The Red Sox-Phillies myth
When you compare the 2012 Red Sox to the 2013 Phillies, it is difficult to find a similar potential for such improvement.
How bad are the Eagles? At yesterday's game, a fellow writer and I were talking about the Phillies. Actually, it was before the game, and the only other option was watching Warren Sapp on NFL Network, so we might have been talking about the Phillies even if the Eagles were good. But they aren't good, and neither are the Flyers, and the Sixers are barely an NBA team at this point. So, like I was saying: the Phillies.
There was a topical hook to our chat. I had just completed an eloquent soliliquy on why the Phillies would not compete for a Word Series until at least 2015, when my colleague interjected with a comparison to the Red Sox.
"They didn't think they would have a chance at this time last year, either," he said.
And then we spent the next half hour arguing and getting nowhere. So I decided to double back this morning, mostly because I need something to write, but also because I have heard the argument from several optimistic Phillies fans over the last couple of months: the Red Sox did it, why can't the Phillies? In fact, a reporter asked that kind of question to Ruben Amaro Jr. at one point during the last couple of months of the regular season, and Amaro pointed out the obvious truth that the Red Sox were able to trade several big contracts and reinvest that money into the team.
"It's a little different in their case because they had players at the major-league level with large contracts that people still wanted and that may not be the case for us," said Amaro, who, of course, was the man who signed those players to those contracts.
Nevertheless, the biggest reason for Boston's turnaround wasn't the players they traded or even the ones they acquired. It was the internal improvement of the players they already had. And when you compare the 2012 Red Sox to the 2013 Phillies, it is difficult to find a similar potential for such improvement.
1) In 2012, 28-year-old Jon Lester and 27-year-old Clay Buchholz both performed well below their career norms despite being in the midst of their physical primes. Lester posted a 4.82 ERA in 33 starts, more than a full run better than his career average over his first six major league seasons (3.53). Heading into 2012, his career ERA+ of 128 said that he was 28 percent better than a league average pitcher. In 2012, his ERA+ of 88 said he was 12 percent worse than a league average pitcher. Likewise, Buchholz posted a 4.56 ERA despite a career mark of 3.64. His career ERA+ was 123. In 2013, Lester posted a 3.75 ERA and 109 ERA+, while Buchholz posted a 1.74 ERA and 234 ERA+. So the Red Sox essentially saw a 25 percent improvent at No. 1 starter. Calculating the improvent at No. 2 starter is a little more difficult because Buchholz only made 16 starts in 2013, compared with 29 in 2012. But even when you combine his numbers with replacements Jake Peavy (10 starts) and Brandon Workman (3 starts), you get a 2.60 ERA in 29 starts, an improvement of roughly 75 percent.
Room for similar improvement does not exist at the top of the Phillies' rotation. Cliff Lee's 2.87 ERA and 133 ERA+ is exactly where it had been in his NL career. Hamels 3.60 ERA and 106 ERA+ were worse than his career averages. But even if he gets back to his career norm next season, it will still represent an improvement of only about 20 percent.
2) In 2012, Jacoby Ellsbury played in only 74 games with a .682 OPS and 84 OPS+ that were well below his career norms of .807 and 110. In 2013, those numbers returned to their usual levels, with Ellsbury posting a .781 OPS and 114 OPS+. Like Lester and Buchholz, the 29-year-old Ellsbury was still in his prime, so it was reasonable to expect an improvement in 2013. You can argue that the Phillies can plan on a similar rebound from Ryan Howard, who carries a .928 career OPS and 138 OPS+. But Howard is 34 years old, no longer in his physical prime, and is coming off two straight injury-shortened seasons. Plus, his OPS in his last healthy season was .835, and his OPS+ 126. David Ortiz has shown that we cannot rule out Howard returning to form. But history and physiology suggest that it is far less likely than a player like Ellsbury doing so.
3) Daniel Nava was one unforseen improvement, posting an .831 OPS and 128 OPS+ in 536 plate appearances after entering with career marks of .730 and 97.
4) John Lackey's rebound also was a suprise. He finished with a 3.52 ERA in 189 1/3 innings. But he at least had a track record of that type of prodcution before injuries derailed his 2011 and 2012 campaigns.
Most of the rest of the Red Sox improvement came from outside sources. Mike Napoli gave them moderately more production than Adrian Gonzalez at first base, while Stephen Drew gave them significantly more production than Mike Aviles at short stop. Shane Victorino and Cody Ross were essentially a wash in right field.
So let's go position by position:
Catcher: If the Phillies re-sign Carlos Ruiz, they will do so hoping that his numbers rebound from a .688 OPS and 90 OPS+ in 2013 to his career averages of .781 and 106. That would give the Phillies similar production to that which the Red Sox got out of Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.804 and 118). Of course, Ruiz will be 35.
First base: Mike Napoli's numbers (.842 OPS, 129 OPS+, 23 HRs) are where you will be hoping Ryan Howard's numbers end up. Of course, Howard will be 34 years old.
Second base: Dustin Pedroia's numbers this season are essentially where you can hope Chase Utley's will be, perhaps with more home runs, but also with greater risk of injury (Utley over the last three years: .791 OPS, 13 HR/season, 106 games/season; Pedroia: .816 OPS, 15 HR/season, 153 games/season).
Short stop: Stephen Drew posted a .764 OPS with 13 home runs for the Red Sox. That's pretty much in line with Jimmy Rollins' 2011-12 averages, but you can't realistically plan on anything more than that out of him.
Third base: This was a real weak spot for the Red sox, although utility infielder Mike Carp's .885 OPS in 243 plate appearances helped counteract Will Middlebrooks' .696 OPS (although Middlebrooks did have 17 home runs). This is a position where the Phillies at least have the potential to see significant improvement, although the two players that would make that happen are huge wild cards (Cody Asche and Maikel Franco).
Left field: This is the other spot where you could envision a significant bump if Domonic Brown can take the next step and turn himself into a superstar after a season in which he posted an .818 OPS with 27 home runs.
Center field: At this point, it is difficult to project Ben Revere becoming anything more than who he is. Maybe he bumps up his OBP, but it's hard to see that happening because he lacks the power to make pitchers nibble. He simply is not a Jacoby Ellsbury type player.
Right field: The Phillies can certainly improve in right field. They almost have to. But unless they are going to target a player like Shin-Soo Choo, it's difficult to see them getting any more production out of the position than the Red Sox got out of Shane Victorino.
Rotation: Lee/Hamels trump Lester/Buchholz. Maybe Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez gives them Lackey-type production, but the odds are against it. Kyle Kendrick is another "is who he is" pitcher. In a best case scenario, you can call him and Ryan Dempster a wash. Maybe they sign a starting pitcher who can equal Lackey's production. But that still leaves them looking for a No. 5 who is the equivalent of Felix Doubrount.
Of course, we have yet to account for David Ortiz, the seemingly ageless MVP of the Red Sox lineup. But let's take him out of the equation because the Phillies do not have a DH.
All of this means that hoping for the Phillies to equal the Red Sox turnaround means hoping that:
1) They sign a No. 3 starter who equals Lackey
2) They sign a right fielder who equals Victorino
3) Chase Utley stays healthy
4) Ryan Howard stays healthy and returns to 2011 form
5) Jimmy Rollins has the best season he's had since 2008
6) Domonic Brown improves to the points where he makes up for the deficit between Ben Revere and Jacoby Ellsbury
7) Carlos Ruiz stays healthy and returns to his career averages
8) Kyle Kendrick pitches like Ryan Dempster
9) Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez pitches like Felix Doubrount
10) The bullpen becomes a strength
Obviously, the parallels aren't perfect. But they at least show why the Phillies situation is less promising than the Red Sox: First, the guys they are counting on to improve are in their mid-30's while the guys the Red Sox were counting on were in their late-20's. Second, they need to make wise choices in free agency, something that has not been their forte as of late.
Could it happen? Sure. I just don't think the Phillies give you nearly as much reason to think that it will as the Red Sox gave their fans one year ago.