The Phillies are a Good Baseball Team

Some of you may recognize my name from my publications here in 2007-09, and some of you may recognize my name from the "Blogger Emeritus" title that has been listed below for the three years since. However, the Good Pholks at The Good Phight have given me an opportunity to step out of my retirement from TGP with good news that I want to deliver to Phillies fans:

The Phillies are just not as bad as you think.

The lesson that many have gleaned from watching the first 64 games is that the Phillies are just not that good. They see a team that is 30-34 that has struggled mightily and has been brutal to watch, and they have determined they are mediocre. The Phillies 9.5 game deficit in the National League East is real, and even a great team would struggle to overtake a bad team with a lead like that in a 98 game span, but I am here to dispel the myth that the Phillies are an average team. Even the hobbled product that has taken the field thus far looks above average under a more analytical lens.

That is a different statement than if I said, "Things will be fine." The deficit they are in may be too large—but they aren’t equipped with an inferior team than the teams they are chasing.

RUNS, WINS, AND LUCK

The Phillies are four games under .500, but their run differential is only -4. Sometimes analysts like myself call this "bad luck." If you have trouble with the usage of that term, then just ignore it. Lucky or sloppy, the takeaway is that teams with run differentials near zero after 64 games tend to play .500 ball in their last 98 games, regardless of what their record is through those 64 games.

Why are they 30-34 instead of 32-32 then? The main reason is one-run games. They are 6-11 in one run games. Few things are less predictive of the future than a team’s record in one-run games. Although some poor pitcher usage has caused some of these one-run losses, Manuel follows a similar foolish strategy that other managers follow, and the Phillies should approach .500 in one-run games going forward.

Unfortunately, a .500 baseball team that is 30-34 will finish 79-83. They need to do better than .500 going forward. Fortunately, they show plenty of signs of being better than .500.

ABOVE AVERAGE OFFENSE

The narrative that the Phillies have carried going into this season is that they are bad hitters and good pitchers. However, the offense was never bad, and has not played badly either. The Phillies just don't hit like they used to. They are 6th in the National League in runs scored, even without their two best hitters. They have 4.33 runs per game, compared to the National League average of 4.18 runs per game. Not only that, but the offense should get better. There are two players that have obviously played below their true talent level, Rollins and Victorino, and two players who have played clearly above their true talent level, Ruiz and Pierre. Polanco and Pence have played fairly close to their true talent level, so overall those six players should be able to replicate their aggregate performance.

However, despite the pleasant surprise that Galvis has been in terms of defensive prowess and even having some power, his batting line is only .226/.254/.363. That is 24 runs below average per 600 PA. In his career, Utley is 27 runs above average per 600 PA offensively. Utley was even 13 runs per 600 PA above average in 2011. The difference between Galvis’ first 58 games this season and Utley for maybe 58 games over the last three months is about 15 runs, or about 1.5 games in the standings.

As every analyst likes to point out, Ryan Howard is overrated, but he is unlikely to struggle topping Wigginton’s .254/.323/.395 batting line. Even if Ryan Howard only produces at the depressed level that he has the past couple years, he is still about 20 runs better than that per 600 PA. That means the difference between Wigginton and Howard is about 1.0 games in the standings in the second half of the season.

Putting all of this together, the Phillies offense that has been 0.15 runs above average per game this season so far should be about 0.50 runs above average in the second half of the season when Utley and Howard are back, even if the pair fail to match their career numbers.

HOW ELITE PITCHING GIVES UP SO MANY RUNS

The most disappointing statistic for the 2012 Phillies is the 4.39 runs allowed per game. However, they lead the league in both SIERA and xFIP by large margins (by 0.12 and 0.13 respectively over the second place Nationals in both categories). SIERA and xFIP are statistics that attempt to eliminate three factors from ERA: luck, park, and defense. SIERA and xFIP have been shown to be far more predictive of future performance than ERA can, and the reason is that they incorporate only statistics that are reflective of actual pitching abilities: strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground ball rate. Only the Nationals best the Phillies in strikeout rate at 23.0% vs. 22.0%, but the Phillies 6.2% walk rate leads the majors. (Their ground ball is just average, though.)

So, if the Phillies have been pitching so well, why are they giving up so many runs? There are two main reasons: luck and defense.

BAD LUCK

Their 13.1% HR/FB rate is fifth worst in the majors. This is a statistic that can be indicative of either (1) abnormally hittable pitching (though this is almost always corroborated by a low strikeout rate, so it is not a problem for the Phillies), (2) a small park (which is not a good enough explanation given their HR/FB for 2007-11 was 10.6%), and (3) bad luck. In this case, the last explanation seems to be the biggest cause.

If we shrunk the Phillies HR/FB rate to 10.6%, they would have allowed about 14 fewer home runs, which would mean about 20 fewer runs, which would lower them to 4.08 runs allowed per game instead of 4.39. That would equate to another couple games in the standings, even if their pitching and defense perform as well as they have.

That means that the Phillies would be 34-30 if you normalize the luck of poorly distributed runs in one-run games and the extra home runs just sailing over the wall. Already, they would be a borderline Wild Card team with these two normalizations, with an obvious path to the division title when the reinforcements rejoin the club.

MARGINAL DEFENSE

The other reason that the Phillies have allowed so many runs is that their defense has not been very good either. Their team BABIP allowed (with errors included as hits) is .326, which is worst than the league average of .316. This amounts to about 12 runs below average defensively. Of course, defensive performance will trend towards average over time, and while the defense is old enough that it probably is not very good anymore, the defensive performance will probably get better.

ELITE PITCHING GOING FORWARD

Of course, the pitching is probably going to get better. Halladay may or may not be the best pitcher in baseball anymore, but he will almost certainly be better than he has performed. Lee and Worley have both missed a few starts, and while there will always be some pitching injuries, the Phillies have a historically healthy rotation that should be able to minimize the need for Kyle Kendrick so much going forward. When you factor in the two small injuries to Lee and Worley and the fact that the Doc was impersonated by a charlatan for the first two months of the season, their league leading SIERA should only get better. If you had to bet on the team to allow the fewest runs from here to the end of the season, you should pick the Phillies.

A GOOD TEAM IN A BAD SITUATION

Putting this together, they will probably have an above average offense and the best pitching in the league going forward, with defense that is only slightly below average. T

That is probably good enough for a 90-win team in a full season. Unfortunately, winning five games out of nine after starting 30-34 would only plant them at about 84-78 or 85-77 at the end of the season. You would have to guess that would fall just short of the Wild Card spot and a few games short of the division. But a little luck breaks their way, they put together a good winning streak at the right time, and all of the sudden, they’re in the playoffs. And as we’ve learned the past few years, the best team rarely wins the World Series. That good-but-not-great team could easily be the Phillies.

The message is simple: they are good enough, but they need to get out of this hole for that to matter.

WHY THE FUTURE IS NOT BLEAK EITHER

Of course, the other drum that people enjoyed beating before the recent wave of "doomed 2012" suppositions was that they would not be that good in the future. After all, depending on who you asked, the Phillies minor league system could be anywhere from 20th to 29th in the majors going into 2012. Everyone knows that you need young players to produce to be successful, but recently I quantified just how much information was contained in farm system rankings. I also quantified just how much information was contained in payroll. It turned out that the latter was far more important the former in predicting future records.

The Phillies farm system’s 27th ranking by Baseball America going into this year means that they can be expected to be about 4 wins below average in production generated by young players in 2014. However, their payroll is so large that it suggests that they will produce about 11 more wins from old players in 2014. And that will persist for longer than the farm ranking deficit.

The reason that Baseball America’s rankings can only predict so much about future performance is that there is a lot of uncertainty. No one expected Vance Worley to be an above average major leaguer two years ago, but only 19 of 115 qualifying pitchers have a SIERA better than Worley’s in 2012. And for all of Freddy Galvis’ struggles at the plate, a .137 ISO is about league average, and a 14.5% strikeout rate is above league average. For a 22-year old, producing so well in those two categories portends future success. If Galvis, Worley, Domonic Brown, and a few of their young bullpen arms are all producing on the cheap in the next few years, the Phillies will be just be fine in terms of production from younger players and will be able to spend their way into contention. That is far from a guarantee, but it shows how easily this time could stay a perennial contender. A little luck is all they need.

All of this does not erase the position that they are in now for 2012. A 9.5 game deficit and all the ulcers that have come with it do not disappear overnight, but with only 4.5 games to make up in the Wild Card race, and three stars due to get healthy in the next month or two, it should be clear this is a good baseball team in a hole. Root for a winning streak, because this team on even footing with the teams they're chasing would still be the favorite to win the division.

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