The 2011 baseball season begins this week. The Philadelphia Phillies, led by their four aces (and Joe Blanton) are considered by most to be the favorites in the National League East, if not all of baseball.
But recently, many media members have cooled on the Phillies. Many of them have decided that the Phillies have too many issues for them to win the division. Instead, they have chosen the Atlanta Braves as the winner of the NL East.
I think most of the motivation toward the Braves support is because there’s no real story in picking the Phillies to win the East. Picking the team that has won the division four years in a row and has a dominant starting pitching staff? Yawn.
But picking the Braves? Now there’s an interesting story. A group of young upstarts trying to overthrow the reigning establishment is just the type of thing to draw some interest.
Despite what these prognosticators may have you believe, the Phillies will not be conceding the division title in 2011.
Over the next few days, I’ll take a look at some of the reasons why people have predicted a Phillies downfall and explain why they will not keep the team from extending their division title streak to five years.
They will miss Jayson Werth.
If you listen to some sabermetric analysts, Jayson Werth is the greatest player to ever wear a Phillies uniform. According to their calculations, his OPS and WAR values were directly responsible for about 200 wins over the past three seasons.
And now that he is being paid an ungodly sum to play for the Nationals, the Phillies lineup will have a huge hole in it. Cleanup hitter Ryan Howard will have no protection, and won’t see one decent pitch to hit all season.
Basically, without Werth on the team, the Phillies will be lucky to score any runs at all this season.
I think the effects of losing Werth may be exaggerated by some. He was a good player both offensively and defensively, but ultimately, I think they can adequately replace him.
Personally, I always felt—and apparently Phillies management agreed—that Werth was a very good supporting player but not a player that you build a lineup around. Yes, he put up good statistics, but he was also extremely streaky.
It seemed like he did most of his damage when the rest of the Phillies lineup was also hitting well. If the team was scoring a lot of runs, he would be a big part of it. But when the team slumped as a whole, Werth would struggle along with them.
To be fair, this argument could be countered by saying that the reason the Phillies lineup was underperforming was because Werth wasn’t hitting well.
Part of the problem was Werth’s placement in the lineup. Werth typically batted fifth, but despite his right handed power, he was not an ideal fit there.
Werth showed great patience at the plate, ranking among the league leaders in pitches per at bat. That patience, along with his speed, would have made him a much better fit in one of the top two spots in the lineup.
During their playoff run in 2008, Werth often batted second in the lineup. I suppose manager Charlie Manuel felt that after Pat Burrell left in 2009, he needed a right-hander to hit behind Howard, and Werth was the best candidate.
But as a five-hole hitter, Werth’s patience sometimes served as a detriment.
Werth was abysmal with runners in scoring position last season, batting .186. By taking a lot of pitches, Werth got on base quite often. But I wonder if by taking all of those pitches, he might have cost himself some good RBI opportunities.
Batting fifth, the team needed Werth to drive in runs more than they needed him to get on base. This became more pronounced by the struggles of Raul Ibanez who typically hit behind him. If the next hitter isn’t going to be able to get the runners home, then a walk is useless.
Considering how much time the team’s usual leadoff man (Jimmy Rollins) missed last season, it would have been worth trying Werth as a leadoff hitter where his patience and speed would have been more of an asset.
But since he usually batted fifth, and didn’t do that great of a job there, why would losing him be that detrimental to the team’s fortunes?
As for the effect on Ryan Howard, I don’t think we’ll see much of a difference.
In theory, having a dangerous hitter like Werth behind him should cause pitchers to be less careful when pitching to Howard. And because Werth is right handed, it should have made opposing managers less likely to bring in a left-handed reliever to face Howard.
In reality, Werth didn’t seem to affect how opposing managers and pitchers approached Howard. Howard may be the biggest power threat in baseball, so pitchers are always going to be very careful when pitching to him, regardless of who is batting behind him.
And there are very few managers who will not bring in their best lefty reliever to face Howard (or at least a right-hander who is effective against lefties). Considering that fellow lefty Chase Utley usually bats in front of him, there were few times Howard saw a right-handed pitcher in a key late game situation.
In addition, Werth actually hit better against right-handers than left-handers last season, so his being right handed didn’t make much of a difference.
Some people seem to also be under the impression that without Werth, the Phillies will simply not have a right fielder. I believe they will indeed put someone out there, and that player may be able to make up for some of Werth’s production.
Ben Francisco will begin the season as the right fielder. While he has been a bench player the past two seasons, he had been a starter for the Indians prior to that, so it isn’t like he’s a complete unknown.
He has had moderate success in the past, and based on spring training numbers, it isn’t unreasonable to expect at least above average numbers from him.
There’s also hope that despite an horrific offseason, rookie Domonic Brown will recover from hand surgery and contribute. If he can come close to matching his minor league numbers, the Phillies will be in good shape.
So while Werth was indeed a good player, and I’m sure there will be times when his absence is felt, I don’t think losing him will have a crippling effect on the lineup or team.
But while they may be able to overcome losing Werth, how will they do without Chase Utley and other injured players? I’ll look at that tomorrow.
Originally published on my blog: Stranger in a Strange Land