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2013 Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Today: the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Big Question: Will the Phillies defy age and injury concerns?

The Phillies had the oldest offense and the fourth-oldest pitching staff last year, according to Baseball Reference. Bringing most of the cast back for another season, and with the addition of the 36-year-old Michael Young, the team isn’t getting any younger. Furthermore, the entire roster seems to be a ticking time bomb in terms of injuries.

Roy Halladay (shoulder), Utley (knees), Howard (Achilles), Carlos Ruiz (plantar fasciitis), Mike Adams (thoracic outlet syndrome), Delmon Young (ankle), Freddy Galvis (back), Michael Stutes (shoulder), Justin De Fratus (elbow). Those are most of the key players, but even players like Young, who has had a clean bill of health throughout most of his career, can go down with a moment’s notice. Jimmy Rollins, too, even though he is going on three years removed from multiple leg injuries.

Concerns over age and injuries don’t simply encompass the time a player is off the roster, however. They can still play a big factor in limiting a player’s abilities and subsequent production and you need look no further than Ryan Howard after returning from an Achillies injury in July last season. It was painful watching him run the bases and he clearly couldn’t put weight on his left foot. As a result, everything about his game was worse: strikeouts way up (+7.2% from 2011), walks way down (-3%), isolated power way down (-.031), overall value way down (-2.7 FanGraphs WAR). So the Phillies not only have to worry about a player missing time, but being unproductive when he is in the lineup.

Halladay is probably the biggest question mark. He had an uncharacteristically awful season due to a right shoulder injury. He declined in every conceivable way: fastball velocity was down 2 MPH, strikeouts were down (-3%), walks were up (+2%), ground balls were down (-6%), home runs per fly ball were up (+7%). He hasn’t looked any better thus far in spring training as scouts  say his velocity still hangs in the mid-80’s and reaches the upper 80’s at best.

With a barren farm system – Keith Law ranked the Phillies 27th of 30 in his organizational rankings – the Phillies don’t have any contingency plans, either. If anything goes wrong, it all goes wrong.

What else is going on? 

  • All-Star Carlos Ruiz will miss the first 25 games of the season after testing positive for amphetamines (Adderall) in November. Among all catchers with at least 400 PA last season, Ruiz ranked third in FanGraphs WAR at 5.5, trailing only Buster Posey (8.0) and Yadier Molina (6.5). He will be replaced by Erik Kratz who, while he had an incredibly good showing in limited playing time last season, is not nearly as good. Steven LeRud will likely be the back-up. Ruiz is arguably the best player on the team. Losing him, and having to play replacement-level players in his stead, limits the Phillies’ already-limited room for mistakes.
  • Cole Hamels should be really good again. The lefty posted a 3.05 ERA last season, finishing eighth in NL Cy Young voting. Competing in the same league as Stephen Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw, it will be tough for him to go home with some hardware at the end of the season, but it is possible. Cliff Lee, despite a lousy won-lost record that made a lot of Phillies fans bonkers last year, is still elite and should be considered a Cy Young contender as well.
  • Thanks to a strong spring showing, Domonic Brown should get one of the two vacant corner outfield jobs. Brown is finally fully recovered from a broken hamate bone that sapped him of his power. Further, he has impressed defensively after looking completely and utterly lost in August and September last year. At the end of the season, Brown could very well wind up being the Phillies’ most valuable weapon.
  • The Phillies’ offense isn’t expected to blow anyone’s doors off, so expect them to play a lot of low-scoring nail-biters. With a back end that includes closer Jonathan Papelbon, as well as Mike Adams and Antonio Bastardo, expect the Phillies to nail down a lot of close games.

Though the Phillies are hoping to enjoy full seasons from players finally recovered from injuries (Utley, Howard, Halladay), there are just way too many question marks. When you look 135 miles south to Washington, D.C., the Nationals are looking better and have fewer nagging problems. The new and improved Braves appear as if they will be a thorn in the Phillies’ side as well. 

PREDICTION: Third place, National League East.

Rob Manfred on robot umps: “In general, I would be a keep-the-human-element-in-the-game guy.”

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 5:  Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred talks with media prior to a game between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 5, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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Craig covered the bulk of Rob Manfred’s quotes from earlier. The commissioner was asked about robot umpires and he’s not a fan. Via Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

Manfred was wrong to blame the player’s union’s “lack of cooperation” on proposed rule changes, but he’s right about robot umps and the strike zone. The obvious point is that robot umps cannot yet call balls and strikes with greater accuracy than umpires. Those strike zone Twitter accounts, such as this, are sometimes hilariously wrong. Even the strike zone graphics used on television are incorrect and unfortunate percentage of the time.

The first issue to consider about robot umps is taking jobs away from people. There are 99 umps and more in the minors. If robot umpiring was adopted in collegiate baseball, as well as the independent leagues, that’s even more umpires out of work. Is it worth it for an extra one or two percent improvement in accuracy?

Personally, the fallibility of the umpires adds more intrigue to baseball games. There’s strategy involved, as each umpire has tendencies which teams can strategize against. For instance, an umpire with a more generous-than-average strike zone on the outer portion of the plate might entice a pitcher to pepper that area with more sliders than he would otherwise throw. Hitters, knowing an umpire with a smaller strike zone is behind the dish, may take more pitches in an attempt to draw a walk. Or, knowing that information, a hitter may swing for the fences on a 3-0 pitch knowing the pitcher has to throw in a very specific area to guarantee a strike call or else give up a walk.

The umpires make their mistakes in random fashion, so it adds a chaotic, unpredictable element to the game as well. It feels bad when one of those calls goes against your team, but fans often forget the myriad calls that previously went in their teams’ favor. The mistakes will mostly even out in the end.

I haven’t had the opportunity to say this often, but Rob Manfred is right in this instance.

Report: MLB approves new rule allowing a dugout signal for an intentional walk

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 29:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred laughs during a ceremony naming the 2016 winners of the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award and the Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award before Game Four of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images
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ESPN’s Howard Bryant is reporting that Major League Baseball has approved a rule allowing for a dugout signal for an intentional walk. In other words, baseball is allowing automatic intentional walks. Bryant adds that this rule will be effective for the 2017 season.

MLB has been trying, particularly this month, to improve the pace of play. Getting rid of the formality of throwing four pitches wide of the strike zone will save a minute or two for each intentional walk. There were 932 of them across 2,428 games last season, an average of one intentional walk every 2.6 games. It’s not the biggest improvement, but it’s something at least.

Earlier, Commissioner Rob Manfred was upset with the players’ union’s “lack of cooperation.” Perhaps his public criticism was the catalyst for getting this rule passed.

Unfortunately, getting rid of the intentional walk formality will eradicate the chance of seeing any more moments like this: