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Know Your Enemy

Posted on October 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM
Filed Under: Baseball Bloggers Alliance | Philadelphia Phillies | St. Louis Cardinals
I will have more to say about Game 1 of the NLDS either tomorrow or Monday, but for right now I want to bring you a chance to learn about the Phillies from a person that follows them.  Max of Fire Eric Bruntlett is the Membership Secretary of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and a diehard fan of the Philadelphia persuasion.  He and I exchanged some questions before the series started.  You can see my responses to his over here (along with our old friend Bill Ivie), while his answers to mine are below.

C70: What's the pulse of the Philadelphia fanbase? Are they expecting a walkover? 

FEB: Some of the fan base seems like they would be disappointed by anything less than a sweep. However, I think that's too arrogant. Obviously, the Cardinals are the biggest underdogs in these series, but they're not the 2010 Cincinnati Reds that the Phillies swept last year. The Cardinals offense is more balanced, and the Reds didn't have a Chris Carpenter-type starter who could at least salvage one game with a shutdown performance. Not to mention, expecting a sweep leaves no room for error, only room for disappointment. Better to expect to lose a game and be pleasantly surprised than expect a sweep and be disappointed. 

C70: Is there any one player that worries you more than the rest of the Cardinal team? 

FEB: Aside from the obvious Albert Pujols-Matt Holliday-Lance Berkman fearsome trio, that Yadier Molina has put up the best offensive numbers of his career does worry me, especially considering last year's sharp decline. He was the NL's starting catcher last year, despite a truly abysmal .223/.301/.294 slash line, but the difference between his second half of the season and that first half was a very impressive .092/.067/.111. Still though, I figured it was merely regression to the mean and his awful first half was evened out by an over-his-head second half. However, this season, Molina put up numbers on par with those from the All-Star break on last year and set career highs in nearly every offensive category. He's already an above-average catcher defensively, and only helped to further the separation between him and Carlos Ruiz with his offense. 

C70: Do you put any stock into the series from mid-September, when the Cards won three of four in Citizens Bank Park? 

FEB: Offensively, no, I don't. The second game, when the Phillies won and clinched the NL East division, was the only of the four in which they had their full starting line-up, the same one that will be used in this series. Game 1 had first baseman Ryan Howard and left fielder Raul Ibanez out. Game 3, when I believe the team to have started putting on the cruise control, also the first game of their 8-game losing streak, gave Howard and catcher Ruiz the night off, and Howard also sat out Game 4. 

What I do put stock in is the starting pitching. Game 2 featured Roy Oswalt continuing to make great progress from a long injury that kept him out into August. 5 hits and 7 strikeouts through 7 innings was instrumental in reminding Phillies fans both why he was acquired in July 2010 and why he is the clear choice for fourth starter over rookie Vance Worley. Meanwhile, in Game 3, Hamels, except for two mistake pitches, was similarly masterful. One was a first-inning home run to deep left-center by Allen Craig, the other a sixth-inning homer just inside the left field line by Pujols, accounting for all four runs allowed by Hamels. Take away those, Hamels likely would've fared better than Oswalt - also 7 innings and also 5 hits, but 9 strikeouts - and likely would have pitched longer as well. Hamels's innings got him 16 fewer pitches, despite the homers. 

Unfortunately, Hamels has an unusual propensity for giving up the long ball. That game was the fourth in a streak of six consecutive games in September allowing a home run to end the season, the longest of his career. Surprisingly, that was the sole game of the month at home, in which he has allowed a long ball in just five of fifteen starts, despite the widely-held belief that Citizens Bank Park is a bandbox. On the road, he's allowed a homer in ten of seventeen. Of course, Hamels will start Game 3 of this series in St. Louis, so that may all be rendered moot. 

C70: What could reasonably go wrong in this series for the Phillies? What concerns do you have, if any? 

FEB: It is certainly difficult to imagine the Phillies losing this series, but of course, nothing is impossible. My main concern is Murphy's Law, "everything that can go wrong will go wrong." The young Phillies bullpen that is largely new to big roles in playoff baseball will blow a couple leads and the offense won't be able to come back. The offense continues the trend of being shut down by former teammates, this time Kyle Lohse, who beats Roy Halladay in a very close pitcher's duel and sets the tone for the series. Chris Carpenter wins a similar match-up over Cliff Lee in game 2 and the Phillies are on the road on the brink of a sweep. The phases of the moon determine that Raul Ibanez will go into a slump. The effects of injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley will continue to manifest themselves and the rest of the lineup will not be able to overcome them. But while it is now apparent that the purpose of this question was to make me paranoid, I will continue to pray to BaseBa'al that not all of those things happen. 

C70: Is anything short of a World Series title acceptable among the majority of the fans?

FEB: Unfortunately, for most fans, no, but I guess that's the downside to having the best 162-game team by a wide margin. I would obviously prefer the best regular season record 100% of the time, regardless of post-season expectations. As has been proven many times, the best team actually rarely wins the World Series. There's so much more luck and variance that plays in. But no one remembers the best regular season team even a couple years later, while most fans can reel off every World Series champion of the past ten years or so. 

C70: Who is the hottest hitter on the team at the moment? Who do you want up with the game on the line? 

FEB: No one is coming into this series on a tear, likely as a result of clinching so early, then losing eight in a row. Of hitters with 50+ September plate appearances, the highest batting average was just .317 (Hunter Pence), Ryan Howard's .417 OBP led the team, and Pence also led in slugging, at .548. I suppose either of them would be preferred in a crucial situation. Both of Howard's September strikeout and walk rates were improvements over his season totals, 25% vs. 26.7% K-rates, and walk rates of 16.7% compared to 11.7%. Swinging at junk in the dirt is usually I fear the most from Howard in a big spot, so, despite a small jump, is still a good sign for me. Meanwhile, Pence was by far better with the Phillies than he was in Houston, improving in nearly every category and does inspire confidence. 

If the Phillies are in a spot in which they need a big hit from the bench, John Mayberry, Jr. would certainly be the first player to look at, unless Charlie Manuel plays the platoons and starts him against lefties. He's hitting .095 points better (.306 vs. .211) and OPS'ing a whopping .368 points better (.953 vs. .585) against them this season. Since he was called back up to the big club on July 5, 25 of his 49 hits have come for extra bases. Mayberry is the best hitter on the team when it comes to making the most of his hits

C70: We know about the rotation, but what is the state of the Phillies bullpen right now? 

FEB: The bullpen is in a very interesting position right now. This series, it consists of Ryan Madson, Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, Brad Lidge, Vance Worley, Kyle Kendrick, and Joe Blanton. Worley, a rookie, and Kendrick was successful in their starting roles, filling in for the injured Oswalt and Blanton, while Blanton experienced moderate success in 7 September innings in his return. Bastardo pitched more than 25 innings for the first time in his career (58), and used the opportunity to break out as a great setup man. He had one of the lowest opponent batting averages for a reliever ever (.144) and that he did that in his third Major League season at the age of 25 is incredible. He has run into some troubles of late, but it seems that's as a result of having never pitched this much before, and appears to be back on track now. 

Stutes is another rookie of the bullpen. He had a 3.63 ERA in 62 innings in his first ever season. He hit a bump in the road in August to the tune of a 5.84 ERA, but brought it back down to 3.00 last month. Behind injuries to Lidge and Jose Contreras, Madson broke out as a dominating closer, previously standing out as one of the top-tier set-up men and among the most underrated relievers in baseball. In 60.2 innings, he accumulated 32 saves and an ERA of 2.37. In his return from injury, Lidge had a 1.40 ERA in 19.1 innings. 

The most encouraging part of the bullpen is their ability to dominate. Five of the seven have SO/9 rates of 8 or better: Bastardo, 10.9; Lidge, 10.7; Madson, 9.2; Stutes, 8.4; and Worley, 8.1. On the other hand, only Bllanton, Madson, and Kendrick walk 2.5 batters per nine innings or better (2.0, 2.4, 2.4, respectively). If I were to rank them by confidence, Madson is easily first, followed by the close second-tier of Worley, Bastardo, and Stutes, then Lidge fairly sizably over Blanton and Kendrick. 

C70: Can we have Brad Lidge always pitch to Albert Pujols with the game on the line? 

FEB: That's fine by me, so long as it's not Game 5. Lidge has yet to allow a home run this season, only four extra-base hits, all doubles. Small sample size alert, but this is the lowest opponent slugging percentage of his career, save his 48-for-48 save 2008 season. I've been anticipating Lidge winning a rematch between the two of them, anyway.

My thanks to Max for his input on this series.  So far, his confidence in the Phillies is well-placed, but we'll have to see how things look tomorrow evening.

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