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Not dead yet: Can the Phillies salvage 2012?

Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end...  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end... (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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David Murphy recently wrote that the Phillies should pretty much cue up the Smashing Pumpkins. It feels hard to argue with that conclusion right now, as we are staring back at a 1 - 7 stretch that has been just painful to watch at times. The question I am asking myself is whether this is 1979 for the Phillies or 1984? Is this just "one of those years" (and do we even know that yet?) or is this the end that has been long-predicted by people who have anxiously waited for the Phillies to come crashing back down to earth? Beyond the question of whether the 2012 season can be salvaged, should the Phillies blow it up and go back to the drawing board? Trade 'em all, and let Amaro sort 'em out!

Lots of Blog Lordery time has been spent scratching heads over the last week and trying to figure out what is really going on here: this (and the last paragraph is really key), this, and this (check the runs allowed/scored for the NL East).

What's my take? Derivative, as usual, but look at this take as a cabernet compared to a merlot. I don't give you a conclusion at the end, but the voyage is the answer. [written prior to Sunday's game vs. the O's]

I read Murphy's piece yesterday, and it was initially gratifying: "WOW. This is EXACTLY how I feel about this team!" And I started looking back through some numbers I track regularly, and the gloom and doom just didn't dovetail with the numbers. I started wondering what I am missing, whether statistics aren't capturing something that is key to this team, and whether the Phillies need to go hire Aaron Rowand again. I was really confused, and I still am. Here is what I walked through:

I figure that a team in the National League needs to win 89 games to make it into the Wild Card play-in game. The Phillies are 29-32 through 61 games. They need to win 60 of 101 games to make it to 89 wins, which is roughly .600 ball. One team in the NL averaged a winning percentage that high for an extended period of the season: the Phillies at .630. This does not make me hopeful, but perhaps the wild card winners will win fewer than 89 games. I'm not holding my breath. Going back to 2008, it looks like only one team would have been a double wild card entrant with fewer than 89 wins.

As an alternative to winning a wild card spot, perhaps the Phillies could try to, you know, win the division. Let's go to the standings:

The Phillies are in last place. They are 9 games behind the Nationals in the loss column with 101 games remaining. To overtake the Nationals, the Phillies have to play .100 better baseball than the Nationals for the rest of the season. The Nationals are playing just under .600 ball. Some combination of the Nationals (and the Braves at .576) playing worse or the Phillies playing better is needed to close the gap. Ignoring injuries (Howard, Utley, Halladay, Lee vs. Morse, Zimmerman, etc.) as somewhat offsetting, what have been the outcomes so far?

The Nationals have an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 2.99/3.19/3.56 so far per Fangraphs. The Phillies are at 3.89/3.66/3.44. I think it can be fairly said that the Nationals have outperformed their pitching by .57 runs per game, and the Phillies have underperformed by .45 runs per game. The Nationals have scored 3.86 runs per game, and the Phillies have scored 4.22. If the Nationals' pitching outcomes normalize to xFIP, they get a run differential of 3.86 - 3.56, or a surplus of .30 runs per game. If the Phillies' outcomes normalize to xFIP, then they end up with 4.22 - 3.44, or a surplus of .78 runs per game. Over 162 games, this would generate a surplus of 126 runs. That makes you a playoff team.

Too bad there are only 101 games left and too bad that there's no reason to expect xFIP and ERA to start converging today or tomorrow or next week. And in the long run, we're all dead. Still, looking at 2011 and 2010, it appears that ERA, FIP, and xFIP do largely converge over a season, with oddball parks accounting for most outliers (San Diego, Colorado, for instance, though San Francisco and Chicago seem to have consistent divergences, too).

Look at the NL run differential for 2012 here. Two of the teams ahead of the Phillies (the Marlins and Mets) have negative run differentials. The Phillies are at exactly 0 for the year so far. That suggests that the Phillies should be ahead of the Mets and Marlins, and that the Mets and Marlins have been lucky. As an aside, I would not bet on the Pirates or Orioles to continue to be near the tops of their respective divisions come September.

The Braves are the scariest team to me -- their ERA/FIP/xFIP is all pretty normal: 3.94/4.06/4.00. They are averaging 4.86 runs a game, which gives them a run differential on the order of 0.9 whether you look at ERA or FIP or xFIP. They have been a good team for a while, and they are for real. I do not see much likelihood that they will fall off a cliff like the Nationals, but last September showed us that anything is possible, though another historic collapse seems implausible.

If Baseba'al was just, the Phillies would be in second in the division, with the Mets and Marlins in the cellar. The Nationals would be in the middle of the pack, but in striking distance of the Phillies, and the Braves would be in the lead. The problem is that Baseba'al is really jerking around the Phillies this year, even ignoring the subpar Halladay, the injuries to Lee, Howard, Utley, Galvis, Stutes, Contreras, Halladay, Polanco, and Thome. The old guys you can understand, but Galvis breaking his back? That's just piling on. I mean, FFS, Baseba'al, do we need to get Elijah in here to open up some whoop-ass on you?

Even with all that, there is a plausible argument that normalized xFIP to ERA would result in a run differential that makes the Phillies (sans Utley and Howard) a comfortable, credible playoff team. Is it time to blow it all up and do rash things? No. While it may be hard, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to see this team reel off a .600 season the rest of the way, especially with reinforcements like Halladay, Utley, and Howard on the horizon and when the run differential could well be .7 with the dreck the team has been running out there in the meantime. Add the reinforcements into the mix, and this could be a 1.0+ run differential team the rest of the way, and that would support a winning percentage of .600.

Undeniably, the margin of error is getting much smaller, but it'd be kind of nice to have a heart-stopping pennant race again, wouldn't it?

And ask yourself whether you would think blowing this team up would be a good idea if only the ERA and xFIP were in line. Is this really the end of the line? Is it time to rebuild? You make the call.