|Utley Injury Damages Postseason Hopes||| Print ||
Written by Lewie Pollis (Contact & Archive) on March 12, 2011
For the last few years, the Philadelphia Phillies have made their name as an offense-heavy team that occasionally pitches well.
Witness the offensive juggernauts who won the 2008 World Series. At 29.3 wins above replacement, their position players were twice as valuable as their pitching staff (15.0 WAR). Of the seven players to finish with over 2.5 WAR, six -- Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell -- were hitters.
But by the end of last season, something had changed. The Phillies still maintained their reputation as a club full of intimidating sluggers, but they were the near-unanimous favorites to win the National League pennant not for their bats but for their arms. For baseball fans who hadn't taken a science class in a while, "H2O" became the chemical compound name for Philadelphia's rotation -- Halladay, Hamels and Roy Oswalt.
While assertions that the Phillies' tremendous trio would be unbeatable in a playoff series were quickly proven false, there was a clear shift in the composition of their roster. Philadelphia still had the offensive prowess to win in a slugfest, but usually it wasn't necessary. Opposing teams were more worried about scoring enough runs than allowing too many.
Now with Lee back in the fold, Philadelphia's 2011 rotation is undoubtedly the best in the game, and may end up among the greatest of all time. In the minds of baseball's talking heads, the Phillies have already wrapped up the NL pennant.
But it's too soon to crown them the champions. The Phillies have a problem that could end up costing them a playoff berth: the lineup.
Last year, it became evident that this is no longer an elite offensive team. The Phillies managed just 772 runs in 2010, down from 820 in 2009 and 890 in 2007. It was the first time they'd scored fewer than 800 times since 2003. Part of that can be blamed on the league-wide drop in offense last season, but the team's 99 wRC+ shows Philadelphia's bats to have been slightly below average.
Surprised? Check the stat sheets. Rollins battled injuries and continued his descent into mediocrity, tying or setting career lows with his .243 average, eight homers, 41 RBIs, 48 runs, 17 steals; the 2007 NL MVP saw his OPS drop to .694.
Thirty-eight-year-old Raul Ibanez slumped through his worst offensive season in a decade, finishing with an OPS below .800 for the first time since 2005 and missing the 20-homer mark he had cleared the previous five years in a row. Even Victorino's game took a turn for the worse; he hit just .259 and posted the worst full-season OPS (.756) of his career.
Even the mighty Howard looks like he may be past his prime. After averaging 50 homers and 143 RBI from 2006-9 (never dropping below 45 and 136, respectively), he managed just 31 homers and plated only 108 runs last season. His .859 OPS was the worst he's ever posted. While his 9.5% walk rate and .229 ISO would be considered solid for many players, both represented the lowest marks he's posted since breaking into the majors for good in 2005.
Throw in his abysmal defense and his premium offensive position, and he finished the 2010 campaign with 2.0 WAR. That's right, folks: Ryan Howard was a league-average player.
The outlook is even worse for 2011. The Phillies already lost their second-best position player, Werth, to free agency, and his replacement, young right fielder Domonic Brown, is out for at least a month with a broken wrist. Still, analysts and projection systems had already been accounting for the loss of Werth, and not many expect Brown, 23, to be a major impact player in his first full season.
But now, Philadelphia faces a real problem. Utley's knee problems are turning out to be worse than we'd thought. They are understandably hesitant to let him undergo surgery for his tendonitis, but with the non-surgical treatments failing this far, things don't look good for the five-time All-Star.
Utley is almost assuredly going to miss Opening Day, and while the front office doesn't expect him to miss the whole season, there is no timetable for his return. There's no way to know how long he'll be out until the team figures out whether or not he'll have to go under the knife; if he ends up needing surgery, it could take him months to fully recover.
According to last year's WAR, the best position player the Phillies will send out on Opening Day is Carlos Ruiz. The salient question is, Are they still the favorites without their keystone man? The only real answer is that we don't know. But thanks to some sabermetric projection systems, we can try to figure it out.
The easiest system to use for measuring players' projected impacts on their teams is FanGraphs.com's FAN Projections. These predicted standings are calculated by adding each team's individual projected WAR (as voted on by FanGraphs readers), so while the process is unscientific, it's a decent place to start. More importantly, though, these figures are very easy to mess with.
Here, the Phillies hold a five-game lead in the NL East over the second-place Florida Marlins (somehow the Atlanta Braves come in fourth); a six-win drop would put them in a four-way tie for the Wild Card.
The fans project 7.9 WAR per 162 games for Utley and -0.2 WAR/162 for his chief replacement last year, Wilson Valdez. In other words, for every 20 games Utley misses, the Phillies lose a win.
By that standard, if Utley misses a month or two, the Phillies are still the favorites in the NL East, but it'll be closer than they'd like. If he's back at 100% capacity after the All-Star Break, the Phillies will be in the thick of it, but a playoff berth is far from guaranteed. And if he misses the whole season or comes back before he's fully recovered and plays poorly, the Phillies will be lucky to win a Wild Card spot.
What of the more advanced projection systems? CAIRO's latest projections have the Phillies 6 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Braves, while PECOTA has them ahead by four. Using a 5-4-3 weighting system for the last three years, we get a projection of 7.9 WAR/162 games for Utley; making the generous assumption that whoever replaces him will be worth 1.0 WAR/162, the Phillies here lose a little more than a win each month Utley is out.
By CAIRO's standards, the Phillies still win the division if Utley comes back by September, which the team brass apparently expects. Meanwhile, PECOTA says the Phillies will fall to second unless he's back by the Trade Deadline. And that's assuming the rotation stays healthy, Rollins and Howard don't slip any further, and Utley is feeling comfortable upon his return -- far from a given with this kind of problem.
What do we take away from this? There's no way to know how Philadelphia will fare in 2011 until we know more about how serious Utley's injury is, how it can be fixed and how long he'll be out. Barring a complete disaster elsewhere on the roster, the Phillies should be serious contenders, and they could still eek out a playoff spot without their second baseman. But in spite of their amazing starting pitching, a less threatening offense and the loss of their best player mean the Phillies are far from clear favorites for the pennant.