In anticipation of this weekend’s series against the Philadelphia Phillies, Bill Baer of the Philadelphia Phillies SweetSpot Blog Crashburn Alley and I exchanged some questions in order to help ourselves and our readers become familiar with the teams. I asked Bill seven questions about his Philadelphia Phillies, and he asked me seven about our Milwaukee Brewers. My responses to his questions are over at Crashburn Alley here; Bill’s answers to my questions can be seen below. Bill is also a writer for Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Daily Digest, and HEATER Magazine.
Jack Moore: The Phillies are sitting a game and a half ahead of the field in the NL East – including the wildly surprising 19-15 Nationals – but the division is very close, and Atlanta and Florida are only 4.5 games behind. How confident are you that the Phillies will hold on to the division, and barring that, at least a playoff berth?
Bill Baer: The Phillies have played .606 baseball without their lead-off hitter and slick-fielding shortstop Jimmy Rollins, just four combined starts between Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ, without their Plan A and B closers in Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson, and without their LOOGY in J.C. Romero. With health, the Phillies are an even scarier bunch.
I may have overrated the Braves going into the season, especially their pitching staff. Tommy Hanson has been the only reliable starter. Hudson has had good results but has benefited from an unsustainable .235 BABIP. The Mets are nothing more than a .500 team as their entire roster is infected with mediocrity and their pitching staff issues walks at far too high a clip. The Nationals have benefited from the flukish contributions from Ivan Rodriguez and Livan Hernandez.
The team that really scares me in the NL East is the Florida Marlins. That pitching staff is nothing to joke about and they will eventually manage some offense out of their outfielders. They are definitely a team that can win 90 games if they can pull it together.
Overall, though, I think the Phillies are clearly the class of the National League and, barring some unforeseen circumstances, should be the favorites to return to the World Series. Unlike the last couple years, however, they have been bitten badly by the injury bug. If this trend continues, their path to the playoffs becomes much more difficult.
JM: Of course, the major story this year so far with the Phillies, at least from an outsider perspective, is Ryan Howard’s new contract. Reactions have ranged from “the apocalypse” to “it’s not so bad” in the sabermetric blogosphere. Do you fall on that spectrum, and if so, where?
BB: On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being an absolutely awful decision and 10 being a totally awesome decision, I rate the deal at about a 3. Ryan Howard is a one-dimensional player already in his 30’s. His extension is worth $125 million from 2012-16 with the final year being his age-36 season. Not too many power-only hitters have continued to produce past their mid-30’s. Jim Thome comes to mind but he is clearly an exception to the rule.
Phillies beat writers have scoffed at the stats people for relying on the actuarial tables to judge the deal. Ryan Lawrence of the Delaware County Daily Times spends a lot of time around the players and I don’t think you can discount the first-hand knowledge he provides. He has said that Howard is in tremendous shape and has been extremely dedicated to improving his defense.
However, he has been at best an average defender and there’s no reason to expect him to turn into Don Mattingly in his mid-30’s. His bat is already in decline. I just don’t like the deal, even if he is a fan favorite, handles the media and high-pressure situations well, and shows dedication. The numbers don’t lie. The probability of him living up to his contract are very low.
JM: Catcher Carlos Ruiz has a .472 OBP and a .418 wOBA. He’s a career .347 OBP, .320 wOBA hitter. What’s the deal? This can’t be for real, can it?
BB: No. Ruiz has, however, improved his walk rate each year he has been in the Majors. While he won’t continue to draw walks at a 20% clip as he has been so far in 2010, his plate discipline is not an illusion. The rest of his on-base percentage has been predicated on a .403 BABIP which will certainly regress towards his career .271 average BABIP. I would say a .350-.360 wOBA is not out of the question by the end of the season, but certainly not .418.
JM: Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels are definitely for real at the front of the Phillies staff. However, with J.A. Happ injured, the Phillies have had to use Nelson Figueroa, Jamie Moyer, and Kyle Kendrick for a combined 14 starts. How badly does Philadelphia miss Happ?
Don’t tell this to Phillies fans, but… J.A. Happ isn’t that good. He had an unsustainable BABIP and LOB% last year although he did have a good K/BB ratio. However, he does not strike a lot of hitters out (6.45 per nine last year) and doesn’t induce many ground balls (38% in ’09). He’s a decent option to fill out the back of the rotation but he isn’t much better than Kyle Kendrick. It is unfortunate that the Phillies have replaced Happ with… Kyle Kendrick.
JM: Brad Lidge is still battling injuries, even though his most recent MRI was negative. Ryan Madson broke his toe in one the most ridiculous sports injuries of all time. Is the back end of the Phillies bullpen good enough to handle losing both of those guys for an extended period of time?
BB: Yes. Jose Contreras is for real. That pitching performance last year out of the Colorado Rockies’ bullpen was not an illusion. He added a ton of velocity to his pitches (he’s hit 97 MPH with his fastball several times this year) and he isn’t walking anyone. He has a K/9 of 11.6 and a BB/9 of 0.8. While that .218 BABIP will trend upward, Contreras is a legitimate closing option for the Phillies.
I have never been a fan of the deal the Phillies gave Danys Baez. I hope the Phillies realize he is the reliever version of Adam Eaton sooner rather than later.
Chad Durbin isn’t a bad option to handle higher-leverage innings either though, like Contreras, his .200 BABIP isn’t sustainable. He struggled with control last year but seems to have returned to his ways of 2008.
JM: Another injured Philly is former MVP Jimmy Rollins. The Phillies have been using a combination of Juan Castro and Wilson Valdez at SS in his absence. Most Brewers fans won’t be familiar with that tandem – what can you tell us about them?
BB: Both are light-hitting shortstops who have a reputation for playing good defense but should have no business being on a Major League team. Castro has OPS’ed under .600 in 70 plate appearances and UZR’ed -15.0 (insert UZR small sample size caveat) filling in for Rollins before injuring his hamstring.
Wilson Valdez is the bane of my existence. Though, to be fair, it’s not like the Phillies have better options sitting around in the Minors. Cody Ransom hasn’t OPS’ed above .500 in the Minors since 2004 in the Giants system with Triple-A Fresno. Valdez had grounded into a double play in five straight games before ending that nightmarish streak in Colorado. He has created as many outs in just those double plays alone as he has total bases. (Ten.) Like Castro, he has a reputation for playing good defense but UZR hasn’t given either good marks in 2010. Could be due to the small sample size.
JM: Last season, the Phillies were considered an above average defensive team by both metrics used on FanGraphs. John Dewan’s +/- system had the Phillies as 13 runs above average and UZR had them at +27 runs. The world series team of 2008 was also highly regarded defensively. The team that the Brewers will likely see over the weekend won’t contain noted defensive wizard 3B Pedro Feliz, now with the Astros, nor the aforementioned Rollins. Do you think that the team the Phillies will play against the Brewers is above-average defensively?
BB: They’re about average. Chase Utley, of course, is an excellent defender and has been for some time now. Placido Polanco has transitioned nicely over at third base and Shane Victorino has fielded his position well despite some questionable routes he’s taken. UZR doesn’t like the Phillies’ corner outfielders in Raul Ibanez and Jayson Werth, either of their fill-in shortstops, and nor does it like Ryan Howard (no surprise there).
I think Werth’s poor performance in right field has been a fluke so I expect a regression up to his mean. Once Rollins returns to shortstop, the Phillies will once again become an above-average defensive team.
Many thanks to Bill. Again, he blogs over at Crashburn Alley, and you can also find his work at
Baseball Digest Daily, HEATER Magazine, and Baseball Prospectus.