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Why The Phillies Are Better Off Being Lucky v. Good

Best case scenario? Cole Hamels and the Phillies are lucky in addition to being good in 2012. Photo by: Ian Riccaboni

If you recognize the name Andy Martino, you either remember his brief time as a Phillies beat reporter in 2009 or you are a Mets fan who knows him from his work as the New York Daily News’  Mets lead. If you didn’t know the name before just now? You will know him for passing along this gem from an unnamed NL scout: “Other than those three pitchers, they’re not very good.”

If I were the Phillies in 2012, I would put one quote on the bulletin board.

Disregarding Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels is bad. In its own right is like saying Hulk Hogan is nothing without his 24 inch pythons, melting hotdog-colored skin, and unlimited charisma, the Ramones were nothing without Joey, Johnny, and Deedee, or that a banana split is nothing without bananas, gooey toppings, and vanilla ice cream. After all, nobody wants just steroids, or just fill in musicians, or just a pile of nuts and whipped cream. The situation beyond Halladay, Lee, and Hamels is not quite as the mysterious unnamed scout would have you believe. The trio is good enough to win a World Series almost on their own merit. But in recent history, it is often better to be lucky than good.

Do I think the Phillies will win the 2012 World Series? While I think it is possible, there are a number of holes to fill and they would need a lot of things to go right in order for that to happen. Do I think they will make the playoffs? Absolutely. Recent history dictates almost matter-of-factly that teams can throw out the rule book and regular season when they reach the playoffs. This is why I would rather have the Phillies be lucky than good.

Using FanGraphs WAR, or fWAR, here is a graph of the combined fWARs of starting pitching for each of the last 10 pennant winners, NL World Series winners outlined in blue, AL World Series Winners outlined in red, league highs with green shaded boxes, and league lows with red shaded boxes:

Amazingly, only 3 out of the last 10 World Series winners had better regular season starting pitching according to WAR than their opponents. Both league highs lost their World Series match-ups, with the NL’s high being swept in 2005, and both league’s low teams won. (Side note: if you need any proof that baseball’s playoffs are amongst the most random events, look no further than the 2006 Cardinals whose entire starting pitching staff was out-pitched by both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee each last year.)

These stats can be a bit misleading, however. Teams who have dominant pitching and less hitting would have a higher percentage of WAR per win. Adjusting for that, here is what that chart looks like by percentage of WAR per regular season win:

What does this mean? Well adjusting starters’ WAR against the total number or regular season wins paints an even more confusing picture: teams with great starting pitching are just as susceptible as teams with pitching that carriers less of the load for their team. While great pitching will get you into the playoffs, it isn’t guaranteed to get you anywhere.

One of the most glaring, and relevant, examples to this is the 2008 World Series. 1 through 5, Tampa Bay unquestionably had the better staff. Five very good pitchers, brimming with potential, all under 26 years old facing Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, and Joe Blanton. What won that World Series for the Phillies? One dominating pitcher, timely hits, and luck. The Phillies caught lightning in a bottle and the Rays couldn’t catch a break.

Phillies starters put up an astounding 23.1 WAR last year, or 22.6% of their win total. That 23.1 WAR is better than every NL team that has won the pennant in the last 10 years and better than every pennant winner across both leagues not named the 2003 New York Yankees. Assuming the five Phillies starters are Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Worley, and Blanton, FanGraphs projects the staff to accumulate around 22.2 WAR in 2012. If they reach the World Series with that kind of WAR, they would have a pretty striking comparable: the 2005 Houston Astros.

The 2005 Houston Astros had only three regulars hit over .280 in a year where it is assumed steroids were still pretty rampant. They scored 28 runs under the NL average, were 3rd last in the NL in batting average and on-base percentage, and 6th worst in slugging. They did, however, have three dominant pitchers, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, and Roy Oswalt and barely held on to the Wild Card in the final weekend of the season, breaking Phillies’ fans hearts. That team was swept by a team with almost equally great starting pitching, the Chicago White Sox, who just happened to play a little better and get a little luckier. More recently, the 2010 San Francisco Giants reached the playoffs in 2010 with two great arms (Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain), one hot one (Johnathan Sanchez), and an almost exactly league-average offense (4.3 rpg v. 4.0 rpg NL avg., .260 BA v. .257 BA NL avg.).

There is precedent for teams built like the 2012 Phillies reaching and winning the World Series. Great pitching and league-average offense has done the trick in the past. As for the unnamed NL scout? I think he is overestimating the importance of Ryan Howard‘s absence, underestimating Vance Worley, is ignoring the talent of Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence, and Carlos Ruiz, and forgets that a lot of these guys have been there before. For me, it’s no longer about being good; I want to get to the playoffs and be lucky.

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