I have not had a chance to participate as much as I would have liked in the discussions of our two fine left fielders this decade, but I would just like to say that I like them both. They both have had clear strengths and only a few weaknesses that get exaggerated by their critics. Since Greg Jefferies and Ron Gant romed LF back in Veterans Stadium from 1997-2000, we have supplanted them by excellent play in LF for this entire decade through two stadiums. I am thrilled that we have done this.
The arguments against both of them are silly. The Phillies are the kind of team that doesn't need an amazing defensive LF in their small stadium, and they will not have had a good fielder in left for a decade by the time Ibanez's contract runs out in 2011. However, they have had awesome hitting out of LF for a while now and I appreciate both of the excellent players that have done so.
Last April and May, Pat Burrell was the difference that kept the team going. He was phenomenal. I remember a couple of particularly bright moments. On a cold night, April 15, 2008, The Phillies had been shut down for 8.5 innings. In standing room seats behind home plate, I barely held my head up as I waited for the Phillies to make their last three outs. Chris Snelling got the crowd excited by starting the inning with a solo shot to make it 3-1, and Chase Utley was hit by a pitch right afterwards. Ryan Howard had yet to find his stride, and struck out for the first out. Up came Pat Burrell. At this point, the Phillies had an 11% chance of winning the game. I didn't know this number exactly, but having looked through baseball statistics heavily for years, I had a pretty good idea. But Pat the Bat didn't seem to care. He smashed a homerun over the right center field wall and tied the game at 3-3! You should have heard the stadium! The fans went wild. No one could have known the numbers, but looking back at them, I see that we suddenly had a 59% chance of winning after just that one swing of the bat! Sure enough, the Phillies were able to plate the winning run a couple hitters later. But the difference was Pat the Bat, who had the big blast. I was not fortunate enough to be at the other big game that I recall well from Pat Burrell early in 2008-- this was on May 2. The Phillies were down to their final out. Reliable Chase Utley was on first base (isn't he always on base?) again, and Ryan Howard had just struck out again (I refuse to make the obvious follow up parenthetical bust on Ryan Howard that would go here). The odds of winning a game like this are 10%. Pretty much the only way it happens is to string together a few singles, or at least tie it with an extra base hit, but there's only one way to win a game like this with one swing of the bat. Brian Wilson, the San Francisco Giants' closer, had just gone 3-0 on Burrell. Burrell got a couple of solid swings on foul balls to build up the full count. He had Wilson's fastball timed-- but Wilson tried to throw him another one. I am amazed that I was not evicted at what happened next because, boy, did I ever howl at the game winning homerun that Burrell hit! He hit the crap out of that ball too! It was so exciting and I knew what a year this team could have.
Burrell could not maintain a pace like this for the whole season (who could?), but those two wins were real wins. As a result of winning those two games-- that he could have lost with a sing of the bat as easily as he won them-- the Phillies clinched the division on the second to last day of the regular season. They were able to rest Cole Hamels on Fan Appreciation Day, saving him for a few extra days to strike out Brewer after Brewer, stayed rested to strike out Dodger after Dodger, and preserve his arm just long enough to strike out Ray after Ray-- and bring the Phillies a World Championship. I love April baseball. It's amazing to think about what might happen, and Pat Burrell performed at such a high level last April that the Phillies were able to bring me to my knees in tears as I watched them win the World Series six months later.
This team puts a lot of runners on base. It's good to have an above average hitter at a less important defensive position like LF. That's why the Phillies knew that they couldn't just throw Geoff Jenkins out there in 2009. There were a number of options out there on the free agent market-- which ended up driving down their price as I explained here a while back. The Phillies paid retail for Ibanez, though. It was a questionable decision at the time and remains questionable for the same reasons. It was a 486 game decision. But what Raul Ibanez, the Phillies latest kick ass left fielder, has done in the first 20 of those games has to forgive a lot of mistakes that may come in the last 466 games.
My kid-sister-in-law is just ten years old. She's a little sports fan, and that's something that I'm trying to encourage. My father-in-law decided to take her to her first ballgame, but the Phillies didn't seem keen on making it a memorable experience for the first 8.5 innings. But the ninth inning started with a Ryan Howard single...and then Ibanez came up. At this point, the Phillies only had a 34% chance of winning the game. One swing later, and Raul Ibanez had given my kid sister the thrill of her life! She called us from the car ride home declaring that she wanted to go to whenever the next Phillies game was. It was quite an experience! And that was thanks to Raul Ibanez-- the Phillies new star LF who had just turned a loss into a win.
Ibanez continued the Phillies tradition of awesome hitters in left field a few days later. The day had been a pretty hard day for me-- I passed the oral defense part of my dissertation just earlier in the day, and the process was something less than fun. I really just wanted to veg out on the couch and watch a Phillies win. It looked like they might do it, until Scott Eyre surrendered four runs to give the Nationals a 11-7 lead, blowing the Phillies effort to tie the game just beforehand. The Phillies had managed to get a couple back, but still trailed 11-9. However, they had the bases loaded for Raul Ibanez. That's a good position to be in. Raul delivered! This had been quite the grueling day for me, and I really needed that win. Raul Ibanez hit a grand slam and the Phillies had a lead that they could keep. Before this grand slam, the Phillies had a 23% chance of winning-- even with the bases loaded, there were two outs after all. And then all of a sudden they had a 93% chance of winning. And win they did!
Those two early wins in a season can go a long way, as we learned last year. Once again, that could be the difference for the Phillies in their title defense, and I am extremely excited to imagine the possibilities all over again. Ibanez can't maintain this pace all year (who could?), and there will inevitably be claims of him being inconsistent, but all that will be is punishment for how much butt he's kicked in April.
Neither Burrell nor Ibanez is a good base runner. Baseball Prospectus tracks how well players do moving from first to third on singles, scoring from first on doubles, advancing on groundouts, and advancing on flyouts. They count up how many runs a player adds over the course of a season versus the average player. Over the past two seasons, Burrell has cost the Phillies 2.5 runs versus the average player at baserunning and Ibanez cost the Mariners 3.2 runs versus the average player. Not a statistically significant difference at all, and neither were very good. Ibanez isn't a terribly good fielder, but he has made some surprisingly good plays which tend to make us ignore his inability to get to a lot of balls. Burrell isn't a good fielder either, but his ability to handle what he does get to tends to make us ignore his inability to get to a lot of balls in the first place. Both of these guys make up for it with great offense, and both of them helped a struggling early season Phillies team pull off a couple of key wins. I remain optimistic that those early season wins could have the same effect on our 2009 Championship run.
Ibanez's WPA (Win Percentage Added) is 2.05, nearly as high as the 2.27 that Burrell put up in a longer April of 2008. Just for reference, Utley's WPA for the entire year in 2008 was 1.47. These were fantastic Aprils coming out of left field in 2008 in 2009.
Was it a bad decision to replace Burrell with Ibanez? I don't know if that was ever the tradeoff. I see the tradeoff differently. I think that with Geoff Jenkins in left, the Phillies were not better than the Mets were going to be this year. With Ibanez, I think they are better. The question of which above average left fielder to bring in was less important. Whether we brought in Burrell, Ibanez, Dunn, Bradley, or Manny Ramirez, we were going to be better than the Mets as a result. If we didn't, we were going to be worse. I think those two early season victories might make the difference. I'm sick of the comparisons between Burrell and Ibanez. I think there was a vacancy in LF for the Phils, and they filled it with a player that made them better than the Mets. Let's stop comparing their batting lines every day, and let's all get back to hating the Mets. It's the eve of the season series against them: the Mets suck!