COMMENTARY| The hustle and the bustle has blown out the door. Lord, my tree is already down (I know, I know January 6 but it was drying out pretty fast). The ornaments are tucked away. The piles of gifts are de-boxed and have been implemented into the daily cycle of life. The bluster of winter, what little of it we have left on the East Coast, has crashed all the revelry of the season and left a blanket of misery on baseball fans.
This winter will be particularly difficult for Philadelphia Phillies' fans. For the first time in more than half a decade, expectations are high but circumspect. The questions outweigh the assumed certainties. I say "assumed" because nothing in sports is a certainty.
40 days. That's our remaining fast. It won't quite equal the 40-day fast of Jesus in the Judean desert. I'm quite positive the conditions were a little tougher on the ark for Noah and his family. It may even be more difficult for those of us who subscribe to Christianity to lay off the Ben & Jerry's during Lent. But nonetheless, still 40 days remain before the pails of bubble gum are unloaded off the trucks and pitchers and catchers report to spring training.
For the Phillies' fan, a specter of apprehension seems to lurk at the door of the 2013 season. But allow me to play devil's advocate and shed a ray of positivity on the ball club for a change. Here are 5 things projected to go poorly, and imagine, just imagine, if just two or three of them go the other way.
1.) At Fangraphs.com, Dan Szymborski released the Phillies' ZiPS projections (Szymborski created this system of performance estimations) for the 2013 season. The starting pitching looks solid, but the projected starting lineup does not have a player project to have a WAR of more than 3.5 for 2013. That hasn't happened since the team won 67 games in 1996. I've slowly and reticently gotten in line with sabermetric geeks. If for nothing, because there are valid measurements of performance I believe are left off the backs of bubble gum cards. I approach it much like the Phillies, who put almost no stock in sabermetrics and rely on the eye and gut of their scouts while employing someone to keep careful track of all sabermetric elements because, simply, other teams value players that way and the Phillies need to know the market value of their assets.
If Szymborkski's projections are lock solid, why even play the season?
2.) Many are concerned about the age and health of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Understandable. But would it be the first time players have had resurgent years if the middle of the Phillies' order returns to a reasonable facsimile of form? Would it baffle you if Howard hit 35 and drove in 110 while only striking it out 175 times? That might not equate to a high WAR, but it would equate to wins. I simply don't know, and no one has been able to explain it to me, how WAR accounts for a ballplayer's mentality. Howard's presence in the lineup simply makes the lineup better, as does Utley's. Will Howard ever hit 58 again? Will Utley ever be a .330 hitter again? Unlikely, but they don't have to be for this team to win. The psychology of pitching dictates that stress levels rise when the two of them are in the box, on deck, or in the hole. Their presence allows other hitters to see better pitches to hit, whether they're hitting or not.
3.) A large contingent of fans and pundits want the Phillies to unload Domonic Brown while he is still worth a bag of baseballs. But imagine for a minute that with a full season to prove himself, Brown begins to show some of the signs that made him one of baseball's top prospects just two seasons ago. Imagine he's worked diligently on his defense. Imagine he, much like Utley at the start of his career, blooms late. In Utley's first season he hit just .239, but his numbers escalated as he began to play more. And remember, Utley was also thought to be a defensive liability at the onset of his career.
4.) If Greg Luzinski and Pat Burrell can play left field for the Phillies, someone please explain to me why Darin Ruf, a healthy 26-year old, can not. Most baseball scientists predict Ruf has hit the ceiling and will bounce back down from it as if it were an upside down trampoline. But John Sickels, one of Bill James' own research assistants in the '90s sees Ruf as a .280, 20-25 homer guy after seeing continued progression in the Valenzuelan Winter League. So for all the formulas, why the disagreement among those of essentially the same mind?
5.) Change is good. Well, it certainly depends on the situation but who's to say that for Michael Young, the adage doesn't apply? Crashburn Alley's Bill Baer writes that of the 16 players 35 or over that posted a season WAR of -2.0 (Young did in 2012), 8 did not play the next season and the average WAR of those who did was 0.4. Sure that doesn't sound optimistic, but how many of those players changed teams the next season? A new lease on life with a veteran locker room may ignite a fervor in Young. He also may realize this is his last shot on a possible contender.
Sabermetric formulas are valuable. They help understand a player's performance in the aftermath. They also help place value on a player. But they don't account for a player's psyche. They don't account for experience, a trait which the Phillies enjoy an abundance. Formulas are a wonderful way of breaking down what is in front of you. There's no reason, when everyone is 0-0, to believe they will predict the future.
This concludes my 2013 dose of positivity. My cynicism will be back of Christmas break next week.
Pete Lieber is a freelance writer who has been covering the Phillies for more than three years and bleeding red since Luis Aguayo took over for Ramon Aviles as the utility infielder. Follow him on Twitter at @Lieber14.
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