(Go listen to our Playoff Preview Podcast. I kinda buried it beneath other stuff, and before it gets pushed too far down the page, I wanted to point it out. We had a lot of fun on this one.)
Recently, I had a chance to discuss the upcoming series with Bill Baer of Phillies blog Crashburn Alley. Redleg Nation had some questions for him about Philadelphia; since we don’t see the Phillies every day, we wanted the perspective of someone who follows them as closely as we follow the Reds. Those questions, and his answers, are below. After that, below the fold, you’ll find the answers I gave him to some questions he had about the Reds, but you’d be better served by heading over to CA to read his further comments on the Q & A.
First, however, read my case for why our Reds are going to beat the Phillies in the National League Division series.
RN’s questions are in bold. Answers from Crashburn Alley are below.
1. What are your perceived strengths of the Phillies, especially as compared to the Reds? Can you briefly break down the hitting/pitching/bench of the Phils?
The Phillies have a clear advantage with their starting rotation. Playoff rotations simply don’t get better than Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels. In Philadelphia, we affectionately call the trio H2O. I’ll give you a couple seconds to figure it out. All of them — particularly the Roys — induce ground balls which is always a nice attribute. And they’re all pretty good at inducing swings-and-misses. While the Reds’ rotation isn’t chopped liver, it’s Alpo compared to the Phillies’ Maine lobster.
Aside from pitching, the two teams are close in just about every other aspect, whether it’s offense, relief pitching, base running, defense, etc.
There aren’t really any weak spots in the Phillies’ lineup. One through eight is Victorino, Polanco, Utley, Howard, Werth, Ibanez, Rollins, and Ruiz. Polanco has been dealing with bone chips in his elbow that have caused him to slump over the last six weeks or so, which may make him the weak link by default. Rollins has also been dealing with a thigh strain, hampering his offense and ability to wreak havoc on the bases. What worries me, though, is the Phillies’ ability to be neutralized by LOOGY’s. Overall, they hit lefties well — better than you’d think with a lefty-heavy lineup. But with Howard and Ibanez (especially with Howard), there’s a formulaic way to approach them as a lefty that will limit their effectiveness. Most of it hinges on sliders low and away. This season, Howard has been chasing way more pitches out of the zone and way fewer pitches in the zone. That worries me tremendously, considering he’s also had a 60-point drop in his isolated power as well.
The bench is much improved from last year. Ben Francisco, the fourth outfielder (acquired in the Cliff Lee deal with Cleveland), would start for a lot of Major League teams but he’s been riding the pine for a year and a half in Philly. He’s decent both offensively and defensively, and every once in a while he’ll swipe a bag. From the left side, the #1 guy off the bench is Ross Gload and he’s given the Phillies much more than they expected when they signed him to a two-year deal last off-season. Look for the huge wad of tobacco lodged in his cheek when he comes up for a pinch-hit at-bat.
The Phillies will also carry Wilson Valdez, Mike Sweeney, Brian Schneider, and possibly Domonic Brown. Valdez is a light-hitting, slick-fielding infielder that filled in superbly for the Phillies’ infielders when they were dealing with injuries. Sweeney is an average bat that will most likely have one role during the NLDS: beat Aroldis Chapman. Since the Reds have no left-handed starters, be surprised if Sweeney gets more than one at-bat during the series. Schneider is a veteran back-up catcher who hits just well enough to merit the roster spot. The Phillies are waffling on carrying Greg Dobbs or Brown. I hope they go with Brown since he’s much better offensively, but they may choose to go with Dobbs since he can play the corner infield positions and Polanco has been dealing with that bum elbow (he received a Cortisone injection last week).
2. Certainly, health has been an issue for Philadelphia this season. How healthy are your guys right now?
I’d say Polanco is at about 60% and Rollins is around 80%. Ruiz was hit by a pitch on the last day of the season but he should be all right. Everybody else is fine, relatively speaking. It’s a long season, so nobody is 100%. The Phillies, though, could be fresher than most since they had 17 players land on the disabled list throughout the season.
3. If there is one thing that the Reds and Phillies have in common, it’s that both teams have watched their closers struggle at various points throughout the season. Do you trust the bullpen to hold down a one-run lead in the eighth and ninth innings?
Despite Lidge’s historically bad showing last year and through July, I do feel confident in the Phillies’ ability to hold leads in the late innings. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better eighth-inning guy than Ryan Madson. He’s underrated even by Phillies fans. With a mid-90’s fastball and a devastating change-up, he dominates both right-handed and left-handed hitters while rarely issuing walks.
Lidge walks a few too many guys, but he’s always been that way. With his strikeout rate, you have to accept that. Lidge has been great since he was victimized by a Ryan Zimmerman walk-off home run on July 31. Zimmerman hinted that Lidge was tipping his pitches, so perhaps Lidge, pitching coach Rich Dubee, and Carlos Ruiz looked over some film or did some work in the bullpen. Since then, Lidge has a 0.73 ERA in 26 appearances with a 25-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio, converting 17 of 18 save chances.
4. Is there a player for the Phils who isn’t a big name, but might be a big factor in this series?
Carlos Ruiz, a.k.a. Chooch. He’s been excellent offensively this season, with a near-.400 on-base percentage and occasional power. He’s about average throwing out base-stealers, but is among the best in the game at blocking pitches in the dirt (super important for Lidge, who throws a lot of sliders at the knees and below). Pitchers laud Ruiz for his game-calling ability and the way he handles the pitching staff.
Fans have renamed the month of October to Choochtober. In the 2008 World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, he put up a 1.188 OPS with a few key hits. Over the entire ’09 post-season, he OPS’ed 1.082, again with most of that coming in important situations. While I don’t believe in attributing the timing of hitting to the player especially when dealing with such small sample sizes, I will not be surprised at all if Chooch is the offensive hero of the series.
5. Do you share your manager’s opinion that Ryan Howard is better than Joey Votto?
No. I thought it was pretty lame of Charlie Manuel to leave Votto off the roster but he earned that privilege, of course. There is an abyss in production between Votto and Howard — Votto is so much better. Of all of the players in the post-season (that are not on the Phillies), there is none I fear more than Joey Votto. I tried finding flaws in his game, and I had to stretch to find one: he only OPS’ed .889 against ground ball pitchers!
By the way… call me biased, but I think Roy Halladay should win the NL MVP over Votto. It’s close, though.
6. The Phillies have been the class of the National League for the last three years. As a Phillies fan, do you have any concern whatsoever about this series against a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs since 1995?
While I don’t have any concern, I don’t think the Phillies will steamroll the Reds. The playoffs are a crapshoot and the Phillies could very well get three bad rolls of the dice and be out of the playoffs before you can blink. You never know. I do, however, think the Phillies should be the favorites to win it all this year.
Questions from Crashburn Alley are in bold; my answers follow.
1. Scott Rolen seemed to be on fire in the first half, but he cooled off in August and September. Are the Reds concerned? Is the lack of production due to declining health?
There is certainly reason for concern, as there is a stark difference between Rolen’s first-half and second-half numbers. Some of
that diminished production is likely due to age, as Rolen has gotten a bit worn down (only once in the last six seasons has Rolen played as many games as he’s played this year). Rolen’s diminished performance since the All-Star break, however, is partially a problem of perception. In other words, Rolen hasn’t really been that bad in the second half; his OPS+ after the break is 115. The problem is that you are comparing those numbers to a fluke first half, when Rolen unexpectedly hit 17 homers on his way to posting an OPS+ of 145.
Meanwhile, his defense has been very good. Yes, there is reason for concern, but the Scott Rolen of the second half has been a pretty good player in his own right.
2. Can the Reds still win the series if the Phillies neutralize Joey Votto?
Sure, but it makes things more difficult. One of the best things about this team is that someone different has stepped up to be the
hero when needed. There are lots of guys who are comfortable in the tense moments.
That said, I’m not particularly concerned about the Phillies neutralizing Votto. No one has been able to neutralize Votto all season. Since April, Votto has put up an OPS over 1000 in each month, and he has been the steadiest, most professional player I’ve ever
seen. Every single day, every single at-bat, every single pitch, Joey Votto is locked in. That’s why he has been the Most Valuable Player in the National League, even though Charlie Manuel didn’t think he was an All-Star.
3. The starting pitching match-ups don’t favor the Reds, to say the least. Will Dusty Baker have a quick trigger to take out a struggling starter and go to the bullpen?
Yes, and the Reds are particularly well-suited to weather that storm. The Reds don’t have a brilliant top of the rotation like the Phils,
but they have a much deeper group of starting arms to call upon than most teams. Dusty Baker is going to go with a three-man rotation in this series: Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto. That means that Travis Wood and Homer Bailey will be pitching out of the bullpen. You remember Wood; he almost spun a perfect game against your guys back in June. Both he and Bailey are capable of coming in at a moment’s notice to take the ball if a starter falters.
4. If there is one thing that the Reds and Phillies have in common, it’s that both teams have watched their closers struggle at various points throughout the season. Do you trust the bullpen to hold down a one-run lead in the eighth and ninth innings?
No…and yes. I love the guy, but I just don’t trust Francisco Cordero in those tight spots right now; as good as CoCo has been the last few years, he’s been scary this season. I do, however, trust the other guys out there: Nick Masset, Arthur Rhodes, and a guy the Phillies should be dreading — Aroldis Chapman.
Chapman should have the ball in his hands in every crucial spot, because there’s no one like him in the world. A big lefty who throws
up to 105 MPH and has the most unhittable slider I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to see Ryan Howard flail at one of those sliders.
Dusty Baker has made clear that CoCo is his guy, but he has also hinted that he won’t hesitate to go elsewhere if Cordero isn’t getting the job done. I’m going to go the wishful thinking route, and hope that Dusty give Cordero a very short leash in October.
5. The Reds are neither aggressive (90 SB; NL avg. 89) nor efficient (68% success rate) in terms of stealing bases. Do you expect the Reds to be more aggressive on the base paths in the NLDS, or will they be content to play station-to-station baseball?
While the Reds haven’t been an aggressive team when it comes to stolen bases, I think you’ll find that the Reds are the most aggressive team in the league when it comes to baserunning. Cincinnati leads the league in going first-to-third, taking an extra base almost every single time there is an opportunity.
Given Dusty Baker’s small-ball tendencies, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more base-stealing in the NLDS. One run could be very important against the type of pitching of which the Phillies can boast. Drew Stubbs, in particular, is a speed-burner, and I can see Dusty giving him the green light more often than usual. On the whole, however, the Reds are already pretty aggressive on the basepaths. I don’t expect that to change.
6. Let’s say the Reds get through the Phillies and advance to the NLCS. Who would you rather face, the San Francisco Giants or Atlanta Braves?
Who cares, as long as we’re there? A more serious answer: probably Atlanta. I feel like the Reds match up better with the Braves,
especially given all the important injuries Atlanta has suffered. San Francisco has some good pitching that would scare me a bit.
If Cincinnati can beat the Phillies, however, I’ll be on cloud nine and probably won’t care who the next opponent is.