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(Ir)Rational Exuberance and the NL East

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So here we are at... 39-26? A 3.5 game lead? On June 9? Seems too good to be true. 

But--and I write this with every Negadelphian instinct within me screaming NOOOO!!!--I don't think it is. The 2008 Phillies might not be the 97-win team they project to right now, but I like their chances to maintain this lead and play meaningful games in October for a second straight year. 

Let's start with the Phils. How much of this performance is sustainable, and how much of it is luck?

A look at the Baseball Prospectus Adjusted Standings suggests that the Phils' actual record is more or less in line with their underlying performance. Looking strictly at Pythagorean numbers, the team is actually one win under where they "should" be, based on runs scored and runs allowed; BP's adjustments suggests that they might be over-performing a tad as their third-order record "is" 36-29. (Could be worse, though: the LA Angels of Anaheim, comfortably in first place in the AL West with a 39-25 mark, have a third-order record eight games worse than their real-world tally.)

On the offensive side, things are going more or less as planned. The Phillies' 344 runs scored is second in the NL, as is their .795 OPS. (The Cubs, who have the league's best record, also lead in both categories.) They're second in home runs, fourth in on-base percentage, and first in stolen-base percentage. They're only eighth in raw steals, presumably because of the considerable time missed by Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth; expect that ranking to improve to between third and fifth by season's end. Chase Utley and Pat Burrell are still outperforming their preseason projections, but as MattS noted last week, probably not in an unsustainable way. Rollins and Ryan Howard aren't hitting to the level expected; it seems reasonable to assume that their improvement will cancel out any falloff from the other two big bats. Carlos Ruiz should finish considerably better than the .226/.303/.307 line he's lugging around right now. It seems like a stretch to believe that Phils pinch-hitters will continue their amazing success: .286/.350/.505 in 114 plate appearances, including five home runs. But this is a legitimately good bench, led by pinch-hitter supreme Greg Dobbs and whoever isn't playing between Werth and Geoff Jenkins. 

As for the pitching, there's one piece of luck that we know with near-certainty isn't sustainable: the health. It's simply astonishing that the Phils have gone from using 28 pitchers last season to just 12 through 65 games in '08. Someone, at some time, is going to strain something or go through dead arm or stub a toe or cut himself slicing a bagel. In the meantime, though, we have a bunch of individual performances that, with one or two exceptions, aren't much out of line with expectations. Chad Durbin isn't really a 1.70-ERA reliever. Adam Eaton and Jamie Moyer are likely to see their ERAs rise as the weather stays warm and some of those fly balls they allow turn from outs into souvenirs. Brad Lidge is excellent, but not unhittable; already we've seen a couple games where, as he put it himself, the Force was with him. On the other hand, there's reason to think that Brett Myers has pitched in some bad luck--certainly losing his no-hit bid last week counts--and Cole Hamels is pretty much within expectations. Matt wrote more about the starters and relievers both last week; his analysis is well worth a look, as always. 

Finally, the question I'm starting to ask myself is who's going to catch the Phillies? The sweep in Atlanta this past weekend, glorious though it was, didn't show dominance as much as good fortune: without question, the Braves should have won that first game, and the last two were near-tossups. The Coxmen still scare me more than anyone else in the East; their offense is very nearly as good as the Phillies', and if they ever get their pitching healthy they'll be very tough, even without John Smoltz. Health is probably the biggest question about Atlanta: Larry Jones Jr. is old and prone to minor injuries like the small quad tear that kept him sidelined yesterday, and relievers Rafael Soriano and the still-rehabbing Mike Gonzalez can't be counted on to stay intact. GM Frank Wren might need to make a trade for a pitcher or two, particularly in a rotation that features Tim Hudson and then a bunch of question marks. 

The Mets? They're starting to remind me of the 2004-2006 Phillies, boasting a handful of great players surrounded by mediocrity and worse. New York's core of Wright/Santana/Reyes/Wagner/Beltran/Maine is excellent--but their next best 4-5 players are unreliable because of injury or other issues (Alou, Pedro, Church, Heliman, Perez). And after that you get a lot of age (Delgado, El Duque, even Castillo and Schneider) and dreck (they recalled Abe Nunez last week). Add in that the team does seem to have locker-room issues and it's hard, though not impossible, to see them making a serious run. 

How about Florida? We're getting close to the point where even the smart guys will have to concede that this is a decent team. I love the Marlins' lineup core and bullpen; their strengths somewhat mirror the Phillies' own. But they lack depth and a few guys are probably playing over their heads. (Dan Uggla's very good, but not MVP good.) Florida's ceiling is probably 85-87 wins. 

The Phils got off to a somewhat wobbly start this year largely thanks to shaky defense--which we haven't heard about much lately--Howard's slump, and the injury to Rollins. Now healthy and firing on all cylinders, they're probably at their best right now: 12 wins in 14 games against decent-to-good opponents says that pretty clearly. But barring a devastating new rash of injuries, I have trouble seeing how the wheels come off--and it's possible that the good times keep rolling all season long.