Judging from this ESPNinsider piece by Buster Olney, it’s about time for a yearly piece of rosterbation when it comes to the Phillies’ lineup. With such a veteran lineup, the question really boils down to the top two spots. The three veterans that could fill those two roles are all above-average, strong players, but that doesn’t mean that the team can’t get it wrong. In fact, it’s possible they’ve been getting it wrong for a while now.
Much of this discussion revolves around the decline of Jimmy Rollins, but not all. He’s been a negative with the bat the last two years, and his sub-par wOBAs came in about half a season last year. The rule of recency might make us over-rate how far his athleticism has fallen, but if we focus on his career rates, we see that he’s always been below average when it comes to getting on base (.328 career OBP, average is about .330 most years; 7.4% career walk rate, average is about 8.5% most years).
In fact, one of the best aspects of his bat is his power, which, while waning, is still above average overall (.163 career, average is about .150-.155). He also avoids the strikeout well (12.7% career, average is around 20% most years). These are the qualities of a hitter lower in the order according to most lineup optimization work I’ve seen. He could be a decent five or six hitter, as he has that pop, doesn’t strike out much, and can steal some bases in front of the singles hitters at the bottom of a lineup. Well, that’s too bad. Rollins has spent 91.2% of his plate appearances in the first or second spot.
Though Chase Utley can get on base and still has some speed himself, he’s got heart-of-the-order pop and has spent most of his time in the third spot. And while pairing him with Ryan Howard in the middle of the lineup has led to some LOOGY high-jinx, it’s hard to imagine that Rollins (or Placido Polanco) is the guy to split the two. So leave the two best hitters in the three and four spots despite their handedness, most likely.
That leaves Polanco and Shane Victorino as the other possible men for the top two roles. One thing that they both own over Rollins is prowess in getting on base. The 35-year-old Polanco has a .347 OBP that has fallen to the .330s in the past two years. The 30-year-old Victorino has a career .342 number that bottomed out at .327 last year. The 32-year-old Rollins’ career .328 OBP has dropped significantly from a .349 peak in 2008. In 2009, he even spent 700+ plate appearances putting up a sub-.300 OBP.
Clearly, when seen through the prism of OBP and age, Shane Victorino looks like the most deserving leadoff hitter. The team hasn’t gotten it completely wrong – Victorino has spent 76.7% of his plate appearances in the top two spots. Since Rollins was hurt so often last year, Polanco spent 82% of his plate appearances in the second spot, too. The team isn’t far off.
But this still leaves three decent men for two important spots. If the loser is not Rollins – and recent history suggests that this will be the case – then the loser will be the Phillies. Last year in the NL, the leadoff hitter averaged .56 PAs per game more than the sixth hitter, or 90.72 over the year. Using the Bill James projections, the difference between Rollins (projected for a .329 OBP) and Polanco (.342 OBP), would mean 1.18 extra baserunners over the course of a year.
Getting it wrong, indeed.