Friday, February 10, 2012

NL East: A Fascinating Place: Nationals

This is the fourth post in a series that has looked at the National League East, a division that has had some dynamic movement during this off season. The first post looked at the Phillies and they are the top dogs until somebody knocks them off. The Braves were covered in the second post and it was seen that they have the potential to win 95 games if everything goes perfectly. The third post covered the Marlins, who were shown to be vastly improved and could be in a position to shake up the division. Today's installment looks at the Washington Nationals. The Nationals seemed to be in on every free agent mentioned during the off season. While the team didn't get Fielder or Reyes, they did acquire two starting pitchers. Will that be enough to put them in contention?

The Nationals won 80 games last season. Can they add ten or more wins this season to put them in contention for the division or set them up for a wild card run? Like all of the teams in their division, the Nationals will live or die depending on how well their starting rotation holds up. By adding Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, the Nationals have certainly improved their rotation. But by how much? If we trade in Gonzalez for Livan Hernandez, you substitute a 3.5 fWAR pitcher for a 1.9 fWAR. Many have worried about Gonzalez in the hitter friendly home park he will now pitch in for half of his outings. He will certainly face tougher competition within his division than he did pitching for Oakland. But he should still be at least a 3.0 fWAR pitcher giving the Nationals a one win edge on what they had with Hernandez.

Edwin Jackson illicits a lot of different reactions in baseball reporting. Some of his numbers are encouraging and others are baffling. But the bottom line is that he has garnered 3.8 fWAR in each of his last two seasons so that seems to be a figure we can stand on. If the Nationals swing him in the rotation instead of Jason Marquis, who was a 1.6 fWAR pitcher for the Nationals last season, that's a 2.2 win swing upward for the Nationals. Is this a bit of a pie in the sky picture? Well, sure. Nothing is guaranteed in baseball except the games already in the books. But in theory, between Jackson and Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals have picked up 3.3 wins. That's a start. Where else can the wins come from?

How about a full year of Stephen Strasburg? Worried about giving him a full year? Don't blame you. It's scary. But even if Strasburg makes only fifteen starts (three times as many as last year), then he should triple his 1.1 fWAR, right? If he gets to twenty starts, then that's 4.4 fWAR based on his five starts last year. Twenty starts seems to be a realistic goal and expectation. That 4.4 fWAR would effectively replace his own fWAR last year along with Ross Detwiler's 0.6 WAR and Chien-Ming Wang's 0.2 WAR. Or, to put it another way, 4.4 WAR replaces 1.9 WAR from last year giving the Nationals up another 2.5 for a gained total so far of 5.8 wins. With everything else being equal, the Nationals are now theoretically up to 86 wins.

And yes, this is a simplistic way of looking at things as WAR doesn't go hand in hand with wins on a one to one basis, but we're just shooting the breeze here, right? Now say Jordan Zimmermann is as effective as last year but can increase his output to 200 innings. You can gain another half a win there. John Lannon is John Lannon and we can only expect him to be about as good as last year. Therefore, our grand increase in wins from the starting rotation is up 6.3 wins.

The problem from here is that the offense and the bullpen really can't make up the four win difference we need to push the Nationals to the 90 win total. Well, maybe it can if you think about it. Say Ryan Zimmerman can get 600 plate appearances instead of 440, that should add a win or two to our total. For the sake of being conservative, give him one more win. And let's say that Ian Desmond and Michael Morse can improve their defense by about half, which isn't unreasonable with Desmond's maturity rate and Morse becoming more proficient in the outfield (agreed, a stretch). That would be another win. 

Okay, now comes the stroke of genius. Let's give Jayson Werth the benefit of the doubt and call last year an off year. Werth was a five fWAR player for two straight seasons with the Phillies before last season which came in at a disappointing 2.5. All he has to do is get back to his Phillies-like performance and you pick up another two and a half wins. We're almost there!

It's not like this grand game is not without its pitfalls. Wilson Ramos became one of the better catchers in the game last season. He will need to keep improving. Michael Morse's fantastic slugging season last year will have to continue. Adam LaRoche will have to be better than the average Adam LaRoche. Roger Bernadina and Danny Espinosa will need to continue to improve.

The bullpen will have to be as good as it was last year and as good as it still looks on paper with Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Brad Lidge and Sean Burnett in the most important roles. The Nationals also have some depth. Chien-Ming Wang showed flashes of his old self last season. Tom Gorzelanny is capable in a pinch as is Detwiler. The Nationals also have some exciting talent waiting in the wings in case some of these pieces get broken.

There are concerns for this Nationals team. You have to wonder about Morse. You have to wonder if Ian Desmond can really be the shortstop the Nationals need. Can Werth bounce back? Can Zimmerman and Zimmermann stay healthy? These are all questions that will need to be answered once the season starts. But just imagine--if you can--these Washington Nationals performing as capable on the field as they appear to be on paper. If that happens, this NL East races can be a really wild race. It can happen and it just might. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch.

Yet Another New MLB Statistic

There are simply some records over at that are more fun to look at than others. Russell Branyan has one of those records. Russell the Muscle just signed a minor league contract with the New York Yankees. If Branyan manages to crack the Yankees' line up, it will be the eleventh franchise for which the slugger has played. So far, he has homered at least once in each of his stops. Branyan now has played parts of fourteen seasons. But his page is 25 lines long. That seemed like a lot. And so hours were culled on B-R to see how unique that figure is. This research has resulted in yet another new statistic called, "Baseball-reference Lines Per Years Played." Obviously, we need an acronym: BRLPYP.

And it turns out that Russell Branyan is not the record holder for BRLPYP. He is among the leaders but he doesn't come out on top. Our all time record holder for BRLPYP is Bobo Newsom. Newsom pitched for nine teams over his twenty year career from 1929 to 1953. A right-handed pitcher, Newsom won 211 games. But he lost 222. Even so, his career ERA+ was 107, so he was pretty good. Newsom's record is 38 lines long. From what research can tell during this journey, that is also a record. The longest B-R records were: Newsom (38), Deacon McGuire (35), Rickey Henderson (33) with David Weathers, Terry Mulholland and Hoyt Wilhelm all tied at 32. Newsom's 38 lines for 20 seasons gives him a BBLPYP of 1.9 even.

Second all time in BBLPYP is Willie Montenez at 1.857. Montenez played for parts of fourteen seasons for nine different teams between 1966 and 1982. He was originally signed by the Cardinals but they lost him in the Rule 5 draft to the Angels who gave him back to the Cardinals less than a year later. Montenez is also part of MLB history because he was the player the Cardinals sent to the Phillies when Curt Flood refused to be part of that deal. Thus began Flood's fight against Major League Baseball. Montenez was a useful hitter for a long time but never stayed in one place very long. Amazingly, he played for multiple teams in the same seasons on six different occasions. His B-R record is 26 lines long.

Branyan comes in third all time with a BBLPYP of 1.796. Following Branyan on our all time BBLPYP list are:
  • Bob Miller - 1.705 (29 lines for 17 seasons)
  • Ocavio Dotel - 1.692 (22 lines for thirteen seasons). Dotel will set a record if he plays for the Tigers this season as his thirteenth franchise.
  • David Weathers - 1.684 (32 lines for 19 seasons)
  • Chuck McElroy - 1.615 (21 lines for 13 seasons)
  • Terry Mulholland - 1.6 (32 lines for 20 seasons)
This new statistic is sure to rock the very foundation of the Sabr community.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

NL East: A Fascinating Place: Marlins

This is the third post in a series looking at the newly fascinating National League East Division. In the first two installments, the Phillies were given the top spot they deserve until some team dethrones them. They have been the king. The Braves finished a distant second last season with a fade at the end but were found to be capable of winning 95 games if everything goes according to plan. But that's a long shot. The truth is that they still look like an 89-win team. The early post season was dominated by the newly renamed, Miami Marlins. They have a new manager, a new ballpark, a new shortstop, new pitchers and a new outlook on life. Can this team that lost 90 games a year ago compete with the big boys this year? Let's take a look.

The Miami Marlins' quest for legitimacy rests largely on the starting rotation. Carlos Zambrano and Mark Buehrle should provide some stability to what has been a rotation in flux for multiple seasons. Of course, "stability," is kind of a relative term when mentioning Carlos Zambrano. But the thought here is that he will be fine working under Ozzie Guillen, his friend, and living large under the Florida sun. Buehrle, of course, is stability personified and about as consistent as a pitcher gets. He's not spectacular, but if you want quality innings by the boatloads, Buehrle will give you that.

Anibal Sanchez is also a stable force in that rotation. He had a weird season last year when he was among the best pitchers of the first half and then was nearly non-existent in the second half. But make no mistake about it, Sanchez is one tough pitcher with a great arsenal of pitches and loads of talent. He could very easily put together a big season under Ozzie.

The other two rotation spots are worrisome for different reasons. Josh Johnson has to be in the top five of pitchers in the National League with his talent. But he can't seem to stay healthy. If Johnson can get thirty starts, whoo boy, that would be interesting to watch. The guy can bring it. One of these years, he's going to stay healthy. If this is that season, the Marlins will be very tough indeed. 

The other is Ricky Nolasco. Every year, Nolasco's FIP is lower than his actual ERA and we all scratch our heads and wonder why he isn't better than he's shown. But he regressed last year and line drives whistled all over the place (23.8 percent) and his BABIP jumped to .331. Perhaps he'll settled down this season. All the Marlins really need is for him to be as good as he was in 2010 and 2011. They would take that kind of performance from their fifth starter in a heartbeat.

On paper, this rotation could put together a big season. But Zambrano has to prove he still has something in the tank, Nolasco needs to be better and Josh Johnson needs to stay healthy.

The Marlins' bullpen should be solid. The addition of Heath Bell slots Juan Carlos Oviedo into the number two spot where he should belong. Mike Dunn showed that he has a big arm and the rest of the bullpen is passable. Bell should make a huge difference. Man, San Diego and now Florida? Bell sure knows how to pick his paradises.

Catching those pitchers isn't a pretty aspect of this team. John Buck is one seriously overrated catcher. His only real positive is blocking balls in the dirt. His offense was a one year fluke up in Toronto and a whole bunch of nothing in most other years and he's terrible at obtaining strikes on close pitches with the way he receives the pitch. Backing him up is the equally ineptness of Brett Hayes. The catching position is a real weakness on this team.

The infield, on the other hand, could be a real strength. Omar Infante is terrific defensively at second base, but slipped pretty dramatically at the plate last season. Projections predict him to bounce back in 2012. That's important and would certainly help. With Buehrle, his defense should really come in handy.

Jose Reyes, of course, was the biggest acquisition of the off season and will be the shortstop. Reyes, when healthy, is one of the premier all-around shortstops in baseball. His energy also lifts a baseball team, something the Mets will surely miss. Naturally, his health will always be a concern. He has to stay healthy to make this deal work and to bring the Marlins to the next level. Perhaps the warm weather in Florida will help him to keep those muscles loose.

Gaby Sanchez is a great defender at first. But he isn't a slugger. He's more of a contact hitter, which makes him somewhat of an anomaly at the position. The good news is that with the Fielder and Pujols defections to the other league, power hitting first basemen will be rarer in the National League. That bodes well for the Marlins. Sanchez is steady and productive if not spectacular.

That brings us to the enigma of Hanley Ramirez. The erstwhile star will move to third, which is good news for the Marlins defensively. The feeling here is that Ramirez will respond to Ozzie Guillen and will rebound offensively. The prediction here is that in 2012, Hanley Ramirez will reestablish himself as a premier batsman in the National League. If he can do that, look out National League!

The Marlins outfield is a bit of a puzzle. We baseball experts made fun of Emilio Bonifacio for years until he shut us all up with a 3.3 fWAR season last year with surprising defense in center with a .360 on-base percentage. Is he really that good? Time will tell. It's still hard to believe. But for now, he's not the butt of our jokes anymore.

Logan Morrison is still a first baseman playing the outfield. He's terrible out there. And his offense took a dive in 2011 as well. The guy has all kinds of talent though and should rebound offensively. Whether he can improve his defense is another whole kettle of fish. It would be great if LoMo could be better known for his play again then his tweets on Twitter.

Everybody loves Mike Stanton and the big kid has proved more than adequate in right field. He also busted out with 34 homers while adding 30 doubles last season. His upside is tremendous and we all look forward to what he can achieve in baseball. In order for him to reach his potential though, his pitch recognition needs to improve greatly and he needs to make more contact. Take that power and add twenty points to his batting average and you have the bomb.

The Marlins' bench is a weakness and the Marlins lack depth. If anyone gets hurt, the team could have trouble. If things don't go well physically, this team could easily fall to a .500 level. But if they stay healthy? If the Marlins push all the right buttons and everyone plays to their ability level, this team could get scary and challenge the existing powers in the division. And hey, it will be fun to see that home run feature going off in center field!

BBA Linkfest - General Anticipation

The members of the General Chapter of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance are getting excited now that pitchers and catchers report to their spring assignments in less than two weeks. Great posts are blossoming everywhere. But then again, if you have been following this weekly links post every Thursday, you know that great posts are the norm around the chapter. As we do each week at this time, here are this week's General Chapter links. Please give a click and your comments are always appreciated.

We'll start this week with a link from Going Yard and the provocative title of, "Why I Hate ESPN." That's enough of a teaser for you to click the link.

Sadly, The Golden Sombrero's, Dee Clark, finished his amazing series on the top fifty prospects. But hey, one series ends and Mike Rosenbaum begins another with a preview of the baseball draft. The first of the series introduces us to Joey Gallo, the fine wine of prospects?

Grubby Glove has a proposal for its BBA buds. This Fan thinks we should support it. Also check out a wonderful post on what a baseball fan did on Super Bowl Sunday.

You can probably guess which athlete Forbes Magazine selected as its most hated player in baseball. Just in case you guessed wrong, The Hall of Very Good has the answer.

Theo of at Hot Corner Harbor plays a game of, "Name that Molina." How fun is that!? Must read in spades.

Our friend over at Left Field gives us the newest market inefficiency. Bet you can't guess what it is.

If you haven't been following along on Jonathan Mitchell's top prospects series, you are seriously missing out. This week's version is on the top prospects in the Twins' organization. MLB Dirt.

Sam Evans over at MLB Reports has an interesting idea for MLB about its roster size.

Over at Niktig's Baseball Blog, its author makes some bold 2012 predictions. Time will tell!

Old Time Family Baseball remembers when Nick Johnson was hungry. His hunger turned into a problem. Read on.

Sadly, this will be the last link here for Mark Smith over at The Platoon Advantage as he was hired by the Atlanta Braves. But how cool is that!? Good for you, Mark. In the meantime, TPA picked up another great writer in Cee Angi. Great choice!

Since we've already mentioned ESPN and since the Super Bowl is still in our memory back (alas), J-Doug over at Rational Pastime takes an analytical look at ESPN's Super Bowl picks.

The Replacement Level Baseball Blog has a great series going on looking at each division heading into 2012. You should read all of them. But the latest is on the AL West.

Over at The Sports Banter, one writer's head is still spinning at the David Wright rumors. Rightly so.

The usually effervescent Sully over at Sully Baseball has a more sobering moment this week with a tribute to Danny Clyburn, who was sadly killed this week. A fitting tribute. 

Danny Zyskind of Through the Fence Baseball reminds us of a forgotten prospect--a guy whose name was on a lot of people's lips just a few years ago.

Russ Blatt has started a fun series over at 85% Sports on how baseball teams got their names. He starts with the AL East. Fun stuff!

Ryan Sendek of Analysis Around the Horn has given you fantasy baseball fans the ultimate tool for your drafts! You have to check this out.

Sooze over at Babes Love Baseball is doing her favorite thing: Baseball Season Previews. But Sooze does them in Haiku! Can guarantee you that nobody else comes close to matching that!

The writer of The Ball Caps Blog has a really lame television set. He ain't kidding either. Highly entertaining stuff.

Baseball Unrated's weekly column feature this week bounces off a Danny Knobler piece on steroid users and the Hall of Fame.

Kyle Davis of Call to the Pen spotted a couple of big stars in full uniform.

Mario Salvini of Che Palle! wants you to buy a lock of Jose Reyes' hair. It is for a good cause, but eww.

Matt Whitener of Cheap.Seats.Please. announces his top five moments in Cardinal history from a fan's perspective. 

In exciting news, Crum-Bum Beat has found Derek Holland's missing mustache!

TheNaturalMevs of Diamond Hoggers fame forgives Josh Hamilton. Agree with every sentiment here.

The Baseball Index has some American League post season predictions for 2012. Agree? Disagree? Check it out.

Matt Melton of Pop Fly Boys ponders on how the Cardinals can replace Albert Pujols. 

Have a great week everyone!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

NL East: A Fascinating Place: Braves

Yesterday began a new series on the National League East, a division that has dramatically evolved during the off season. The series began, of course, with the Phillies. The Phillies are still the top dog until some team rises and knocks them off their perch. Could that team be the Atlanta Braves? Not if it is last year's Braves who never looked as good as the Phillies. And certainly not the September Braves who had as bad a fall as the Red Sox and lost was looked earlier to be an insurmountable wild card lead. As we look at the 2012 Braves, the first question is if this team is better than 89 wins.

Why 89 wins? Because last year, 89 wins wasn't good enough for the playoffs and it won't be enough again this coming season. The Phillies should win 90 at the very least. So the Braves need to be better in 2012 than they were in 2011. Is there any hope that they can be better? Yes and no. Yes because so many of their players had down seasons in 2011 and no because there are a lot of "ifs" on this team. Of the early projections consulted for this piece, 89 wins was this team's projection. Uh oh.

The easiest place to start are with the "Ifs." The biggest "if" of the 2012 season is the health of three-fifths of the Braves' starting rotation. Tim Hudson is coming off back surgery (November) to repair a herniated disc. Tommy Hanson missed most of the second half with persistent pain in his shoulder. A small hole was found but surgery was not deemed necessary. Hanson says he is fine and ready for Spring Training. Lastly, Jair Jurrjens missed much of the second half with knee problems. Jurrjens and Hanson had a big first half of the season in 2011 only to be unavailable much of the rest of the season. IF the best case scenario results and all three can pitch with good health for most of the season, then the Braves will be in good shape depending on some other "ifs." Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor should be solid in the back end of the rotation.

What does Chipper Jones have left? Jones played 126 games last season and managed 512 plate appearances. That was more than expected considering his age and the condition of his knees. The problem is that the Braves are in the National League and Jones has to play the field to play at all. Chipper Jones wasn't a great third baseman in his prime and he certainly is a liability in the field now. Even so, if the Braves can get the same production from this future Hall of Fame player as he was in 2011, the value proposition still works. Martin Prado can come in from left field to replace Jones if Jones' health falters. But the Braves need Chipper to have one more good season.

Can Tyler Pasternicky (proposing "Reverend Nick" for a nickname) make the jump to Major League Baseball? The kid is only 21 but is projected to be the Braves' starting shortstop. The good news is that he can't be much worse than Alex Gonzalez was last year for the Braves. The Braves carried Gonzalez to the tune of a .270 on-base percentage last year and his defense declined. If Pasternicky can come close to a .300 on-base percentage and play solid defense, he will be an improvement. Scouting reports blunt some of the enthusiasm of Pasternicky as a prospect. So we'll have to see how this works out. If Pasternicky can't cut it, the Braves have a backup plan in Jack Wilson. Wilson is still a good shortstop but can't hit much better than Gonzalez.

The last "if" is whether the bullpen can stay fabulous after a year of overuse and IF manager, Fredi Gonzalez, can be compelled to go to that well less often. When your bullpen is that good, it's tough to resist the temptation. A projected bullpen of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Kris Medlen, Arodys Viscaino, Anthony Varvaro and Christhian Martinez are a collective weapon in what has to be the best bullpen in baseball.

The good news is that Martin Prado, Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward all had offensive seasons below expectations last year. Uggla has had bad years before and always bounced back with a good one. He seems to be on the "every-other-year" plan of offensive efficiency. This, then, should be the good year. But even his "off" year was good enough for second place on the team in fWAR (among position players). Uggla's defense will always be a liability. It's been said in this space before: Switching Uggla to left and bringing Prado back to the infield is the thing to do. But that will never happen.

Speaking of Martin Prado, he also had an off year offensively. After being a .300+/.350+/.450+ guy for the Braves the previous three seasons, Prado sank to .260/.302/.385 last season. A .266 BABIP certainly didn't help and that gives hope that Prado should bounce back to his career norms. If he can, that would be a two win swing for the Braves.

Jason Heyward is saying all the right things this off season. He is working hard and has a positive outlook. He'll need it. Heyward was so good in 2010 and so bad in 2011 that it is really difficult to know which player will show up in 2012. The kid just seems to have too much ability not to bounce back. But it is a huge concern. Heyward lost his manager's confidence last season and when he did play, was placed at the back end of the batting order. If Heyward is not hitting in the middle of the line up and making things happen, the Braves have less of a chance than otherwise.

Looking around the rest of the team, the Braves are led by Brian McCann, one of the most under-appreciated players of his age. You can count on McCann to have another solid season and he is backed up quite capably behind the plate by David Ross.

Freddie Freeman should be able to build on a great rookie season and if he can improve his defense, will be a fixture at first base for quite some time. Expect even better power numbers this season and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Freeman can slug over .500 this coming season.

Michael Bourn faltered a bit for the Braves down the stretch and for a fast guy, he should be more patient at the plate. But he's the best center fielder the Braves have had in years and the Braves can only benefit by having Bourn the entire season. 

After considering this team the last couple of hours, the conclusion is that if everything goes right, this could be a 95 win team. Good seasons from Uggla, Heyward and Prado could be worth four or five wins. Even if the rotation has some health issues, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran are waiting in the wings for their chance. Pasternicky or Wilson shouldn't hurt them and should provide good defense in what is a sub-par defensive infield. The Braves have a terrific defensive outfield, a strong bullpen and a top five catching core. A lot has to go right for them to win 95 games. But if it does, 2012 will be mighty interesting in Atlanta.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

NL East: A Fascinating Place: Phillies

The East division of the National League is starting to look a lot like the American League version. There are the obvious contenders, the interesting teams who have greatly improved themselves and one really bad club. And with an extra wild card spot now up for grabs, the division will prove even more interesting. The Miami Marlins have a new stadium, a new manager and new fire power. The Nationals have put a great rotation (on paper) together and have Bryce Harper looming. The Phillies have been perennial division winners and the Braves still have a very good team. 2012 could be a fascinating season. In the next few days, we'll look at each team in the division starting today with the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Phillies still have three of the best starting pitchers on the planet in Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. The trio's strikeout to walk ratio alone makes them breathtaking to behold. Barring injury, three out of five games, the Phillies will be pretty hard to beat. Vance Worley proved to be capable of replacing the now departed, Roy Oswalt. Joe Blanton and Joel Pineiro will battle for the fifth rotation spot with Blanton already under contract and therefore given the edge. There's little doubt that Worley will regress a bit. But his strikeout rate and other peripherals were very good and make a large regression doubtful. If Blanton comes back with a strong season, the Phillies will be hard to catch.

The Phillies bullpen now sports one of the game's best closers in Jonathan Papelbon. Love the guy or hate him, he's been terrific over the years. Antonio Bastardo can be a dastardly number two, especially if he can lower his walk rate just a bit. Bastardo was nasty last season with only a .179 batting average on balls in play to go along with his 10.86 strikeouts per nine innings. The rest of the bullpen is not inspiring. The team has added Dontrelle Willis and Chad Qualls to go along with the promising Michael Stutes and the versatile (if not overpowering) Kyle Kendrick. The aged Jose Contreras may start the season on the disabled list.

The bullpen depth shouldn't be that much of a concern with the Phillies' rotation. The top three will give you six to eight innings every start.

The Phillies' offense is a bit of a concern. After scoring 5.06 runs per game in 2009, that figure fell to 4.77 in 2010 and fell again to 4.40 runs per game in 2011. The season will already begin with slugger, Ryan Howard, on the disabled list and despite reports that he is healing well, an Achilles tendon injury is not an easy one to recover from. Either Ty Wigginton or John Mayberry Jr. will play first until Howard returns. Both are solid batsmen so there shouldn't be a large gap in production there.

Both Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have slipped offensively since their peaks a few years ago. Both are still terrific defensively and if at least one of them can flip a switch back in time to regain some of that lost production, it would be helpful to the Phillies' cause. Both will be 33 in 2012 and you can't expect the players they were in their prime. But both are capable of better seasons than we saw in 2011.

Placido Polanca remains anca-ed at third. Sorry. Just felt silly for a moment. Anyway, Polanca is 36 years old and while he remains an elite fielding third baseman, he hasn't been the same offensive force he was back in 2007. Plus, the injury bug has plagued him in recent seasons.

All in all, the Phillies have a tight and wonderful defensive infield with some offensive question marks. The Phillies do have to figure out who can back up the starters since they traded Wilson Valdez.

Two-thirds of the outfield is set with Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. Victorino is among the five best center fielders in the game and Pence was a fabulous pick up last season. Left field candidates include Laynce Nix, Mayberry and perennial prospect, Domonic Brown. If Mayberry doesn't start the season at first, he probably has the edge and was surprisingly good on defense in left last season. And it's hard not to like his bat.

Carlos Ruiz has become a leader from his catching position and he backed up a terrific 2010 season with a solid one in 2011. He should be a fixture behind the plate for the Phillies for years to come. Brian Schneider had a dismal season in 2011 as Ruiz's backup. But the backup catching position is probably still his to lose.

After going through the team in this exercise, it seems like the Phillies have few question marks other than age, Howard's return, left field and a backup infielder and catcher. With their rotation and experience, the team seems like a lock to win at least 90 games. You have to favor them to hold on to the division for at least another season. But as we shall see in the next couple of articles on this division, the road won't be as easy as it has been.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Cliff Lee and Fastball Velocity

Cliff Lee certainly was worth his newly-earned free agent salary last season for the Philadelphia Phillies. Lee kept his end of the bargain for the "dream" rotation that nearly overcame some of his team's offensive deficiencies but fell short of their World Series goal. Lee and Halladay in particular have become as automatic a value package as you can find anywhere. According to Fangraphs, Lee's fWAR the last four seasons: 7.2, 6.6, 7.2 and 6.7. And while he makes his rotation start like clockwork year after year, the one fact that is still a head scratcher is his velocity.

Cliff Lee pitched into his tenth season last year during his thirty-second year on earth. And despite all the wear and tear a pitcher's arm endures, especially since Lee has not missed many starts since 2007, Lee's fastball velocity continues to rise year after year. Starting in 2007, Lee's velocity (according to Pitch/FX) has had the following progression: 2007 - 89, 2008 - 90.5, 2009 - 91.1, 2010 - 91.3 and 2011 - 91.5. How is that possible? Doesn't that seem to defy logic? Along with his fastball velocity, he has had a similar rise in velocity in his cutter as well.

To think this through logically, there are two ways to improve velocity: conditioning and mechanics. Today's baseball players are highly conditioned machines. They no longer have off seasons and condition themselves year round. So Lee must be very good at keeping himself in tip-top shape. After all, the guy looks like a terrific athlete. If you compare him to say, Mark Buehrle, a pitcher who throws with the same left arm and is about the same age, Lee appears on the face of it to be better conditioned. Perhaps that is some part of Lee's constant increase while Buehrle has lost velocity.

But that comparison isn't fair to Buehrle. Who knows how hard the new Marlins' pitcher conditions himself? Heck, he might work just as hard as Cliff Lee. As sophisticated as today's conditioning knowledge has become, you have to assume that most pitchers work just as hard. So there has to be another answer. And yes, that answer has to be mechanics. 

Let's take a quick look at Cliff Lee's Pitch/FX release points. We'll start with his horizontal release point over the years thanks to Brooks Baseball:

Now his vertical release point:

It seems very apparent from looking at those two maps that Cliff Lee has continually tightened his mechanics from year to year. In 2008, there was quite a bit of variation, particularly in the horizontal release point. In 2009, there was much more play in his vertical release point. But look how tight everything is in 2011! Just to have a frame of reference, we'll use Mark Buehrle again. What follows are Buehrle's release point maps. First the horizontal.

And now Buehrle's horizontal release point map:

Mark Buehrle's release point isn't nearly as clean as Cliff Lee's. Lee has seemed to clean up his mechanics from year to year and that has to account for a crisper fastball. And Lee's mechanics not only aid his velocity. Pitch/FX also shows that Lee has more vertical and horizontal movement on all of his pitches now than he had before. 

Cliff Lee is simply an artist that has fine tuned his craft year after year until he can virtually repeat his delivery for optimum speed and spin. That's a beautiful thing for the Phillies and not so pretty a picture for teams that have to face him.