Watching the Phillies in the past few days has not been the most pleasant of experiences. No, that's an understatement. Seeing Cliff Lee hang a breaking ball in the top of the 8th inning to Elian Herrera with Juan Pierre just missing the catch in left was fucking heartbreaking. But one losing streak in a season filled with similar disappointing results and less-talked about winning streaks should not cloud judgment on a baseball team that, perhaps surprisingly, is not as bad as you think it is.
I'll start with pitching because the pitching because, in short, the Phillies pitching has been fantastic (again) this year. The Phillies are tops in baseball (not just the NL; baseball) with a 3.42 xFIP. Their xFIP- of 91, however, is not the best in baseball, but it is still the best in the NL. That 91 xFIP- falls just one point short of the first place Yankees and Rays, both of whom have an xFIP- of 90. It goes without say this is no shortcoming.
Don't like xFIP? Think Matt Swartz's SIERA is like, a million times better, man? All right-y then. The Phillies lead all of the NL and the AL with a 3.24 SIERA.
Don't like ERA predictors at all? Okay, let's look at strikeouts and walks. The Phillies, with a strikeout percentage of 22% are 2nd in the NL (and MLB that matter) behind only the Nationals, in addition to being 3rd in the NL with a 8.17 K/9. The Phillies are also the best in baseball at limiting walks (6.2% BB% and 2.30 BB/9). In fact, next best in all of baseball are the Twins with a 7.0 BB%. To look for the next best BB% in the NL, you have to go all the way to the Diamondbacks who are a full percentage point behind the Phillies in BB%. Worst in all baseball is the Blue Jays with a 10.2% walk-rate. So, you know, the Phillies have really distanced themselves from the pack in this one. In fact, so much so, that in combined with their 3.56 K/BB is by far the best in baseball even with their almost there but not quite best in baseball strikeout numbers.
Lastly, all of this is being done with a .300 BABIP, which perhaps contrary to what one might initially think upon seeing the number, is actually the 9th worst in baseball and the 5th worst in the NL. For the morbidly curious, the Nationals' .269 BABIP makes them the luckiest pitching staff in the NL.
The Phillies' pitching is quite great. Is this not abundantly clear yet?
Due to the volatility of defensive metrics and the necessity of significantly large sample sizes to make conclusive judgments that comes along with defensive metrics, this is the section the part that comes with the most uncertainty. However, by bringing these up, I hope to bring to light at least what has happened over the first two months of the season, even if these numbers might not be the best predictors for the future.
The Phillies are 4th in the NL in UZR with a 5.3. The teams ahead of them are Dodgers (15.2), Diamondbacks (14.5), and the Braves (13.6). The Mets are dead last in baseball with a -24.3 UZR. That last sentence served no real purpose to further my argument, I just wanted to give everyone a chance to point and laugh at the Mets general direction. If you normalize UZR with UZR/150, the Phillies once again find themselves fourth in the NL with a 4.8 UZR/150 behind the same four teams. The Mets are once again dead last in baseball. Finger, point, LOL, Mets, etc.
While UZR and UZR/150 are the defensive metrics that I trust the most, I will throw a few more out there for comparison's sake. The Phillies are tops in the NL and baseball in DPR with a 3.9*. The Phillies are 12th in the NL, according to their -8.3 RngR**. The Phillies' ErrR is the best in the NL with 4.6**.
*Guess who's dead last?
**The Mets are in the bottom 10! That's not dead last! Yay guys!
Like I said above, defense can be difficult to analyze, especially with only a two month sample size. However, the overall picture tells a generally positive story for the Phillies' defense.
Okay, so we established the pitching has been great, and the defense has been more than adequate. The answer to everything this year must be somewhere in the Phillies offense, right? That no good, bloody, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard-less offense, isn't it?
Back in April I wrote, that in spite of the injuries to Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, everything was going to be all right with the Phillies. And offensively speaking, that has held true. The Phillies are 9th in the NL with a .715 OPS. But if you compare that to last year when the Phillies won 101 games, their offense was 7th in the NL with a .717 OPS. Comparatively speaking, the Phillies stacked up better with the rest of the NL last year, although the underlying OPS has been virtually identical thus far.
I like OPS, OPS is good, but it leaves out things such as park factors and league adjustment as needed thanks to the wonderful DH rule*. For OPS is just a measure of on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. Arguably the strongest measure of an offense is wRC+, which is weighted runs created, based off of weighted on-base average, and scaled where 100 is league average. The Phillies' wRC+ for 2012 is 95, good for 7th in the NL. If you compare that to last year (and this is where it gets real interesting), the Phillies' wRC+ was 96.
*To be read as "horrible, no good, embarrassing, annoying, worthless, smellier than human feces, complete and utter disgrace to baseball DH rule."
So the pitching is great, the defense is good, and the offense, even without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, has been producing at rates comparable to last year. So why were the 2011 Phillies NL East juggernauts and why are the 2012 Phillies in last place and 6 games out of first in the NL East?
Why the Phillies are in last place in the NL East, and why everything might still turn out all right
Well if underlying stats say the Phillies are great, and their record is 10th best in the NL, then what gives? While some may look at this and (wrongfully) conclude it has something to do with the Phillies' "intangibles," "heart," "grit," "will to win," among other various inanities*, that is not the problem with the Phillies. The first thing I will look out is the Phillies record in close games.
*These are just words people use when people want to make sports commentary while being too lazy to do any research. If someone is telling you the Phillies or any sports team is not doing well because of one of the above things, then you are probably best off ignoring them.
The 2012 Phillies are 4-10 in games decided by one run. While the uninformed will look at this and conclude "the Phillies are not clutch," the informed person knows that the results of one run games are flukey and there is no known team or individual skill at doing well or poorly in them. In fact, I wrote at length about the same concept in football when it came to the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles. The conclusion is the same now as it was then. A record that poor in close games is unsustainable and will over a large sample size regress to .500.
But, that is not the only Phillies statistics due for a regression to more positive results.
Originally, I had planned on writing my own thesis on this, however, as I was in the middle of writing this post, The Good Phight's taco pal published a post entitled "The Phillies Really Shouldn't Be Losing, And Yet They Are." While there is some overlap in our work, there are differences, namely he takes a much longer look at why the Phillies are playing so well but getting such poor results (answer: runs allowed). Even though I am blockquoting his money paragraphs below, I highly encourage you to read the whole post as there is a lot more to it than what I am linking to below, and other factors contributing to the increased runs allowed in spite of the league best pitching.
Somebody else will have to crunch the numbers to see which statistic is most responsible for the huge dropoff in run prevention. But the one that really catches my eye is the HR/FB. 13.1% might not sound that bad (especially considering that HR/FB has been up across the league this year), but just as a temperature change of 1 or 2 degrees could have a massive ecological impact if spread out across the entire earth, a shift of a few percentage points in HR/FB is a huge difference when you're talking about the combined HR/FB of an entire pitching staff. The last time an NL team saw its pitching staff suffer from a rate over 13.0% over a full season was 2005, when it happened to both the Cubs (13.5%) and the Phillies (13.3%). In other words, it's a rate we haven't seen since the end of the steroid era. (And in case you were wondering, ESPN.com's park factors page says that Citizens Bank Park is once again not playing like a bandbox this year.)Again, if you have not done so, please read taco pal's full post. It is quite insightful and explores other ideas not touched on here, such as the rest of the NL East and whether or not the Phillies should be sellers at the deadline*.
So what does this all mean? That's sort of a difficult question. For one thing, HR/FB is sabermetrically a bit of an odd duck. They don't include it in FIP or WAR for a reason. It can be hard to wrap your head around the concept that a high or low HR/FB is purely the product of luck plus ballpark factors, and in fact, maybe it isn't. It sure seems like a high HR/FB is the result of mistakes or bad pitching generally. And yet, it is an observed reality that all pitchers tend to regress toward the league mean over the long term, and that even the few individual pitchers who appear to display a consistent ability to "beat" (or get beaten by) the mean only do so by a couple of percentage points at most. Whether the explanation for the Phillies' high HR/FB is that it's purely bad luck, or that it demonstrates that the pitchers have been making lots of mistakes, the fact remains that it probably won't continue. So we've got that going for us, which is nice.
*This does not mean the Phillies should be buyers either. As always, each trade should be judged on its own individual merits, regardless if the team is buying or selling. For instance, WIP's Anthony Gargano has been championing a ludicrous trade of Dom Brown to San Diego for Carlos Quentin. And that's not the saddest part of this. The saddest part is Gargano is worried Dom Brown might not be enough.
The 2012 Philadelphia Phillies, even without Utley and Howard, are not that much worse than the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, despite what every inkling and hunch in your body telling you otherwise. The Phillies being six games away from first place with four teams in front of them is not something that is guaranteed to be overcome, even with proper regression. But, unless injuries continue to pile up, the Phillies should be expected to at least improve upon their record. The Phillies DIPS' are the best in the league, and their defense and offense have been more than adequate and are in no way, shape, or form representative of a team in 10th place in their league.
The 2012 Phillies are not that bad at baseball. Only time will tell though if six games back and four teams in front of them is too big a deficit to overcome.