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Phillies Stat Notes: 2018 Signals and Noises - Part 2

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Aaron Nola’s season: historic, or merely excellent?

Statistical odds and ends — this is a follow-up to 2018 Phillies in Review: Statistical Signals and Noises.

Aaron Nola

Aaron Nola’s top-line stats in 2018 were excellent: 17-6, with a 2.37 ERA. He was tied for 4th in the NL in wins, 4th in winning percentage (.739), and his ERA was 2nd lowest, behind only Jacob deGrom. All great stats that will likely put him in the top three in this year’s Cy Young voting.

Even more impressive is that he compiled those stats, and particularly his stellar ERA, while pitching in front of what was (based on either stats or the eye test), a horrendous defense. Obviously any runs resulting from errors aren’t included in his ERA, but Nola only allowed one unearned run all season. More importantly, official errors only account for a small percentage of any team’s defensive mistakes or shortcomings.

One feature of Wins Above Replacement is that it aims to adjust for things that are beyond a pitcher’s control — like fielding, and the parks he pitches in — in order to get a more accurate sense of his contributions.

Baseball-reference.com uses Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) from Baseball Info Solutions to measure fielders, and also to account for defense (both good and bad) in adjusting pitchers’ WAR. DRS simply hated the Phillies’ defense in 2018. While all the major advanced fielding stats agreed that the Phils’ fielding was the worst in the majors, DRS went further and considered it one of the worst ever.

Nola’s 10 WAR season

Justin said it best...

A 2.37 ERA in 212.1 IP. In five August starts, when the Phillies were still mesmerized by the illusion of a postseason berth, his ERA barely crossed over 1.00. He pitched well at Citizens Bank Park. He pitched well away from Citizens Bank Park. He pitched well in the first half, the second half, and would have done so in the third half, if that was how math (and human arms) worked. He was the Phillies’ sole all-star, and will finish in the top three for National League Cy Young voting for a reason, which as a 25-year-old is a statement of what the future holds, along with some of his other statistical landmarks from this season: You’re not f****** around in the NL when you finish the season above Jacob deGrom in WAR (Nola: 10.5, deGrom: 9.6).

It’s fair to question the extremely negative assessments of the Phillies’ defense by DRS, and accordingly, the large (favorable) adjustments that bb-ref makes to Phillies pitchers’ WAR in order to account for that terrible fielding.

Nevertheless, bb-ref’s version of WAR (called rWAR or bWAR), is a widely accepted and commonly referenced metric, and is now in the books.

And by rWAR, Nola’s excellent season was historically good. His 10.5 rWAR was the highest by any pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2002 (10.7), leapfrogging Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and all the other great pitchers of the last 16 years. It’s the most rWAR by a Phillies pitcher in 46 years, since Steve Carlton’s epic 1972 season (12.1), surpassing many superb seasons in the intervening years by Curt Schilling, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay et al.

Finally, and perhaps most impressively, Nola became only the 4th pitcher in MLB history (!) to record 10.5+ rWAR by his age 25 season. In doing so he joined this very exclusive list*:

Walter Johnson: 1910, 1912, 1913
Hal Newhouser: 1945
Dwight Gooden: 1985
Aaron Nola: 2018

Other versions of WAR

Other versions of WAR use different advanced fielding stats which weren’t so extreme in their assessment of the Phillies’ defense, and so made smaller adjustments to Nola’s WAR.

For example Fangraphs, which uses Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) for fielding metrics, calculated 5.6 WAR for Nola. That still ranks as the Phillies’ 19th best by any pitcher in the post-WWII era, sandwiched between Jim Bunning’s excellent 1964 (13th in MVP voting), and John Denny’s Cy Young award-winning 1983.

For a third opinion, Baseball Prospectus credits him with 6.6 PWARP, 4th most in MLB, so again, very good, though not historically so.

Non-WAR metrics

1) Pete Alexander, 1915 - .193
2) Aaron Nola, 2018 - .195
3) Curt Schilling, 1992 - .198
4) Ray Culp, 1963 - .202
5) Steve Carlton, 1972 - .203

This one isn’t complicated by defensive adjustments, though averages are generally down across MLB. Nola’s .195 was the 6th lowest opponents’ batting average in MLB this season, out of 57 qualifiers.

  • In addition, Nola’s ERA relative to the league (ERA- at fangraphs), was the 4th lowest in franchise history:

1) Pete Alexander, 1915 - 43
2) Steve Carlton, 1972 - 56
3) Pete Alexander, 1916 - 58
4) Aaron Nola, 2018 - 59
5) Roy Halladay, 2010 - 61

In the end, whether one believes BB-Ref’s defensive ratings and pitching adjustments or not, there’s not much doubt about this: Aaron Nola had one of the greatest pitching seasons in Phillies history.

Other Pitchers

Pat Neshek

Over the last two years, 166 relievers have thrown at least 80 innings. Of those 166, Neshek has the 7th lowest FIP, at 2.35. And none of the 166 has a lower ERA than Neshek’s 1.87.

Hector Neris

Neris opened the season as the closer, but struggled mightily, until he was eventually optioned to AAA on June 18th, with a brief call-up in late June. He pitched well at Lehigh Valley, with a 1.45 ERA and 1.30 FIP in 18 23 innings, and was eventually recalled for good on August 14th.

Despite pitching only half the month, he dominated in that time, and it was enough for him to be named the NL’s Reliever of the Month for August: he allowed only 5 hits in 9 23 innings, and struck out 21 of the 36 batters he faced (58.3%).

From August 15th (Neris’ return appearance) through the end of the season, he was one of only two relievers in MLB to strike out at least half the batters he faced (out of 120 relievers with 15+ innings):

1) Corey Knebel 53.0%
2) Hector Neris 50.7%
3) Josh Hader 44.3%

thru 6/29: 30 innings, 6.90 ERA, 6.39 FIP, 30.6% K, 8.2% BB
8/15 on: 17 23 innings, 2.04 ERA, 0.05 FIP, 50.7% K, 7.2% BB

Neris ended the season on a streak of recording at least one strikeout in 24 straight appearances, dating back to June 17th. It’s the longest such streak by a Phillies reliever since at least 1908, and the longest active streak in MLB.*

That finish meant that even with his rough start, Hector finished the season with the 3rd highest K% in the NL (out of 94 relievers with 40+ innings).

Games with 10+ Ks

Both Phillies hitters and Phillies pitchers set franchise records in 2018 for strikeouts:

In talking about teams and Ks, 10 in a game is an arbitrary but often-used threshold, and as we’d expect the Phils made news there too.

HITTERS

  • Fun fact: the Phillies struck out 10 or more times in 79 games, or almost half their games, the 5th highest total in MLB history:

1) 2018 White Sox 82
2) 2017 Rays 81
3) 2017 Brewers 80
4) 2013 Astros 80
5) 2018 Phillies 79

  • Funner fact: the Phillies won 34 of those games, the 3rd highest total in history for a team striking out 10+ times:

1) 2015 Cubs 39
2) 2018 Yankees 38
3) 2018 Phillies 34

1) 2018 Phillies 79
2) 2017 Phillies 68
3) 2016 Phillies 58
4) 2014 Phillies 49
5) 2007 Phillies 46

One note here on the 1960 Phillies, who had 38 games with 10+ Ks, which, amazingly (given the trend of rising K’s over time), is still tied for 7th most ever by a Phillies squad. That team was the first in major league history to strike out 1,000 times in a season.

Striking out 10+ times in 38 games shattered and nearly doubled the previous record (21, by the 1957 Cubs). It would remain the MLB record for 31 years, until finally the 1991 Tigers, aided by the longer schedule, set a new mark at 41 games.

PITCHERS

  • In the meantime, Phillies pitchers also set a franchise record for games with 10+ strikeouts, far surpassing the record set in 2012:

1) 2018 Phillies 64
2) 2012 Phillies 55
3) 2017 Phillies 52
4) 2011 Phillies 49
5) 2010 Phillies 42

Franchise record

After several successful seasons in the 1910s, including a National League pennant in 1915, the Phillies went through a long period of languishing at the bottom of the NL, overseen by a series of owners who were either cheap, well-meaning but poor, or scandal-ridden. For 30 years from 1919 through 1948, they compiled a combined .371 winning percentage, the equivalent (in today’s 162-game terms), of going 60-102, every year, for 30 straight years.

Things finally began to change with new ownership by the Carpenter family, investment in player development, and the arrival of the Whiz Kids beginning in the late ‘40s.

But those 30 years from ‘19 through ‘48 are when the Phillies did the heavy lifting that would eventually lead to their becoming the first professional franchise in North American sports to reach 10,000 losses.

The Phillies franchise has now been around for 136 years, dating back to their start as the “Quakers” in 1883. Their record in the other 106 years of their history? As they head into what will hopefully be their first winning season in 8 years (!), it stands at:

8,047 wins
8,046 losses

Period Years W L vs. .500 Pct
Period Years W L vs. .500 Pct
1919-48 30 years 1697 2873 -1176 .371
all other 106 years 8047 8046 1 .500
TOTAL (1883-2018) 136 years 9744 10919 -1175 .472

Any team can exclude its worst period and look better, but the point is, depending on when each of us started following the team, chances are we’ve seen about a .500 team overall, with some good and some bad.

  • Last 50 years (1969-2018):

More recently, over the 50 years dating back to the 1969 expansion, the Phillies are 78 games under .500, with a .495 winning percentage (an 80-82 single season pace).

That only ranks 14th in MLB over that time, and along with two great runs also included extended periods of irrelevancy. However, although it may not have seemed that way at the time, the Phillies have made the most of their successful periods. While 13 teams have had a better winning percentage over those 50 years...

- only 6 teams have been to the postseason more often

- and only 6 teams have won more World Series championships

Even if we consider that some of those teams are expansion franchises that haven’t been around for the entire 50 years, and even if we ignore their first, say, five years in the league, to allow them to get on their feet, the Phillies have still been to the postseason with more frequency than all but 8 teams.

Postseason Droughts

In looking through recent postseason history and the teams that have gone the longest without reaching the postseason, a couple of oddities stick out:

  • The 2001 Seattle Mariners went 116-46 and had one of the greatest regular seasons in MLB history, tying the record for most wins in a season (1906 Cubs, 116-36). However they not only got unceremoniously bounced from the postseason by the Yankees (which is not in itself that surprising given the vagaries of the postseason), but also haven’t been back to the postseason since, having immediately started what is now the longest playoff drought in MLB, at 17 years.

By the way, those great 1906 Cubs also failed to win it all that year, losing the World Series (WS III in Super Bowl notation) to the cross-town White Sox. The Cubs did win the next two World Series (over Ty Cobb’s Tigers both times), before starting their own famous drought.

  • The second-longest current playoff drought belongs to the Miami Marlins, at 15 years. The Marlins of course have only been to the postseason twice in the 26 years since coming into the league in 1993 — and went all the way to a World Series championship both times.

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* From the Phillies’ end-of-season Game Notes