starters got chased earlier than expected. Still, as far as soft underbellies go, this isn’t the worst group of pitchers, as all are capable of being average or better relievers.
Moving along to the lineup, season stats partially belie the strength of the position players. The Phillies went months without Chase Utley to start the season, struggling along with Wilson Valdez, Pete Orr, and Michael Martinez at the keystone. John Mayberry, Jr. has emerged to grab a substantial share of Raul Ibanez‘s playing time, which is reminiscent of Jayson Werth taking over for Geoff Jenkins in 2008.
And, of course, the addition of Hunter Pence at the trade deadline greatly improved and balanced the lineup while making it one dangerous batter deeper.
Depth remains a major issue, though, with Utley (knee), Pence (sprained knee), Jimmy Rollins (groin), and Placido Polanco (elbow, sports hernia) battling a variety of injuries. All four are critical to the Phillies’ success. Valdez and Martinez are poor replacements and hopefully won’t be needed often.
The back end of the roster is still uncertain, as is the batting lineup. The roster composition should look something like this:
Predicting Manuel’s lineup is a challenge. During the playoffs in 2010, he used the right-handed Polanco to break up left handers Utley and Howard. This season, his best options for that role are Pence and Mayberry. He also could use his typical lineup with Utley and Howard batting back-to-back if he isn’t worried about opposing LOOGYs.
The Phillies are sitting pretty heading into the postseason and are the clear favorites to emerge as the National League champions. If they can stay healthy, only the fates will stop them.
But Billy Beane said it best: The playoffs are a crapshoot.