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Whom Can We Trust?

I’m not that easily shocked, but something happened to me Wednesday night that I think bears repeating here. I was at a bar with a couple friends, when, realizing that the famed “Pitchers and Catchers” was only a couple weeks away, I let out a sigh and said, almost without thinking, “God, I’m ready for baseball season to start again.”

Three tables away, a man overheard my comment, came over my table, and almost without warning launched into a three-minutes of some of the most hateful invective I’ve ever heard about one Cole Hamels. I began offering some counter-arguments (“Cole was distracted with the new wife and baby” and “Cole was unlucky with his high BABIP”), but this man was hearing nothing of it. He didn’t hear me, because he was screaming so loud and not stopping to breathe, and even if he had, I don’t think he would have cared much about the fact that Cole allowed two more hits per 9 innings in 2009 than 2008, despite almost all other peripheral stats remaining the same.

It occurred to me that the Phillies’ ascendancy in 2007 and 2008 was due in large part to three players who, for whatever reason, were all just abject disappointments in 2009. These three–Jimmy Rollins, Hamels, and Brad Lidge, will all be back in prominent roles in 2010. I don’t think it’s fair to blame these three for the failure to repeat (after all, a lot of things went wrong in that World Series), but I do think it would help if the Phillies had a leadoff hitter with an OBP over .300, a No. 2 starter who’s somewhat more consistent than two-hit shutout one night, then 7 earned runs in 4 2/3 innings five days later, and a closer who’s not having literally the worst year ever for a full-season closer.

So from these three stalwart Phillies, what can we expect? Whom can we trust?

Jimmy Rollins
J-Roll is my favorite Phillie of all time. Yeah, I’m willing to say that. He’s one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, one of the best basestealers (by percentage as well as volume), and he has good power for a shortstop (about 20 homers and 40 doubles a year). However, he’s never hit .300 in a full season (even in his MVP year he hit .296) and he’s never had an OBP above .350, which, combined with his power, leads me to believe that the leadoff spot might not actually be the best place for him.

But will he replicate last year, when, up until the All-Star break, he was a faster, better-groomed Eric Bruntlett? I say no, because since 2004, he’s been remarkably consistent, throwing up .290/.340/.450 seasons like clockwork, with the exception of 2007, when his slugging percentage jumped about 50 points from 2006 and he won the MVP. Even post-All-Star last year, his batting average jumped 50 points from the first half and his slugging percentage jumped 150 points. But his OBP, even in the second half, was still only .306, which leads me to wonder if J-Roll might be done as a leadoff hitter. He’s still an incredibly valuable player, with his power, speed, and defense, but as little as he walks (and, at 31 on Opening Day, we can probably expect him to start declining slowly in the next couple years), he might be better-suited to hit 6th in the order if his batting average continues to slide. We’ll see. I think expecting a second-half Rollins all year next year is reasonable.

Cole Hamels
This post over at The Fightins pretty much sums up how I feel about Cole Hamels in 2009. It’s a great read, and very thought-provoking, and I’m not just saying that because they quote my friend and colleague Paul Boye liberally in the piece. For those of you without the time and inclination to click the link, here’s a brief summary. Much of pitching is luck. You can give up a 390-foot fly ball or a liner hit right on the screws and it can be an out depending on whether it’s hit at a fielder or not. As we so often on ESPN, the difference between an out and a double is often how well the fielder reads the ball off the bat. The pitcher can control strikeouts, walks, and home runs, and to a certain extent, whether the hits he gives up are ground balls, fly balls, or line drives. With that said, the biggest difference statistically between Cole Hamels 2008 and Cole Hamels 2009 was that kind of luck.

He kept striking people out at the same rate, walking people at the same rate, giving up the same percentages of grounders, line drives, fly balls, and pop-ups. But while in 2008 the only way to score against Cole Hamels was with the two solo homers a game he was good for, in 2009, he gave up a phenomenal number of dying quails, Texas Leaguers, and broken-bat toppers for hits.

But while I said that luck was the biggest factor in Cole Hamels’ disappointing 2009, I didn’t say only. When things were going well, he was still the same, and you got that brilliant complete-game shutout in Dodger Stadium on less than 100 pitches. But when those cheap bloopers started falling in, you could almost visibly see the wheels falling off. This is what happened in Game 3 of the World Series, incidentally. While 2008 Hamels would have shaken off the A-Rod Camera Homer and gotten on with his night, 2009 Hamels went to pieces.

I suspect that part of this was due to Cole Hamels becoming a father for the first time at age 25 during the playoffs. I don’t fault him if his head was miles away during the playoffs–mine would have been too. I suspect that part of this was, yes, due to the lost focus and band conditioning while he was doing Letterman and the banquet circuit in the offseason, and letting his wife slowly emasculate him in magazine condominium ads.

So what do I think for 2010? I think Cole (whom we haven’t heard much from since that Game 3, by the way) has gone to Tibet or something to train without distractions. I think he’s learned from what worked in 2007-08 and what didn’t work in 2009. I think he’s taken the Lee/Halladay hoopla to heart. I think he’s going to come back, at 26, in eff-you mode, possibly with a third effective pitch, and break off 200 strikeouts, an ERA at or below 3.00, and, if the stars of run support and the bullpen align, make a run at 20 wins. I think he’ll make some Cy Young noise. There’s no way he’s that unlucky again for a whole season, and there’s no way he’s that unfocused all season again. I think the Cole Hamels of 2010 will be arrogant, rejuvenated, and effective.

Brad Lidge
In baseball, people say “best ever” or “worst ever” far too often. But Brad Lidge’s 2009 was an unmitigated disaster, a test case in which we find out what a pitcher with an average fastball and a devastating slider turns into when he’s suddenly a pitcher with a terrible fastball and a league-average slider. Suddenly, the walks, which aren’t an issue when you’re giving up two-thirds of a hit an inning and striking out double digits every nine innings, lead to blown save opportunities and, by my estimation, a difference of as much as eight game in the standings.

Here’s what we know. Brad Lidge was never completely healthy in 2009. We know this because he went on the DL mid-season and wasn’t any better when he came off, plus he’s had two different surgeries this offseason. The second, a knee operation three weeks ago, should rule him out for Opening Day. Good. I don’t want him rushed back. I want him to take far too long to rehab the knee, not because I don’t want him on the roster, but I don’t want 80 percent of Brad Lidge early on at the price of not having any kind of effective Brad Lidge later.

So if keeping him out until May means we get a decent closer for the second half of the season and the playoffs, I’m all for it.

But what kind of closer will he be? I know this sounds like a cop-out, but about halfway between 2008 Lidge and 2009 Lidge. First, it’s hard to get any worse than Brad Lidge in 2009. But even as he gets older, and his fastball starts to lose a little zip, I think that, when healthy, he’s a good closer. And we could have used a closer of any kind last year, even one who’s just “good.”

So there go three of the biggest question marks for 2010. Have a pleasant weekend, brothers and sisters, and stay strong–only 12 more days until pitchers and catchers report.

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