Saturday, October 6, 2012

2012 Phillies in Review

Injuries.  Age.  Trades.  Disappointment.  All could be apt one-word descriptions of what happened to the Philadelphia Phillies this season.  Most fans are inclined to just sweep this 81-81 season under the rug and look towards next year, but as I always say have said at some point in the past, you never know where you're going if you don't know where you've been.  I'm not going to propose some dramatic plan to revamp the roster, shed payroll, or otherwise alter the structure of the organization.  I'm just going to take a look behind the scenes of some of the performances we saw over the course of the year.  So let's see what went down from the viewpoint of five key storylines that unfolded from April to September.

1. The Three Aces: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels

Last year, this trio averaged 7.2 innings per start, a 2.51 ERA, 8.6 strikeouts per 9 innings, and 1.6 walks per 9 innings.  This year, it was 6.8 IP/start, a 3.48 ERA, 8.6 strikeouts per 9 innings, and 1.8 walks per 9 innings.  For the most part, the peripheral numbers don't look so bad, it's just the 4.49 ERA from Halladay that brings the group down.  And, of course, this doesn't take into account the fact that these guys made 10 fewer starts total than last season.  Hamels, contract and all, carried the pitching staff for much of the year, although Lee's 1.46 ERA in the last month of the season really boosted his numbers.  It looks like the only thing the Phils will have to be concerned about next year is whether or not Doc can bounce back.

From what I've seen when looking at the numbers, I'm lukewarm on that prospect.  Halladay's strikeout rate was fine, but his walk, home run, runners-stranded, line-drive, and ground-ball rates (all of which are strong predictors of pitcher success) were at best his worst since the mid-2000's.  Granted, he still posted ERA's of 2.41, 3.19, and 3.71 from '05-'07 with similar numbers, but with his age it's unreasonable to expect anything better than a mid-3 ERA next season.  Additionally, for what it's worth, FanGraphs' Win Probability Added measure shows that Halladay had his worst season since 2000 when you take into account game context or "clutch" situations.  Lee and Hamels will be fine, but the jury is still out on Halladay.

2. The Aging Core: Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard

Rollins had a very successful year when it came to just being on the field, as he had averaged just 110 games per season in 2010 and '11 but played in 156 games this season (benchings included).  He smacked 23 homers (his best since '07), scored 102 runs (best since '07), knocked in 68 runs (best since '09), and swiped 30 bases (which actually represents his third worst total of his career).  His .250/.316/.427 (BA/OBP/SLG) line is right in line with his average from the previous three seasons, and while all three numbers are significant downturns from his MVP days, it's not like he fell of the cliff that some might have expected.  His plus fielding skills allowed him to be the third most valuable shortstop in the league this season by WAR, so if anyone's looking to have him replaced, I would just like to see who you're putting in his place that has anywhere close to his value.

Utley took a lot longer to come back from his knee injury than expected, playing in just 83 games.  His statistics are right in line with last season's, although it's clear that his .256/.365/.429 line is a far cry from just two or three years ago.  We've also seen a defensive decline from Chase, as he posted his worst UZR per 150 games since 2006, and his third-worst ever.  He did show improved plate discipline this season, swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone and making better contact on pitches in the zone, which resulted in a large spike in line-drive rate, and if he can keep that up, he should be fine enough offensively.  The whole moving-to-third-base thing is a joke, in my opinion, as his throwing motion is nowhere near appropriate for the hot corner, so let's not even go there.  Utley should be a more-than-serviceable option at second base next season, albeit with nowhere near the .300 BA, 30-HR, 100-RBI upside he once had.

Howard is an interesting fellow.  Despite posting the worst batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walk rate, and strikeout rate of his career this season, he still managed to have the third-most RBI per plate appearance in the league among players with 250+ appearances, behind Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera (and just in front of Will Middlebrooks?).  So, depending on your preconceived notions of Howard, he's either really lucky (i.e. he happens to come up with runners on a lot), or really clutch (i.e. he knocks runners in when he needs to).  The numbers say the latter, as Howard has posted a significantly-above-average score on FanGraphs' "Clutch" statistic in each of the last two years despite sub-par raw offensive numbers.  With this being the first season of his 5-year, $125 million contract, Howard better bounce back with at least the .270, 30 HR, 100 RBI season he's averaged since he came into the league.

3. Carlos Ruiz: Superstar

After spending years being a "meh" offensive player that was in the lineup mostly for his defense and game-calling, Ruiz busted out with career highs in home runs, runs, RBI, batting average, and slugging percentage.  In a year where two National League catchers (Buster Posey and Yadier Molina) will find themselves on MVP ballots, it's pretty impressive that Ruiz was third in WAR among catchers this season, despite playing in fewer games than any of the other top ten.  To demonstrate without nebulous catch-all stats, on a per-plate-appearance basis, he was (clears throat): 2nd in hits, 3rd in runs, 3rd in RBI, 2nd in batting average, 3rd in on-base percentage, 2nd in slugging percentage, and even 4th in steals.  Do I think that he will keep this up next year?  In short, no.  Years like this don't happen to 33-year-old catchers, and they certainly don't happen more than once.  But it was a fun ride.

4. The Trades

At the end of July, after Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino had been dealt to serve in the NL West arms race, the team was 12 games under .500.  Considering that they ended up at 81-81, it doesn't seem like they were missed much, huh?  More on that in a bit, though.  Turns out they weren't exactly any better upon leaving.  Pence and Victorino had about 36% of their seasons' plate appearances for their new teams, but had just 26% of their home runs and 31% of their WAR since then.  On aggregate they lost 30 points in batting average and on-base percentage and 60 points in slugging percentage over that time.  Oh, and Joe Blanton went 2-4 with a 4.99 ERA with the Dodgers.  Ho hum.

We didn't really see much at the major league level out of the guys the Phillies got in those trades, but to be honest, if the payroll flexibility we gained allows GM Ruben Amaro Jr. to retool the roster effectively, I don't really care much.  Although I probably would prefer that Josh Lindblom do better than a 4.63 ERA with just barely the second-worst walk rate on the team, I didn't expect anything better than 0.0 WAR for Nate Schierholtz.

5. The "Young" "Guns": Kevin Frandsen, Erik Kratz, and even Freddy Galvis

Among players with at least 200 plate appearances, Kevin Frandsen had the highest WAR per plate appearance of anyone on the team not named Carlos Ruiz or Chase Utley.  Frandsen's call-up was right at the same time that Victorino and Pence were traded, and the team was an impressive 36-24 since that time. Unfortunately, I can't really project him as being anywhere near that useful in the future.  He's a guy that makes a lot of contact (just 13% of his at-bats ended in a walk or strikeout), and no doubt his incredible 24% line drive rate contributed to his inflated .366 batting average on balls in play, and consequently his .338 batting average.  He played passable defense at third base, which should be useful enough for the Phils next year, but I don't think we should expect too much offensively from this 30-year-old journeyman.

Erik Kratz filled in admirably for Ruiz at catcher when needed, and actually had the second-best WAR per plate appearance on the team if you include players with at least 150 PA.  A career minor-leaguer, Kratz came up and exhibited excellent defense and power, with a slugging percentage second on the team only to Ruiz among players with sufficient play time (sorry Darin Ruf).  With Ruiz the incumbent and Sebastian Valle and Tommy Joseph waiting in the minor leagues, Kratz really only has the opportunity to back up Chooch, but he appears to be more than capable for such a role.  With fewer than 200 career plate appearances, though, it's hard to say much more about his prospects, except that he's 32 and therefore won't likely be getting any better.

I don't know if any of you remember, but Freddy Galvis was the heir apparent to Jimmy Rollins that was forced into action at second base to replace the injured Chase Utley.  That is, until the clearly-superficially-enhanced .226 hitter with 3 career home runs was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs.  Then everyone pretty much forgot about him.  Galvis is a very solid defensive player at both second and short, no doubt a valuable asset to keep around with the age and injury history of Utley and Rollins, but he is, to put it lightly, limited offensively.  His .254 on-base percentage was 8th worst in the league among players with at least as many plate appearances as he had (actually beating out the utility infielder he replaced, Wilson Valdez), making him as close to an automatic out as there is.  The team should definitely be pursuing other options if they are available.

Dishonorable Mention: Ty Wigginton's Defense

Just thought I'd throw this out there.  Say what you will about UZR as a smoke-and-mirrors fielding statistic, but it's hard for me to come to any conclusion about Ty Wigginton's fielding ability other than that he's terrible.  Just to clarify, UZR categorizes a player's statistics by position, so it can't make any judgment about Wigginton as a whole.  But his play at third base, first base, and left field this season represented the 4th, 5th, and 7th worst individual defensive performances for a single position on the Phillies.  And if you scale the UZR stat per 150 games, his left-field and third-base performances were 3rd and 4th worst on the team, respectively.  And that's to speak nothing of the fact that he had his worst batting average and slugging percentage of his career.

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