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Phils’ Relievers Keeping Hitters Off-Balance With High K/9

Most baseball experts would agree that the strikeout is the worst possible result for a team batting – an out is recorded, no runs score, and no base runners advance. While ERA is the “sexy” pitching stat, it’s strikeouts-to-innings pitched that can tell you how effective a relief pitcher is at keeping runs off the board and base runners where they stand.

Rick Ingalls, a scout with the Cincinnati Reds, prefers strikeouts-to-innings pitched, or K/9, to similar metrics to gauge the efficacy of relief pitchers. “It means there must be a fastball or a slider or split-finger, whatever the pitcher throws, [and] he’s missing bats,” said Ingalls. “If a reliever has a plus fastball (velocity) and a plus slider, they have a chance to pitch out of the bullpen in the big leagues because their stuff is above average.”

Of course a team’s relievers’ K/9 metric won’t determine overall success or failure, but the Phillies relief corps has been a surprising bright spot this season. So I wanted to see where the team’s relievers stood in K/9 through March/April this season and last season, with respect to the March/April National League averages.

Source: Fangraphs

As you can see from the chart, the Phillies relievers are above average so far this year for K/9, ranking third in the NL behind the Cubs and Mets.

While not taking any credit away from the Phils, their relievers’ K/9 may be slightly inflated. They’ve pitched against two teams so far (Brewers and Padres) whose plate appearances end in a strikeout a quarter of the time (25.9% and 25.3% respectively). These numbers are also worst in the NL.

Can the Phils’ relievers keep this pace up with respect to K/9, or will it normalize to league average by the All Star break? Let me know what you think.

7 Phillies Pivotal for an Improbable Playoff Push

Phillies fans know the next parade we can look forward to in Philadelphia will be the one that takes place next month. But revelers fans will be decked out in green instead of red for St. Patrick’s Day.

The staunchest of Phillies’ fans knows the odds of a World Series victory in 2016 are slim to none. A playoff spot, however, is entirely within reach and here’s why.

According to projections from USA Today, the 2016 Phillies will win 61 games this season, finishing 27 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second wildcard spot (88 wins). Fangraphs, a baseball statistics website, is a bit more bullish, projecting the Phightins to win 66 games, finishing 19 games behind the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets for the second wildcard spot (85 wins).

For argument’s sake, let’s just say the Phils perform much better than expected and post a high-70/low-80 win total. Then let’s say those three teams, the Dodgers, Giants and Mets, have underwhelming seasons and end up in the high-70/low-80-win range. The playoffs don’t seem like such a long shot if things break this way, do they? Minor and major injuries are an almost certainty in a 162-game season, so let’s remove them from the equation. Injuries aside, here are seven key players whose performance could determine the team’s success in 2016.

Offense

  • Continued Improvement of 3B Maikel Franco – his walk rate (+6.1%), strikeout rate (-6.9%), and hard-hit ball percentage (+19.4%) all improved in 2015 over his September 2014 debut. If he can hit better to the opposite field (something Ryan Howard had problems with in his career), that would bode remarkably well for the team’s run production.
  • 1B/OF Darin Ruf Finally Gets It – Fangraphs doesn’t think he’ll “play enough to hit double-digit home runs” but I couldn’t disagree more. All signs point to him serving as the right-handed counterpart in a first base platoon with Ryan Howard. Last season, Ruf hit eight home runs against left-handed pitchers in limited action. If he gets every opportunity to hit lefties, as I suspect he will, he could easily double his HR output from last year.
  • El Torito Is the New Flyin’ Hawaiian But Better:
    • Shane Victorino’s 1st full season (2006): 462 plate appearances, .287/.346/.414, 6 HR, 46 RBI, 70 R, 4 SB, .128 ISO, .334 wOBA, 12.5 Def, 2.7 WAR
    • Odubel Herrera (2015): 537 plate appearances, .297/.344/.418, 8 HR, 41 RBI, 64 R, 16 SB, .121 ISO, .333 wOBA, 11.7 Def, 3.9 WAR

Statistically they’re eerily similar. Much like Victorino, Herrera is a prototypical leadoff man, but his strikeout percentage is way too high (24%). The Phils need El Torito to show more patience at the plate in 2016. He needs to cut his strikeout percentage in half, at least, and take more walks per plate appearance. The more he’s on base, the more potential runs he can score on hits by the middle of the batting order. While he can certainly steal a base to get into scoring position, he absolutely has the speed to score from first on an extra-base hit.

Of course three players don’t make a team. They’ll need help from the entire 40-man roster, including relief pitchers.

Pitching

Word on the street is the Phillies bullpen is going to struggle this year. The idea is plausible considering they lost one of the best young closers in the game, Ken Giles, in a trade with Houston. To remedy that situation, the Phils brought in four veteran arms to help stabilize the back-end of the bullpen – guys who have been successful there in the past: Andrew Bailey, Edward Mujica, Ernesto Frieri, and David Hernandez.

  • All Star Return to Form – Bailey was an All Star in 2010 with the Oakland A’s. According to Fangraphs, he had success throwing his fastball 69% of the time and his cutter 20% of the time. He had similar success with those splits in 2011 (76%/16%).In 2012, he started to unravel. Those splits became 57%/30% in Fenway Park in Boston. Bailey wasn’t able to locate his cutter for strikes as his walks-per-9-innings went from 2.59 to 4.70, a significant increase for him.

    In addition to control problems, he was also the victim of bad luck. What were fly ball outs in Oakland became home runs in hitter-friendly Boston as his 3% jump in HR-to-fly ball ratio suggests.

    The good news is that, while pitching for the New York Yankees last season, the velocity on his fastball was around the same as it was in 2010 (about 1 mph less). If he can throw his fastball more and use his curveball, not his cutter, as his secondary pitch, he may be a key cog in the bullpen this season.

  • Watch the Relievers FIP Out – ERA is one of the common metrics used to gauge a pitcher’s effectiveness but it doesn’t isolate their performance. That’s where Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) comes into play.While they’re similar metrics, FIP only considers what a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches, and home runs allowed. Anything that requires the defense to make a play (e.g. fly ball, ground ball) is removed from this equation.

                                      2010       2011       2012       2013       2014       2015                                 FIP                          3.99        3.83        3.79        3.70        3.60      3.68

    Ernesto Frieri        2.92        3.28           X             3.72        X           6.39

    Edward Mujica      3.88        3.20        3.65        3.71        3.70        5.12

    In 2010 and 2011, these two relievers had outstanding FIPs. One of them should be able to handle the setup role this season for the new closer, David Hernandez.

  • Closing Time – Depending on how he performs in spring training, Hernandez will likely get the nod as the Opening Day closer.The disparity between his strikeouts per nine innings and walks per nine innings has been good throughout his career (9 K to 4 BB). In 2012, his secondary pitch, the curveball (34%), was an above-average pitch. In 2013, a down year for him, he didn’t make any changes to those fastball-curveball splits so I think he became predictable to hitters.

    While he doesn’t need to have Ken Giles’ fastball to rack up saves, I think the team could benefit from him mixing up his two-seam fastball (50%) better with his four-seam fastball (11%).

Even if these seven players outperform expectations, the Phillies are and should be considered long shots for the playoffs this season. The fact that personnel decisions are now being made by someone with half a brain, though, should give us fans much hope for seasons beyond this one.

Bring the Blitz Back to the Pro Bowl

NFL fans have been critical of the Pro Bowl in recent years and with good reason. After the game in 2012, Commissioner Roger Goodell talked about the need to improve the game or “consider eliminating” it. Four Pro Bowls later and I don’t know if enough improvements have been made.

If there was a single thing the NFL could do to improve the quality of the Pro Bowl, it would be to allow teams to blitz.
probowl
I understand the NFL’s attempt to keep injuries down in a meaningless game, but without blitzes, the game just isn’t the same. For example, in the last two Pro Bowls, the quarterback dropped back to pass 178 times and was sacked a mere three times. For comparison’s sake, I looked at two random regular season NFL games over the past two seasons, Week Six of the 2014 season and Week Eight of the 2015 season. The Vikings-Lions game in 2014 featured 70 dropbacks and 12 sacks while the Chargers-Ravens game in 2015 featured 74 dropbacks with four sacks.

Keep in mind, allowing teams to blitz doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily reach the quarterback. But putting that kind of pressure on the quarterback can lead to:

  • Negative yardage plays
  • Incompletions
  • Interceptions (or Pick Six)
  • Fumbles (or Sack-Fumble Six)
  • 50/50 balls

Pick Sixes, Sack-Fumble Sixes and 50/50 balls (‘jump ball’ between a wide receiver and a cornerback) are potential game-changing plays and all have the ability to invigorate an excitement-starved crowd.

What would the MLB All-Star Game look like if stolen bases weren’t allowed? What would the NHL All-Star Game look like if no odd-man rushes were allowed? In recent years, the NFL has made strides in protecting the quarterback. When the excitement of the game is compromised as a result, it’s time to re-examine the rules.

DraftKings: Our 2 Cents on a $2 Payout

Like the phoenix that rises from the ashes, Section 426 returns to the fantasy field where we fell only a couple of months ago. Foregoing the long-term commitment of a sixteen-week NFL season, we turn to DraftKings, a FREE week-to-week fantasy football game that allows participants to pick their own players while staying under the $50K salary cap. The weekly winner takes home $2. In the event that our selected lineup is good but not good enough, that’s okay because the weekly top 5 finishers all get $2. I know what you’re wondering: since we do work with a low budget at Section 426, why do we take such big risks.

Every time we participate, we’ll show who we’re picking, how much they were drafted for, and some key notes regarding their season (for example, their NFL rank by position, their NFL opponent’s rank, etc.)

Here’s who we’ve chosen this week:

Philip Rivers $6,600 – 10th in NFL in passing yards, 6th in passer rating
DeMarco Murray $8,500 – 1st in NFL in rushing yards, 1st in carries over 20 yards, 1st in yards/game
Joique Bell $4,900 – 23rd in NFL in rushing yards
A.J. Green $7,300 – 49th in NFL in receiving yards (7 games played)
Josh Gordon $6,300 – 1st in NFL in receiving yards in 2013, 1st in receptions over 20 yards in 2013
Sammy Watkins $5,600 – 22nd in NFL in receiving yards in 2014, 19th in receiving targets
Zach Ertz $3,100
Darren Sproles $4,500 – 4 TD on 61 touches
Colts $3,200 – opponent is 2nd in NFL in Giveaways

What do you think? Can this lineup conquer all? Who would you have drafted? Let us know in the Comments section below.

Jay Cutler and Crew Cut My Survivor Season Short

And just like that, my Survivor season is kaput. To my credit, my decision to take San Francisco in this game had more to do with who wasn’t going to play for Chicago than who was already playing for the 49ers.

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Survivor Round 2 Features the 49ers Facing a Poor Run Defense

In the immortal words of Eddie Vedder, ‘Ooooh Iiiiii, ohhhh I’m still alive.’

The Eagles came through for me in Week 1 with a second-half comeback, prevailing 34 – 17 over the Jaguars.

On to Week 2, my pick is the San Francisco 49ers to beat the Chicago Bears on Sunday night.

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Seventeenth Heaven for NFL Survivor Pool Entrants

Seventeen doesn’t get the buzz that its odd-number counterparts 7-11, Lucky 13 and Product 19 get. When it comes to NFL Survivor Pools, though, the number 17 might as well be numeric royalty.

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