September 23, 2011

Don't worry about the Philadelphia Phillies.

Yes, the Philadelphia Phillies did just get swept in a four-game series by the Washington Nationals.

Yes, Beerleaguer pointed out earlier this week that over the last 10 years, "only two teams have struggled down the stretch and gone on to win the World Series."

And yes, famed Phillies blogger Zoo With Roy's (possibly incorrect) playoff calculations have John Bowker's squad being unexpected eliminated from postseason contention after last night's stinkfest. Good year, gang.

This is all causing some fans to remove their belts and set up chairs under low-hanging ceiling beams. But I'm here to tell you that, this year, late September baseball and early October baseball could not be more different, and the Phillies know that as well as anybody.

Almost everyone on this team's been to the Big Dance before; a lot of the core already took home rings in 2008. They all understand the importance, and the urgency, of every playoff game, and I can't imagine that they'll come out slacking when it's Division Series time.

So what if the hitters can't hit right now? They're running Pete Orr, Ross Gload, John Bowker and the walking, talking corpse of Chase Utley out there every night. I'm amazed the Nats didn't shut them out for the series. Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins is (hopefully) getting his swagger back, Hunter Pence is finally enjoying some much-needed rest and Ryan Howard should be ready to go after that nice big cortisone shot was jammed into his injured ankle.

Anyway, this team is built around starting pitching. Roy Oswalt said last night was the "best he's felt all season," and Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee all appear to be healthy. With the steady Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick strengthening Ryan Madson and his suddenly shaky bullpen cohorts, innings 1-9 should be in good shape.

Utley (.174 in September with 1 home run) and Antonio Bastardo (6 earned runs in 8 September appearances) are certainly question marks, but those are individual issues, not team ones. We can only hope that Utley's issues at the plate are mechanical, not injury-related, and that someone like Joe Savery can unexpectedly contribute in October if the previously wonderful Bastardo continues to falter.

Basically, this "slump" is being blown wildly out of proportion. As the Philadelphia Flyers have proven in the past, being talented isn't a cure-all when your team's in shambles. The Phillies aren't in shambles, though; they -- probably inspired by their manager and his "whatever" lineup choices -- are choosing not to show up for utterly meaningless regular season games. It's not exactly what we'd like to see as fans, but it's also not indicative of what this team is really all about.

Charlie Manuel apparently plans to play his starters starting Saturday, which will give them five games to get their sea legs back and five days to calm the stomachs of overreacting fans. Then they'll run into the Milwaukee Brewers or the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS, two top-heavy teams that shouldn't pose too much of a challenge to the deeper, savvier boys from Philadelphia.

And if, God forbid, they do lose in the first round, it'll be because of Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Zack Greinke. Or Ian Kennedy, Justin Upton and Miguel Montero. Not because the Phillies backups couldn't hit Brad Peacock on a Thursday night in late September.

So far, the Phillies have spent 2011 proving that they're a veteran squad with a burning desire to win and a taste for the theatrical. If it turns out that they have somehow lost their competitive fire after scuffling through a week of irrelevant baseball, well, they didn't deserve to win a championship in the first place.

September 19, 2011

Kershaw, Halladay or Lee?

19-5, 2.30 ERA, 0.98 WHIP. 236 strikeouts. 159 ERA+, 5 complete games, 2 shutouts.

18-5, 2.34 ERA, 1.04 WHIP. 211 strikeouts. 165 ERA+, 8 complete games, 1 shutout.

16-7, 2.38 ERA, 1.02 WHIP. 223 strikeouts. 163 ERA +, 6 complete games, 6 shutouts.

Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee. Who's the NL Cy Young?

You could make a case for any of them. Kershaw's numbers are just a smidge better overall, but Halladay's adding yet another excellent season to his veteran resume (and holds the lead in Baseball-Reference.com's WAR for pitchers statistic) and Lee's enjoyed a few lengthy stretches where he's absolutely unhittable.

There's been a lot of talk this fall about what "most valuable" means, but -- for whatever reason -- the Cy Young award isn't handed out like the MVP. It goes to the best pitcher, not the most important to his team's success.

With that in mind, does the winner have to be Kershaw? He's allowing 6.8 hits per 9 innings, behind only Justin Verlander and Josh Beckett for tops in baseball, and he'll end up winning 20 games and taking home the National League strikeout crown. Hard to argue with numbers like that.

But will Halladay's veteran presence sway voters? He's not as flashy as Kershaw, Lee or even Cole Hamels, but he's consistently excellent every single year. There's something to be said for leading the National League in complete games at age 34, having a few Cy Young awards already on the shelf and owning unquestioned "head ace" status on baseball's best team with the best rotation, even if that kind of stature is unquantifiable.

And how about Lee's brilliance? Shutout streaks of 34 and 31 innings, not to mention his 10-0 record and 0.33 ERA in the months of June and August combined. And that all, of course, came after a rocky April that left Lee's ERA at an un-Cliff-like 4.18. It's been sinking like a stone since. Talk about a good free-agent signing.

It has to be one of the closest races in recent memory. Here are some of the statistics where Kershaw, Lee and Halladay all rank in (at least) the National League's top 5:

WAR for pitchers, ERA, wins, win-loss percentage, WHIP, innings pitched, complete games, shutouts, K/BB ratio, ERA+

And that's not even counting adjusted pitching runs, adjusted pitching wins and a boatload of other fun sabermetric statistics that I don't quite understand.

Still, at the end of the day -- and barring an epic collapse tonight versus the St. Louis Cardinals -- Roy Halladay will win his third, and probably final, Cy Young. Even if Kershaw ends up first in numerous categories, the voters won't ignore Doc's contributions to both a sterling Phillies team and baseball in general. This'll be one last hurrah for one of the best pitchers of the last two decades.

The future belongs to Kershaw, Hamels, Tim Lincecum and maybe even Ian Kennedy. They've got a bunch more award opportunities ahead. But 2011? This is one more year for the Doc.

September 1, 2011

Debating the American League MVP race.

I'm a National League man. Always have been, always will be. As a Philadelphia Phillies fan, it's pretty much the only way to go.

But I'm also extremely intrigued by this year's American League MVP race. You can make a case for a half-dozen players, and there's one horse in particular that I feel should be an out-and-out favorite. But what do I know?! I don't really watch the other league's games.

So I started up a little email exchange with my good friend Matt Kakley -- diehard Boston sports fan and award-winning reporter at the Sun Chronicle in Attleboro, Massachusetts -- to get his take on who really deserves the award. It's kinda like what Bill Simmons and Jonah Keri did on Grantland a few days ago, only...better.

King Myno: So, young Matthew, I think I can guess which direction you'll lean in this email exchange. As a Boston Red Sox fan, there's no doubt in my mind that you feel Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are the leading candidates for 2011 American League MVP.

And you might not be wrong; Ellsbury and Pedroia are second and third in Baseball-Reference's WAR for AL position players. Ellsbury's second in baseball in runs, fourth in steals, fourteenth in average and fifth in hits. Meanwhile, Pedroia's .867 OPS is barely underneath the .869 OPS that won him the MVP award in 2008. In fact, his OPS+ is even higher this year (135 versus 122).

But if you're gonna choose either of them based on numbers, then it's crazy to ignore what Jose Bautista has done in Toronto. First in WAR. First in OPS (by a mile). First in homers, first in slugging percentage, first in on-base percentage.

Obviously J-Bats isn't powering a World Series contender like the Red Sox, but I don't think that should count for too much this time around. When a hitter puts up an amazing year like Bautista's, he deserves to take home the trophy.

Matt Kakley: Am I reading King Myno's Court or FanGraphs? I should have known you'd jump on WAR and the other sabermetrics statistics, but sometimes they don't tell the whole story.

Let's do a little breakdown of your boy Bautista: 31 first half homers to go with a .334 batting average. Wonderful. But since the All-Star break, his numbers have plummeted: only 8 homers and a .256 batting average. I'd like to see my MVP show a bit more consistency. He's also way behind in the RBI race, but I'll credit that more to the terribleness of the non-Bautista Jays.

Also, can it really be ignored that Bautista is doing what he does for a fourth-place team? If a tree falls in Toronto, does it make a sound? While I don't think a player should be completely hampered by the team they happen to play for, I think an MVP needs to have incredible numbers if he's going to get past that. Bautista's numbers, while very good, are simply not incredible.

I, for one, find what Adrian Gonzalez and Curtis Granderson in the heat of a pennant race much more compelling.

KM: Adrian Gonzalez is one hell of a baseball player, but is he even the best hitter on his own team? Baseball-Reference.com has him in eighth in AL Offensive WAR, tied with Alex Gordon and behind Ben Zobrist; Jacoby and Dusty are tied for for fourth. His .953 OPS is stellar, but his teammate David Ortiz is second in the American League with a .993 OPS. Speaking of which, where's all the MVP support for Big Papi?

Gonzo's been a wonderful addition to the Red Sox -- especially when held up against Carl Crawford's lost season -- but he's not the Most Valuable Player. I think others have proven far more valuable.

Such as Curtis Granderson. You're right; if anyone's going to truly compete with Bautista for the award, it's Grandy. Going from .247/.324/.468 to .273/.375/.584 is nothing short of spectacular, and the career .226 hitter versus lefties has miraculously upped that average to .278 this season. 38 homers, 24 steals, 107 runs; this is everything Yankees fans were hoping for and more. I'll step aside from my beloved sabermetrics for a moment and say that the Yankees would not be where they are without Granderson. Does that make him MVP? You can make an extremely strong case.

And as to your point on Bautista, it is a full-season award, but I think his second-half slump just accentuates how dominating the first half really was. He was literally unbeatable at the plate, like Manny Ramirez in the 2008 NLCS, and he's still going to end the season with extraordinary numbers. Toronto is in fourth place, true, but they might be the worst team in baseball without Bautista's contributions. After all, the award isn't "Most Valuable Player on a Contending Team," although sometimes people like you make that incorrect assumption.

MK: I love that you included Zobrist as a way to put Gonzo down. If anything, his placement on the list shows the fickleness of the WAR stat. Would anyone really trade Ben's season for Gonzo's? At a certain point, you have to put aside the sabers and look at the actual product on the field. Should we get into a UZR discussion?

WAR puts too much stock in the way someone compares to others at his position; first base is, and always has been, incredibly deep. But the same way you want to discount a player's team success, you also can't hold a player hostage because he plays a loaded position. Would we be having this argument if Gonzo was putting up the numbers as a shortstop?

Is Gonzo the best hitter on the Red Sox? Absolutely. In fact, I think he might be the best all-around player in baseball right now, with Pujols finally showing signs of not being a robot. But this isn't a "best baseball player" contest, it's for this year and this year only, and maybe his "value" in 2011 is slightly diminished by the success of his teammates.

It seems like we're getting towards Grandy being the guy, though I immediately throw out any comparisons to his 2010 season. This is a yearly award, not a Most Improved Odor trophy. The numbers he's put up while essentially teaming with CC Sabathia to carry the Yankees to the postseason (hopefully as a wild card) might be the most impressive thing I've seen in the AL this year. And, believe me, that's tough to say as a Sox fan.

And I assume we're just not entertaining the thought of a Verlander MVP, because that would be as silly as Shane Victorino for NL MVP.

In any event, I think it's a two-horse race between Grandy and Gonzo, with Grandy firmly in the lead and a month left to play. Plus, shouldn't it always come down to the Sox and the Yanks?

KM: The only people that want it to come down to the Sox and the Yankees are Sox and Yankees fans. The rest of us want it to come down to the Phillies...or maybe the Rangers.

I have a feeling that, in the weeks leading up to the AL MVP announcement, Jose Bautista's campaign is going to be fueled almost entirely by the white-hot fire of the Internet. Much like Felix Hernandez in 2010, new-age baseball scholars and sabermetricians are going to trumpet his achievements throughout the land and demand that he be crowned as ruler of baseball.

And hopefully, also like King Felix, it'll work and he'll win.

I thought that Sabathia would take home the Cy Young last year. In fact, you and I made a bet over that very award. Even after Zack Greinke's victory in 2009, I didn't think baseball writers had it in them to vote for a 13-12 starter over a 21-7 pitcher, no matter how dominant.

They proved me wrong, however, and I think that it'll carry over into 2011. If it's anybody from a playoff contender, it'll be Grandy -- the Red Sox will probably all cancel each other out -- but Jose Bautista and his beefy OPS deserve award recognition. Call it a "season-and-a-half" award if you must, but I think what Bautista's done to turn his career around is going to be acknowledged. And if it is Bautista, I dare any real baseball fans to complain.

But a pitcher for MVP? Come on. No one's that crazy.