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Series Preview #8: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Philadelphia Phillies

After a 2-4 road trip that culminated with the team getting swept by the worst team in the NL East, the Diamondbacks will now try their hands at beating the best, the Philadelphia Phillies.  This is convenient, since the offense spent the weekend making the likes of Mike Pelfrey, Dillion Gee and Jon Niese look like, well, the Phillies rotation. In case you've been living under a rock (albeit a rock that happens to have enough of an Internet connection that you're able to read this), these Phillies that are coming to town have a somewhat talented rotation.  Talented enough that some people have called it "the best rotation ever assembled" before the 2011 season even began. So let's take a closer look at it. With four dominant ace pitchers in Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt, the Phillies have a veritable Mount Rushmore of starting pitchers.  And since I'm a history nerd, let's reduce this metaphor to absurdity.

(all historical facts courtesy of wikipedia)

  • Cole Hamels is the George Washington of the group.  He is the founding father of the rotation, leading his nation (the Phillies rotation, in this metaphor) through the dark days of the American Revolution (the 2006 Phillies) to become the power that it would eventually become.  Just like Washington, who established important precedents for the presidency such as the use of a presidential cabinet and the presentation of an inaugural address, Hamels established the precedents of "throwing strikes" and "generally not pitching like Adam Eaton" for all ensuing members of the rotation.
  • Cliff Lee is rotation's resident Thomas Jefferson.  Just as Jefferson's election as president signaled the end of Federalism as the dominant political party, Cliff Lee's arrival in mid-2009 signaled the end of Brett Myers in the rotation, a development which was met with almost as much joy.  Just like Washington and Jefferson, Lee and Hamels had their disagreements (most notably over "pitching well:" Hamels only had an ERA+ of 97 that year), but were able to work together (Jefferson was a member of Washington's cabinet) to take the team to new heights.  Regrettably, though Cliff Lee pitched well that year, he never doubled the size of the United States
  • Roy Halladay is the Abraham Lincoln of rotation, given his adaptability.  During a period of great crisis (the Phillies traded away Cliff Lee, OH NOES), Halladay stepped in to restore order, just as Honest Abe would have done had he possessed a mid-90s fastball.  Just like Lincoln, who waited until the most politically opportune moment to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, Halladay's great strength is his flexibility, as he possesses four different pitches that can generate swings and misses.  Also, he makes opposing lineups want to secede whenever they face him.
  • Last but not least, Roy Oswalt is the Teddy Roosevelt of the group, simply for the impression he made when he burst onto the scene.  Like Roosevelt's presidency, which began after William McKinley was assassinated, Oswalt's time with the Phillies started abruptly, as he was traded from the Astros in mid-2010.  But he made up for lost time by producing a 1.88 ERA.  Throughout his career, Oswalt has been known for being stubborn and a quick worker, the same qualities that led Roosevelt to be a "trustbuster" to prominent American corporations.  Sadly, Oswalt's lifetime BA is .155, indicating that while he might speak softly, he doesn't carry that big of a stick.

(For anyone wondering, Joe Blanton has pitched ok for about a month, making him the William Henry Harrison of the Phillies' rotation.)

Actual baseball (!) analysis after the jump.

What the Stats Say:

                              Arizona (8-12)                                Philadelphia (15-6)                                    Edge

Hitting (wRC+):    99                                                       90                                                        Arizona

Pitching (FIP):     4.48                                                    2.90                                                  Philadelphia

Fielding* (UZR):   -2.8                                                    -2.0                                                   Philadelphia

Saying that Philadelphia has the "edge" in the pitching department is sort of like suggesting that a starving wildebeest might have an "edge" over me in a competition of who can eat the most grass.  It doesn't really do it justice.  As you can see, the Phillies' lineup, somewhat overlooked in light of the supercharged rotation, has started the season a bit slowly.  This makes sense, considering that they lost RF Jayson Werth, an important offensive weapon, to free agency and have been without the star 2B Chase Utley all season due to injury.  The loss of Utley has been especially painful, as teams tend to miss players who have accumulated 44.3 WAR over their career.

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

Willie Bloomquist, LF
Kelly Johnson, 2B
Justin Upton, RF
Stephen Drew, SS
Chris Young, CF
Russell Branyan, 1B
Miguel Montero, C
Ryan Roberts, 3B

Philadelphia Phillies

Shane Victorino, CF
Placido Polanco, 3B
Jimmy Rollins, SS
Ryan Howard, 1B
Ben Francisco, RF
Raul Ibanez, LF
Carlos Ruiz, C
Wilson Valdez, 2B

The Phillies lineup has some stars in it, but is less imposing than usual due to injuries.  I mentioned Utley's injury above, and he is replaced in the lineup by journeyman Wilson Valdez, who has a career OPS of .616.  Additionally, 2010 rookie Dominic Brown was the likely starter in RF before he was placed on the DL with a wrist injury during spring training.  Placido Polanco has been the offensive star for the Phillies in the early going, with an OPS+ of 148.  However, given that he is 35, and his career high OPS+ is 121, this seems unlikely to continue.  Ryan Howard is a notoriously slow starter (.798 career OPS in March/April, his only month below .900), but that hasn't been a problem this year as he has an OPS+ 120.  Jimmy Rollins is a pretty good shortstop, which wouldn't be all that annoying except that ESPN tries to promote him as an elite shortstop who is one of the stars of the Phillies' lineup.  He had one very good season (6.1 WAR and an NL MVP to boot) in 2007, which he's made a ton of bank off of despite never having another season of even 5 WAR. 

Pitching Matchups:

Monday: Cliff Lee (2-1, 3.91) vs. Ian Kennedy (2-1, 5.64)

Insightful Commentary: Everyone should just take some time out of their day to appreciate how amazing Cliff Lee's 2010 was.  You know how many batters he walked in 2010, the whole season? 18.  That's a rough couple of outings for Esmerling Vasquez.  He also struck out over 10 times that number last season (185).  And this doesn't even take the playoffs into account, where he's made a name for himself as one of the best big game pitchers in baseball.  Yeah, I have a schoolgirl crush on Cliff Lee.  On the good guys' side, Ian Kennedy has actually pitched pretty well, with one big exception.  If you take subtract the Cardinal game, his ERA on the season is a sterling 2.33.  Kennedy is more suceptable than most pitchers to loss of control, since he doesn't have the velocity to get away with not having control. As such, he will have the occasional game where he allows a crooked number because he leaves the ball out over, but his year and change with the Diamondbacks indicate that that is not the norm.  More often than not, Good Ian shows up, which is grand, since the team desperately needs Good Ian right about now.

Tuesday: Roy Oswalt (3.0, 1.88) vs. Daniel Hudson (0-4, 5.92)

Insightful Commentary: Hudson's struggles in the first inning have been well-documented.  At this point, it's changing rapidly from "early season coincidence" to "actual problem."  If it is more than just a coincidence, then I have literally no idea what might be causing it, other than simply nerves.  Additionally, his walks are up this year, never a good sign for a young pitcher.  His other peripherals seem to be fine though, so we shouldn't be worried about him just yet.  Oswalt is a known quantity at this point in his career: he throws plenty of strikes, mostly on his low-90s fastball, and keeps the ball in the ballpark.  He's not all that flashy, but he's been getting the job done for a while now. 

Wednesday: Cole Hamels (2-1, 2.92) vs. Joe Saunders (0-2, 4.98)

Insightful Commentary: Joe Saunders had a solid start against the Mets, going 6 innings and allowing only 1 run.  It was his best start of the season, and hopefully it's a stepping stone toward reversing what has been a very rough first month.  His K/BB ratio is less than 1, which is never a good sign for a major league pitcher, and his LD% is sky-high at 25.4%.  Meanwhile, Hamels is coming off a masterful start against the Padres where he went 8 innings and allowed no runs.  He's striking out plenty of batters and has yet to allow a HR this season in four starts.  So that's not promising.

Final Verdict: Maybe these D-Backs have an issue with playing up or down to the talent level of the other team.  Or, I don't know, maybe they're just not all that good.  But whatever the reason, the sweep by the Mets doesn't leave me feeling all that confident in this team.  The D-Backs have actually hit solid pitchers somewhat better than they've hit "fringe" starters this season, and they'll certainly see some solid pitchers in this series.  Regardless, the Diamondbacks' own pitching will make or break this series, and given how that's gone so far this season, I'll go with "break."  Phillies two to one. 

Go see what Phillies fans are saying over at The Good Phight.


Current Series

3 game series vs Phillies @ Chase Field

Philadelphia Phillies
@ Arizona Diamondbacks

Monday, Apr 25, 2011, 9:40 PM EDT
Chase Field

Cliff Lee vs Ian Kennedy

Clear. Winds blowing out to right field at 10-15 m.p.h. Game time temperature around 85.

Complete Coverage >

Tue 04/26 9:40 PM EDT
Wed 04/27 3:40 PM EDT

(All pitching data from Fangraphs, all batting data from Baseball-Reference)