What Team Do the Phillies Resemble?

The gnashing of teeth over the Phillies' offense and the laurels awarded to the pitching so far this year tell us something about how they are winning.  Obviously, it's the pitching.  What is not obvious from the surface is how much, from an historical perspective, the Phillies deviate from the standard model of a "good team."  What they Phillies are doing this year, and how they are doing it, is nearly without precedent since divisional play began.

An analysis of the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) generated by the Phillies this year shows that it comes almost entirely from pitching -- the ratio of WAR from pitching to WAR from defense and hitting in particular is highly unusual.  In addition, the amount of WAR generated by teams widely acknowledged as having the best modern pitching, such as the 1997 Braves (pick a year in the nineties for the Braves, actually), are not close to the WAR that the Phillies staff could generate this year.

Before clicking through, write down your guess as to a recent World Series winner that best-resembles the Phillies of 2011 so far -- go back to the beginning of divisional play.  

I could not find a source to let me get WAR data by year for all teams over X winning percentage and then break the WAR down into hitting, defense, and pitching.  Instead, I cherry picked teams that were "known" for great pitching.  I looked for a variety of "greatest pitching" articles discussing teams with great pitching since divisional play began, as well as looking at some "classics" that predate divisional play.  I ignored marginal teams since ratios of WAR can get very strange at lower levels.  It's not a perfect data set -- far from it, and I am aware of the limitations or the data.  It is quite likely that I missed some teams here, ok?

Also, we all "know" that a replacement level team wins about 48 games a year.  The difference in wins that a team generates is based largely on the marginal skill of each player above (or below) replacement level.  Luck accounts for some wins, but mostly you have to have players performing well to get wins, hence the development of WAR as an attempt to objectively measure the worth of a player's contribution to his team. Most of the readers here understand WAR better than Clausewitz or Sun Tzu, so I'll skip the rest of the details.

The Phillies, through June 8, 2011, have WAR (from Baseball-Reference.com) from the following sources and in the following amounts:

 

  1. Pitching: 15.6
  2. Hitting: 5.6
  3. Defense: -2.5 -- thank you, Valdez (-0.7) and Ibanez (-0.5)
  4. Non-pitching total: 3.1
Total team WAR is 18.7 year to date. The team has played 62 games.  Projecting is always fun, and I know all of you have your graphing calculators out already with sweaty palms, so here you are for the season (the annualization factor is 2.61, or the result of 162/62):
  1. Pitching:  40.76
  2. Hitting:  14.63
  3. Defense:  -6.53
  4. Non-pitching total:  8.10
The total would be 48.86, which projects to a a record of 97 - 65, since the replacement team gets 48 wins to add to the WAR wins.  That's never perfect, but it works out pretty well.

By way of comparison, in 2010, the Phillies put up WAR of:  17.6 pitching and 24.2 hitting/fielding.  They were much more balanced.  Yes, Virginia, the offense has fallen off a WAR cliff.  Losing 2010 Werth, Utley, and Ruiz for all of or chunks of 2011 makes a difference in offensive WAR.  Captain Obvious, right?  But now that Utley, Ruiz, Victorino, Brown, etc., are back or coming back, that should turn around.  As Charlie Manuel might put it, "The hitters gon' hit." Pitchers might get injured, and they certainly have throughout the season.  Still, the amount of pitching WAR is like nothing ever seen before, certainly not by a Phillies team.

The 1997 Atlanta Braves, regarded as one of the finest pitching teams in the modern era, generated 20.9 WAR from the pitching staff and 27.6 WAR from hitting and defense.  How did the 1995 Braves do? 23.2 from pitching and 13.9 from hitting and defense.

The 1969 Mets?  24.0 from pitching, 22.4 from hitting and defense.  The 1986 Mets?  20.8 from pitching and 32.8 from hitting and defense.

The 2001 Diamondbacks?  22.1 from pitching and 20.6 from hitting and defense.

The 2010 Giants?  22.6 from pitching and 18.0 from hitting and defense.

The 1968 Cardinals?  24.1 from pitching and defense and 19.5 from hitting and defense.

The 1966 Dodgers? 29.0 from pitching and 16.9 from hitting and defense. (Close but no cigar!)  The 1988 Dodgers? 18.5 from pitching and 19.5 from hitting and defense.

The 1954 Indians? 23.6 from pitching and 27.5 from hitting and defense.

The 4x20 Orioles in 1972?  15.3 from pitching and 22.2 from hitting and defense.  Really.  Look it up.  Come on, folks, it was an Earl Weaver team. Think late 80's A's.

The best "fit" I could find?  Drum roll.....the 1985 Royals:  24.9 from pitching and 8.9 from hitting and defense.  Essentially a great pitching staff and George Brett.  The Pythagorean numbers of the Royals that year are really odd -- they were probably not the luckiest team ever, but they had lots of luck (91 wins vs. 86 Pythagorean wins).  That, or the statistics do not measure something they were really good at.  Heart?  Hustle?

They were not a great team.  The Royals' overall WAR that year suggested that they should be above .500, but not that far above, with a total of 33.8 WAR projecting to a rough estimate of 88 wins.  They barely beat the Angels to get into the playoffs.  Once there, they won with their lottery ticket -- a example, perhaps, of wildcard and playoff luck.

One of the problems is that many of the historically "great" pitching teams also had great position players.  The WAR was more equally won.  The challenge was to find a team with a great staff and pretty ordinary or even bad position players.  There may be some great pitching teams out there that lost enough to miss the playoffs and nobody every really thought of them as "great" because of it.  Still, I think it would be really, really hard to overlook a team with 35+ WAR from pitching.  If you know of any, add them in the comments with B-R statistics.

We should all be monitoring the numbers here.  The Phillies are winning in an unusual way with a nearly unprecedented tilt toward the pitching end of the scale.  It's an interesting oddity, and one that will be fun to monitor as the year progresses.

Strangely, there are two other teams this year doing the same thing as the Phillies.  All you Giants and Braves fans who are pounding your keyboards right know screaming "WHAT ABOUT US!?!!?!?", well, here you go:

2011 Giants:  10.9 pitching and 4.1 from hitting and fielding (annualizing to: 28.48 and 10.71), and

2011 Braves:  12.3 pitching and 3.9 from hitting and fielding (annualizing to: 32.14 and 10.19).

2011 Phillies: 15.6 pitching and 3.1 from hitting and fielding (annualizing to: 40.76 and 8.1)

While not as lopsided as the Phillies have been so far, these are two other significant outliers.  It is strange to think that this Braves staff may be better than the ones lead by Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz, at least when it comes to generating WAR, but they are on pace to top any of the 90's teams.  The imbalance of this Braves team is certainly greater.

I haven't figured out why this is happening this year.  It could be an oddity.  I thought about PEDs as a reason, perhaps if at least egregious use is getting cleaned out of baseball and if they disproportionately helped hitters, it may explain why pitchers are having an easier time, but that doesn't account for the concentration of pitching in the "baskets" of these three teams.

It certainly separates the 2011 Phillies from the 2008 version.  It's different, but winning is still good, no matter how it happens.
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