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Grading on a Curve

I don't know about you, but I've found this to be a looooong week. There's nothing like five days without baseball to make one look forward to the resumption of the season, despite all the justified trepidation about the Phillies' chances of making the playoffs with one good pitcher to their name.

To fill the void during this long week, various publications have been "grading" the team and its players for their first-half work. I find these evaluations unsatisfying, because the criteria are muddy and entirely subjective. So let's try something else: comparing the projected full-season work of the Phils' regulars, based on what they've done through 88 games, to their predicted performance from before the season.

I might or might not do this for the pitchers as well; I'm leaning toward "not," because frankly I kind of don't want to know. Today, we focus on the more-or-less good news.

The first line is what Baseball Prospectus saw coming through its PECOTA projection system; the second is what each player is on pace to do, with their three-slash rates and production numbers. A short evaluation follows each. I've linked the PECOTA pages for each player; BP is free to all this week, so take a look. (And if you haven't yet, of course, you really should subscribe.)

C Carlos Ruiz
PECOTA: 399 PA, .278/.336/.439, 11 HR, 50 RBI
Projected: .272/.329/.401, 7 HR, 64 RBI

Ruiz is slightly underperforming his PECOTA weighted mean projection, though he's also on pace to wind up with a good deal more at-bats than they expected; thank Charlie Manuel's realization that Rod Barajas, um, sucks. (I know Hot Rod's power and rate stats compare well to Ruiz's; but his defense is horrific and I prefer Ruiz's upside and more balanced offensive game to the better chance Barajas will hit a mistake 400 feet.)

1b Ryan Howard
PECOTA: 652 PA, 112 R, .299/.393/.616, 112 R, 47 HR, 125 RBI
Projected: .256/.377/.555, 80 R, 43 HR, 138 RBI

I'm not sure what to make of Howard's season to date. He's on pace to do about what I figured he would in terms of power production; 58/149 wasn't going to happen again. The batting average and on-base rates aren't quite where one would hope, but the trend is good; he could easily finish with something like .275/.385/.590. Remember that Howard's batting average on balls in play was astonishingly high in 2006. Right now he's between the 25th and 40th percentile projections that PECOTA had for him.

2b Chase Utley

PECOTA: 657 PA, 106 R, .288/.367/.527, 31 HR, 94 RBI, 11 SB
Projected: .325/.401/.571, 118 R, 28 HR, 126 RBI, 11 SB

Utley is hitting at around his 75th percentile projection. He's pretty clearly the team's MVP, and could be in contention for league MVP honors if the Phils make a serious charge. And he's probably supplanted Howard as the one guy in the Phils' lineup opponents try not to let beat them.

SS Jimmy Rollins
PECOTA: 708 PA, 107 R, .291/.348/.455, 17 HR, 66 RBI, 32 SB
Projected: .286/.329/.518, 131 R, 29 HR, 98 RBI, 28 SB

PECOTA evidently didn't see Jimmy turning into, first and foremost, a power hitter. Were Charlie Manuel into mind-expanding drugs, I wonder if he'd consider batting Rollins cleanup to split his lefties. Jimmy loves hitting leadoff, but I think his ego would respond to batting fourth too.

3b Wes Helms
PECOTA: 167 PA, 22 R, .287/.355/.477, 6 HR, 22 RBI
Projected: .267/.327/.382, 6 HR, 50 RBI

On Helms, PECOTA didn't figure he would play as much as he has; even after getting benched for a good part of June, he's on pace to have well more than twice the number of plate appearances they forecast. Unfortunately, that 6-homer projection is intact... but I think 12 is probably a better guess. Over his career, Helms is a considerably better second-half hitter (.293/.361/.486). If his early-July form holds up, he'll be a major contributor.

LF Pat Burrell
PECOTA: 544 PA, 83 R, .262/.379/.525, 31 HR, 83 RBI
Projected: .215/.378/.408, 61 R, 21 HR, 71 RBI

BOOOO!!! (Sorry--habit.) Burrell is performing around his 10th-percentile projection--better on-base percentage, considerably worse slugging. Some are now calling for the team to cut him outright; I'd rather see if he can sustain the power surge he put on in Minute Maid and Coors Field last week. If he somehow makes it back close to that projection, that could compensate for a lot of bad bullpen.

CF Aaron Rowand
PECOTA: 492 PA, 68 R, .280/.334/.457, 15 HR, 58 RBI
Projected: .310/.385/.478, 96 R, 20 HR, 79 RBI

No Phillie is over-performing his projection as much as Rowand, who's hit near his 90th percentile line. He did drop off a little bit in the last weeks before the break, and he probably doesn't have enough power to succeed long-term batting fifth. But he's been a godsend this season and will leave Philadelphia with a lot of goodwill.

RF Shane Victorino
PECOTA: 509 PA, 74 R, .293/.350/.459, 12 HR, 51 RBI, 10 SB
Projected: .277/.346/.429, 101 R, 20 HR, 68 RBI, 50 SB

PECOTA somewhat saw the power coming, but couldn't account for the tutelage of Davey Lopes. Then again, back in March I thought there was a decent chance that Victorino would be job-sharing with Jayson Werth by now, so I'm probably not one to talk.

Conclusion: The best news coming out of this analysis is that the offense probably isn't over-performing, based on what was expected at the start of the season. If anything, the struggles of Burrell and, to a much lesser extent, Howard, suggest that the best may be yet to come. Again, the Phillies have the best middle infield combo in the game, and the fine work of Rowand and Victorino have turned the outfield from an area of concern into another area of strength. As the team will need to keep outslugging their opponents, this is where optimists will continue to hang their red caps.