Everyone and their mother is aware that the performance of the Philadelphia Phillies have left something to be desired over the last three seasons. What everyone (and their mother) is less-likely to know is that they’ve actually won MORE games than their performance would imply over that time.
A Pythagorean Win-Loss record is a calculation of the number of wins a team should have, given their runs scored vs the runs allowed by the team. It’s readily-available to anyone on Baseball-Reference.com, and it’s a tool that can be used to identify unsustainable performances.
For instance, the 2012 Baltimore Orioles were noted for a near-impossible 29-9 record in one-run games. As a result, they won 11 more games than their production on the field would imply (they should have been around .500, they both scored and allowed 4.4 runs/9 innings). The reason for this success? Their bullpen was damn good. With a roughly average offense and starting rotation, relievers would come into close games and hold small leads.
In 2012, Baltimore relievers totaled an ERA of exactly 3.00, and an ERA of 2.57 in save situations. Relief pitching is horribly inconsistent, and the team’s bullpen regressed to a 3.52 ERA in total (and 3.80 ERA in save situations) the following season. As follows, the team won exactly as many games as their pythagorean win-loss calculated that they should in 2013.
The Philadelphia Phillies face a similar conundrum to the 2012 Orioles, and it’s not quite a new problem.
After being not even a quarter of the way through 2014, the Phillies have already won two more games than their production implies (17-19 vs. 15-21). In 2013, the team actually lead all of baseball in this department, winning seven more games (73-89) than they “produced” (66-96).
As a micro-level example, look at the Phillies’ performances in the week between April 11 and April 18 of this season.
The team went 4-3 through that time, so no one complains about that result. The problem is their -9 run differential, and using the Pythagorean Win-Loss formula, they actually performed at a level to earn a 0.354 winning percentage (~2.48 wins/7).
In the case of the Orioles (and in most instances), this was an unsustainable phenomenon that came back down to Earth swiftly the following year. In all likelihood, this will be the case with the Phillies at some point this season – the difference being that the this team’s pythagorean-predicted success rate isn’t quite as high as 85 games.
As depressing as that notion is, why is it that we’ve seen this trend at all through the last 200 games?
The simple answer is that the team relies very heavily on starting pitching to win a lot of close games. With an underperforming lineup and bullpen, the Phillies’ ability to win is tied closely to how far into games a starter goes, and how few runs he allows.
Over the last two seasons, the offense has stagnated. In 2013, the team was tied for 27th in runs scored (610 runs) and 24th in production (89 wRC+). This season, it’s not much better – the team currently ranks 24th in runs scored and 22nd in wRC+.
This lack of production obviously leads to a lot of games where large margins of victory (AKA creating separation in runs scored vs. allowed) are impossible.
Pitching has to be impeccable to win a lot of low-scoring games. When the starting pitching is good, you win low run differential games. When bad, you get blown out of town. A lot of those close leads disappear with extensive bullpen use.
In 2013, and to-date in 2014, the bullpen has ranked 25th in baseball in terms of Runs Allowed/Game (4.62 and 4.75, respectively). Even the supposedly elite rotation was weak in 2013, also allowing 4.62 RA/G.
The impending return of Ethan Martin offers some hope for an additional late-inning arm, but he hasn’t even demonstrated his major league ceiling as of yet.
The top-heavy nature of the 2013 rotation allowed the team to outperform their statistics, but the weak hodge-podge of starters behind them explain how significantly “out-performing” was still only 73 wins.
The team was dead-even in one run games (28-28), and miserable in games where the run differential is at least five (AKA blowouts; 11-35). Given the extent that the team was outscored, it would be expected that they lose a higher percentage of one-run games.
Having Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee preventing runs and limiting bullpen exposure becomes very important here. Lee had 18 starts of at least 7.0 IP and 2 or fewer ER allowed, while Hamels had 13 of the same caliber.
So far in 2014, the Phillies are 9-6 in one-run games, and only 3-7 in blowouts. The rotation as a whole has performed at a higher level, with the addition of A.J. Burnett, Roberto Hernandez, and the steady-ing of Kyle Kendrick in a contract year.
However, the bullpen has regressed some, and despite some individually-strong performances, the offense hasn’t put together runs. This team seems primed to continue the trend began last season – a pythagorean win-loss of 15-21 is a pWL% of .417, roughly in-line with last season’s pWL% of .407.
When people are pessimistic about the Phillies chances of even reaching .500 this year, it’s this kind of stuff that’s being referred to.
This isn’t an issue of staying healthy, because short of Darin Ruf and Martin, the biggest loss was two missed starts by Hamels. It isn’t even an issue of age, as the lowest OPS of any 34+ year-old starter is .784 (Ryan Howard).
It’s more an issue of 5/8 everyday starters having at least a 250 point platoon split, preventing the team from stringing together hits to score runs on a daily basis. It’s an issue of having a groundball starter be the best option to use in a save situation when the closer is unavailable. It’s an issue of allowing 39% of inherited runners to score, and an issue of the Phillies allowing the highest OPSag in baseball (.783).
I apologize for sounding pessimistic, but this team looks to repeat last season, at least until the trade deadline. One way or another, I don’t see Ruben Amaro standing pat in July again this year.
The team will either continue to ride out luck, and the top of their rotation, (in my opinion) making an ill-advised addition, or finally move to rebuild the team if it starts winning at the level they are actually performing (also: any injury could still be catastrophic at this point).
Some people will say that a win is a win is a win, and that’s understandable. In a hypothetical wild-card game, I’d take Cliff Lee on the mound with a weaker offense over most other situations. Win that, and then you’ve got a legitimate playoff series with three potential aces.
I’d also take him with a four-run lead in an NLDS with a stronger offense, too. Not that you’d really predict a melt-down like that to happen, the point is that you can’t take any one performance for granted.
The odds of even getting to a wild card game aren’t exactly high – is this one of the 5 best teams in the National League? I’d rather re-group to form a complete team and to have the percentages in the Phillies’ favor in as many ways as possible.
Right now, the team just doesn’t have that.