Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ryne Sandberg hints that warmer weather could help the Phillies offense

(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

In four straight losses last week, the Phillies were outscored 15-7, getting shut out twice. This was followed by two wins in which they outscored the Reds 20-4. In disparities this notable, people begin to look for trends. 

Ryne Sandberg uttered some ambiguous hope that this sudden trend of monstrous offense was only in its beginning stages.

"Potentially, with some warmer weather," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said, when asked if his team can hit for more power. "But we have potential up and down the lineup with guys getting hot, and hopefully that continues."

This was more than a nice way to say, "I don't know, guys. I can't predict the future." The four games the Phillies lost weren't played in any weather conditions remarkably different than their two big home wins against the Reds. However, Sandberg does have a point about the weather, though hopefully his entire plan for the offense doesn't hinge on it.

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  • Per the 2014 Farmers' Almanac, starting in the middle of June, the northeast will be cursed by the sun, boiling the surface of the earth, with frequent breaks to allow the sky to open, before departing in September (when the hurricanes come) and leaving moist, charred craters in its wake.

    It's exactly the fantasy we imagined all winter, sort of, and by the time we're all vaporized piles of ash in August, it may have helped the Phillies hit a little better.

    As Sandberg hinted, hitting improves in warmer weather. With higher temperatures, the air expands and gets less dense, allowing the ball to travel farther (Charlie Manuel used to call it "hittin' season.")

    Alternatively, on a humid night with more moisture in the air, a pitcher can get a better grip on the ball (as opposed to the cold of the playoffs, when guys are blowing into their hands and drying out their skin). Any time a hurler can improve their handle on the ball, the more control they'll have over where it goes.

    Of course, this isn't a science by which only the Phillies will adhere; anybody playing in hotter, more humid weather can use it to their advantage. The heat wave is coming no matter what teams are squaring off in the northeast, so who, thus far, is one environmental advantage away from an improved offensive attack?

    The answer is, of course, probably no one. But since we're doing this, let's check.

    Ryan Howard is the Phillies leader in fly balls, with 42.9 percent of his batted balls being to the outfield. He is tied for 29th in all of baseball. Howard's home run to fly ball ration (HR/FB), or the likelihood that a fly ball he hits will be a home run, is a mere 4.4 percent. (For comparison's sake, Troy Tulowitzki has a 34.5 percent FB and 31.7 percent HR/FB.)

    Carlos Ruiz (25.3 pecent), Chase Utley (25 percent) and Marlon Byrd (24.1 percent) all fall in MLB's top 30 in line drive percentage (LD). A boost from the expanding warm air of mid-summer could theoretically benefit guys who can smash a liner in a quarter of their connections.

    However, since there is no measurement for how often a line drive is fielded/caught or falls for a hit, we rely on Batting Average for Balls In Play, or BABIP.

    According to Fangraphs, typically a hitter's BABIP rests somewhere in the .290-.310 range. This means that the balls they are hitting are being fielded and the ones dropping for hits are true hits; they haven't been playing many defenses that are elite or awful, they're not currently going through any sort of transition in their stance or approach, and they haven't been having good or terrible luck of any kind.

    However, this is how the BABIP breaks down among the Phillies LD percentage leaders:

    • Ruiz: .327
    • Utley: .372
    • Byrd: .393

    Each are slightly to more than slightly elevated over the average BABIP, meaning that at some point, they'll be regressing. Ruiz will regress the least, so his regression will be the least palpable, but still – they'll all likely be going in the same direction.

    A hitter like Domonic Brown, who has started and stayed relatively cold all year, isn't going to see a huge bonus by playing in warmer weather. Should he catch fire as he did in May 2013, then it will likely be thanks in part to BABIP and whatever adjustments he has made. Maybe an intense spike in the barometer will help the Phils' line drivers line drive a bit longer.

    Technically, Sandberg is not wrong. But the idea that the Phillies offense could prove more potent because of an incoming heat wave is probably no more effective to the team than breaking down a passing comment the manager made in a postgame presser.
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