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Hold Your Horses

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It happens every year: right around Christmastime, the baseball world goes into its true hibernation. The Winter Meetings are done, the first batch of free agents have signed, and everyone—even front office types who never truly are on vacation—goes quiet for a few days at least.

The 2008 Phillies gave us the best gift in their power, not quite two months before most of us unwrapped the rest of our presents. (And perhaps Ruben Amaro’s offseason moves thus far—Ibanez, Park, Gary Majewski, etc—are a very subtle homage to his Jewish roots, in that the first Hanukkah gift is always by far the best, and then you sort of get junk after that…) With the team’s most recent bit of business, acquiring Jamie Moyer’s services for his age-46 and -47 seasons, the full championship nucleus minus Pat Burrell will be back in 2009.

But much as I love Moyer, the fact that Derek Lowe is still out there—and might get snapped up by the Mets, no less—is very troubling. Lowe is a superior pitcher now and going forward, of course, and while he’ll cost more and require a longer commitment, he offers something Moyer probably can’t deliver anymore: a near-certainty of 200-plus innings next season.

This might be one of the most overlooked aspects of why the Phils outlasted the Mets and then blitzed through three playoff rounds: their starting pitchers took the ball and kept the ball. The starters’ 966.2 innings pitched was the fourth-most in the NL last season—a fact that helped ensure the bullpen wasn’t over-exposed, and contributed mightily (along with great health and a couple-three career years, of course) to the relievers’ league-best ERA. Brad Lidge was never overused—other than by Clint Hurdle, that is—and J.C. Romero and Scott Eyre were rarely exposed to right-handed hitters who could knock them around. The only Phils reliever who faded as the year went on was Chad Durbin, and his fatigue might have been the result of a role change from starting to relief rather than overuse per se. 

The chart below shows starter innings and ERA, and reliever innings and ERA, for the Phillies over the last six seasons:

Year

Starter IP/rank

Starter ERA/rank

Reliever IP/rank

Reliever ERA/rank

Record/finish

2003

969.0, 8th

4.20, 8th

474.2, 10th

3.77, 5th

86-76, 3rd

2004

922.1, 10th

4.91, 13th

540.1, 2nd

3.71, 5th

86-76, 2nd

2005

957, 10th

4.20, 9th

478.0, 7th

4.24, 9th

88-74, 2nd

2006

921.1, 13th

5.09, 14th

539.0, 4th

3.81, 3rd

85-77, 2nd

2007

938.1, 8th

4.91, 12th

520.0, 8th

4.50, 13th

89-73, 1st

2008

966.2, 4th

4.23, 7th

483.0, 14th

3.22, 1st

92-70, 1st

The credit goes most of all to Cole Hamels, who established himself as a true ace both with performance and durability last year. In pitching 262 innings between regular season (227) and playoffs (35), Cole probably shed his “fragile” label for good—as well as any doubts about his toughness. Brett Myers (190 IP) would have cleared 200 innings easily were it not for the midseason demotion. Joe Blanton (197.2 IP) likely would have done the same except for the tendonitis that bothered him through his first half-dozen or so Phillies starts. Assuming basic health and that Hamels isn’t overstretched early next year, all three seem like good bets to crack the 200 innings again in 2009.

Moyer threw 196 innings this past season, but it seems likely that he won't see 200 again. (To be fair, he did it ten times between 1987 and 2006.) Great as Moyer was in 2008--and 16 wins and a 3.71 ERA qualifies--he did show a clear tradeoff between volume and quality of work within a game: when he lost it, it was obvious. For that reason, Charlie Manuel didn't stretch him much: Moyer finished with less than 100 pitches in 13 of his last 16 starts (regular season and playoffs), including the final seven. Additionally, his poor performances against Milwaukee and LA in the playoffs--when he did cross the 200-inning threshold--might have indicated fatigue on the 45 year-old arm.

For this reason, the Phils should have bitten the bullet and signed Derek Lowe, as reliable a 200-inning guy as there is in the majors. He's crossed 200 in five of the last seven seasons, and threw 199.1 in one of the other two. Add in Lowe's consistent success--between 12 and 21 wins in each of those years--and the fact that he's a decade younger than Moyer, and the extra dollars probably would have been worth it. (Further, if Lowe signs with the Mets, that would mean less exposure for New York's less reliable relievers: every time he and Santana pitch would present a decent likelihood of only the starter, setup man J.J. Putz, and closer Francisco Rodriguez. That's what the Phillies have with Hamels; it's a damn good thing.)

There is one spot in the rotation up for grabs as of now, though. And of the fifth starter candidates, all young pitchers--for the purposes of this conversation, and for my own peace of mind, I’m blocking out the Chan Ho Park disaster scenario--it’s not entirely clear who would be the biggest innings hog. Carlos Carrasco has the biggest upside as far as performance, but he’s a skinny 22 year-old; since you want to protect him, anything more than 170 or so innings would be an unjustifiable risk. Kyle Kendrick’s primary issue isn’t durability; it’s whether he can get guys out. There’s a lot of reason to believe Kendrick was exceptionally lucky through his first 30-35 big league starts, and when regression to the mean came late last summer, it was nasty.

That leaves J.A. Happ, a big guy (6'6, 200 lbs) who threw 160-plus innings last year despite being left largely idle as a reliever or spot starter with the Phils for a chunk of the second half.  He’s 26, so there’s less need to protect him than with Carrasco. If he’s good enough to get guys out, he’s probably the best choice in terms of racking up the innings pitched. 

Happy new year from all of us at The Good Phight. We look forward to enjoying 2009 with you, and here's hoping--not to be too greedy--that it offers as many thrills and as much fun as the year now ending.