Or, Advanced Stats-Based Optimism
I have posted since just before his acquisition that I think that the Burnett deal was a potential game-changer for the Phils. It allows for a more-normalized approach to the rotation as well as the bullpen. Certainly, the injury to Hamels would be far more devastating and consternating if Burnett wasn’t in the fold and it was Cliff-Lee-against-the-world. So, for the last week or so, I’ve been thinking "well, how absurd would it be for the Phils to surprise people and do well?" In fact, RAJ and others have been claiming that "all these injuries have interfered with our superior players having top performance." When he says that, we immediately think (perhaps correctly) that RAJ is envisioning some universe where in 2014 Ryan hits like he did in 2006 and J-roll like he did in 2007. We laugh at that kind of assertion.
But, as a kind of companion piece to Trev’s post, I’ve started to think, well, what if some of the variance really was based on injuries and not purely age-related concerns (ignoring for a moment that the aging process spurs injuries)? Can more advanced stats, rather than just foolish optimism, yield some hope of a successful Phils season? What if the perspective of "returning to peak performance" was not intended to go back to the glory days of 2009, but just to 2011? The Phils since 2009 have focused much more on pitching than hitting, and that certainly is still true. So how much would they have to hope for a return to just-slightly-earlier peaks from their players?
In that context, what I’ve done is collected the total fWAR of all of the Phils from 2011-2013.
Player/ 2011fWAR / 2012fWAR/ 2013fWAR
Cliff Lee 6.5 4.9 5.1
Carlos Ruiz 2.9 5.2 1.4
Ryan Howard 1.5 -1.1 0.4
Jimmy Rollins 3.5 4.7 1.6
Chase Utley 3.8 3.1 3.9
Marlon Byrd 1.8 -1.0 4.1
Domonic Brown -.2 -.4 1.6
Cody Asche 2.0 (projected)
Ben Revere 1.7 3.0 0.9
Cole Hamels 4.6 4.5 4.2
A.J. Burnett 1.0 3.0 4.0
Kyle Kendrick 0.0 1.2 1.7
Jonathan Papelbon 3.2 1.4 1.0
Roberto Hernandez 0.9 -0.3 0.2
Rosenberg/Diekman (2013) 1.0
Bastardo 0.9 0.8 0.6
(For reference, above I’ve conservatively estimated Asche as slightly-below average for a 3rd baseman, Rosenberg and Diekman's combined WAR is just from 2013, and the Bench number is the total combined WAR of the following players, you guess the year: Jenkins, Dobbs, Coste, Bruntlett, Taguchi, which I would assert was not a stellar group).
Taking the peak year out of 2011-13 for each of those players/groups yields the following equation.
6.5 + 5.2 +1.5 + 4.7+ 3.9 + 4.1 + 1.6 + 2.0 + 3.0 + 4.6 + 4.0 +1.7 + 3.2 + 0.9+ 1.0 + 0.9+ 2.0 = 49.8
Now for the surprise. As I understand, Fangraphs "assumes" that a pure replacement-level team would end up with approximately 43 wins. Assuming this, if each of the Phils above matches his peak from the last three years, the Phils end up with 93 wins! That the fWAR total could be that high surprised even me (even though I went into the exercise hypothesizing that peak 2011-13 performance would yield a contending team).
I would thus place the hopes of the Phils (and us) into three categories:
1. Barring injuries, these players are lock-ins to match their performance, given the low variance in their fWAR: Cole Hamels and Chase Utley, totalling 8.5 fWAR. The total summed variance for BOTH of the players together for all three years is 1.2 WAR! Now, you may say "But Cole is injured! Chase is fragile!" You’ll note that several of the years above, Chase did spend some significant time on the DL, and it did not impact his WAR very much. And if Cole does not experience further injury, he has the lowest variance of anyone on the team (and he has spent some time on the DL in the past). So I still contend, given any kind of basic luck, and no further debilitating injuries, it’s very likely that we see these players repeat or come close to repeating their performance.
2. These players have a lot to prove that Father Time isn’t against them, but a lot for us to pin our hopes on: Marlon Byrd, Carlos Ruiz and Jimmy Rollins, peak value combined 14 WAR (!), lowest value combined 2.0 (!!!) WAR. Yikes! Assuming that other players have more "average" years rather than peak years, that 12 WAR difference of those three alone is the difference between "strongly contending" and "less than .500" performance. I did go in to the exercise believing that J-roll’s performance would be very important (see below) and I did believe that Marlon was extremely unlikely to repeat, but I did not guess it would hinge so greatly on all three of those players.
3. Ryan Howard, based on an fWAR variance perspective, and contrary to RAJ’s and most of the rest of our thinking, is NOT a major factor in the Phils success or failure in 2014. First, his variance, even with a year in negative WAR, is technically less than either Rollins or Byrd (!) Moreover, since his peak 2011 WAR was only 1.5 and since most of the counting stats that contributed to that 1.5 WAR were contributed against RHP, he could attain those stats or nearly the same focusing more of his ABs against RHP, while the bench (Ruf or Mayberry) accumulated more than their expected value of WAR by having them take more at-bats against LHP (accumulating some additional counting stats of their own). Assuming that Sandberg has a clue, I can’t see Ryan + extra 1B bench ABs not accumulating close to 1.5 WAR (or certainly within 1 WAR variance).
Obviously, getting other players (Brown, Revere, maybe Burnett) to play well/ to their peak matters. And I think it is a near dead-certainty that Byrd will regress. Conversely, given his tough position, and the fact that he bounced back in the second half of 2013, I think it’s a good bet that Chooch at least hits his 2011 WAR if not the peak in 2012.
But I believe the person most on the variance bubble is the person that has traditionally been the most important - Jimmy Rollins. I have said before that his lack of power and deteriorating defense was a classic sign of aging. Others have said that he could just as easily bounce back. He has given me some optimism hitting a few HRs and snagging a few stolen bases in ST. But whether the Phils have a slightly-above-replacement player or a near-All Star in J-roll will likely be a determining factor of their hopes in 2014.
Or, at least,. that's what we can have "high hopes" for!