Change-UpFebruary 02, 2011
Is the Phillies Starting Rotation a Luxury or a Necessity?
By Patrick Sullivan

Throughout the leadup to Cliff Lee's signing with the Philadelphia Phillies, most fans and media members believed it was only the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees vying for Lee's services. Many, including his prominent sportswriting peers, mocked Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman for inserting a "mystery team" into the mix in the days leading up to the signing. Heyman was vindicated when Lee shocked the baseball world by signing with the Phillies, the team he helped reach the 2009 World Series.

Understandably, Phillies fans rejoiced. The rest of us pondered what a Roy Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels starting rotation might accomplish. They're four of the best - what - 30 pichers in baseball? Lee and Halladay are probably two of the five best. Heck, maybe the two best.

It's a stacked rotation, and one that promises to keep Philadelphia contending. But what about the rest of the team? It's worth examining how the offense and defense look so that we can determine whether this rotation puts an already excellent Phillies team over the top, or if they actually need those four starters.

We'll start with the offense. The Phillies last season managed a 99 wRC+, which means on a park and league adjusted basis, their offense was below average. Now, there are a few reasons why that's less concerning than it may appear. For one, the Phillies had a lot of injuries. You try running Juan Castro and his 29 OPS+ out there for 146 plate appearances and see what it does to your lineup! Next, the year the Phillies won the World Series, 2008, their team wRC+ was that same exact figure of 99. If your run prevention is good enough, an averagish offense is just fine. Finally, the figure is a bit misleading in that most of baseball's best offenses reside in the American League, even adjusted for league and park. 99 may be below average MLB-wide, but it was good enough for fourth best in the NL in both 2008 and 2010.

On the other hand, let's take a look at how Philadelphia managed that 99 wRC+ in 2010. There's Jayson Werth, far and away the best hitter on the 2010 team. He's now in Washington. Dom Brown and Ben Francisco are fine players, but they're not Werth. Carlos Ruiz hit every bit as well as Ryan Howard in 2010. Whether that speaks to Ruiz's career year or Howard's reputation and paycheck exceeding his real value, I'll let you decide. For his part, Howard's walk percentage dropped for the fourth consecutive season. I don't know that it's appropriate to expect significant bounce-back from the big first baseman. Raul Ibanez, now playing his 39-year old season, took a major step back in 2010 and is penciled in at left field.

Philadelphia hopes to get full seasons from their middle infield, which could mitigate the productivity losses they may take on elsewhere. Chase Utley played in only 115 games in 2010, Jimmy Rollins 88. What kind of player is Rollins at this point, though? UZR still likes him as a defender but between 2009 and 2010 he was a .248/.304/.406 hitter, "good" for a .316 wOBA. How much better of an offensive player is Rollins than, say, Alexei Ramirez? Below is a table comparing 2010 wOBA figures to how CAIRO (unfortunate timing on the acronym, I realize) sees them performing in 2011, courtesy of the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog.

Name 2010 2011 Cairo
Ruiz .366 .341
Howard .367 .374
Utley .373 .377
Polanco .323 .325
Rollins .317 .319
Ibanez .341 .352
Victorino .339 .338
Werth/Francisco .397 .326

That looks about right to me, maybe slightly optimistic for someone like Ibanez. Modest upticks up and down the lineup, with a precipitous decline at catcher and in right field. The hope for the Phillies is that they can make up for what they figure to lose in output at catcher and right field with good health. If Utley and Rollins can play full seasons, Philadelphia stands a chance at putting together a similar offense to the one they had in 2010. Short of that, it's an attack in decline despite the name recognition up and down the lineup.

Of course there's that other part of baseball, too. When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, their defense was the best in the National League according to UZR. In 2009, they dropped to fourth best. In 2010, with an aging roster another year older, they were eighth. Is there any reason to think that number will improve in 2011, when only one position player, Francisco or Brown, will be in his twenties?

The Phillies lost their biggest bat this offseason, and addressed the issue by signing Lee. With a full season of Oswalt and improved health throughout the roster, it may just work. But before we crown the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, it's worth remembering that they can't really hit or field all that well. They'll need every last bit of that fantastic rotation they've assembled.


"the year the Phillies won the World Series, 1998"

quick, fix it like it never happened.

Brutal, huh? I was a student in Philadelphia then. I can report that they didn't win the World Series.

Great post, Patrick

I wouldn't say Heyman was vindicated. When reporting on the mystery team he specifically said it wasn't the Phillies. Oops!

Hmmmm, I'm not sure your analysis is 100% accurate.

For one, you mention that certain players like Utley and Rollins were lost to injury and that having them back should help. However, you neglect to quantify HOW MUCH those injuries may have affected their performance even when they were on the field.

For instance, take a look at Howard's game logs for the three weeks up until he was injured and out for almost a month. He was en fuego. He was not the same player after the injury.

Utley was recovering from a broken thumb. Not the same player afterward as the injury clearly still affected his performance.

Rollins looked like he was playing on a bad leg all season. Just not the same player. It affected his whole game.

The only 2 regulars not doing DL time were Ibanez and Werth, and Ibanez had a horrible first half because he couldn't prepare the way he normally does because of his offseason surgery.

So, will the Phillies be better than this projection? Don't know, but I wouldn't be the leat bit surprised if they are.

"it's worth remembering that they can't really hit or field all that well"

My head nearly exploded when I read that. I would say they have a below avg fielder at 1st, left, and a question mark in right. Everyone else is above avg.

As for hitting, mentioned by the commenter above, you may be just completely ignoring the causes of the hitting drop-off last year. I'm not saying that they'll all have above avg seasons, but to say that the team as a whole is a group of below avg hitters (which I take, "can't hit all that well" to mean) is a bit disingenuous. How many teams in the NL are better hitting teams, 1, 2 or 3?

I believe this rotation is a necessity if they want to go to the WS. A full year with Rollins & Utley plus a healthy Howard might offset some of the loss of Werth and probable or further regression from Ruiz & Ibanez. I would be more concerned about their bullpen. Aside from Madson, no one really stands out from the group. Lidge is Jeckyll/Hyde and the post season exposed their pitching. I hope to see a SF vs PHI in the 2011 NLCS again.

Can't hit or field that well? They have 3 Gold Glovers and one of the more underrated catchers in baseball defensively. Not to mention you said the defense was 8th best. If they can't do it all that well how in the world are they top 10?!

Phillies still finished below only the Reds in the NL in scoring as well. Not bad for a team that can't hit all that well.

Their fielding was 8th best in the National League. Sorry if I didn't make that clear.

"Can't hit that well" means just that. I don't think they'll hit well, mostly because they haven't hit that well in two of the last three seasons, and now they're older and without their best hitter from those seasons.

A reasonably thoughtful analysis that just devolves into silliness with that second-to-last sentence.

They have plus defenders at third, short, second, center and catcher. (Utley led second basemen in UZR/150 last year.) If the combination of Francisco and Brown can play to the league average,it will be better than what Werth provided last year. Werth has a negative UZR/150 since he became a full-time player in 2009.

As for the hitting, (a) you're understimating the impact injuries had on Howard, Utley and Rollins, and (b) they still ended up with the second best run total in the NL in 2010.

Surprised what I wrote is even a little controversial. Seems like the Phils fans have poured in. Welcome!

The Phillies are old. The most reliable metrics show the Phillies have been playing worse defense year over year for two seasons running now, with largely the same personnel in place. They were average last year, and given their age, I don't think they'll be any better.

What about the bats? Well Werth's gone and I don't think Chooch will hit like Carlton Fisk again. I think those two factors will offset whatever bump Utley and Howard can provide year over year. I no longer think Jimmy Rollins is very good at the plate.

Again, I'm not sure what's controversial here.

"it's worth remembering that they can't really hit or field all that well"

My head nearly exploded when I read that.

Yeah me too. Win Shares data for the 30 2010 MLB teams sez:


Offense: #6

Fielding: #2

Pitching: #3

I think it is both a necessity and luxury. The staff is loaded and pitching wins championships. As a Red Sox fan, I would love to have Halladay, Oswalt, Lee, and Hamels on my front line.