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Phillies' Struggles with Lefties: The End is Near

If there's anything the Phillies haven't been able to handle in this 5-year run of division titles, it'd have to be left-handed pitchers. With offenses fronted by the left-handed duo of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, and the switch-hitting Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, it's easy to see why this was the case. Right-handed sluggers have long been an endangered species in the town of Philadelphia. Three in particular, Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand, and Jayson Werth, come to mind, but they never had large enough splits to serve as an effective counter-balance. And as Werth departed in free agency, the Phillies began the 2011 season without a single right-handed star. This crucial deficiency was sure to be their demise, as quality lefties and LOOGYs would shred this team apart.

Indeed, the Phillies did struggle against lefties in 2011. While the team managed to go an impressive 30-14 against left-handed starters, they combined for a wOBA of .309 against lefties, ranking 10th in the National League. For those who are unfamiliar, wOBA, or Weighted On-Base Average, is an overall offensive statistic that applies proper weighting to each offensive event (walks, singles, doubles, triples, home runs, etc.), and is based on an OBP scale. The league average wOBA against lefties in 2011 was .317, and most of the Phillies stars were well below that value. Utley and Howard combined for only a .281 wOBA against lefties, while Rollins and Ibanez were even worse, at .267 and .254 respectively. With half of the starting lineup hitting that poorly, it's surprising that the team won any games in which they faced a lefty, let alone the vast majority of them. How then, did this team approach respectability against lefties in 2011? Find out below the jump.

(Be warned, this post comes in at 3200 words. Don't try to read it all at once unless you've got a lot of time to kill.)

It took three key players to keep the 2011 Phillies afloat against lefties. And like Rowand, Burrell, and Werth, these three all man the outfield. I imagine that you've figured out that this trio is comprised of John Mayberry Jr., Hunter Pence, and Shane Victorino. And while that makes sense now, stating that the Phillies could rely upon that trio to handle lefties would have led to a bunch of blank stares back in April 2011. Victorino, as a switch-hitter, doesn't fit the mold of a lefty masher, Mayberry had never even produced in AAA, let alone in the major leagues, and Pence had always been solid but unspectacular against lefties. So what about their seasons led them to such success against southpaws?

Before getting into any of the stats, readers should be aware that many of the splits against lefties provided are intended to be descriptive, not predictive. Most are in sample sizes of 150 PA or less, and any predictions drawn solely off of such a small data point would be highly prone to error. Thus, the following values should only be viewed in the context of getting a better idea of the 2011 season. With that said, let's continue.

Let's start with Mayberry, the least likely member of this trio. Son of former Royals' first baseman John Mayberry Sr., Mayberry Jr. has had an odd road to the place where he is now. Drafted in 2002 in the first round by the Seattle Mariners, Mayberry chose to defer and instead play college play over at Stanford. After a successful three year career as a Cardinal, he was drafted in the first round at 19th overall by the Texas Rangers. While he succeeded in low-A ball in 2006, his 2007 and 2008 seasons saw a major decline in his ability to get on base, with Mayberry never surpassing an OBP of .322 at any level. By the end of 2008, his stock had fallen low enough that he was traded to the Phillies for Greg Golson, one of the first moves by new GM Ruben Amaro. Mayberry had his first taste of the majors in 2009, including an infamous moment in which a FOX broadcast misidentified a random fan as Mayberry's father, but he mostly languished at AAA Lehigh Valley. At the start of the 2011 season, Mayberry had accumulated 1380 PA in AAA with a line of .263/.325/.445. A strong spring training landed him a spot on the 25-man roster, but nothing about Mayberry's actual performance indicated that he'd have a successful 2011.

Mayberry's 2011 started with a bang, as he hit a ball just over the head of Michael Bourn to finish off a ninth-inning comeback against Astro's closer Brandon Lyon. While he didn't accumulate much playing in April, by May he was playing on a regular basis. Mayberry seemed to have acquired a more patient approach, and had a bit of success, but by the end of May, he was scuffling. He ended up with an OPS of .594 in the month of May, and was sent down on June 2nd when Shane Victorino returned from the DL. After struggling for a month in AAA, he was called back up to the team on July 5th. From that point on, he was practically superhuman.

Mayberry, playing the role of platoon right-fielder, pinch hitter, and occasional center-fielder in place of an injured Victorino, hit .300/.357/.607, with more extra base hits (25) than singles (24). By displaying such extraordinary power, Mayberry served as a valuable piece for the Phillies. His power, even including his April and May struggles, was more than evident against lefties. For the season, he hit .306/.358/.595 against lefties in 120 PA. His .288 ISO (SLG-BA) against lefties was 14th best in MLB, behind only some of the premiere power hitters in the game: Stanton, Kemp, Bautista, Granderson, Pujols, Napoli, Longoria, and so on. Relying almost solely on his power, Mayberry managed to succeed without much BABIP luck. His .306 BABIP was reasonable given his LD% (21.5%), and given his power numbers, his 19.0% HR/FB wasn't extraordinarily high. The only concern was his plate discipline, as while his 15.0% strike out rate was solid, his walk rate at 6.5% was mediocre at best. Even in light of that, there's no way to describe Mayberry's performance against lefties as anything over than stunning. He more than filled the role of lefty masher for the Phillies after his return.

The second member of this trio, Hunter Pence, started out 2011 on the putrid Houston Astros. After an ASG appearance, Pence was traded to the Phillies on July 29th for Jarred Cosart, Jonathan Singleton, Josh Zeid, and Domingo Santana, and had hit .308/.356/.471 with the Astros up to that point. Though he was having a solid season, Pence's .361 BABIP had many expecting a bit of regression. But while his BABIP as a Phillie fell to .348, Hunter Pence did anything but regress. Pence became an instant fan favorite, as he crushed opposing pitchers to the tune of a .324/.394/.560 line in 236 PA from then on out. Like Mayberry, he showed significant power, but he also improved his approach, as his walk rate increased to an impressive 11.0% and his strikeout rate fell to 16%. Against lefties, Pence's production reached absurd heights. While with Houston, he hit an unimpressive .278/.336/.443 in 107 PA, worse than what he hit overall. After coming to Philadelphia, Pence became a lefty-mashing god, hitting .405/.528/.929 in 53 PA (yes, major SSS alert). His BABIP was a high, but not crazy .344, but his HR/FB of 50% was, um, just a bit above average. While analyzing 53 PA for anything other than Jayson Stark-esque weirdness is a poor idea, Pence's numbers are simply too insane to not mention. He had an ISO of .524, a BB% of 20.8% and a K% of 7.5%. He had more home runs against lefties (6) as a Phillie than Ryan Howard and Chase Utley did... combined (5). To say that Hunter Pence filled the gap left by Jayson Werth is an understatement. He filled that gap, and built a skyscraper on top of it.

The last member of the trio, Shane Victorino, had a season that was more predictable than either of the first two, but one equally as extraordinary. Looking like an MVP candidate through much of the season, Shane hit .279/.355/.491 in 586 PA, and .308/.424/.608 in 145 PA against lefties. That 2nd line comes out to a .441 wOBA. Hitting that well against lefties is by itself an amazing feat, but for a switch-hitter to accomplish it is all the more impressive. Shane was an absolute weapon against lefties, carrying the team by himself against lefties until Mayberry and Pence joined him in July. In fact, as Shane fell off towards the end of the season, he had had herculean numbers against lefties up until mid-July. On July 14th, he was hitting .390/.500/.763 against lefties, equating to a .532 wOBA. So at every point of the season, the Phillies had at least one player who was doing their best against lefties to imitate early-2000's Barry Bonds type production. Looking into Shane's season peripherals against lefties is also astounding. His 13.8 BB%, 7.6 K%, and .300 ISO are all individually, but even more so collectively, fantastic. These peripherals show how Shane managed to produce so well while not having high or even above-average levels of the two luck based statistics, BABIP and HR/FB. In fact, his .287 BABIP was close to his career low against lefties, and his HR/FB of 12.5% was above his career HR/FB% against lefties, but below his 2008 level. So how is this possible? Well, one thing a lefty-masher must do is hit a lot of extra base hits, and the key to getting extra base hits is to hit the ball in the air. Shane certainly accomplished that, as he had a flyball percentage of 58.7% against LHP. To give that number some perspective, that's the FB% given up by Antonio Bastardo in 2011. In short, of the things that one would want a batter to do in order to have success (walk, don't strikeout, hit for power), Shane did against lefties and did so at a very high level.

Overall, Victorino, Pence, and Mayberry helped give the Phillies a great deal of security against lefties. Due to limited playing time, they weren't able to completely make up for the lackluster performances most of the teams left-handed players, but they did about as well any they could. In 318 PA against lefties, Victorino, Pence, and Mayberry hit 22 home runs. In 1331 PA, the rest of the team hit 17 (including one by Cliff Lee). It almost seems fair to say that without their contributions, this team very well may have lost every game in which they were up against a left-handed starter.

Thankfully, while the Phillies will have all three of Victorino, Pence, and Mayberry in the 2012 season, the trio won't have to produce at such extraordinary levels against lefties for the Phillies to succeed. With Ben Francisco (.301 wOBA against lefties in 126 PA), Wilson Valdez (.289 wOBA in 103PA), Raul Ibanez (.254 wOBA in 138 PA) all gone, and Juan Pierre (.348 wOBA against lefties since 2009), Jim Thome (.347 wOBA), and Ty Wigginton (.311 wOBA) replacing them, it's fair to say that the rest of the team should improve. Laynce Nix can't hit lefties at all (.242 wOBA since 2009), but he really shouldn't have to hit against them this season. Additionally, among regulars, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard had career low wOBA's against lefties, while Ruiz had his lowest since 2009. Some of that can be explained by age-related decline, but certainly not all of it.

For Rollins, his career low wOBA against LHP is mostly explainable by his low ISO (.089) and his low BABIP (.242). While his ISO decline may in fact be real, and some of his BABIP decline may be as well, it'd be incorrect to assume that either is wholly representative of Rollins going forward. Rollins has shown no declining trend in BABIP, bouncing from .293 to .213 to .300 to .242 in the past four years. Returning to the average of those values would help him improve against lefties in 2012. However, it looks as if his power has indeed left him, as his ISO has gone from .147 to .195 to .108 to .089. It's not a perfect downward trend, but it indicates that Rollins' shouldn't be expected to hit for much if any power against lefties going forward. Rollins should see a minor uptick in performance against lefties, but he'll still be below average.

As for Utley, his 2011 against lefties appears to be a complete aberration. Utley has almost always hit LHP better than RHP, and had a four year average wOBA against LHP of nearly .410 before his 2011 collapse to a .280 wOBA. That kind of collapse is like taking 2011 Jose Reyes and replacing him with 2010-2011 Ruben Tejada. It's safe to assume that at least part of this is due to Utley's injury, which is concerning but is likely to have a lesser effect in 2012 than it did in 2011. Additionally, Chase's BABIP (.217) and ISO (.121) against lefties were both career lows, by a large margin, and his BB/K ratio at 0.41 was also the lowest of his career. Unless Utley has been completely changed as a baseball player due to his injuries, his performance against lefties will be far, far better.

Next up is Ruiz, whose .321 wOBA against lefties was far lower than his 2009 (.375 wOBA) or 2010 (.410 wOBA) levels. Ruiz's BABIP was fairly normal at .302, but Chooch displayed absolutely no power against LHP in 2011, with an ISO of .071 and a HR/FB% of 0.00%. It's hard to determine what caused this lack of power, but regardless, it's not hard to predict that his 2012 ISO will be much closer to his 2009 and 2010 (.232 and .182) levels. Ruiz can only be better against lefties in 2012.

While all three of the above starters seem likely to improve, Ryan Howard, unfortunately, is a candidate for further decline. Combining age-related decline and injury, Howard's 2011 wOBA of .282 was a step down from his 2008-2010 wOBA of .320. His lack of power (.124 ISO) compared to the previous three years (.201 ISO), isn't likely to recover much after an Achilles injury, and his BABIP of .313 was actually higher than his 2008-2010 level. Additionally, his approach has collapsed, as his BB% against LHP has been trending downward since 2007, and fell to a career low level of 6.5% in 2011. Simply put, it's hard to imagine Howard improving in 2011. Some of his decline will be mitigated by decreased playing time, but unless Charlie and Ruben decided to platoon him when he returns, Howard will drag the team down against lefties.

Worth a mention here is Placido Polanco, who actually had a far better season against lefties (wOBA of .364) than he had in 2009 (.315) or 2010 (.294). Much of this is explainable via his BABIP, which was .342 in 2011, well above his 2009 and BABIPs of .263 and .297. Thus, assuming BABIP regression to around .300 or so, Polanco should be somewhat less effective against lefties. His approach was also markedly better in 2011, with a BB% of 9.0% being well above his 2008-2010 level of about 6%. Some of this improvement may not be random, but most of it probably was. Factoring in injuries, it'd be a fair to assume that Polanco will see major decline in his performance against lefties.

Last and least is Michael Martinez, whose performance against lefties was abysmal. Mini-mart managed to hit for only a .171 wOBA in 54 PA. His .020 ISO, 1.9% BB%, and .209 BABIP were all absurdly low. I can't say that he'll improve, but it's pretty much impossible for him to decline. Hopefully, Ty Wigginton will be able to cover the utility role against any lefty starters, as Martinez is worse than most of the Phillies' pitchers against lefties.

On the whole, the non-Victorino/Pence/Mayberry portion of the team has Utley, Rollins, and Ruiz improving, Howard and Polanco declining, and the bench improving by a large margin. All of this should allow Victorino, Pence and Mayberry to regress to somewhat less ridiculous numbers against lefties while having the team improve on the whole. In this last portion, I'll examine just how large the trio's combined decline will be.

Shane Victorino, as noted earlier, had nearly all of his success come from real, sustainable improvement in his peripherals. This improvement also matched up with his a boost in his peripherals overall in 2011. While Victorino will almost certainly hit lefties for a wOBA below .441, as long as some of his improvement in BB%, K%, FB%, and ISO is real, it's quite possible that he'll once again be among the best in MLB against southpaws.

Hunter Pence will also decline, both from his .421 wOBA overall against lefties, and his crazy levels in Philadelphia. Like Victorino, Pence saw major improvement in his peripheral skills, with his BB% of 11.9% far exceeding any of his previous seasons, and his K% of 11.3% lower than all but his rookie year. His .273 ISO was also a career high, but was not far off from his 2009 and 2007 levels. As with Victorino, as long as some of his improvement in these areas is real, he'll be a fair bet to be high up on the list of 2012 lefty mashers. When you consider the fact that he'll have far more PAs as a Phillie than he did in 2011, Pence's contributions against LHP could actually exceed last year's level, as his rates decline but are offset by having nearly three times as many plate appearances.

The most suspect of the the trio is Mayberry. While his July to September stretch was impressive, the three and a half years of mediocrity preceding it were not. Mayberry has always been a talented athlete, and his production does seem reasonable for a player who was twice drafted in the first round, but it'd be unwise to assume that he'll sustain his 2011 levels. The fact that he succeeded without much BABIP luck is encouraging, as is his massive power, but he is nothing but a huge unknown going forward. It seems like at worst, he'd end up being a league average player against lefties, but in that case he'd not even be a major league caliber player overall. He won't keep up his 2011 production, that much is almost certain, but he has such a wide range of possibilities that it's difficult to say anymore than that.

Given all of that, it can be said that the 2012 Phillies break down into five tiers of production against LHP.The top tier, true lefty mashers, consists of Victorino and Pence. The second tier, very good to great, contains Chase Utley and (possibly) John Mayberry Jr. The third tier, average to good, consists of Carlos Ruiz, Jim Thome, Juan Pierre, Ty Wigginton and Placido Polanco. The fourth tier, poor to below average, contains Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Laynce Nix. The fifth tier, awful batters against lefties, consists of Brian Schneider. Then the sixth through 199th tiers are empty. Finally, in the 200th tier, is Michael Martinez. Given this breakdown, it'd be fair to predict that the Phillies will finally conquer left-handed batting and be an above average team against southpaws. Their level of success varies greatly due to Mayberry, but even if he provides little to nothing, this team is solid enough to overcome it. At least in 2012, left-handed pitchers should no longer strike fear into the hearts of the Phillies* or the city of Philadelphia.

*Michael Martinez and Ryan Howard not included