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Series Preview #35: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Philadelphia Phillies

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Yeah, no, just drop this guy off in San Francisco in the middle of a pennant race.  We won't mind at all...
Yeah, no, just drop this guy off in San Francisco in the middle of a pennant race. We won't mind at all...

I was all set to reimagine the late-aughts Phillies as the main character of a Shakespearian tragedy. Their 2008 World Series victory was the opening act, establishing the Phillies as the sort of heroic protagonist that all great tragedies require. Thanks to their strong core of young talent, their rabid fanbase, and the large market that they play in, the Phillies were then presented with the chance to become a dynasty.

However, Hubris (their Tragic Flaw) overcame them as they spent more and more uncontrollably each year, only to fall short of another World Series victory time and time again. The play would end with just before this year's trade deadline, with Ruben Amaro Jr. trying to trade a bag of Big League Chew for Zack Greinke, just so he could flip Greinke for Felix Hernandez straight-up. Amaro would then burst into tears.

But then the trade deadline actually happened, the Phillies met their inevitable demise in a way that was actively harmful to the Diamondbacks, and the whole thing became a lot less funny to me. Like a failed nation state, the Phillies unloaded their most destructive weapons to hostile forces that happen to play in the division. So of course, NL West race looks considerably different now with Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence playing roles previously held by Tony Gwynn Jr. and Gregor Blanco, respectively. So yeah, I'm not thrilled with them for that. Enjoy the collection of relievers, fourth outfielders and C+ prospects you got in return, Phillies. I hope Tommy Joseph hits a baseball into a literal light tower, and y'all have to pay for the damage.


What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):

Hitting (wRC+): 98 93
Pitching (FIP-):
93 96
Fielding (UZR):
20.0 -1.5

Last year, the Phillies won 102 games on the strength of a slightly above-average offense and one of the best pitching staffs in anyone's memory. That they're on pace to win 73 games this year should tell you that this has not been the case in 2012. With Howard and Utley out for the beginning of the year, getting enough offense was always going to be an uphill battle, and a lack of production from Rollins and Victorino probably sealed their fate.

The drop-off in pitching has been even more bizarre. We probably could have predicted that they wouldn't get the same production they had last season, where literally no one with an ERA+ below 100 pitched a consequential inning for the Phillies after June, but to see them sitting right around average (their team ERA of 4.12 is good for the 18th in baseball) is somewhat shocking. Injuries have done their worst, simple regression has taken its toll, and as a result, the "best rotation in baseball" has been anything but in 2012.

Starting Lineups

Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Gerardo Parra, CF
2. Aaron Hill, 2B
3. Jason Kubel, LF
4. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
5. Justin Upton, RF
6. Miguel Montero, C
7. Stephen Drew, SS
8. Chris Johnson, 3B

Philadelphia Phillies

1. Jimmy Rollins, SS
2. Nate Schierholtz, RF
3. Chase Utley, 2B
4. Ryan Howard, 1B
5. Carlos Ruiz, C
6. Domonic Brown, LF
7. John Mayberry, CF
8. Kevin Frandsen, 3B

  • Since his MVP season in 2007, Jimmy Rollins has an OPS+ of 95 in almost 2,900 PAs. Now, this is by no means awful for a shortstop, but still, it's Jimmy Rollins. He's persistently hyped as one of the best players on the Phillies despite being little more than a pretty decent shortstop. Hate on Derek Jeter all you want, but at least he had the decency to actually be one of the best players in baseball in his prime.
  • Carlos Ruiz had skulked around behind the plate for five seasons with an OPS+ of 98, attracting as little attention as possible before this year. And then in 2012, he's just gone insane. .340/.404/.566, and he's tied with Robinson Cano for fifth in MLB with 5.0 fWAR. Not many catchers can maintain a BABIP of .357, but even still. Phillie phans have to be phurious: why did he have to have his absurd career year during the one season the team isn't competing?
  • 5 years/$125 million for Ryan Howard was always going to look absurd at some point. But "at some point" has arrived rather earlier than most people expected.
  • Snark from the beginning of this article, Nate Schierholtz has a chance to be a solid piece for the Phillies going forward. I always thought he was a bit underutilized in San Fran, as a decent outfielder with a bit of pop on a team that has recently lacked outfielders with pop. He should get a fair shake in Philly. If nothing else, he moves the team one step closer to reassembling the 2007 Giants' bench, as they already have Kevin Frandsen in the fold. Expect Fred Lewis to make an appearance sooner rather than later.

Pitching Matchups:

Friday: Ian Kennedy (9-8, 4.20) vs. Joe Blanton (8-9, 4.59)

Insightful Commentary: Don't look now, but Ian is 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA in his last three starts, with a 23:1 K:BB ratio to boot. This tends to be good news, because I would argue that, with the possible exception of Upton there is no one on this team who is as important to a late season push as Ian Kennedy.

I wonder if some small part of Joe Blanton is secretly really happy that the Phillies' pitching has struggled this year. I mean, last year he was the fifth man in a rotation with four aces, which has got to be sort of awkward for everyone. And his ERA of over 5 looks a lot more noticeable when everyone around him is competing for a Cy Young Award. But this year, he looks a lot better by comparison despite being essentially the same pitcher. And even if he's still the last guy in the rotation, no one's paying much attention. He's not the reason this season has gone haywire, he's just Joe Blanton. Same as he ever was.

Saturday: Joe Saunders (5-7, 3.62) vs. Roy Halladay (4-6, 4.33)

Insightful Commentary: It's August, and Joe Saunders has a lower ERA than Roy Halladay. Feel free to parse that last sentence, taking note of the flow, the diction, the cadence of the words as spoken by your mental monologue. Still doesn't make any sense? Nope, doesn't to me, either, because it's completely insane. Roy Halladay has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since about 2005, and probably he had his best season last year.

This year though? Sure, injuries kept him out for a month and a half in the middle of the season, but even accounting for that, he hasn't really looked like Roy Halladay very often this year. His velocity is down (probably due to the shoulder injury), and his strikeout rate along with it. Add an uptick in home runs, and you start seeing how even Roy Halladay can post an ERA of 4.3. His FIP is still comfortably below 4, and I'd be surprised if this is the end of his dominance going forward, but it's still a strange sight.

Sunday: Trevor Cahill (9-9, 3.75) vs. Cliff Lee (2-6, 3.73)

Insightful Commentary: I'm not going to lie: I started drafting this section in my head after the first two Dodgers reached to begin his last start. His ERA was going to jump above 4, and I would finally have to acknowledge that the trade may have been a mistake. Six innings of one-run ball later, I'm not convinced of anything other than that Trevor Cahill is just maddening to watch. Starts like this remind you of how easily he can simply control an opposing lineup when his sinker works, and he doesn't even need good peripherals to do it. But at the very least, he postponed the whiny 'SHOULD OF KEPT JARED PARKERRRR" speech that I've done my best to suppress for at least a couple more starts.

The "Cliff Lee is having an awful season cause he doesn't have WINZ" meme has been one of the worst things about the 2012 season, particularly because I have the unpleasant feeling the media isn't actually joking. There is a kernel of truth to it, however, as he is pretty clearly having his worst season since 2007. He hasn't been completely injury-free this season, but glancing at his numbers suggest that he's been unlucky as much as anything. His BABIP is higher than usual, and his HR/FB is the highest it has ever been. He's still Cliff Lee, who is perhaps my favorite pitcher to watch when he's right, but like Halladay, the production just hasn't been there this year.

Final Verdict: Seeing the Phillies as a doormat still doesn't come completely naturally to me, since they've made the playoffs for the past five years and all. And that's probably for the best, since this team still has some very good players, and probably washed some of the disappointment from this season off by cleaning house at the trade deadline. The Diamondbacks are playing as well as they have all season, but we've been burned by them enough to be wary. I'll say Phillies two games to one, and if it doesn't happen, I'll chalk it up to residual overrating of the former division champs.

Head over to The Good Phight if you want to phratronize with Phillie phans.

(Stats via Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs)