Approach '12: Phillies need to work smarter, not harder

My first year on the baseball beat, I ended up doing a lot of radio interviews. An unfamiliar area code would appear on my cell phone, I would answer it, and on the other end would be a producer from Seattle or Louisville or Syracuse asking me if I had a few minutes to jump aboard and talk about the Phillies. I did not know why they were calling me, only that it made me feel good. They must be reading my stuff online and be impressed with my keen insight, I thought. Maybe my family wasn't just trying to make me feel good, after all. Sure, at the time, I had a more intimate knowledge of Central High football than I did of professional baseball. But if my Pocono Mountain charm and magnetic disposition was in demand, well, who was I to deny the good people of Louisville?

Then one day I was out to lunch with a few other beat writers. I do not remember the particulars, but I can only assume that we were sharing a healthy organic meal and talking about how lucky we were to be spending our summer nights sitting in press boxes and flying U.S. Air. Anyway, we were sitting around the table when a phone vibrated. One of the beat writers, a guy named Ryan Lawrence, took a quick look at his Nokia and ignored it. Veterinarian, I figured.

A minute later, another phone vibrated. This time, it was mine. I looked at the screen. Area code 206. Radio station. I scanned the restaurant, but did not see a quiet place where I could field the call and impart my vast knowledge on the listening audience. I sighed. Public discourse was just going to have to suffer for one day.

I was all set to dig in to my meal when another phone vibrated. This time, it belonged to a guy named Scott Lauber. A disgusted look crossed his face as he hit "Ignore."

"Was that the Seattle radio station?," Lawrence asked him.

"Yeah," Lauber said.

I was confused. I'd done an interview with a Seattle radio station several times already. Surely, they were talking about a different one. Probably some low frequency joint out of Snohomish.

"What area code is Seattle," I asked.

Lauber looked at his phone and said, "206."

Aghast, I listened as Lauber explained how the radio producers would simply open up the Media Information Guide that the commissioner's office distributes each season and call each of a team's beat writers until they answered. They weren't interviewing me because I was the only one who could provide an informative take on the Phillies. They were interviewing me because I was the only one who answered.

"Yeah," I said. "I hate it when they call!"

The moral of the story is that nobody really cares what we have to say, just that we say something, particularly when the Mariners stink and the phone lines are dead. Regardless, in 2010, whenever a radio host or television host or emailer would ask me whether any team in the National League could stop the Phillies in the postseason, my answer was consistent: Yes. The Giants. I still believe that San Francisco is the one team that had the ability to beat the Phillies. This year, I said the same thing about the Cardinals. I think the Brewers had a better shot than any of the 2010 options, but only if Shaun Marcum was on top of his game, which he wasn't.

Many of you probably felt the same way. Because anybody who has watched this offense over the last four years knows that there is a certain type of pitcher that regularly shuts the Phillies down.

Looking at the numbers, I think we can identify exactly who that pitcher is. Long story short, it is a pitcher whose strikeout rate far exceeds his walk rate. As you will see later, the Phillies are actually a relatively patient team at the plate. This year, they swung at fewer first pitches than any team in the league. They saw more 2-0, 3-0 and 3-1 counts than all but one team.

But a pitcher who has excellent command is going to allow fewer 2-0, 3-0 and 3-1 counts. So a hitter whose approach is to work a favorable count in order to get a pitch to drive might never end up in such a situation.

In the majors in 2011, 50 qualifying starters posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 2.50. The Phillies faced one of those 50 starters in 52 of their 162 games. Below is how they fared against those starters, and against the other 110.

  G Record Runs/GS ER/9 IP BA OBP HR/9 IP XBH/9 IP
K/BB >= 2.50 52 22-30 2.19 2.66 .227 .283 0.72 2.26
K/BB < 2.50 110 80-30 3.30 4.87 .270 .340 1.10 3.21

That is a pretty stark difference. I know what you are thinking: every team in baseball is going to fare better against lesser-talented pitchers. It's a fair point. But every team in baseball is not expected to go to the World Series. Every team in baseball does not have a $175 million payroll. And every fan base in baseball does not equate failure with anything short of a world title.

In the National League Division Series, the Phillies faced three starting pitchers who had a strikeout-to-walk ratio better than 2.50. The Phillies' final numbers for the series: a .226 batting average, a .269 on base percentage, 0.61 HR/9 and 2.25 XBH/9. Sound familiar? Look at the top line of the chart.

The Phillies fared pretty much as their regular season performance projected. When Chris Carpenter could not find the strike zone, they thrived. When he could find the strike zone, they struggled. In the end, they still would have won the series if either Cliff Lee or Roy Oswalt had been able to pitch at their usual level. But part of the reason they did not pitch at their usual level is that the Cardinals' offense is pretty damn good at hitting good pitchers. And that is one of the important lessons to take away from the loss.

The fine folks at define "good" pitchers by different terms than strikeout-to-walk ratio. But their quantification still supports the notion that the Phillies do not do a good job at adjusting their approaches against different-caliber pitchers.

Baseball-Reference breaks pitchers down into three categories, using their strikeouts and walk totals over the three previous position to classify them as "Power" (top third), "Average" (middle third) and "Finesse" (bottom third).

Here is how the Phillies and Cardinals compare against "Power" pitchers (in other words, the pitchers teams are likely to face in the postseason):

STL         .251 .334 .407 9.6 4.8 32.4 35.4 %
PHI .233 .315 .375 10.3 4.7 36.7 35.1 %
NL AVG .229 .309 .355 10.4 4.2 42.4 32.2 %

The Phillies ranked in the Top 6 in the NL in batting average, OBP and slugging percentage. But the Cardinals ranked first in all three categories. Watching both line-ups, it was easy to see the approach St. Louis used to produce against the Phillies' vaunted rotation. And we can use that approach as an example of what Ruben Amaro Jr. envisions when he says that the Phillies have a championship-caliber lineup if they use the right approach.

But it isn't as simple as saying that the Phillies need to be more patient, or that they need to do a better job of hitting with two strikes, or that they need to do a better job of grinding out at-bats.

I made this mistake in my first blog post on this subject, focusing on things like the number of pitches the Phillies were seeing per plate appearance, the number of hitter's counts they were seeing, the number of first pitches they were swinging at, and their batting average with two strikes.

All of those numbers do a decent job at representing the Phillies' success during the regular season. Keep in mind that they scored the most runs in the National League over the last 81 games of their schedule (St. Louis finished second). Against the majority of pitchers, their approach was more than fine. The problem is, the majority of pitchers they face in the regular season are not close to the caliber of the pitchers they faced in the postseason. Refer back to the first table, which shows that they faced average-to-below-average pitchers (at least in terms of K/BB ratio) in 110 of their 162 games. For every Chris Carpenter or Ricky Nolasco they faced two Mike Pelfreys or Chris Volstads. And that does not take bullpens into consideration.

The irony in all of this is that the Phillies spent all season watching the approaches that worked against elite-level pitchers. Because their opponents faced elite-level pitchers nearly every night. I still think the bulk of this gets back to personnel, but we'll deal with that later. For now, we're assuming the Phillies' approach is the problem and that they have the ability to change it.

So how do teams score on good pitchers?

1) Strike early

In the game, and in the count. Of the 41 extra base hits Roy Halladay allowed this season, 19 of them came on the first or second pitch of the at-bat. Three of his 10 home runs came on the first or second pitch. In all, opponents hit .326 on when they made contact on the first or second pitch of an at-bat. Of the 65 total runs he allowed in 2011, 14 of them came in the first inning. He allowed all four of his postseason runs in the first inning. This makes sense. Once a pitcher the caliber of a Halladay or Carpenter gets into a groove, you don't have a chance. So get him when he is most vulnerable.

2) Don't wait for the perfect pitch

In previous blog posts, we have looked at the spray charts of Phillies hitters. None of what we see is surprising. They are a lineup full of hitters who pull the ball in the air to right field. As they have aged, they have done so less effectively against all pitchers, because they do not have the power they once did. Their numbers when ahead in the count were alarmingly pedestrian this season. In fact, they have dropped steadily over the last four years:

Below are their NL ranks in each category when ahead in the count, with the actual statistic in parantheses:

Year Plate App. OPS SLG HR
2011 2nd (2265) 9th (.950) 7th (.490) 3rd (76)
2010 2nd (2300) 5th (.985) 3rd (.511) 2nd (73)
2009 2nd (2316) 5th (1.023) 2nd (.548) 1st (93)
2008 4th (2272) 5th (1.033) 1st (.556) 1st (103)
2007 1st (2406) 1st (1.082) 1st (.574) 1st (92)
2006 2nd (2365) 2nd (1.039) 4th (.544) 3rd (87)

Of any data set that I have looked at over the past couple weeks, this is the one that most accurately surmises the current state of the offense. It also suggests that when the Phillies had their healthiest, strongest and most diverse roster, their approach at the plate was fine. In 2007, their lefty pull hitters (Rollins, Utley, Victorino, Howard) were at their peak, plus they had high on base percentage righties like Pat Burrell, Aaron Rowand and Jayson Werth to balance things out. Rollins' MVP season obviously helped boost those numbers. But even in 2006, when his production was more representative of his career averages, the Phillies placed second in OPS when ahead in the count despite placing fourth in slugging percentage, which was a result of an excellent on base percentage. But after 2008, the Phillies power began to dip.

Unless Chase Utley returns to the production he showed during his peak or Rollins breaks out with another 2007, the Phillies simply cannot rely on their ability to mash balls when ahead in the count. The fact that their home run total has not declined as fast as their OPS or slugging percentage might suggest that they are still trying to do that. Or it might suggest that the pull hitters are no longer complemented by the parts that would allow their power to continue to play. Or it suggests that pitching around the league is better. In all likelihood, there is some truth in each deduction.

Either way, few teams are going to be able to beat Chris Carpenter by waiting for a pitch in their hot zone that they can drive. As the Cardinals showed, a hitter's pitch from a good pitcher is different from a hitter's pitch from a mediocre pitcher.  

It's why guys like Nick Punto and Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker have played such key roles in the Cardinals' run to the World Series. They are guys who hit to get on base, not guys who hit for power. And against the best pitchers, a pitch on outer third that you can slap to the opposite field might be the best pitch you are going to see.

The question is, can Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley play more like Ryan Theriot? Do you want Shane Victorino to play more like Ryan Theriot? Is Ryan Howard's problem with his approach, or with his struggles with identifying and making contact with off-speed pitches? And do you risk diminishing the thing he does best -- mash fastballs and mistakes -- by trying to alter his approach? Or do you need to surround these established veterans with players like Ryan Theriot?

The Phillies have tried to shift the identity of their lineup over the last couple of seasons. Placido Polanco and Hunter Pence both hit well with two strikes and use the whole field. Carlos Ruiz's emergence at the plate has helped. But Polanco has been injured during the last two stretch runs.

In some ways, the 2010 and 2011 Phillies may have been hurt by the abundance of crappy pitching they saw during their formative years. From 2000-09, no more than 112 pitchers finished a regular season with at least 40 innings pitched a strikeout-to-walk ratio of greater than 2.5. In 2010, 128 pitcher accomplished that feat. In 2011, that number ballooned to 149.

In 2011, 50 qualifying starters finished the season with a K/9 rate of at least 7.0. In 2005, only 24 did.

That's not scientific evidence. But it certainly suggests that pitchers have better command, which would suggest that hitters are seeing far fewer meatballs, which would suggest that they should not spend as much time waiting around for them.

3) Grind

The most notable difference between the Phillies and the Cardinals was the number of pitches St. Louis hitters fouled off. Not surprisingly, the Phillies fouled off fewer pitches than any other National League team during the regular season: 25 percent of their strikes were on foul balls.

The current hitters in the lineup would certainly do well to make more contact on borderline pitches. But do they have that ability?

Of the million or so words we've written on this topic over the last few weeks, the four most pertinent are, "Can they?" and, "Will they?" The feeling here is that Amaro's challenge to his hitters and coaching staff is more rhetoric than anything. If Manuel has been preaching all of this stuff and his hitters have not been listening, well, now he has the ability to say, "Look guys, my ass is on the line here." At the same time, the front office has to be aware of the personnel differences between the Cardinals' line-up and the Phillies'. Lance Berkman was a professional hitter before he arrived with the Cardinals and he'll be one after he leaves. Same goes for Matt Holliday. Nick Punto and Ryan Theriot might not be offensive superstars, but they bring a heck of a lot more to the plate than Michael Martinez and Wilson Valdez.

The Phillies do not need to blow up their roster, and they do not need to radically transform their approach. They need to tinker with both. They need to re-focus both their approach at the plate and their approach to the structure of their roster to fit their current abilities. Maybe that means making an economically-feasible run at Aramis Ramirez, if there is such a run to be made. Maybe the means replacing a Valdez with a Jerry Hairston or a Nick Punto or a Jamey Carroll. Maybe it means bringing in a guy like Josh Willingham. Maybe it means thinking outside the box on the trade market.

We'll take a look at all of those possibilities closer to free agency. For now, we'll wrap it up.