Team to beat?

When the Philadelphia Phillies take the field against the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday night, they will have officially accomplished a minor feat that no other franchise can lay claim to: they’ll be the only team to participate in the last four postseasons. Yes, that’s a cherry picked stat. Another cherry picked stat I could use is that the Phillies are 23-7 since the start of September, good for an impressive .766 winning percentage. That includes seven games that the Phillies weren’t particularly worried about winning. Or I could take a longer view and reference their major-league-best 97-65 record. And no cherry picking is needed when pointing out the quality of the Phillies rotation. It’s hard to read a playoff preview without running into a H-2-O reference.

All of the above support what the mainstream media have been saying about the team: the Phillies are the team to beat.

The mainstreamers would seem to have a point. This article will cover what the Phillies have to their advantage while taking some time to point out why they may fail.

Why They’re Favorites

Reason No. 1 has already been talked about: it’s the triumvirate of aces up their sleeve. They form a unit that is the starting pitching analog of the Padres bullpen. While the Padres elite pen makes it hard to score after the starter escapes, the Phillies trio makes is tough to score period. Inevitable Cy Young winner Roy Halladay is well known for his ability to throw deep into ballgames, lasting close to 7.2 innings per start. Game Two starter Roy Oswalt is fairly capable in his own right, throwing about 6.2 innings per start while lefty Cole Hamels spun a little over 6.1 innings per start prior to yesterday’s tune-up session. The quality of those innings is well known; the mini chart below is presented as ERA, FIP, xFIP with Joe Blanton thrown in for good measure (does not include Oct. 3).

Roy Halladay: 2.44, 3.01, 2.93
Roy Oswalt: 2.73, 3.29, 3.46
Cole Hamels: 3.09, 3.68, 3.43
Joe Blanton: 4.74, 4.26, 4.03

Even Blanton is heading into the postseason on a high note, having put together strong peripherals since the calendar turned to July.

Reason No. 2 features the relievers. No matter what measure you use, the Phillies rate as a middle-of-the-pack bullpen in the National League. However, if you recall me harping on the innings the Phillies can expect from their aces, things get much rosier. Relief ace Ryan Madson turned in a fine season when he wasn’t practicing karate on a chair. Madson has been vicious this year, punching out 64 in 53 IP while allowing only 17 net walks (BB+HBP-IBB). Madson can be expected to pitch the seventh and eighth of any tight game. He’ll be followed by the always adventurous Brad Lidge, who’s had a bit of a bounce-back year in his own right. A glance at his Fangraphs pitch type values confirms what I’ve seen; the slider has been devastating, worth 15.2 runs over the season, but every fastball has been a harrowing experience as it lacks movement and is only averaging 91.7mph (-6.5 runs on the season). LOOGY J.C. Romero continues to defy regression, sporting a large “lucky” differential between his ERA and FIP for the fourth season in a row. Chad Durbin and Jose Contreras round out the group of relievers likely to see much action, and both are serviceable.

Reason No. 3 deals with the continuity of the Phillies lineup. On the defensive side of the ball, they’re trotting out the same run-preventing unit as years past, although age has perhaps nipped some talent from the roster. The unit’s -7.1 UZR is misleading due to the time missed by defensive stalwarts like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Placido Polanco. That trio will be taking to the infield for the Division Series and should be a boon to the Phillies run-prevention unit.

On the hitting side of the ledger, the Phillies lack the kind of OBP monster that we analytically inclined folks would like to see. Odds are Charlie Manuel will be filling out a very familiar lineup card:

Jimmy Rollins
Placido Polanco
Chase Utley
Ryan Howard
Jayson Werth
Raul Ibanez
Shane Victorino
Carlos Ruiz
H20

That lineup is every bit as dangerous as years past. While Rollins will have to shake off what’s left of the injury rust on the big stage, the rest of the lineup is performing well and has shown little signs of slowing down. If anything, the addition of Polanco over Feliz and the continued emergence of Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz as a tough out should make this lineup difficult to contend with.

Take reasons 1-3, add them up, and what you get is a tough team to beat on paper. While the AL teams seemingly match up better, the NL teams hoping to pull off an upset are going to have a tough road to victory. But this is baseball and crazy things always happen. Here’s two reasons why the Phillies might lose.

Why They Could Fall

Supporters of the Phillies will point to what they’ve done this season and then say “remember all those injuries?” And it’s true, the Phillies have accomplished a lot while using some pretty mediocre band-aids. Yet it’s also a reason they could collapse early in the postseason. Polanco continues to play through elbow pain that will require surgery. Meanwhile, Rollins’ hamstring and calf are lingering concerns, both types of injuries can recur without notice, especially in the sometimes harsh weather of October. Ruiz is also a little dinged up, as all catchers are this time of year. The switch to guys like Wilson Valdez, Greg Dobbs, and Brian Schneider could catch up to the Phillies in the win column.

The second reason is merely a reminder to you all: it’s the crapshootiness* of postseason play. A little tinkering with a seven-game series odds calculator produced about a 61% chance of a Phillies series win. I used the Cincinnati Reds as the hypothetical opponent despite the fact they’ll be playing in the Division Series. I set home field advantage at about 4% and guestimated the advantage of the individual match-ups. If someone were to do a more accurate evaluation, I’d expect the Phillies to have about a 14-19% chance of winning the World Series, steep odds for a so-called favorite. For comparison’s sake, a team that always had a 50% chance of winning a game and ignoring home field advantage would have a 12.5% chance of winning the World Series.

So from where we stand today on Monday, October 4, 2010, the Phillies appear as though they are the team to beat. There are some good reasons why, namely strong pitching and an experienced yet effective lineup. However, simple probability and an injury-prone roster could be their undoing. As someone once famously said, “This is why we play them.”

*I’m still waiting for crapshootiness to catch on as a real word…

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