World Series Preview: Phillies InfieldBy
We’ve previewed the Yankees along with their opponents through the ALDS and ALCS. Instead of re-re-rehashing all of that, we’re going to stick with just the opponents this time.
Catcher: Carlos Ruiz
Yankees fans do not have fond memories of Carlos Ruiz. When the Phillies came to town in May he went 6 for 8 with 3 RBI. Two of those RBI came in the second inning of the first game, when he hit a home run off A.J. Burnett. The other, a double in the 11th inning in Sunday’s game, broke a 3-3 tie and gave the Phillies the series. It was especially frustrating because Ruiz had never slugged above .400 in his career (in seasons with over 100 PA).
Ruiz went on to have a career year at age 30, hitting .255/.355/.425. After losing time to an oblique injury earlier in the year, Ruiz took over the full-time role in the second half and rewarded the team with a .276/.375/.487 line after the break. His emergence as an offensive weapon makes the Phillies lineup that much tougher.
The postseason apparently brings out the best in Ruiz. After going 1 for 14 in last year’s NLDS, he went 5 for 16 in the NLCS, followed by a World Series in which he went 6 for 16 with four walks, two doubles, and a home run. He’s continued his postseason run this year, going 9 for 26 with a double, a homer, and seven walks in the first two rounds, most of which came in the NLCS (5 for 13, 1 2B, 1 HR, 5 BB). In 96 postseason plate appearance, Ruiz has struck out just four times.
The Yanks had to deal with Jeff Mathis in the ALCS, and will face no less pesky a foe in Ruiz for the World Series. He’s no Posada with the bat normally, but it seems like October is a completely different season for him. He’ll hit eighth, possibly ninth in the Bronx, which could create a tough stretch when Philly rolls over the lineup.
Fun fact: Like Posada, Ruiz was a second baseman, but the Phillies converted him to a catcher once they signed him because they didn’t like his mobility at second.
First base: Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard’s name is recognizable to even the most casual fan. His story since breaking into the majors is remarkable. Replacing an injured Jim Thome, he hit 22 home runs in just 348 plate appearances, earning him the 2005 NL Rookie of the Year award. The next season, his first full one in the majors, he hit 58 home runs and drove in 149 runs, leading the NL in both, on his way to an MVP award.
The path to the majors wasn’t easy for Howard. The Phillies drafted him in the fifth round in 2001 and he hit pretty well in his first two minor league seasons, racking up 27 homers and 122 RBI in 773 plate appearances in Short Season A and Low A. The concern seemed to be his strikeouts, 200 in that span. Still, with a quality batting average and OBP, and with developing power skills, it appeared that Howard could move quickly through the Phillies’ system.
But after the 2002 season, the Phillies signed Jim Thome to a six-year, $85 million contract. That seemingly blocked Howard. Further hurting him was Thome’s debut season in Philadelphia, wherein he led the NL in homers with 57 (and also strikeouts with 182). Howard, meanwhile, found his power stroke, hitting 23 homers and 32 doubles in 553 plate appearances in Advanced A, and an overall .304/.374/.514 batting line. It’s a wonder why they never promoted him in-season — he was already 23 years old in Advanced A.
Howard would shine again in 2004, tearing apart AA with 37 homers and 18 doubles in 433 PA, and subsequently hammering AAA pitching before getting a September call-up. He then started 2005 destroying the ball in AAA, with 16 homers and 19 doubles in 257 PA. He came up for a stretch in May and hit poorly, but once Jim Thome hit the DL at the end of June, the first-base job was Howard’s. He so fully convinced the Phillies of his greatness that they traded Thome to the White Sox after the season.
If Howard has a weakness, it’s his inability to hit left-handed pitching. While he dominated righties this season, he hit lefties horribly, posting a .207/.298/.356 line in 252 plate appearances. The Yankees will have CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte starting three to five games in the series, which should help out against Howard. A.J. Burnett’s curve is also a weapon against lefties. Then there are Damaso Marte and Phil Coke in the bullpen. Expect them to face Howard in almost every late-inning bullpen situation.
Fun fact: The first basemen in this series each led his league in RBI.
Second base: Chase Utley
Compared to his last two seasons, 2009 was a down year for Chase Utley. Even so, he put up the second best offensive numbers of any MLB second baseman and No. 1, Ben Zobrist, played other positions. He’s the best second baseman in the MLB, and even in a season during which he recovered from hip surgery he posted ridiculous numbers: .282/.397/.508. Even a down year for Utley is a monster.
A 2000 first round pick by the Phillies out of UCLA, Utley had high expectations attached to him and for the most part met them. He posted a .827 OPS in the New York Penn League after the 2000 draft, but then dropped a bit next year to a .746 OPS in Advanced A. That was mostly on his poor batting average, .257. He had a similar mark upon a promotion to AAA in 2002, but raised his OBP and SLG to get his OPS above .800. Unfortunately, the Phillies had just traded for another second baseman, Placido Polanco.
Polanco was just a stopgap, or at least that’s how it seemed. The Phillies got him, along with Bud Smith (of no-hitter fame) and Mike Timlin, for Scott Rolen before the trade deadline in 2002. He played well for the Phillies in 2003 and 2004, while Utley continued to dominate AAA. In 2003 his OPS was .907, and in 2004 it was .880. Yet when Polanco became a free agent after the 2004 season, the Phillies re-signed him. It seems like quite the absurd decision in hindsight.
Utley made his own case in 2005, though, hitting .302/.378/.532 in April and May, forcing the Phillies to trade Polanco on June 8. From 2005 through 2009 Utley has posted an OPS above .900 every season, peaking in 2007 with a .332/.410/.566 line that earned him just eighth place in the MVP voting. Having Ryan Howard as a teammate certainly doesn’t help his case, but Utley might be even more valuable than Howard — after all, Utley’s 7.7 WAR topped Howard’s 4.9.
Not only is Utley an excellent hitter, certainly the best among second basemen over the past three years, he is also one of the best defenders, if not the best. His 8.8 UZR/150 topped every other second baseman in the league (second was, guess who, Polanco), and which is his third straight year leading the majors in the stat. The combination of power bat and slick fielding puts Utley on a level rivaled only by Zobrist — and the latter still has to prove that 2009 wasn’t a fluke.
After a monster first round of the playoffs against the Rockies — 6 for 14 with a homer and four walks — Utley dropped off against the Dodgers. He was just 4 for 19 in the NLCS with no extra base hits and has many wondering whether his foot is still bothering him. He fouled a pitch off it in early September.
Robinson Cano is a fine second baseman. UZR doesn’t treat him well, but he hits as well as almost any other second baseman. He just doesn’t compare to Utley. Which is no shame, really — no second baseman compares to Utley.
Fun fact: Utley has led the NL in HBP for the past three years.
Third base: Pedro Feliz
Like Utley, Pedro Feliz is an excellent defender. In fact, most of his 1.2 WAR comes from his defense at third base, where he posted a 14.3 UZR/150 in 2009, tops in the NL. That compensates for his bat, which can be described as balsa wood at best. He posted a .302 wOBA in 2009 and OPS’d around .700 for the fourth straight year.
There’s not much more to say about Feliz other than he’s a great defender who doesn’t hit well at all. He provided some power with his bat earlier in his career, but he last hit 20 home runs in 2007, the year before he became a Phillie. He’s hit 14 and 12 with the Phillies while keeping his OBP around .300. Again, without his glove he’d be a pretty worthless player, but his glove does add significant value, especially because he’s surrounded by such prolific hitters.
The only upshot of Feliz’s playoff run this season is that three of his five hits have gone for extra bases (one of each type). Still, he is just 5 for 31 over the first two rounds, walking just twice. For the Phillies’ sake he’d better save quite a few runs with his glove in the World Series, because otherwise it makes little sense to continue playing him. His bat is that bad.
Fun fact: Feliz’s .308 OBP this season was the highest of any year in his entire major league career. He topped that mark only twice in the minors. once at .310, the other .337, but that was in a league where Bubba Crosby hit .361/.410/.635 one season.
Shortstop: Jimmy Rollins
Jimmy Rollins had a disappointing 2009, his worst season since 2002. After winning the MVP in 2007, Rollins has dropped off in each of the past two years. In 2009 he hit just .250/.296/.432, and even though he had 31 stolen bases in 39 attempts, he still managed a wOBA of just .316. But the regular season doesn’t matter much at this point, right? We know Rollins’ true talent level, and if he picks it up in the playoffs all is forgiven.
Yet this postseason, as in almost all of his postseason series, Rollins has been a disappointment. After an excellent 2008 NLDS in which he went 5 for 16 with two doubles and a homer, Rollins has been horrible in the postseason. In the four series since then he is just 18 for 84 (.214) with one home run and five doubles. His only postseason triple came in the 2007 NLDS loss to the Rockies. Despite his speed, Rollins hasn’t stolen a postseason base since the 2008 NLCS. This is mainly because he has failed to reach base in general, just 21 times in 90 plate appearances over the past four postseason series.
Like the players who surround him, Rollins is good with the glove. He posted a 2.3 UZR/150 this season, which isn’t great but is certainly solid. It seems he took a step backward from last season, when he led the majors in UZR/150. Even if we disregard comparisons of UZR from year to year because of how it scales, we can still recognize a drop-off when a guy goes from tops in the league to 13th.
Against the Yankees this season, Rollins went 3 for 13 with two walks and a home run. That home run, though, hurt particularly badly. He hit it off A.J. Burnett on the first pitch in the first game of the series. It set the tone for a bad Yankees loss.
Fun fact: I thought about trying to connect Rollins to his friend CC Sabathia since they grew up near each other, but there’s an even better connection. Rollins’s cousin is Tony Tarasco, who was parked under a Derek Jeter fly ball in the 1996 ALCS when a young Jeff Maier reached over and brought it in.
Just so we’re not completely leaving out comparisons, here’s how I think the teams stack up.
First base: Even, leaning towards Phillies. Howard has trouble with lefties, which hurts him, but has been as hot as it gets this postseason. That can all turn around, though, for both him and for Teixeira, who has been cold (save for a few big hits).
Second base: Phillies. I love Cano, but unless Utley’s foot is really bothering him, the Philes have a clear edge at second.
Third base: Yankees. Feliz might get to everything hit on the ground in his direction, but that can’t make up for the canyon that separates his bat from A-Rod‘s. Alex has also played fine defense this postseason.
Shortstop: Yankees. No explanation needed.