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Entries in Philadelphia Phillies (37)

Tuesday
Dec132011

D-Train a LOOGY in Training

Dontrelle Willis' baseball epitaph appeared written this time last winter. The D-Train won the 2003 Rookie of the Year and averaged nearly three Wins Above Replacement per season with the Marlins, but he imploded upon a trade to Detroit prior to the 2008 season. The 1,022 innings that Willis threw through age 25 (fifth-highest through that age over the past two decades) caught up with him in the form of knee and forearm injuries, and he also dealt with anxiety issues that cost him most of 2009. His control completely abandoned him (119 walks in 123.1 innings from 2008-2010) as he drifted from the Tigers to the Diamondbacks to the Giants. At age 28, it looked like Willis might have thrown his last major league pitch.

The Reds offered Willis a minor league deal prior to 2011, however, and the D-Train resurfaced in Cincy last July. His results in 13 starts were middling -- 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings, 4.4 BB/9 and a low-fours Fielding Independent ERA. But Willis made fellow lefties look absolutely silly, holding them to a .127/.169/.200 line compared to .305/.395/.433 for right-handed hitters.

Dominating lefties is nothing new for Willis, as he managed to get them out even when his LaLoosh act against righties was earning him pink slips. The Phillies have reportedly signed the D-Train to a one-year deal with a base salary under $1 million to pitch in relief, and he could be one of the game's best Left-Handed One Out Guys (LOOGYs) if manager Charlie Manuel uses him to get the platoon advantage.

Since 2008, Willis has held lefties to a .196/.294/.312 batting line in 221 plate appearances. He has pounded the zone with his fastball and slider, throwing 54% of his pitches over the plate:

Willis' pitch location to left-handed hitters, 2008-2011

Lefties have swung through a bunch of those pitches, too. Take a look at left hitters' contact rate by pitch location against Willis, compared to the average lefty-on-lefty matchup:

Left-handed hitters' contact rate by pitch location vs. Willis, 2008-2011

Average contact rate by pitch location for lefty hitters vs. lefty pitchers, 2008-2011

Willis has gotten lefties to whiff 26.2% of the time they have swung since 2008, well above the 23.7% average for LHP vs. LHB over that time frame.

Against righties, though? It's a whole different story. Right-handers have walloped Willis for a .301/.434/.444 line in 711 plate appearances. It's like every righty morphs into Rickey Henderson upon entering the batter's box against the D-Train! While Willis is aggressive against same-handed hitters, he often misses to the arm side with his fastball, changeup and slider versus righties:

Willis' pitch location to right-handed hitters, 2008-2011

Just 46% of his pitches to righties have been thrown within the strike zone since 2008. And when righties aren't taking ball four, they're making a ton of contact:

Right-handed hitters' contact rate by pitch location vs. Willis, 2008-2011Average contact rate by pitch location for righty hitters vs. lefty pitchers, 2008-2011Willis has induced a swing and a miss just 13.8% of the time against righties since 2008, a far cry from the 19.4% average for left-handed pitchers against right-handed hitters.  

A second act as a LOOGY isn't sexy, but it sure beats toiling in Triple-A or retiring. And, as San Francisco's Javier Lopez (signed two a two-year, $8.5 million deal this offseason) showed, it can be a lucrative living. At age 30, the crooked-capped lefty with the high leg kick could get back on track if Manuel plays the matchups right.

Monday
Nov142011

Papelbon vs. Madson

Over the weekend, the Phillies agreed to terms with reliever Jonathan Papelbon on a four-year, $50 million free agent deal that includes a vesting option that could take the total value of the contract north of $60 million. Philly was thought to be on the verge of a four-year, $44 million deal with incumbent closer and fellow free agent Ryan Madson, but the deal supposedly fell through due to a fifth-year vesting option that would have bumped Madson's potential earnings up to $57 million.

Setting aside for a moment the question of whether it makes sense to pay any reliever such a sum when he pitches, at most, five percent of his team's total innings, the Phillies' preference of Papelbon over Madson seems to make little sense unless the new Collective Bargaining Agreement scraps first-round draft pick compensation. There's little difference between the two in terms of recent and projected performance, and bringing in Papelbon could cost Philly's farm system needed young talent to boot.

Take a look at how Papelbon and Madson have pitched since 2009:

Papelbon: 199 IP, 10.8 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, 2.64 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)

Madson: 191 IP, 9.6 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 2.74 FIP

Papelbon records more Ks, but Madson issues slightly fewer walks and gets taken deep a bit less often. Overall, the difference between Papelbon and Madson's fielding-independent numbers has been a tenth of a run per nine innings pitched.

Digging a little deeper, we find that Papelbon holds slight advantages in getting strikes and putting the ball in the zone, while Madson actually gets more swings and misses and more chases on pitches off the plate:

Papelbon: 66.8 Strike%, 28.2 Miss% 47.9 Zone%, 35 Chase%

Madson: 65.9 Strike%, 30.5 Miss%, 46.5 Zone%, 39.1 Chase%

You might be tempted to think that, as a result of pitching in the cut-throat AL East, Papelbon has faced a significantly tougher slate of hitters than Madson. But that doesn't appear to be the case. Take a look at their Opponent Quality OPS totals from 2009-2011, from Baseball Prospectus:

Papelbon

2009: .792 (T-52 among pitchers with 50+ IP)

2010: .765 (T-69)

2011: .752 (T-143)

Madson

2009: .781 (T-167)

2010: .765 (T-69)

2011: .756 (T-93)

Papelbon faced significantly tougher hitters in '09, but they were tied in 2010 and Madson had the harder go of it in 2011.

There's also the question of how Papelbon fits in at Citizens Bank Park. ESPN's Keith Law thinks Papelbon's fly ball-heavy approach will get him in trouble:

Papelbon has remade himself once after bottoming out with a fastball-only approach a few years ago, but even now he relies heavily on the hard but very flat four-seamer, which likely won't translate well to a good home run park in Philadelphia.

From 2009-2011, Papelbon has a 46 percent fly ball rate. He's all about the high heat:

Papelbon's pitch location, 2009-2011

Madson, by contrast, has a 32 percent fly ball rate. He's more apt to locate his fastball, cutter and changeup lower in the zone:

Madson's pitch location, 2009-2011

Considering that CPB increases homers by 16 percent for lefty hitters and 20 percent for righties (per StatCorner), it stands to reason that some of Papelbon's high heaters that died in the Fenway outfield or bonked off the Monster will leave the park entirely.

Past performance certainly matters, but what teams pay for (or should pay for) in free agency is future production. And on that front, Papelbon and Madson (both 31 years old) are barely distinguishable, according to The Hardball Times' Oliver projection system. Oliver forecasts 6.3 Wins Above Replacement for Papelbon over the next four years, compared to 5.7 for Madson. If the two were presidential candidates, we'd call that a statistical dead heat.

If the two can barely be told apart in terms of past and projected value, Madson apparently could have been had for a slightly smaller contract, and Madson is a better fit for CPB due to his ground ball ability, then the draft pick compensation that Papelbon may cost the Phillies makes their choice all the more curious.

Philly has emptied out its farm system in recent years in the quest for present wins, and it's hard to argue with the club's success. But, considering that Papelbon and Madson are near equals performance-wise, it seems like the Phillies gave up their first-round pick (31st overall) to Boston in the 2012 draft for nothing. Both Papelbon and Madson are Type A free agents, but it wouldn't have cost the Phillies any compensatory picks to retain their own free agent. Based on past research by Victor Wang, the Phillies punted a pick worth an average of $5-6 million.

This is where things get cloudy, though -- ESPN's Buster Olney reports that the new CBA may well eliminate first-round draft pick compensation:

In return, the players would get this concession from the owners -- there will be no first-round pick draft compensation. In recent years, teams have become increasingly reluctant to sign free agents tied to first-round draft picks, which has impacted the market for those players. There will continue to be draft pick compensations, but in some other form -- either in later rounds or in supplemental rounds.

If we accept the premise that the Phillies, a high-revenue club from whom every win makes a major difference in making the playoffs, were going to spend big bucks on a closer, their choice of Papelbon over Madson is slightly questionable if the new CBA allows them to hold on to their first-round pick and a bad move if they have to give it up. Given Philly's choice, I have to believe that they expect to hold on to that pick.

 

Monday
Nov072011

Phillies Add Thome's Pop for Peanuts

The Jim Thome Reunion Tour continues! The 41-year-old slugger/Brawny Paper Towel model, who returned to Cleveland in a waiver wire deal last August, signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal (plus $250K in possible incentives) with the Phillies over the weekend. Thome left the Indians following the 2002 season to sign with Philly, spending three seasons there before being swapped to the White Sox. While Thome is hardly an ideal fit on a National League roster, it's hard to fault the Phillies for adding a power bat for a pittance.

It's true that, aside from nine interleague games that Philly plays in AL parks in 2012, Thome's spot in the lineup is uncertain. Ryan Howard may miss the first half of the season following left Achilles surgery, but Thome hasn't appeared at the position since 2007 and hasn't played there regularly since 2005. Thome says he could use the offseason to work out at first base in hopes of playing there a few days a week, but that's a dicey proposition for a 40-something with a balky back.

Still, it's not like Howard (dead last among qualified first basemen in Ultimate Zone Rating/150 games over the past three years) is a Keith Hernandez clone at first. And even though he broke into the big leagues when the Soviet Union collapsed, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" topped the charts and Jack Morris was the World Series MVP, Thome can still kill baseballs. Over the past three seasons, he ranks 17th in both on-base percentage (.379) and slugging percentage (.523) among MLB hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances.

Thome remains a fearsome hitter because he still hammers fastballs like few others. Since 2009, Thome has a .286/.408/.587 line against fastballs and sinkers. That slugging percentage ranks in the top 20 among batters, in the same neighborhood as David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez. Thome rarely chases fastballs/sinkers out of the zone (18 percent, compared to the 26 percent big league average), and unless pitchers tie him up inside, he hammers those pitches to all fields. Check out Thome's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location vs. fastballs and sinkers, as well as the location of his homers hit on those pitches:

Thome's in-play slugging percentage vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2009-2011 Location of Thome's HR on fastballs and sinkers, 2009-2011

Considering that Philly turned to the likes of Ross Gload, Ben Francisco and Michael Martinez to pinch-hit last year, Thome is a worthwhile addition even if he's called upon solely to spot for pitchers or bottom-of-the-lineup bats in the late innings.

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