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Broken Bats?

March 20, 2012

The reports yesterday that Philadelphia 2B Chase Utley has hit a “plateau” in his recovery have set Internet coverage of the Phillies outlook for 2012 into full gloom and doom mode. Unquestionably, the indefinite loss of both Utley and 1B Ryan Howard is a huge blow to the Phils’ offense. By almost any measure, Utley has been the best all-around 2B in the game when healthy for the past five years, and though Howard’s declining average and continuing struggles with lefty pitching are an ongoing concern, he has still been very reliable for 30+ HR and driving in a bunch of runs each year. The replacements the Phillies have brought in from free agency and the minor leagues aren’t likely to come close to matching that production. Given the inevitable drop-off at these positions and the injury concerns the Phils still have at 3B (Placido Polanco) and SS (Jimmy Rollins), a popular view has emerged that the Phils offense might become one of the worst in baseball (see posts at Crashburn Alley, Grantland, Brotherly Glove, and SweetSpot). Perhaps I’m merely being irrational or overly optimistic, but I don’t share the apocalyptic predictions that the Phillies will suddenly regress into the dead-ball era. While I don’t expect the Phils to win 100+ games again or score as many runs as last year, I don’t think they’ll become the Seattle Mariners either. I feel three essential facts about the Phillies and baseball in general are being overlooked: every team deals with injury issues and winds up missing critical players (and the Phils have certainly overcome their share in the past three years); offense throughout baseball is declining as pitching has taken the advantage; and the Phils still have several excellent players on their roster.

To be fair, most of the naysayers aren’t predicting that the Phillies will miss the postseason, mainly because of their still-phenomenal pitching – not everyone can roll out a rotation that features three Cy Young candidates and arguably the best 3rd, 4th, and 5th starters in baseball. Yet I still feel that projections of the Phils’ offense are overly pessimistic, and I’m sick of hearing the insinuation that I’m going to have to watch 162 games of 1-0 or 3-2 baseball. So who’s right: the pessimists or my intuition that reports of the Phillies offensive demise are being greatly exaggerated? There’s no way to know for sure until the season starts to play out, but let’s play a little game of comparison just to put things into context. Last year’s World Series winners, the St. Louis Cardinals, are generally thought to have an excellent shot to at least repeat as NL pennant winners. They have a very solid pitching staff and, despite the loss of Albert Pujols in the off-season, their offense is considered to be a strength. So how do the Phillies match up offensively with last year’s world champions? Let’s go position by position to see if the Phils’ bats are really in as dire straights as presumed.

Per MLB Depth Charts:

Philadelphia Phillies projected Opening Day 2012 starting lineup:
1. Jimmy Rollins (33), SS
2. Placido Polanco (36), 3B
3. Shane Victorino (31), CF
4. Hunter Pence (28), RF
5. Ty Wigginton (34), 1B
6. John Mayberry Jr. (28), LF
7. Carlos Ruiz (33), C
8. Freddy Galvis (22), 2B
9. (Pitcher)

St. Louis Cardinals projected Opening Day 2012 starting lineup:
1. Rafael Furcal (34), SS
2. Carlos Beltran (34), RF
3. Matt Holliday (32), LF
4. Lance Berkman (36), 1B
5. David Freese (28), 3B
6. Yadier Molina (29), C
7. Jon Jay (27), CF
8. Daniel Descalso (25), 2B
9. (Pitcher)

Quick note on statistics: The age of each player is included in parentheses above as a response to the widespread notion that the Phils offense is old and therefore on the decline. The fact that the average age of St. Louis’ lineup (31.9) is higher than that of Philadelphia (30.6) doesn’t disprove the old-and-declining offense argument, but does beg the question of why only Philly seems subject to it. Below, the standard triple slash line consists of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (a modified form of batting average that weights extra base hits more heavily – if a player only hit singles, his batting average and slugging percentage would be the same). League averages for BA/OBP/SLG were .255/.320/.399 in 2011. I’ve also included each player’s triple slash line for the past 3 years to account for any anomalies in a single-season sample (injuries; absurd good or bad luck). OPS+ is a statistic used to measure a player’s OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) versus the rest of the league. League average OPS+ is by default 100; a player with an OPS+ of 109 was 9% better than league average that year, whereas a player with an OPS+ of 77 was 23% worse than league average. RBI is absent from the following stats because it is a largely useless statistic for reasons that I’ll get into some other time. All stats are from Baseball Reference.

PHL: Carlos Ruiz (2011: .283/.371/.383, 6 HR, 107 OPS+; 2009-11: .281/.376/.417, 113 OPS+)
STL: Yadier Molina (2011: .305/.349/.465, 14 HR, 126 OPS+; 2009-11: .287/.348/.397, 103 OPS+)
Molina got some attention in the off-season for the 5 year/$75MM contract extension he signed with the Cardinals. He’s widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in the game, and last year was definitely a break-out year for him. Yet given that he’s never come close to showing the power he displayed last year (he hit more HR in 2011 than 2009 and 2010 combined), color me skeptical that he’s due for a repeat. 2010 was also a very down year for him, and 2011 is the only year in which he posted an OPS+ above 100. Chooch, however, has always been extremely underrated. He may not be quite the defender that Molina is, but he’s got a much better track record at the plate. Lest we forget, Chooch also caught two no-hitters (both from Doc) in 2010. If Molina keeps up what he did last year, he’s clearly got the edge, but I’d rather take the track record of the guy who’s been so consistent over the past three years. Advantage: PHL

First Base:
PHL: Ty Wigginton (2011: .242/.315/.416, 15 HR, 87 OPS+; 2009-11: .254/.313/.411, 91 OPS+) and Jim Thome (2011: .256/.361/.477, 15 HR, 131 OPS+; 2009-11: .261/.379/.523, 140 OPS+)
STL: Lance Berkman (2011: .301/.412/.547, 31 HR, 166 OPS+; 2009-11: .276/.394/.494, 141 OPS+)
I expect Wiggy to see the majority of time at 1B for the Phils, though John Mayberry Jr. is also an option that’s been explored in spring training (see LF for his stats). Though Wiggy’s got some pop, he’s clearly a below-average hitter better suited to bench duty and pinch-hitting. Thome, certain to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, will see at best one start per week at 1B, given that he hasn’t played everyday in the field since he left the Phils in 2005. With his back issues, even that might be too much to ask of the 41-year-old. Berkman had an incredible resurgence last year that no one saw coming. I’m not sure he can repeat his eye-popping numbers from last season, but even if he simply regresses to the average of the last three years, the Cardinals will have little to complain about. Advantage: STL

Second Base:
PHL: Freddy Galvis (2011 in AA/AAA: .278/.324/.392, 8 HR; Career in MiLB: .246/.292/.321)
STL: Daniel Descalso (2011: .265/.334/.353, 1 HR, 93 OPS+, 2010-2011: .264/.333/.350, 92 OPS+)
Galvis is the Phils’ top SS prospect who has seen a ton of time at 2B this year in spring training largely due to Utley’s injury. With Utley departing camp this week, it’s presumed that Galvis will get the Opening Day 2B job. His 2011 in the minors was by far his best offensive year: he’s never been known to hit for a high average or much power, though he’s admittedly been pretty young for every level he’s played at. It’d be a major surprise if he repeated his numbers from last year in making the jump to the big leagues, though anything can happen with a player still so young. To be honest, I don’t think I’d heard of Descalso before researching this post. He seems to be a young utility-type infielder who’s been handed the job because there’s no one else around. His numbers are extremely average with respect to contact and on-base skills, and he’s got absolutely no power. However, he’s at least had 412 PAs in the majors, while Galvis has got none. Advantage: STL

Third Base:
PHL: Placido Polanco (2011: .277/.335/.339, 5 HR, 85 OPS+; 2009-11: .287/.335/.377, 90 OPS+)
STL: David Freese (2011: .297/.350/.441, 10 HR, 120 OPS+; 2009-11: .298/.354/.429, 116 OPS+)
Poor Polly. He was absolutely on fire in April 2011, and then injuries made the rest of the season a lost year. His average went way down and his power was completely sapped. If he can maintain his health this season, he should bounce back to be a very good contact hitter, with an average just a couple ticks below .300. Everyone remembers Freese as the hero of the 2011 World Series. He had clutch hit after clutch hit, practically dragging the whole Cardinals team to victory by himself. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had the same opportunity to carry his team in the regular season. Even more so than Polanco, Freese just can’t seem to stay healthy (70 GP in 2010, 97 GP in 2011). He’s clearly the better hitter, but much less likely to see the field as often. Would you rather have 90 games of Freese plus 70 games of whoever couldn’t beat out Descalso for the 2B job, or 130 games of Polanco plus 30 games of Wigginton sliding over to third? It’s definitely a tough call. Advantage: Neither

PHL: Jimmy Rollins (2011: .268/.338/.399, 16 HR, 101 OPS+; 2009-11: .255/.316/.403, 91 OPS+)
STL: Rafael Furcal (2011: .231/.298/.348, 8 HR, 80 OPS+; 2009-11: .269/.335/.393, 98 OPS+)
Wow. This was a stark reminder that SS is a really awful offensive position. J-Roll isn’t Tulowitzki or Reyes, but he’s still considered a very good offensive shortstop and he only barely managed to hit above league average last year (for all positions, not just SS). Health really hampered J-Roll in 2010 and he bounced back nicely the next year, so I’m expecting his 2011 stats to be more representative of his performance in 2012. Furcal was brutal in 2011, though he was much better after he was traded from the Dodgers. While that .197/.272/.248 line with the Dodgers probably isn’t representative of his true skill, that first half awfulness is a bit worrisome. However, health is an even bigger concern for Furcal. He’s only played more than 100 games once since 2008 (150 GP in 2009). Can you imagine if both Furcal and Freese are out with injury? For all the talk of the Phils’ woes, the Cardinals’ starting infield could be Berkman (good!), Descalso (meh), and two giant question marks. Advantage: PHL

Left Field:
PHL: John Mayberry Jr. (2011: .273/.341/.513, 15 HR, 130 OPS+; 2009-11: .265/.328/.518, 125 OPS+) and Laynce Nix (2011: .250/.299/.451, 16 HR, 103 OPS+; 2009-11: .254/.306/.461, 104 OPS+)
STL: Matt Holliday (2011: .296/.388/.525, 22 HR, 153 OPS+; 2009-11: .308/.391/.524, 147 OPS+)
Laynce Nix is not a good baseball player. The only reason he has somewhat respectable stats is because all of his previous managers have been smart enough not to play him with any regularity against lefty pitching (career .111/.226/.185 line when facing southpaws…yeah). Furthermore, he’s signed for the next two years, potentially blocking Dom Brown’s path to the big leagues when Dom should now be emerging as our franchise player. Gah! I’m more angry at Ruben Amaro Jr. for this signing than I am at the fact that he guaranteed 4 years/$50MM to a closer. Luckily, we have John Mayberry Jr., definitely the biggest surprise of last year. If Charlie has any sense, he’ll play John against every lefty starter (and even a bunch against righties), and slide him over to 1B whenever he feels the unreasonable compulsion to give Nix playing time in left field. Unfortunately, nothing in Mayberry’s previous major or minor league career suggested that he could show anything close to this average, OBP, or power. I’ve always liked John and I hope he just finally put it all together last year, but I fear the Demon of Regression. Holliday, on the other hand, is really good. Really, really good. Now if only Sarge could stop getting his and Doc’s last names mixed up. Advantage: STL

Center Field:
PHL: Shane Victorino (2011: .279/.355/.491, 17 HR, 129 OPS+; 2009-11: .277/.347/.454, 112 OPS+)
STL: Jon Jay (2011: .297/.344/.424, 10 HR, 114 OPS+; 2010-11: .298/.350/.423, 114 OPS+)
Before he faded a bit down the stretch, there was legitimate conversation surrounding Victorino as a possible MVP candidate. He was a force at the plate, carrying the team while others struggled and proving his down year in 2010 to be a fluke. Jay took over CF after Colby Rasmus was traded to the Jays, and while many analysts expected him to collapse at the plate when exposed to greater playing time, he clearly held his own. One aspect of the game not captured in the stats above is speed: Victorino was 19/22 stealing bases, while Jay was 6/13. Clearly Victorino is an asset on the basepaths, while Jay is a liability. Given Victorino’s greater speed, better power, and track record, I’ll take him over Jay. Think of it this way: the Cards would be delighted to trade Jay for Victorino, while the Phils would hang up the phone laughing. Advantage: PHL

Right Field:
PHL: Hunter Pence (2011:.314/.370/.502, 22 HR, 138 OPS+; 2009-11: .293/.347/.478, 122 OPS+)
STL: Carlos Beltran (2011: .300/.385/.525, 22 HR, 152 OPS+; 2009-11: .298/.384/.497, 141 OPS+)
I must confess, I was not pleased when the Phils traded for Pence at the deadline last season. Ruben gave up two really good prospects for a player I thought had been overrated, while at the same time jerking Dom Brown around yet again. Pence proved me wrong. He actually improved when he got to Philly, and won me over with his goofy style. Besides, Raul’s contract was up after the season, so Dom could just move to left fiel–. Oh right. Well, that’s not Pence’s fault. Since his rookie season, he’d never hit above .282 or had an OBP higher than .346, but he surpassed both those marks by leaps and bounds in 2011. It’s not inconceivable that, at 28, he took a step forward in his approach at the plate, but it’s probably more reasonable to expect some regression to the mean in 2012. Beltran is a better overall hitter (more power, higher OBP), but unlike Pence, durability is a concern. Injuries have cropped up consistently for Beltran (81 GP in 2009, 64 GP in 2010, 44 GP after the trade deadline in 2011 [142 overall]), and he’s only getting older. Last year’s move to RF (from CF) should keep him on the field longer, but his health remains a red flag. Advantage: STL

With the score 4-3 in favor of St. Louis, the Cardinals do have the better overall offense, but it’s closer than you might first think. In fact, if I was a Cardinals fan, I’d be much more worried about my infield than I am as a Phillies fan. The 2012 Phils’ offense is not the bash-and-smash monster of 2007, but it’ll be more than serviceable even without Utley and Howard. Besides, with the rotation the Phils will throw out there, they won’t need to see crooked numbers being put up every inning. The 2012 Phillies are a team built around amazing pitching supported by a good-at-best, mediocre-at-worst offense. With pitchers increasingly dominating the regular season and randomness often deciding the postseason, I’m not too worried.

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