Being Candid on “Liabilities” and Different Ways of Thinking

I’ve never been afraid of what some would consider contrarian thinking, mostly because I look at a different set of statistics than 90 percent of fans. I despise a pitcher’s record. I think saves are the worst stat ever invented and have negatively affected both pitcher use and baseball economics to a great degree. And I’m not afraid to be critical of or detach myself from a fan favorite if it means the team could benefit from their changing or departing.

Bleep Bloop VORP

Bleep Bloop VORP

No, I’m not a robot. I have feelings, and I root for this Phillies team like no other professional sports team on earth. I’m just not readily willing to admit every player is spotless, without flaw and undeserving of criticism, no matter the situation. I’m not content to sit back and suck my thumb while I watch subversive things go on between the chalk lines.

In starting this blog, I hoped to bring a different way of looking at things into view and into consideration. Obviously, something like that could never garner universal acceptance, or even majority approval after a long while.

I take flak for this. I get strange looks. People get all in a huff when I try to explain that Ryan Madson is a better reliever than Brad Lidge, or that Cole Hamels really didn’t struggle so much as he got blooped to death for an entire season. I’m not a loony, and I rarely say things off-the-cuff, without research and careful wording and analysis before speaking/typing. I have respect for all of you readers out there, and wouldn’t think for a second to insult you by simply posturing and positing ideas without some semblance of reinforcement.

OK, with all that huffing and puffing off my chest, it’s time to get to the meat of the matter.

It’s difficult for me to back up my criticisms of Charlie Manuel with concrete evidence, especially after a World Series run in 2008. I usually say that it sure helps when a manager has a future Hall of Fame 2B, an incredibly powerful 1B, and the best defensive unit the team has ever had all at once, among other amenities. Kind of takes care of the work for him.

But when articles like the one Keith Law wrote for ESPN – Insider content, I can’t post much – appear, I have to go the confirmation bias route for a second (even though none really exists here) and show that I am not the only breathing human who thinks Manuel isn’t exactly faultless; country bumpkin that he is. Law is a guy who is incredibly well-respected throughout baseball, being a former assistant to the GM in Toronto. He shouldn’t need an introduction.

Read this quote from Law’s preview piece on the Phillies, found here, and ponder it for a moment.

Even though the Phillies won the World Series last year, it’s hard to look at Manuel as anything but a liability. The 130-pitch outing from Pedro is a good recent example of his stubborn adherence to an outdated way of managing players. His comments on Lidge this month reveal his own indecision on what to do with the closer role. He loves to line up left-handed hitters in a row, and might have to be struck by lightning before he’d remove Howard for a pinch hitter against a lefty.

This paragraph is particularly intriguing to me. I’m a believer that the manager’s role is often incredibly overrated, and all one needs to do to be a successful National League manager is understand two things: 1) pitcher management and 2) the double switch. The former is rudimentary and applies to all baseball managers of every level. The latter is something unique to the N.L. on a professional level, and something Cholly didn’t quite seem to fully grasp until sometime during the 2007 season. Any person with a modicum of social skill can be a “player’s manager.”

Sometimes, you have to question the unquestionable

Sometimes, you have to question the unquestionable

Let’s discuss that tricky “pitcher management” thing for a second. Baseball Prospectus has a compilation of pitchers and their “Pitcher Abuse Points,” a cumulative statistic that evaluates each pitcher’s start and assigns it a number of points, typically based on pitches thrown, innings pitched, the difficulty of the situations pitched through, etc. More points means more “abuse.” I don’t know the exact formula, no.

You shouldn’t be surprised, then, to see Justin Verlander top the list, found here. What you might not expect, however, would be to find four different Phillies starters in the top 30 of the most abused pitchers in the league. That includes the wizard J.A. Happ, who managed to accrue more abuse points in 23 starts than Seattle super ace Felix Hernandez did in 34. Is it fair to directly compare the two? Obviously not, as Happ has nowhere near the stuff of Hernandez, but you get the picture.

In just the N.L. alone, Cliff Lee ranked third (though that includes his time with the Indians), Happ seventh, Cole Hamels eighth and Joe Blanton twelfth. Pedro Martinez, in all of nine starts, managed to be the 19th most-abused pitcher, ranking above guys with more than three times his number of starts (no thanks to that 130-pitch outing).

You get the point. In defense of Manuel, however, he had to ride his starters a little harder in midseason because of an underperforming and overworked bullpen. That trend held, though, and the starters were ridden hard up until the last weekend of the year. Even Manuel has said that you can only work with what you’ve got, and he’s right. He wasn’t bequeathed a great bullpen to begin with, but it’s a more-than-adequate one, despite the injuries that befell it.

Now, what about that pinch-hitting for Howard sentence?

[Manuel] loves to line up left-handed hitters in a row, and might have to be struck by lightning before he’d remove Howard for a pinch hitter against a lefty.

Even I thought this notion to be a little bit borderline in terms of overmanaging, at first, but it sure doesn’t seem like such a bad idea on paper.

For his career, Howard has a .226/.310/.444 line with 53 HR in 1,060 plate appearances against lefties. In 2009, he hit .207/.298/.356 with six HR in 252 plate appearances against lefties. He hasn’t improved against them at all. Now, if the Phillies could even sniff an adequate bench, pinch-hitting would be a more viable and even somewhat understandable option. As it stands, Ben Francisco is your best option to throw out against lefties off the bench, as he sports a career .260/.348/.422 line against lefties, with slightly worse performance this year.

Is Howard already a platoon player?

Is Howard already a platoon player?

It’s tough to take off the rose-colored glasses, I know. It’s difficult to point out the flaws of your own team’s players. But it’s critically important to recognize – or at least accept – these things. Sometimes, it’s beneficial to keep an open mind and recognize where things could be improved. This doesn’t make you – or I – a hater. You’re allowed to be critical, you know. Just because there’s a popular way of doing and viewing things doesn’t mean that that way is always right, just as I admit that my way isn’t always right on its own.

Just know that I’m not blowing smoke out of my ass when I criticize Charlie Manuel, and I’m not a closet Met fan when I say I’m plenty fine with letting Ryan Howard walk after the 2011 season. I don’t like knowing that these things exist, but they need attention. I don’t like always having to be That Guy, always looking for and talking about the flaws, but it’s something ingrained in me; something I can’t unsee or unthink. You know, like the arrow embedded in the FedEx logo. You see it once, and you always see it after.

I’m sure to respect the opinions of every other fan, and if I think they’re wrong I try to show them why. I only ask the same of you as you read both mine and Mike’s work. We’re not stupid, we know what we’re saying and what we’re talking about. Respect what we have to say, and you’ll get respect right back.

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