For the last few years, the Philadelphia Phillies have made their name as an offense-heavy team that occasionally pitched well.
That’s not to say they had no good pitching—they just didn’t have very much of it. Cole Hamels carried the team in both 2007 and 2008, and Cliff Lee was lights-out down the stretch in 2009, but beyond that, Philadelphia’s rotation didn’t scare anyone.
Even in 2010, manager Charlie Manuel sent Roy Halladay to the mound every fifth day (not “every fifth game”) because he didn’t trust anyone else to take the ball.
But by the end of last season, something had changed. The Phillies were the near-unanimous favorites to win the National League pennant not for their bats, but for their arms.
While assertions that the Phillies’ tremendous trio would be unbeatable in a playoff series were quickly proven false, this was a clear shift in the composition of their roster.
Philadelphia still had the offensive prowess to win in a slugfest, but 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.
The Phillies managed just 772 runs in 2010, down from 820 in 2009 and 890 in 2007. 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. Jimmy Rollins battled injuries and continued his descent into mediocrity, tying or setting career lows in nearly every offensive category as his OPS dropped 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.
Even Shane 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 Ryan Howard looks like he may be past his prime. After averaging 50 homers and 143 RBI from 2006-09 (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.
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, Jayson Werth, to free agency, and his replacement, young right fielder Domonic Brown, is out for at least a month with a broken wrist.
But now Philadelphia faces an even bigger problem. Face-of-the-franchise Chase Utley’s knee problems are turning out to be worse than we’d thought.
They are understandably hesitant to let Utley undergo surgery for his tendinitis, 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. If he ends up needing surgery, it could take him months to recover fully.
The salient question is: Are they still the favorites without their keystone man? Thanks to some sabermetric projection systems, we can get a good idea of the answer.
The easiest system to use for measuring players’ projected impacts on their teams is FanGraphs.com’s FAN Projections.
Here, the Phillies hold a five-game lead in the NL East over the second-place Florida Marlins; 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.
Can the Phillies make the playoffs without Utley?
If he’s back at 100-percent 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.
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 lose a little more than a win each month Utley is out.
By CAIRO’s standards, the Phillies still win the division as long Utley comes back by September, 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.
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, but in spite of their amazing starting pitching, a less threatening offense and the loss of their best player mean they are far from clear favorites for the pennant.