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Springtime Storylines: How far can “The Big Four” carry the Phillies?

Mar 29, 2011, 1:43 PM EDT

Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee

Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Uncle Cholly’s Philadelphia Phillies.

The Big Question: How far can “The Big Four” carry the Phillies?

Pretty damn far.

There’s all sorts of analysis out there by people way smarter than me, so let’s keep it simple and look at their career averages.

Roy Halladay – 3.32 career ERA, 218 innings averaged since the 2002 season

Cliff Lee – 3.85 career ERA, 192 innings averaged since the 2004 season

Roy Oswalt – 3.18 career ERA, 201 innings averaged during career (since 2001)

Cole Hamels – 3.53 career ERA, 203 innings averaged since his first full season in 2007

Wow. And when you look at those numbers, you have to consider that Halladay and Lee have spent most of their careers in the more difficult American League. I’m mostly amazed at just how durable these guys have been year-in and year-out. I guess there’s a reason they call them aces.

We often give Joe Blanton a hard time around here, but his resume suggests that he’ll be a perfectly respectable fifth starter. While his career ERA (4.30) pulls down the entire group a little bit, he has averaged 199 innings per season. Someone will inevitably pull a hamstring or worse, but I’d be surprised if this staff didn’t lead major league starters in ERA this season. With relative ease, really.

The one variable you’ll hear people talking about with the Phillies is their age. And it’s completely relevant. Halladay will be 34 in May, Lee is 32 and Oswalt is 33. Assuming Luis Castillo makes the team and fills in for the injured Chase Utley at second base, the starting lineup on Opening Day —  minus Halladay — checks in at an average age of 32.75. It’s actually 33 if you round up like in math class. Ben Francisco is the baby of the bunch and he’s 29.

This isn’t to say that multiple players are going to break down and the Phillies are going to miss the playoffs or something — they should be very good — but age at least increases the chance for injury and/or regression. It’s potentially the only reason “The Big Four” won’t match the hype. The Phillies have a pretty solid farm system, but the window for this specific core group of players is smaller than you might think. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is no doubt aware of this fact, so I expect him to stop at nothing to ensure a fifth straight NL East crown.

So what else is going on?

  • When will Chase Utley return from his knee injury? He’s not dishing out any specific timetables, but when asked yesterday if he thinks he’ll be able to play before the All-Star break, Utley said, “that would be a goal, yes.” The Phillies have played this one pretty close to the vest, even declining to confirm the name of the specialist Utley visited last week, so it’s really anyone’s guess when he’ll return. Until he does, the Phillies will have to rely on the likes of Luis Castillo (.681 OPS over the last three seasons) and Wilson Valdez (career-high .667 OPS last season) at second base. In a word, ouch.
  • Brad Lidge will begin the season on the disabled list with shoulder soreness, which hurts an already thin bullpen. Ryan Madson is the best option for the ninth-inning on paper, but it sounds like the Phillies have some serious doubts about his ability to close ballgames. That leaves Jose Contreras as the in-house favorite for saves. While he posted an impressive 3.34 ERA and 57/16 K/BB ratio over 56 2/3 innings last season, he’s (at least) 39 years old. Can he keep pitching at this level? And on back-to-back days, no less? I’m a bit concerned about this bullpen, but if Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels do what they are capable of doing, they should be able to get by.
  • The Phillies planned to give top prospect Domonic Brown the opportunity to win the starting right field job during spring training, but he needed surgery to repair a fractured hamate bone earlier this month. It could take a little while for his power to resurface after surgery, so the Phillies are probably looking at a platoon of Ben Francisco and Ross Gload in right field for the next month or two. While potentially respectable, neither will fill the shoes of Jayson Werth. Even though Ryan Howard remains as a constant power threat, this lineup just isn’t going to scare people anymore.
  • The big wild card in this bunch is Jimmy Rollins. He was limited to just 88 games last season due to calf and hamstring injuries, but if healthy, he can help soften the blow of missing Utley and Werth. Remember, he’s entering the final year of his contract, so he should be plenty motivated for his next and potentially final big payday.

So how are they going to do?

I think the Braves are going to put up a pretty good fight here, but this rotation is just too good to ignore. Even with all their questions, the Phillies should win this division. I’m giving them 95 wins and yet another NL East crown.

  1. phukyouk - Mar 29, 2011 at 2:08 PM

    “…and Lee have spent most of their careers in the more difficult American League”

    how do you figure?

    • scatterbrian - Mar 29, 2011 at 2:19 PM

      222 career starts, 210 for American League teams?

      Unless you’re making some claim that the AL isn’t more difficult….in which case you’re on your own.

      • phukyouk - Mar 29, 2011 at 2:25 PM

        sorry. my bad. misread that. either way Lee was in the Central and West both which are at least comparable to their NL Counterparts.

      • Ari Collins - Mar 29, 2011 at 3:36 PM

        It doesn’t really break down that way. Besides the fact that the Central and West still play the East for more than a quarter of their games, the whole AL is better than the NL, not just the East. It’s not just the AL East that beats the NL every single year in interleague.

      • Jonny 5 - Mar 29, 2011 at 3:52 PM

        Actually ARI……………….
        If it weren’t for the AL East the NL would be stronger of the two as the two lower wpct’s of both leagues show the NL as the better interleague record.

        AL East

        Average winning % outside division (2006-2010): 0.528
        Average Payroll (2006-2010): $107,908,176

        AL Central

        Average winning % outside division (2006-2010): 0.471
        Average Payroll (2006-2010): $83,996,390

        AL West

        Average winning % outside division (2006-2010): 0.504
        Average Payroll (2006-2010): $84,563,068

        NL East

        Average winning % outside division (2006-2010): 0.511
        Average payroll (2006-2010): $82,601,940

        NL Central

        Average winning % outside division (2006-2010): 0.473
        Average payroll (2006-2010): $81,563,057

        NL West

        Average winning % outside division (2006-2010): 0.515
        Average payroll (2006-2010): $75,094,204

      • mercyflush - Mar 29, 2011 at 3:58 PM

        the AL Central and West may not be more talented overall than the NL, but when you’re talking about ERAs, you have to acknowledge that AL ERAs are inflated compared to that of the NL, due to, you know, the DH.

        Also, when talking about career ERAs, another thing to consider is that Lee was a late bloomer, and his last 3 seasons are light years ahead of his first 6 – his culmulative ERA for the last 3 years is 2.98.

      • Jonny 5 - Mar 29, 2011 at 4:10 PM

        The DH IS the big difference maker when it comes to ERA. Not which league is better or not. That discussion could go on forever I think. The DH adds a big offensive jump . Obviously.

      • spudchukar - Mar 29, 2011 at 4:16 PM

        One more fact to consider when comparing AL and NL pitching stats; the parks in the AL are generally smaller than in the NL.

      • Jonny 5 - Mar 29, 2011 at 4:23 PM

        Speaking of the smaller park thing,Gonzalez is going to knock lights out in his new stadium. Dude is going to be the AL MVP this season. Crawford? He’s going to rake there too. I see Bahhstan as the team to beat this season. They just look offensively AWESOME and superior to all others. While their pitching is just fine.

      • Ari Collins - Mar 29, 2011 at 6:55 PM

        ut how the AL Central or West did against the other AL divisions is PENALIZING them for playing against the AL East, not taking the East out of the picture and figuring out how strong the AL is without it, which is (I thought) the point.

        Does anyone know how to look up the AL Central and AL West’s interleague numbers over the last few years? I think that would solve the “Is the AL Central and AL West even better than the NL?” question.

      • Ari Collins - Mar 29, 2011 at 7:14 PM

        Answering my own question.

        The AL Central and the AL West have put up the following numbers against the NL the last five years: 463-347, good for a .572 winning percentage.

        In other words, the AL West and AL Central have been way better than the NL over that timespan.

      • Ari Collins - Mar 29, 2011 at 7:15 PM

        It’s nice to think of the AL only being better than the NL because of the two big AL East teams, but it’s clearly a league-wide talent gap.

  2. Brian - Mar 29, 2011 at 2:14 PM

    The age and injury issues here are not as bad as everyone thinks, at least in my own completely uneducated and slightly fantasy-based opinion. After all, I’m really just a layman.

    The average age for the Phils is certainly skewed by players like Ibanez and Contreras, who are certainly still solid players. But really, is, say, 31 or 32 really that old to be considered “old?” Sure, it’s the tail end of a ballplayer’s typical “prime” years, but it’s still the prime age of a player. The way the media talks about it they sound like a bunch of Jamie Moyers. That’s not the case at all.

    Offensively, why are so few people mentioning the possibility that these players return to the mean and actually improve from last year? That would apply to pretty much everyone, including Howard, Utley, Rollins, Victorino…even Lidge. All they have to do is return to average and they’ll be more successful than last year.

    I think everyone needs to chill.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 29, 2011 at 2:31 PM

      That would apply to pretty much everyone, including Howard, Utley, Rollins, Victorino…even Lidge. All they have to do is return to average and they’ll be more successful than last year.

      Howard has declined steadily the last few years, Utley may not play until after the ASG, Rollins should bounce back, and Lidge is starting the season the DL. The Pitching could just as easily carry this team for a few months, but they’ll need some of these guys to stay healthy for a significant portion of the season.

      • Brian - Mar 29, 2011 at 2:38 PM

        that’s why I said return to average. no one expects any of them to return to the numbers they put up in 07 and 08.

      • mercyflush - Mar 30, 2011 at 10:17 AM

        how has Howard declined steadily the last few years?

    • Ari Collins - Mar 29, 2011 at 7:17 PM

      Truth is, yeah, 31 and 32 are pretty old in baseball terms. If you don’t think age matters, then you don’t think this matters. But if age does matter, than being one of the oldest teams in baseball matters.

      I wish the Phillies luck, I’m a BIG fan of the historically great rotation, but the higher age does give them a greater probability of injury and decline.

  3. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 29, 2011 at 2:28 PM

    Wow. And when you look at those numbers…

    You realize that some of downright wrong, at least regarding Cliff Lee. Anyway you slice it you get:

    All IP:
    1409 IP / 9 Seasons = 157IP per Season

    Take out first two seasons:
    1346 IP / 7 Seasons = 192IP per Season

    Even take out first 2 and the short season when he was demoted to the minors:
    1249 IP/ 6 Seasons = 208 IP per Season

    Not going to do it for the others, but considering Cliff Lee’s “Average Season” has him pitching more innings than he’s pitched in 5 of 7 years, average isn’t the word you are looking for.

    • rustystubz - Mar 29, 2011 at 2:43 PM

      I believe it’s the 162 game average that you can find on their baseball-reference pages.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 29, 2011 at 2:59 PM

        It is, but the average there is wrong. To make an absurd example, take a player who went 5/10 with 5 HR. The “162 Average” would probably prorate the 10 ABs over a 3.1 AB/game average and post that number. Everyone would realize those numbers are absurd. But that’s what was done above.

        Cole Hamels suffers the same problem. His 162 game average has him pitching 216 IP, but he’s only broken that mark once in five years.

      • D.J. Short - Mar 29, 2011 at 3:09 PM

        That is what I based it on. Noted above. Again, not meant to be scientific. We don’t need to look any many numbers to tell us they are awesome.

      • Ari Collins - Mar 29, 2011 at 7:04 PM

        A 162-game average is going to show a lot of innings for ANY pitcher. Carl Pavano has over 200 innings a year that way, because it gets rid of ANY DL time!

        162-game averages are basically taking the guy’s career and looking at what his counting stats would be if he played in every game every year. So looking at what someone’s ability to play in games would be if he played in every game every year… pretty pointless.

        Honestly, D.J., you really ought to correct this, it’s a glaring statistical error.

      • D.J. Short - Mar 29, 2011 at 7:44 PM

        Understood. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    • D.J. Short - Mar 29, 2011 at 7:18 PM

      Gotcha. Take a look now. Tried to be more specific.

      • Ari Collins - Mar 29, 2011 at 7:35 PM

        Thanks for the correction! It’s not even THAT much lower, but conceptually it was frustrating error.

      • D.J. Short - Mar 29, 2011 at 7:46 PM

        No problem. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. My eyes were just drawn to the wrong thing on B/R.

  4. Jonny 5 - Mar 29, 2011 at 3:00 PM

    Contreras pitches better the more he’s used. That’s what I saw last season. I think he’ll fit the closer role perfectly and be better than Lidge. Utley is a concern for now, that could become a non issue, or a problem. Who knows? The replacements in line for Werth’s old job are mopping up in spring training so far, we will see.

    And Howard is not on a steady decline COPO. I know people like to jump on that wagon and all but the numbers don’t support it. Last season he had an injury but 2009 was one of his better seasons actually.

    No less than 100 wins for Philly. That’s my call. They had 97 last season and Lee is worth more wins than Werth. On top of other factors, Like Ibanez, Polanco, and Rollins playing to their normal abilities after their injuries have healed.

    • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Mar 29, 2011 at 3:23 PM

      I don’t doubt 100 wins and I also pick them to win the East (Braves = Wild Card). I do think you can give up on a healthy Utley. That type of injury is damn near incurable. I wouldn’t call it a career, but I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t show up until very late in the season, if at all. I assume his hair is still fully intact though.

      • Jonny 5 - Mar 29, 2011 at 3:35 PM

        That hurts to read El bravo, with my man crush and all. I think he “needs” surgery, but will try to work it out without doing so. Surgery means a lost season I’m afraid.

      • ame123 - Mar 29, 2011 at 3:37 PM

        Another internet doctor. Give it a break with these prognostications about what’s curable and what’s not.

      • mercyflush - Mar 29, 2011 at 4:13 PM

        There was a report yesterday that said he could optimistically return in early May. He’s made slow but steady progress, and Amaro said he’ll be on the 15 day DL, and is not a candidate for the 60 day DL.

    • indyralph - Mar 29, 2011 at 4:39 PM

      Ryan Howard career OPS+ by year, 2004 – 2010: 122, 133, 167, 144, 124, 141, 128. That’s still a pretty good hitter. But it is a steady decline. The only thing keeping it from becoming the Webster’s dictionary “steady decline” is the abysmal (relatively) 2008.

      • Utley's Hair - Mar 29, 2011 at 5:26 PM

        That’s funny—“steady” to me generally means constant, which is not represented in your numbers there.

      • Ari Collins - Mar 29, 2011 at 6:59 PM

        What he’s saying is that if 2008 didn’t exist, it would be a constant decline. 167, 144, 141, 128.

        Even with 2008, if you chart it, you’ll see a decline. Here’s his WAR: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphs/2154____agraph_%20_3_29_2011.png This time, it’s ’09 that looks a bit outta place, but it’s still a pretty constant decline.

      • Jonny 5 - Mar 30, 2011 at 8:29 AM

        One thing no one looking at season stats will see that is in 2010 Howard was on par for having a career season in OBP and AVG up until he had his ankle injury. Up until then everyone was singing his praises in Philly for working on what everyone said he needed to work on. He’ll never match 2006 I’m afraid, now that he gets much more respect from pitchers and all.

  5. dexterismyhero - Mar 29, 2011 at 3:17 PM

    Dig up Callison and put him in right field……

    • spudchukar - Mar 29, 2011 at 4:21 PM

      I am not a Phillie fan but he was one of my favorites. As a kid, seeing him in the clubhouse, I was stunned by his build. He was buff in a time when that was rare. He was an excellent outfielder, with a gun. Only a .275 hitter, which of course was much better in that era, but he was always dangerous and could turn on one better than most.

  6. rapmusicmademedoit - Mar 29, 2011 at 6:48 PM

    I hope the big four fall flat on their butts with the rest of the team.

  7. macjacmccoy - Mar 30, 2011 at 6:24 PM

    I dont think they need to carry the Phillies. People are really sleeping on this offense and I think everyone is gonna be really schocked. I have no doubt that they will have the most potent offense in the division and will be top 5 in the conference. You can hold me to that too.

    I dunno I just dont see the Phillies with anymore holes then the rest of the national league. Thankfully all the over reacting and guessing is over with now and the season is about to start. Ive had my fill of prognostications.

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