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Looking through the Stat-Colored Glasses: Philadelphia Phillies

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Anatomy of an Underachiever

It's been a frustrating quarter-century for Phillies phans, and the last 5 years have been frustrating in a different way than most: the Phillies are perennial contenders but just haven't been able to get into the playoffs.

If things hold as they currently are, the Phillies will miss the playoffs for the thirteenth straight season, and this is a tough one to take. In a year where the National League is surprisingly weak, where every team has a glaring weakness or two, and where the NL East offers a bunch of winnable games with an unbalanced schedule, the Phils have worked their way to 6 games under .500.

It's tough to call the Phils unlucky, in the traditional, statistical sense. Their run differential of -28 projects to a record of 44-50 (where they are as of writing). But few could have possibly anticipated such a disappointing year from a team with such legitimate talent. What's wrong here?

My first guess was that it's due to "situational underachieving." According to Prospectus' Adjusted Standings, though, the Phillies have allowed 32 fewer runs than they should have (based on their components of run scoring), and they've only scored 2 fewer runs than expected based on their overall components. So, while poor situational hitting isn't helping (.243/.337/.412 w/ RISP ranks 24th in the league), the problems are deeper than that.

So, here's something I noticed when I took a look at the Phils.

Among National League clubs, the Phillies have gotten extraordinarily little from their 9 hitters (meaning pitchers + pinch hitters); they've posted a .142/.191/.218 line. The Phillies are the only team in the league whose 9th place hitters have posted a sub-.200 OBP. Their opponents, however, have done the exact opposite, hitting 250/.304/.363. The Phillies are the only team in the league that has allowed a +.300 OBP to their opponents' 9th place hitters.

This might seem like an insignificant piece of data, but when we look at National League lineups and run scoring, we generally disregard the pitchers and the ninth place spot in general. If you were to put the Phillies in a windtunnel, you'd notice the drag caused by the 9-hitter phenomenon.

For this comparison, I will use Extrapolated Runs, a simple run estimation formula, more for convenience than for accuracy.

Phillies' nine hitters have posted 8.2 extrapolated runs, while the league average nine hitters have posted 19.8 runs (prorated to 94 games). That's a 12-run difference.

If you do the same calculation with the pitchers, the Phillies have given up 35 extrapolated runs to that nine spot, versus 19.8 to the average. That's a difference of 15 runs.

So, here's a table to put this all together.

                XRS     XRA     DIFF
Current         465     518     -53
Avg. 9 hitter   477     503     -26

We already discussed how the Phillies have outperformed their equivalent runs allowed, and this will most likely hold true throughout all run estimation methods. As it is, by XR, the Phils' abysmal performances at the bottom of the batting orders have cost them on the order of 27 runs, overall, when compared to the average.

The bottom line is that it's little things like this that can make a big difference, certainly a bigger difference that I thought. It might be worth more that we give it credit fore to pay attention to how well pitchers hit, because it can make a difference. The Phils have a bunch of guys who hit well on offense, but a hidden drag like the nine hole really can bury an offense (the Phils are only 7th in run scoring in the NL, even with Utley, Abreu, Burrell, and Howard all bringing something to the table offensively).

So, what is to be done?

After thinking about this a lot, if I were running the Phillies, I would move to sell. And sell a lot.

Why?

  1. First of all, Nate Silver's wonderful article about assessing team standing and whether or not to buy or sell is really required reading, if you can. But, if you can't, I'll give you a brief summary.

    Silver broke down teams into various categories and gave certain categories a "Buy, Sell, or Hold" distinction. Any team with under .500 talent should be selling, and, likewise, teams in the upper-80s area should look to buy. Silver considered the Phillies in part of that category, but, at this point, I think that the Phillies are better described as a "buy or sell" team: one that absolutely would need a big acquisition to have playoff caliber talent but one that is not a playoff-caliber team as of now.

    Silver wrote, "[for these teams], standing pat is the worst alternative for these clubs. Whether to buy or sell is conditioned on some of the same factors that we've described above, but either strategy is superior to holding. Buying is likely to produce a reasonably good return; although a team with 85-win talent will make the playoffs occasionally, a team with 90-win talent will make the playoffs more often than not. On the other hand, if buying isn't feasible, then selling needs to be considered."

  2. The Mets: Right now, the Mets are the class of the division. Powered by a trio of immensely talented players with good years ahead of them (Beltran, Reyes, Wright), the Mets are set up to be contenders for the next year and into the near future, and, without bulking up with a younger group of players to challenge the Mets, the Phils will struggle to keep up.
  3. The Marlins: as scary as the Mets' core and money are, the Marlins' young talent is almost equally as scary. Complete with a plethora of young pitchers with talent and a strong, young lineup centered around the game's best young hitter (Miguel Cabrera) and some top prospects (Hanley Ramirez, Jeremy Hermida), the Marlins are poised to explode in the next few years with young talent. Provided they can keep it.
  4. The Market: Much like last year, parity hurts the trade market for buyers as too many teams think they have a shot at the playoffs. And, for the most part, a lot of them do. The only teams who are obviously out of the playoff picture, at this point, are the Cubs, Pirates, Indians, Orioles, Devil Rays, and Royals. You could argue that the Nationals are, as well.

    A simple, Econ 101 supply and demand curve could do the trick here: there's a ton of demand for talent to get into the playoffs. There's very little supply.

  5. Reality: In these situations, teams need to fairly assess where they stand, and teams who are best able to do that are the ones with competent, smart management teams. It's nice to think that the Phillies are legitimately in the hunt, but one needs to employ a more logical mindset at this point: the Phillies have to leapfrog no fewer than EIGHT teams to get the wild card. CoolStandings.com pegs the Phils at a 2.2% chance for the playoffs. Prospectus puts them at 2.6%.

    Could the Phillies make the playoffs? Yes. Is it particularly likely? No. Is it likely at all? No.

I think that one can look at the infamous "white flag" trade by the White Sox from 1997 as an interesting example here. The White Sox were almost universally lambasted for that trade, where they, essentially, surrendered a chance at the playoffs when they were only 3 games out. Still, a trade like that can be rationalized, provided that the return is sufficient.

It's a difficult situation for the Phillies, though. Their most marketable pieces, Burrell and Abreu, have massive salary concerns.

I'm a fan of ordered lists, so I am going to spell out the case for trading Bobby Abreu in an ordered list.

  1. He's potentially declining: his power slump may be indicative of a loss of batspeed, and he may be entering into a decline phase. As it is now, I'm not quite comfortable making that assessment; Abreu has never really been a true power hitter (look at Abreu in his season before moving to CBP).
  2. He's not young.
  3. Trading him would be capitalizing on the sellers' market.
  4. They have competent replacements: a combination of Victorino and Dellucci would not equal the production of Abreu, but they certainly have strength in the outfield. The only glaring weaknesses in the lineup are at third base and catcher.
  5. They might be able to add pitching or strong young pitching: the Phils' pitching has been bad and could very well be worse (once again, pointing at the equivalent v. actual runs bit).
  6. They would be able to add more salary in the offseason without Abreu.
The Phillies should look to trade Abreu, and, if they are able to find a suitor with a suitable package, they should definitely make it work.