Phillies among NL's greatest ever?

August, 9, 2011
8/09/11
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One of the more intriguing subplots of the final two months: Can the Phillies become one of the great teams in National League history?

Accuscore ran the remainder of the season through 10,000 simulations and reported the Phillies having a 22 percent chance at winning 108 games. As colleague Mark Simon pointed out, since 1910, only two National League teams have won that many -- the 1975 Reds and 1986 Mets. The Phillies will have to increase their percentage a bit to get there, as they’re on pace for about 105 wins.

We have plenty of time to debate their merits -- and we all know that winning the World Series puts the final stamp on a team’s legacy (just ask the 2001 Mariners), but let’s compare the Phillies to four fairly recent great NL teams: the aforementioned Reds and Mets, plus the 1998 Braves and 2004 Cardinals. Neither of those teams won the World Series, but that Braves team won 106 games and were probably the best of all those terrific Atlanta clubs. The 2004 Cards steamrolled the NL to a 105-win season, only to run into the destiny-bound Red Sox in the World Series.

Stealing an approach from Bill James, let’s go position by position, giving five points for ranking first, four for second, etc. We’ll add them up at the end and declare a winner. Yes, it’s unscientific. But it’s a fun way to compare teams across eras.

Catcher
1. Johnny Bench, 1975 Reds.
2. Gary Carter, 1986 Mets.
3. Javy Lopez, 1998 Braves.
4. Carlos Ruiz, 2011 Phillies.
5. Mike Matheny, 2004 Cardinals.

Bench is the clear No. 1 guy here, as he hit .283/.359/.519 and threw out 46 percent of the few baserunners who dared to try to steal off him. Carter was a little past his prime by 1986, but still respected enough to finish third in the NL MVP vote. He rates a slight edge above Lopez, who hit .284 with 34 home runs, but once you adjust for the era and ballparks, he and Carter are pretty similar in hitting value. Ruiz gets on base but lacks the power to rank with the top three.

First Base
1. Albert Pujols, 2004 Cardinals.
2. Keith Hernandez, 1986 Mets.
3. Andres Galarraga, 1998 Braves.
4. Ryan Howard, 2011 Phillies.
5. Tony Perez, 1975 Reds.

Hernandez lacked the power of the other four guys, but made it up for by hitting .310 with 94 walks and the best glove of the bunch. Many fans still view Howard as the same player who won the 2006 NL MVP Award, but that’s simply not the case, despite his high RBI total. His OPS+ was 167 in 2006, but is 122 in 2011. Perez is in the Hall of Fame, but was a marginal selection; he was a very good player, but topped 30 homers just twice (he hit 20 in 1975) and had mediocre on-base percentages (.350 in ’75). As for Galarraga, I have to put him ahead of Howard with his monster ’98 campaign: .305/.397/.595 with 44 home runs, finishing sixth in the MVP vote.

Second Base
1. Joe Morgan, 1975 Reds.
2. Chase Utley, 2011 Phillies.
3. Wally Backman, 1986 Mets.
4. Tony Womack, 2004 Cardinals.
5. Keith Lockhart, 1998 Braves.

Pretty easy to rank these five. Morgan was the best player in baseball in 1975 and the others slot iS without much debate. Backman was an effective platoon player, hitting .320 with a .376 on-base percentage.

OK, the standings after three positions:

1. 1975 Reds, 11
2. 1986 Mets, 11
3. 2011 Phillies, 8
4. 2004 Cardinals, 8
5. 1998 Braves, 7

It’s early, but the Reds need to pull ahead on offense, since they may have trouble matching up on the starting pitching front.

Third Base
1. Scott Rolen, 2004 Cardinals.
2. Chipper Jones, 1998 Braves.
3. Pete Rose, 1975 Reds.
4. Ray Knight, 1986 Mets.
5. Placido Polanco, 2011 Phillies.

If you want to flip the top two guys, I won’t disagree. Their numbers:

Rolen: .314/.409/.598, 34 home runs, 124 RBIs, spectacular defense;
Chipper: .313/.404/.547, 34 home runs, 107 RBIs, OK defense.

The argument for putting Chipper is that 2004 was easily Rolen’s best season with the bat, but just another year for Chipper. Rose was outstanding offensively with a .406 OBP, but it was his first season at third base and saying he battled the position to a draw is probably being kind. As for Polanco, this is tough company: Knight hit .298/.351/.424 while Polanco has basically turned into a singles hitter this season.

Shortstop
1. Dave Concepcion, 1975 Reds.
2. Jimmy Rollins, 2011 Phillies.
3. Edgar Renteria, 2004 Cardinals.
4. Walt Weiss, 1998 Braves.
5. Rafael Santana 1986 Mets.

Shortstop wasn’t a strong position overall. Concepcion was a wizard with the glove and stole 33 bases, and that’s enough to give him the edge over Rollins in his bounce-back campaign. Santana was a solid defender, but was so weak with the bat the Mets played Howard Johnson and Kevin Mitchell there at times, which worked about as well as it sounds.

Left Field
1. George Foster, 1975 Reds.
2. Ryan Klesko, 1998 Braves.
3. Mookie Wilson, 1986 Mets.
4. Reggie Sanders, 2004 Cardinals.
5. Raul Ibanez, 2011 Phillies.

Surprisingly, left field was another fairly weak spot overall. The 1975 version of George Foster is the clear No. 1 after he hit .300/.356/.518 after taking over the regular job early in the season. Klesko was a solid hitter, although ’98 wasn’t his best season, but a liability on defense. Old George Foster actually played the most in left field for the Mets but he was waived midseason after failing to produce. Likewise, the Cardinals didn’t really have a regular left fielder as Ray Lankford, in his final season, had the most games there. But Sanders ended playing there in the postseason after the team acquired Larry Walker to play right.

Center Field
1. Jim Edmonds, 2004 Cardinals.
2. Andruw Jones, 1998 Braves.
3. Shane Victorino, 2011 Phillies.
4. Lenny Dykstra, 1986 Mets.
5. Cesar Geronimo, 1975 Reds.

Some tough competition here. Edmonds was an MVP candidate after hitting .301/.418/.643, with 42 home runs and 111 RBIs and his famous defense and he finished fifth in the voting. Victorino is having a career season, but I have to rate Jones higher: In 1998, he may have been the best defensive center fielder this planet has ever seen, and that includes Willie Mays. Dykstra posted a fine .295/.377/.445 with 31 steals in a platoon role and then came up big in the postseason with three home runs. Geronimo was one of the supreme flychasers of the ‘70s, but his bat drops him to the back of this field.

Standings after seven positions:

1. 1975 Reds, 25.
2. 2004 Cardinals, 23.
3. 1998 Braves, 21.
4. 1986 Mets, 19.
5. 2011 Phillies, 17.

The Mets have lost ground to the Reds while the Phillies will have a lot of ground to make up in the pitching area.

Right Field
1. Darryl Strawberry, 1986 Mets.
2. Larry Walker, 2004 Cardinals.
3. Hunter Pence, 2011 Phillies.
4. Ken Griffey Sr., 1975 Reds.
5. Michael Tucker, 1998 Braves.

Walker and Pence were midseason acquisitions, but these five guys sort out with too much debate, although Big Red Machine fans will undoubtedly dispute Griffey being ranked below Pence.

Bench
1. 1986 Mets: Kevin Mitchell, Howard Johnson, Tim Teufel, Danny Heep, Ed Hearn.
2. 1998 Braves: Tony Graffanino, Ozzie Guillen, Gerald Williams, Eddie Perez, Danny Bautista.
3. 2011 Phillies: Ben Francisco, Wilson Valdez, John Mayberry, Domonic Brown, Brian Schneider.
4. 2004 Cardinals: John Mabry, Marlon Anderson, Roger Cedeno, So Taguchi, Yadier Molina.
5. 1975 Reds: Dan Driessen, Merv Rettenmund, Bill Plummer, Doug Flynn, Darrell Chaney.

The Mets are really the only team that had a strong bench beyond a couple players and rate as the clear No. 1. Mitchell was a rookie who played all over the diamond and hit .277/.344/.466, Johnson filled in at third base and shortstop and provided power off the bench, Teufel was the right-handed platoon at second base with Backman, and even Heep was an effective pinch-hitter/fifth outfielder. The Big Red Machine had a weak bench with the exception of Driessen.

No. 1 Starter
1. Greg Maddux, 1998 Braves.
2. Roy Halladay, 2011 Phillies.
3. Dwight Gooden, 1986 Mets.
4. Chris Carpenter, 2004 Cardinals.
5. Don Gullett, 1975 Reds.

This was a tough one. Let’s compare the top two guys:

Maddux: 18-9, 2.22 ERA, 251 IP, 201 H, 13 HR, 45 BB, 204 SO, 187 ERA+;
Halladay: 14-4, 2.55 ERA, 169 IP, 153 H, 9 HR, 20 BB, 159 SO, 151 ERA+.

Halladay entered his start Monday with an amazing strikeout/walk ratio of nearly 8-to-1, while Maddux’s was a mere 4.5-to-1. But there is a sizeable difference in eras here: in 1998, the NL hit .262/.331/.410, while in 2011, the NL is hitting .253/.319/.389. Halladay is amazing, one of the best ever. But so was Maddux. Gullett was no slouch, by the way: he was 15-4 with a 2.42 ERA in 1975, but made just 22 starts. He was effective whenever healthy in his career, but was limited by various injuries. Carpenter had a productive 2004, but missed the postseason with an injury.

No. 2 Starter
1. Cole Hamels, 2011 Phillies.
2. Tom Glavine, 1998 Braves.
3. Bob Ojeda, 1986 Mets.
4. Gary Nolan, 1975 Reds.
5. Woody Williams, 2004 Cardinals.

Glavine won the NL Cy Young Award thanks to his 20-6 record and 2.47 ERA, but I have to give the edge to Hamels based on superior peripherals. Glavine allowed an opponents’ batting line of .238/.300/.325 while Hamels is at .212/.253/.317. While Hamels is having the best season of his career, 1998 was arguably the best season of Glavine’s career (he’d post a 4.12 ERA the next season). Ojeda went 18-5 with a 2.57 ERA for the Mets. Nolan, returning after missing two seasons, went 15-9, 3.16. Williams started St. Louis’ first playoff game in the absence of Carpenter.

No. 3 Starter
1. John Smoltz, 1998 Braves.
2. Cliff Lee, 2011 Phillies.
3. Ron Darling, 1986 Mets.
4. Jason Marquis, 2004 Cardinals.
5. Jack Billingham, 1975 Reds.

Once again, it’s Braves versus Phillies for the top slot. Smoltz wins the coin flip. Disagree if you wish. I won’t put up much of a fight.

Standings, with two rotations spots and the bullpen left:

1. 1998 Braves, 40.
2. 1986 Mets, 38.
3. 2011 Phillies, 36.
4. 2004 Cardinals, 34
5. 1975 Reds, 32.

The Reds have collapsed. The Phillies are climbing!

No. 4 Starter
1. Denny Neagle, 1998 Braves.
2. Sid Fernandez, 1986 Mets.
3. Jeff Suppan, 2004 Cardinals.
4. Roy Oswalt, 2011 Phillies.
5. Fred Norman, 1975 Reds.

Neagle went 16-11 with a 3.55 ERA, terrific numbers in 1998. Fernandez rarely pitched deep into games, but was one of the toughest pitchers to hit in major league history. Oswalt’s value is hard to assess right now as he just returned from a DL stint, but Suppan had a solid 2004 (4.16 ERA, which was better than league average). Sorry, Reds fans, but little Fred Norman was a nice pitcher, but his 119/84 strikeout/walk ratio was less than desirable, even for 1975.

No. 5 Starter
1. Kevin Millwood, 1998 Braves.
2. Vance Worley, 2011 Phillies.
3. Matt Morris, 2004 Cardinals.
4. Rick Aguilera, 1986 Mets.
5. Pat Darcy, 1975 Reds.

Time will tell if Vance Worley is for real. I may be optimistic putting him No. 2, but Matt Morris allowed 35 home runs in 2004 and Aguilera’s best days would come as a reliever.

Bullpen
1. 1975 Reds: Rawley Eastwick, Will McEnaney, Pedro Borbon, Clay Carroll, Clay Kirby.
2. 1986 Mets: Roger McDowell, Jesse Orosco, Doug Sisk, Rick Anderson, Randy Niemann.
3. 2004 Cardinals: Jason Isringhausen, Steve Kline, Cal Eldred, Julian Tavarez, Ray King.
4. 2011 Phillies: Ryan Madson, Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, Kyle Kendrick, David Herndon.
5. 1998 Braves: Kerry Ligtenberg, John Rocker, Rudy Seanez, Dennis Martinez, Mike Cather.

They called Sparky Anderson “Captain Hook” for his propensity to go to his bullpen, but he had a good one. Righty Eastwick and lefty McEnaney were outstanding in sharing closer duties and Borbon was a ground ball specialist who soaked up 125 innings with a 2.95 ERA. The Mets basically had a three-man bullpen, with McDowell and Orosco saving 22 and 21 games, respectively. The Cardinals had a deep 'pen led by closer Isringhausen and lefty setup guys Kline and King. Madson and Bastardo have been terrific but the Phillies clearly lack depth. Rookie Ligtenberg was outstanding in taking over the closer role from Mark Wohlers, but Martinez was the only other reliever to throw more than 42 innings.

So, the final standings …

1. 1998 Braves, 51.
2. 1986 Mets, 48.
3. 2011 Phillies, 44.
4. 2004 Cardinals, 43.
5. 1975 Reds, 39.

So the Braves did something they couldn’t do in 1998 -- win it all. Hey, I said this was an unscientific approach. But it does beg the question: Was the Big Red Machine overrated?

Not really. This system underrates the quality of their offense. The Reds scored 840 runs, 105 more than the No. 2 team in the National League. And their pitching, while lacking the big rotation names, was very solid thanks to a terrific bullpen -- the Reds allowed the third-fewest runs in the league, 51 more than the Dodgers, who had the advantage of pitching in a good park for pitchers. The Reds had a +254 run differential; but the Braves were pretty dominant themselves at +245. (The Mets were +205, the Cardinals +196). The Phillies, entering Monday, were +127.

The question: In the black hole of baseball time, would the Reds’ hitting beat the pitching of the Braves or Phillies? Or would the more balanced approach of the Mets win it all? Would Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen and a healthy Carpenter top them all? That’s the fun of it … we’ll never know the answer. But we sure can debate it.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
FansJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesThe Mets and Padres are a combined 29½ games out of first. So people aren't lining up to see 'em.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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