This is the debut of a new feature here at Arm Side Run, one which may become the entirety of the blog if it works. It’s called The Rotation, and the plan is to touch on each of MLB’s 30 teams once monthly. Today, I begin the project with Part One in a seven-part series on the teams for whom 2013 has been a disappointment, an unexpected setback.
The end of the month will be given over to the contenders as they fight for playoff positioning, but first, we can take this chance to look over some teams for whom the rest of the regular season is but a prelude to a difficult set of decisions and conversations over the winter to come, and decide exactly what those things should look like.
Status Report: (Through August 29) 61-73, 20.5 GB in division, 14 GB in Wild Card. 507 runs scored (27th in Major League Baseball, 13th in National League), 618 runs allowed (26th in MLB, worst in NL), -111 run differential (28th in MLB, 14th in NL). 35-31 at home, 26-42 on road.
The Team in One Sentence: After eroding the foundation of the roster like a hard tide last season, injuries and aging slammed the Phillies like a tidal wave this year and claimed them as victims.
Pen Session: Showing Charlie Manuel the door in the middle of this season is maybe the most preposterous stunt yet, from a front office that’s becoming famous for them. Ruben Amaro, the guy who made Jonathan Papelbon a $50-million man; scooped up Delmon and Michael Young as everyday players in 2013; and signed the Ryan Howard deal, felt comfortable offloading the blame for this creaky roster’s collapse onto the manager who oversaw five straight division titles, two of them before Amaro got his hands on the club.
It’s not primarily Amaro’s hypocrisy that makes the situation laughable, though. No, the funny thing is that every indicator we have for managerial competence suggests that Charlie Manuel was working miracles with this team, before he got a firm hand in the back while hesitating on the way out the door.
Twelve teams have worse records than the Phillies this season. Only two have worse run differentials. According to Baseball Prospectus’s Adjusted Standings, their Pythagenpat record (what their record should be, based on runs scored and allowed) is 55-78. They’re in the middle of the pack in reliever usage, starter usage, sacrifice bunts, intentional walks, stolen-base success rate, all of the marginal things the manager presumably controls.
They should be worse than this. They should probably be quite a bit worse than this. I don’t know whether Charlie Manuel gets credit for that margin, but he certainly doesn’t deserve any blame.
The team is structurally weak. Their core is the same as it’s been for five years, and whenever that’s true, that core had better have a group reservation at a restaurant in Cooperstown 10 years later. That just isn’t the case here. Chase Utley deserves a long look at the Hall of Fame, but he’s not inner-circle. Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz aren’t in the conversation, really. Cole Hamels has a long way yet to go, although he’s a good budding candidate.
No, this team isn’t star-studded enough to sustain success in the face of such stasis. That’s not Charlie Manuel’s fault. Even before Ben Revere got hurt, and even with Domonic Brown finally finding his niche, this roster relied too heavily on guys whose skills and value are eroding by the minute. Amaro wasn’t going to fire himself, and the fact that this is only the second season of the team’s downswing ensured he wasn’t going to get the hook from ownership. Being even the slightest bit rude to Manuel on his way out, though, reeked of an effort to avoid shouldering a fair share of responsibility for the mess that is the Phillies.
Around the Horn:
How They Score Runs: The Phillies are 15th in baseball (although fifth in the NL) in terms of reliance on home runs, so they’re not a one-dimensional offense. It may be that they’re zero-dimensional, but they’re not one-dimensional.
Only the Astros are losing the battle at the plate itself worse than the Phillies are. Philadelphia has a worse walk rate than all but two teams in baseball, the Orioles and Brewers, and they strike out more than either of those—though they’re middle-of-the-pack in team strikeout rate overall.
It’s a symptom of being generally old and slow that they have the seventh-worst team BABIP in the league. It’s a symptom of Jimmy Rollins Disease that they have the 11th-worst isolated power. They lean toward ground balls, rather than flies, although they aren’t extreme in that regard. (If they were, surely, the BABIP would look better.)
Rollins is a story unto himself. His career has taken a sudden left turn. At 34, he is no longer the elite—he really was elite once—defensive shortstop he was for a while. In fact, he’s floated all the way down to the wrong side of average. He’s still a shortstop, though, and doesn’t actively hurt the team with it.
His bat, though, is starting to hurt the team. Here are his skill stats for the last four seasons, including 2013:
Jimmy Rollins, 2010-13
And because it’s about to come up, his batted-ball breakdown:
Jimmy Rollins, 2010-13
Ground Ball Rate
Line Drive Rate
Fly Ball Rate
Infield Flies/Total Flies
So, what’s happened? Well, for one, the game has moved on from players like Rollins. His extreme contact skills were always a major source of value, and it’s systemically impossible to maintain the kind of strikeout rate that was Rollins’ norm, in his prime, in the current environment. You’ll hear about it less, and that’s fair, but walk rates are also down league-wide over the last four years.
For another thing, though, Rollins’ power is simply gone. It should be on milk cartons. It’s remarkable, really. A man who had 23 homers last season has five this year. Some of them have turned to doubles, but a fair few have probably settled into defenders’ gloves.
That increased line-drive rate might be encouraging under different circumstances, but Rollins has simply never been a line-drive hitter. He pops the ball up. He hits homers. He hits ground balls. But a lot of line drives from him probably means he’s just not driving them enough for them to look like flies. That’s why he’s hitting .280 on balls in play, but has absolutely no pop left. Of his 34 extra-base hits on the season, 20 came before June 1.
Rollins is a little guy, listed at five-foot-eight and 180 pounds. As he ages, his body type goes from working for him to working against him, because he hasn’t the sheer size and strength to sustain the old-player skills (power most of all) that prop guys up during this phase. This is what a 34-year-old middle infielder looks like. It’s not pretty, but it’s what the Phillies have going on in a few places. I’ll spare the gory details, but Ruiz and (now-departed) Michael Young are experiencing similar problems.
If the best lineups are the ones with eight (or nine) players of average or better value, each with a blend of skills, and the worst are those with almost no one who can do anything well, then this group falls right into the middle ground. It’s a lot of one-dimensional individual hitters, but they all do different things. That’s not great, especially because it makes a team vulnerable to injuries (as the ones suffered by Revere and Howard have demonstrated).
It’s not terrible, either, though. If the team were fully healthy, they could line their guys up pretty nicely, blending handedness and power-speed balances and BABIP skills and strike-zone skills, and the offense would not rank 21st in MLB in True Average (an overall offensive stat from Baseball Prospectus). Of course, that’s a conditional statement, and the condition required is going to materialize rarely, if ever, when the team is this old, and has such a long injury history already.
How They Prevent Runs: Amaro’s formula was once to accrue all the starting pitching talent he could reach. He made the trades for Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt, then traded Lee away, then managed to bring him back via free agency. He locked up Hamels for six years even in the midst of a lost season in 2012, rather than trade him at the deadline.
For some reason, though, he broke from that mindset during each of the past two winters. Over seven total years of control, he promised $65 million to Papelbon and Mike Adams. Those are two competent pitchers whose skill stats supported their great runs-prevented stats in the years that carried them to market, but by plunging such a huge chunk of change into them, Amaro bet big on unreliable assets.
Papelbon has been fine over the first 120 appearances of his Phillies career. His ERA is in the 2.45 range. He’s fanned 139 and walked (removing intentional walks but counting hitting batters with pitches) 31 while facing 487 batters. Adams, though, took to the DL in mid-May with a back injury, and then basically had his shoulder blow up in mid-June. He’s opting for rest and rehab over surgery, but the future for a relief pitcher on the wrong side of 30 who tears their rotator cuff and labrum can’t possibly be bright.
That’s what the Phillies have gotten from an $18-million investment at the back end of the bullpen this year, so imagine how the rest of it has gone. Overall, StatCorner.com—which teases out pitching from defense, even—pegs the relief corps alone as having cost the Phils 21.8 runs against an average unit this year. That would be bad under any circumstances, but with so much tied up in that group, the rotation didn’t get any reinforcement this winter. That makes it even worse, particularly because of the year the rotation has had.
Roy Halladay’s story isn’t sad, really. It’s what happens. We could chalk this up to aging, too, but that’s not it, exactly. It’s more like depreciation, wear and tear. Roy Halladay has been throwing a lot of innings for a long time, and there’s a fairly standard window in which that usually catches up to guys. Halladay got there this spring. His velocity was way down, and his pitches seemed lifeless. That’s not a major injury at work, per se, and it’s not inevitable because humans get old. It’s inevitable because the throwing motion pitchers employ is unnatural and violent, and Halladay has been employing it for a decade and more.
That’s not to say it wasn’t jarring and difficult to watch. Halladay surrendered 17 runs while recording just 18 outs over two outings, April 30 and May 5. He then, finally, admitted to shoulder discomfort, went on the shelf, and is just now making his comeback.
When Halladay imploded and vacated the rotation, he didn’t leave much behind. Cliff Lee has been his usual, steady, strikeout-to-walk monster self, but the rest of the picture was ugly for a long time. Cole Hamels had Phillies fans breathing into paper bags over his contract extension on July 1, when he sported a 4.58 ERA and when the Phillies were 3-14 in games he had started. Since then, he’s posted an ERA of 2.25 over 80 innings, so the panic can abate, but those early-season struggles helped banish Philadelphia from post-season relevance.
This is where the thinness of starting pitchers, wrought by overspending on relievers, became a major issue. Jonathan Pettibone and Tyler Cloyd have combined to form a competent extra piece, with 25 starts and a composite ERA in the 3.85 range. Kyle Kendrick has kept them afloat in his starts, with a 4.40 mark. Below that cut line, though, things get ugly. John Lannan’s ERA in 14 starts: 5.33. Ethan Martin’s, in six: 6.39. On the mound, this team evokes the 2012 Red Sox, a talented staff whose flaws got exposed early and often.
Not all the blame for having allowed more runs than any other NL team falls on the pitching staff’s shoulders, though. In fact, it’s more about the gloves than the arms. With Rollins and Chase Utley losing a step, Delmon and Michael Young seeing substantial time and Domonic Brown not ever learning how to play the outfield, Philadelphia has one of the game’s worst defenses. StatCorner takes 30 runs from them against an average defensive infield, and 37 relative to an average defensive outfield. Like everything else that went wrong for this team, age is the culprit. Old players don’t get to as many batted balls. This team is no exception.
Give Amaro credit. He’s dedicated to the goal of competing on an annual basis, and will not be swayed. His series of decisions over the past 18 months have closed off alternatives, like a large-scale rebuild. He’s not giving himself, or anyone else in the organization, anywhere to go but up and over the next obstacle.
Halladay’s contract is up at season’s end. So are those of Michael Young and Carlos Ruiz. That frees up substantial money, and the Phillies’ revenue streams were only getting swifter anyway, thanks to their new cable contract. It’s not the worst time for them to need to reshape their roster on the fly. I’d be surprised if they aren’t major players in free agency.
Now, some of that money may already be rolled into its next investment. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, a hard-throwing 26-year-old Cuban defector, had a deal with the Phillies last month. It’s currently being held up over what appears to be a concern with his elbow, but as likely as not, that’s where part of the freed-up cash is going. Gonzalez could replace Halladay by the start of next season, assuming the (still unconfirmed) health issue stopping the contract from being consummated is speculative, not immediate.
With the rest, though, I’d hope to see the Phillies flesh out their positional core. They really do need some players who don’t have weaknesses, even if means finding one that lacks a stand-out strength.
Shin-Soo Choo is at the top of my list for them. He’s a solid defensive corner outfielder (a role to which he could return without problem in Philadelphia, since Revere will be back to patrol center). He has on-base skills, a modicum of power, BABIP ability and decent speed. With Utley, Howard, Brown and Revere in place, the offense risks leaning too far left, but Choo is well-rounded in a way no available right-handed bat can match.
There is a right-handed bat I also hope Amaro will pursue, though. Like Choo, he’d be making a switch back to a more comfortable position, and could focus on doing well what he does well, not doing adequately that which he does poorly. It’s Jhonny Peralta. Forced to shortstop in Detroit for the last year and a half, Peralta is much more natural at third base, and much better suited to the physical demands of that position.
Cody Asche is the incumbent at third now, I guess, and Asche is cheap and balanced in what he can do at bat. He also bats left-handed, though, which is not really a feature given the current Philadelphia roster. More pressingly, he’s not a well-understood asset, and the Phillies (again, being fairly locked into the effort to win now) need some certainty. Peralta would balance the lineup, could play a bit of shortstop or first base when injuries necessitated it and will not break the bank in the meantime.
The responsible thing to do would be to tear down and rebuild, but like a teenager in a 1990s sitcom, Amaro has painted himself into a corner and is just going to have to try succeeding the irresponsible way. Whatever their warts, these players have talent. The Phillies need to leverage that well and ensure some redundancies are in place when things go wrong, if they want to avoid having the next two seasons look eerily like this one and last.Next post: An Anarchist’s Guide to the AL Wild Card Race
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