Introduction: The Defensive Spectrum
Nathan Muir: When did Noah build the ark, Gladys? Before the rain.
—Spy Game, 2001
DH, 1B, LF, RF, 3B, CF, 2B, SS, C, P
Above is what’s known as the Bill James defensive spectrum. From left to right, it lists the ten positions in a baseball lineup from easiest to hardest defensively (i.e., it is easier to DH than to play first, easier to play first than to plat left field, and so on). This is useful in comparing the offensive contributions of players at different positions. If you take a survey to determine the five or 10 best position players in major league baseball, odds are that three of the names that would come up would be Chase Utley, Joe Mauer, and Hanley Ramirez. If you look at their offensive statistics (home runs, batting average, RBI, OPS, wOBA, anything traditional or sabermetric), you’d find that many of the numbers wouldn’t stand out against corner outfielders or first basemen. These players are so valuable because they contribute these numbers from positions to the right of the defensive spectrum, where the average player doesn’t hit as well.
For those of you who saw “Bill James,” averted your eyes, and shouted “Unclean! Unclean!” this makes a certain degree of intuitive sense as well—big, slow, and old guys (David Ortiz, Adam Dunn, Hideki Matsui) tend to play first, the corner outfield spots, and DH, while younger, more agile guys tend to play middle infield and center field.
When it comes to replacing Ryan Howard, that’s the bad news—you can’t just stick Wilson Valdez in the lineup the way you can if Jimmy Rollins gets hurt. The good news is that, perhaps because first base is the easiest position to play, the Phillies have more options there than anywhere else on the diamond.
Here’s a list of players on the Phillies’ major league roster with at least one game’s experience at first base in the major leagues: Ross Gload, Raul Ibanez, Jayson Werth, Cody Ransom, Greg Dobbs, and Placido Polanco. Also able to play first is the injured Chase Utley, who may or may not be back before Howard. And finally, let’s consider three minor league players: John Mayberry, Andy Tracy, and Matthew Rizzotti. There are potential solutions outside the organization, but let’s consider our in-house fixes first.
Part One: The Platoon
Professor G.H. Dorr: I shudder. I quake. You, sir, are a Buddhist. Is there not a “middle” way?
The General: Mm. Must float like a leaf on the river of life… and kill old lady.
—The Ladykillers, 2004
I’d lay down even money that if Howard’s going to be out for any significant length of time, this is what we’ll see: a platoon with Ross Gload starting against righties and Cody Ransom starting against lefties. It’s safe, it doesn’t involve moving anyone else around, it allows the Phillies to get another righty bat with pop in the lineup against lefties, and it shows that Uncle Cholly’s doing something proactive.
There are two major problems with this arrangement: first, putting Ransom at first against lefties eliminates the option of playing him at second or third against those pitchers, with Polanco manning the other position. Essentially, a Ransom-Gload platoon more or less glues Wilson Valdez to the starting lineup until Chase Utley comes back. Not that that’s the worst option—Exxon’s actually been playing quite well, all things considered and came up with key hits in extra-inning wins Thursday and Sunday. It’d just be nice to leave Ransom on the bench for flexibility’s sake.
The real issue is that a Gload/Ransom platoon would be a move more suited to Andy Reid or Tony LaRussa—getting too cute, outthinking yourself, and ultimately costing the team. Gload, despite being left-handed, actually hits lefties slightly better than Cody Ransom does, over his career, by about 60 points of batting average and 20 points of OPS. In fact, Gload actually hits for a better average against lefties than he does against righties (though his career OPS against righties is 30 points higher than against lefties). Even though we’ll most likely see this solution, it’s not the optimal one.
Part Two: Greg Dobbs
The Operative: That girl will rain destruction down on you and your ship. She is an albatross, Captain.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Way I remember it, albatross was a ship’s good luck, ’til some idiot killed it. Yes, I’ve read a poem. Try not to faint.
In 2007, the last time Ryan Howard spent any significant amount of time on the bench with an injury, Pat Gillick plucked a corner infielder named Greg Dobbs from Seattle’s waiver wire, and he came in and mashed for two years, including his epic 2008 season as a pinch hitter.
Since then, he’s dropped off some, to the point where he might be the most-hated Phillie. And it’s true that 2009 was a drop-off from 2008, and that he earned every bit of his demotion to AAA earlier this season, but since coming back he’s actually been pretty decent, hitting .255 with three home runs in 59 plate appearances in July, good for a .760 OPS. I don’t know if that’s a small sample size issue, or if he’s actually learning how to hit again, but Dobbs has been just as good over the past few weeks as any of the other bench players.
Part Three: Jayson Werth and Placido Polanco
Evgeni: Engineering reports 105 percent on the reactor possible…but not recommended.
Captain Tupolev: Go to 105.
—The Hunt for Red October, 1990
If you look at the list of Phillies who 1) have ever played first base and 2) can put up offensive numbers similar to Ryan Howard’s, there would be one name: Jayson Werth. Werth will most likely take Howard’s place in the cleanup spot, and he has played first before. But there are a couple snags. First, while Werth, moving down the defensive spectrum from outfield to first, would probably be able to make the move, he’s only ever played one major league inning there, in 2007. While we’re at it, let’s cross Polly off the list as well—he’s only played first once, for three innings, and that was way back in 2000.
Second, even if he were to move, with Shane Victorino out, Werth is really the only person left on the Phillies who can play center field in more than an emergency capacity. Moving Werth to first would force either Domonic Brown or Ben Francisco to play center, which, in the words of the ill-fated XO of the SSN Kanavalov, is possible…but not recommended.
Part Four: Andy Tracy or John Mayberry
Coach Boone: You cannot replace a Gerry Bertier.
–Remember the Titans, 2001
Both of these guys are known quantities, and by known quantities I mean career minor leaguers. Tracy’s hitting pretty well for the Iron Pigs—a .390 OBP with a fair turn of power. But one gets the feeling that if he could replace Ryan Howard in the lineup with any sort of proficiency, he’d have collected more than 314 plate appearances by age 36. He had five hits in a September call-up last season—those were his first five major league hits since 2004. So even if Howard does go to the DL, and Tracy gets a callup, he’ll most likely be backing up Gload, Ransom, or Dobbs at first.
Tracy’s Lehigh Valley teammate, John Mayberry, has less experience at first base, and is not outstripping Tracy in any positive offensive category. His advantages? Youth (he’s 26), and the comfort factor of looking down to first base and seeing an absolute behemoth of a man who strikes out all the time. Pass.
Part Five: Matthew Rizzotti
Crash Davis: Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once—the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.
—Bull Durham, 1988
I’ll admit that until I started researching the Phillies’ minor league prospects before the trade deadline, I didn’t know Matt Rizzotti from Adam. This is what I’ve found out: he’s 24 years old, stands at 6-foot-5 and weighs 235 pounds. He was drafted by the Twins in 2004 as a 46th-rounder out of high school, but (wisely, as it turns out) went to Manhattan College instead. After three full seasons there, he entered the draft again and was taken in the sixth round by the Phillies in 2007. He’s a Capricorn (a Christmas Eve baby, if you can believe it) and likes dogs, the works of W.H. Auden, and long walks on the beach.
But back to the relevant information. Rizzotti has come out of nowhere to put up truly remarkable numbers at AA Reading this season. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share them with you: .362/.455/.650, with 25 doubles, 16 home runs, and only 55 strikeouts in 297 plate appearances. For comparison, here are Domonic Brown’s AA numbers this season: .318/.391/.602, 15 home runs, 16 doubles, and 12 stolen bases in 271 Reading plate appearances.
Certainly, I’m not claiming that Rizzotti is a better prospect than the Domonator, but over the past season, he’s compared favorably to the Anointed One in almost every category. I don’t know what the Phillies plan to do with Rizzotti long-term, but he’s hitting .362 with patience and power in AA—how bad could he possibly be in the majors?
Possible issues? The Phillies might not want to start Rizzotti’s service time clock. They might worry about rushing him to the majors after only having spent half a season above A-ball. There’s the issue of thrusting him into a prominent position in a pennant race when he’s never been there before (though in all fairness, neither have Dom Brown, David Herndon, Ross Gload, or even, if you want to go there, Roy Halladay).
If I were dictator of the world (or at least in the Phillies’ front office), Rizzotti is the less crazy of the two options I’d consider.
Part Six: Raul Ibanez
Mr. Ollivander: We do not speak his name! The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter. It’s not always clear why. But I think it is clear that we can expect great things from you. After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things. Terrible! Yes. But great.
—Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, 2001
The last sentence of the Matt Rizzotti section brings to mind an obvious question: “What’s the crazy option?” Well, this is it. Okay—let’s assume a couple things: first, that Shane Victorino is out the 2-3 weeks originally forecast when he pulled an abdominal muscle last Tuesday. Second, that Ryan Howard is out longer than Victorino (this may or may not be the case). Third, that Dom Brown continues to hit well in the majors.
If these things are true, then the Phillies will have four starter-quality outfielders, and with Gload/Dobbs/Francisco, no shortage of depth at the position, particularly in the corners. What’s more, there will be an opening at first base.
While I don’t think he’ll ever hit as well as he did in the first half of 2009, Ibanez, after getting off to a slow start this year, has been absolutely raking for the past month—a .952 OPS in July, with a 1.331 OPS in the past week. He’s absolutely been the team’s hottest bat. So until he cools off, you can’t take him out of the lineup.
From a defensive standpoint, you’ve got Victorino, who reads fly balls like a brain-damaged golden retriever, but he’s got a huge arm for a little guy and enough make-up speed to be a decent center fielder. Then you’ve got Werth and Brown, who aren’t quite good enough defensively to play center full-time, but both cover enough ground to be good defensive corner outfielders. Then you’ve got Raul Ibanez, who’s 38, creaky-kneed, and, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it, has been a complete butthurt in left field for the past two years.
Add to this Ibanez’s 135 games of major league experience at first, and everyone’s favorite Voldemort look-alike is the obvious choice to man first. Yes, it’s been almost five seasons since he’s played there, but it’s the easiest position on the diamond, and Ryan Howard wasn’t all that great at first, either. This is the kind of move that I’d make in a video game. I have no clue whether it would work in the meatspace, and it’s very likely that we’ll never find out. I’m just trying to lay all the options out on the table.
UPDATE: The Daily News reports that, according to Charlie Manuel, Howard could be back in the lineup as early as Thursday. We’ll know more for sure as the next couple days progress, but for now, it looks like we can all rest easy on the “Season-Ending-Injury” front.