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NLDS Coverage: Phillies Strike First

The defending World Champions came away with a win against the Colorado Rockies in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday. Starter Cliff Lee, obtained from Cleveland at mid-season, threw a complete game and allowed just six hits. He did not walk a batter and he struck out five Colorado hitters.

Lee threw 70% of his pitches for strikes against the Colorado batters. The opposing hitters who had the most luck against him were outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, both of whom had two hits.

Lee’s strategy was clear in the game: Pitch off of the fastball. The Colorado batters were unable to handle his combination of velocity, movement and location. In the first inning of the game, 11 of Lee’s 14 pitches were fastballs. Fast-forward to the ninth inning and 15 of Lee’s 17 pitches were four-seam fastballs (the other two pitches were a curveball and a changeup). In the final frame, Lee’s fastball ranged from 88-94 mph – including the last pitch of the inning, which was a 94 mph heater that third baseman Garrett Atkins swung through. Lee’s best pitch all year has been his fastball (18.1 wFB) so he stuck to his strengths and he had success.

Game 2

Today, the Phillies will send Cole Hamels to the mound against Colorado’s veteran hurler Aaron Cook. Hamels will likely look to set up the Rockies hitters with his fastball before going to his changeup for outs (11.7 wCH). The Rockies that have had the most success hitting changeups include first baseman Todd Helton, right-fielder Brad Hawpe, and center-fielder Dexter Fowler.

Cook is predominantly a sinker-ball pitcher (56.7 GB%), who also utilizes a slider mostly to throw off hitters’ timings. The key for the Phillies hitters will be to concentrate on driving the ball hard, and to not worry about trying to lift the ball or hit the long ball. Career-wise, a number of Phillies hitters have had success against Cook, including Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Jayson Werth. Pinch-hitter Matt Stairs is a perfect 3-for-3 against Cook in his career, including a homer.

NLDS Preview: The Reigning Champs

The reigning world champion Philadelphia Phillies are back in the playoffs. The club began the 2008 National League Division Series (NLDS) by facing the Milwaukee Brewers and took the match-up in four games. This year, the Phillies team will have home-field advantage again in the NLDS as it faces the Colorado Rockies – a team mixed with young, exciting talent and veteran stability.

The Phillies club is virtually the same team that won the World Series in 2008, with the key difference being the switch in outfielders from Pat Burrell to Raul Ibanez, which really works out in Philly’s favor. Ibanez has been a solid addition to the offense all season long. The club also shed a number of prospects to acquire veteran starter Cliff Lee from the Cleveland Indians at mid-season.

The Starting Rotation: In the best-of-five series, the club will likely start with young ace Cole Hamels and follow him up with a second left-hander in Lee. The club then has the option of going with veteran right-hander Joe Blanton, the ageless Pedro Martinez, or rookie southpaw J.A. Happ. The club was dealt a bit of a blow when veteran hurler Jamie Moyer underwent surgery for torn muscles in his groin/abdomen.

Cole Hamels: The Phillies’ ace was not quite as sharp in 2009 as he’s been in recent years, even though he was certainly better than his 4.32 ERA suggests (3.72 FIP). The lefty was too hittable with 206 hits allowed in 193.2 innings, but his walk rate remained excellent at 2.00 BB/9 and his strikeout rate was respectable at 7.81 K/9. The biggest difference in ’09 over ’08 was the quality of his fastball, which took a step backwards. Hamels was not overly sharp in his last three regular season appearances.

Cliff Lee: The lefty was a force in the rotation for the second half of the season in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, he has zero playoff experience. He’s also coming off of a career high innings-pitched total at 231.2 innings. His worst month(s) of the year was Sept/Oct when he allowed 39 hits in 29 innings.

Joe Blanton: Blanton has always been rather steady and he has provided five straight seasons of 30+ starts. The 28-year-old hurler saw his strikeout rate jump this year to a career high at 7.51 K/9, a 2.50 K/9 improvement from ’08. One of the reasons for the jump was a much-improved changeup. He has solid post-season numbers with 16 hits, eight walks, and 20 strikeouts in 19 innings

Pedro Martinez: Martinez is a great story after sitting out the majority of the season and making just nine starts. His stuff is not what it once was, but he is a wily pitcher who has excellent control (1.61 BB/9). You have to be a little worried with how hard Martinez has been hit (line-drive rate of 26.6%) and by how low his ground-ball rate is (29.5%). Philly brought him in for his late-season heroics, though, so don’t bet against him.

J.A. Happ: Happ could very easily walk away with the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2009, but he is an unproven commodity in playoff baseball… and Philly is certainly not the most forgiving of fan bases. Happ did appear in one NLCS game in ’08. He pitched three inning while allowing four hits and two walks.

The Bullpen: Former (current?) closer Brad Lidge‘s struggles have been well-documented, but unfortunately the team’s achille’s heel is its bullpen. Ryan Madson is an option at closer, but he has not been battle-tested as a late-inning reliever. He does have a fairly lethal fastball-changeup combination. For an outside-the-box thought, perhaps the Phillies should try Happ as the go-to guy with the game on the line? With runners in scoring position in ’09, he held opposing hitters to a line of .158/.253/.226.

The Lineup: The offense is definitely where it’s at for Philly. Four players (Howard, Werth, Ibanez, and Utley) had 30 or more homers.

Ryan Howard: He’s a grip-and-rip slugger with 45 homers and a strikeout rate of 30.2%, but he’s also an RBI machine with 140+ RBI in each of the past two seasons. Howard is a pretty big fan of fastballs and sliders.

Chase Utley: Utley will certainly be looking to atone for his lackluster finish to the regular season, which saw him hit .204/.304/.343 in 108 at-bats. His post-season experience has been up-and-down; last year he hit for a poor average but he got on base and drove in some key runs.

Jimmy Rollins: It was a relatively poor season for the 2007 NL MVP, but the shortstop still managed to hit 21 homers with 40 doubles and 31 steals? Oh, and he scored 100 runs… a lot of people would love to have that kind of off year. His second half of the year was much better than the first half, so hopefully that bodes well for the playoff momentum.

Jayson Werth: The Orioles and Blue Jays gave up on the former No. 1 draft pick (who was originally a catcher) but it’s Philadelphia that is reaping the benefits. Werth was a multifaceted threat in 2009 with 36 homers, 20 steals, 91 walks and 11 outfield assists. He’s particularly potent against southpaws, with a line of .302/.436/.644.

Raul Ibanez: The 37-year-old outfielder came back to earth after an out-of-this-world first two months of the season, but he still finished with excellent numbers. He’s also swinging a powerful bat right now with seven homers in his last 91 at-bats. Despite swinging from the left side, Ibanez loves to hit against southpaws and he had a slugging percentage of .639 in ’09.

Shane Victorino: He doesn’t belt homers like the other four hitters (although he does have some pop with a .153 ISO), but Victorino is one of the key offensive players for the Phillies after scoring 102 runs as a table-setter. Although he played in a career-high 156 games, Victorino stole just 25 bases, the lowest total in three seasons… and he was caught eight times.

The Bench: The names don’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of Colorado fans, but the veteran bench core of outfielder Matt Stairs, catcher Paul Bako, and infielder Greg Dobbs certainly has a lot of experience. Stairs has excellent power, even in his 40s, and he’s not afraid to go up to the plate swinging the bat while looking to take the ball deep. Dobbs struggled as a pinch hitter this season and was just 9-for-54 with six walks and 11 K. The biggest downside to the veteran trio is that they’re all left-handed.

Does Cito Gaston Work for Boston?

Manager Cito Gaston’s surprise return to the fold in 2008 breathed new life into a floundering organization. The Toronto Blue Jays’ skipper, though, may be at fault for the club’s mid-season demise in the standings.

On May 19, the Jays club was 2.5 games ahead of Boston and 3.5 games ahead of New York in the American League East standings. Now, on the last day of June, the club is in fourth place and seven games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. How did this happen?

As of June 20, the Jays club had played 78 games (41-37). Five regulars had played 76 games or more: Aaron Hill, Marco Scutaro, Adam Lind, Vernon Wells, and Alex Rios. Two of those players (Rios and Wells) have been terrible this season and were also left in the No. 3 and 4 holes in the lineup until mid-June.

Two other players are obviously being over-worked by the manager. Hill appeared in just 55 games last year due to a concussion. Despite the time off, the manager has failed to ease the second baseman back into regular play. Scutaro, the club’s undisputed spark plug in the first two months, had never really been a full-time player until last year when he appeared in 145 games. At 33, he’s no spring chicken.

As for Lind, he’s survived remarkably well as the youngest player of the five at 25 years of age and he’s also spent just 26 games in the field. His 50 other appearances have come as the club’s designated hitter.

These five players are obviously playing a lot… so let’s look at the monthly splits and let the stats do the talking for a minute.

Adam Lind
April: .315/.400/.533
May: .264/.333/.453
June: .354/.431/.544

Vernon Wells
April: .283/.345/.465
May: .252/.300/.361
June: .210/.259/.350

Alex Rios
April: .248/.304/.366
May: .302/.359/.509
June: .232/.291/.379

Aaron Hill
April: .365/.412/.567
May: .307/.331/.480
June: .234/.278/.477

Marco Scutaro
April: .281/.421/.506
May: .322/.397/.421
June: .235/.325/.333

As you can see above, four of the five players are down significantly in June. I’m sure management has seen the numbers, but the powers that be are now between a rock and a hard place. The regulars need rest badly, but how do you take them out of the lineup now that the playoffs are (not so) slowly slipping away? The main focus on the Jays this season has been the injuries to the pitching staff and the club’s reliance on young, unproven hurlers. But those pitchers have not been the club’s downfall, whatsoever. The team’s ERA/FIP for the past three months: 4.34/4.37 in April, 4.23/4.35 in May, and 4.22/3.91 in June.

As a side note, I’d also like to point out the disappointing use of veteran back-up infielder John McDonald. The fifth-year Jay has been used in just 28 games this season with just 26 at-bats. That is the most embarrassing use of any player in the Majors this season… and yes, he’s spent the entire season on the roster and has been healthy the entire time. Twenty-six at-bats. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not the way to use you bench… Or treat your veteran players. You know, the ones you’d have to turn to if your starting shortstop or second baseman suddenly got hurt…