The Phillies are 6-6, and Fun with Win Probability Added (WPA)

Roy Halladay won his 200th game Sunday over the Miami Marlins.The Phillies sit at 6-6 after taking two of three games from the Marlins in what was a snoozefest — no, really, I fell asleep watching on separate occasions — of a series in Miami over the weekend that produced a scant total 10 runs between both teams. Would it have been nice to see the Phillies pummel the punchless, will-surely-lose-at-least-100-games Marlins, especially without Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup? Yes. But the pitching was good all around, and, uh, wins are wins?

The Royals series was just bizarre, in that the Phillies’ two losses came in games in which they took 4-0 leads. After mashing in the final two games of the Mets series, it was unsettling to see the bats go silent against the Marlins — though, granted, that Jose Fernandez kid is filthy. And while Marlins Park is cavernous and anything but a bandbox, the Phillies squandered numerous opportunities with runners in scoring position, specifically on Sunday. It was ugly and painful to watch. Then again, that kind of futility in high leverage situations at the plate has been the Phillies’ MO in recent years. Cole Hamels got back on track (maybe), John Lannan put together his second quality start, and the bullpen pitched 7.1 innings and only gave up one run, courtesy of Phillippe Aumont (albeit it was the run that won the game for the Marlins on Friday night; then again, if Chase Utley doesn’t bobble the ball, who knows). It was nice to see Roy Halladay go eight strong innings, only give up one run on five hits and win his 200th MLB game (thanks to a Laynce Nix pinch-hit moonshot in the top of the 9th), but he labored a bit in the early going and struck out merely two batters against a pitiful lineup. A performance that signals he could be turning the corner, or just delaying the inevitable of what appears to be a precipitous downfall? Forgive me if I withhold judgment until I see Doc shut down a lineup that doesn’t belong in the minors. At least Cliff Lee has been vintage thus far and is responsible for the Braves’ lone loss on the season. He’ll take the mound tomorrow in the opening game of the series against the Reds in Cincinnati.

Now, for the Win Probability Added (WPA) portion of the article, an explanation of which (and formula for) can be read here, thanks to the invaluable resource that is FanGraphs. The metric is pretty self-explanatory: WPA is situation-specific and measures “how individual players affect their team’s win expectancy on a per-play basis.” For this exercise, we’ll take a look at WPA as it pertains to at-bats during the course of a game. Yes, WPA is result-oriented, but it is still a useful tool for determining a game’s most important moments and should be consulted as a guide for when to use your best players (especially bullpen pitchers and pinch hitters). I only bring up WPA because I could be convinced, rather easily, that the Phillies have no idea what it is or simply don’t pay it any mind.

The initial example of the Phillies running afoul of WPA came in the very first game of the season. Think back to that game against the Braves: What’s the one single moment, aside from Hamels serving up meatballs, that pissed you off the most? Ryan Howard‘s ridiculous-yet-classic-him, strike-out-on-five-pitches-none-of-which-were-strikes at-bat in the 5th inning after Chase Utley had put together an exquisite,  polar opposite at-bat and singled home two runs to pull the Phillies within 4-3. Sure enough, Howard’s at-bat had the most negative WPA of all other at-bats at -.113. In essence, you could make the argument that at-bat from Howard lost the Phillies the game because, well, it kinda did. I, like every other fan, was ranting and raving about that at-bat on Twitter, saying it was the crux of the game, the moment where the Philllies, for all intents and purposes, lost. Then a friend pointed out the next day that, according to WPA, I was accurate. For once, my seething anger didn’t obscure the real issue!

What do you think was the most positive WPA at-bat from the Phillies’ first win of the season, in Cliff Lee‘s masterful 2-0 domination of the Braves? Well, it wasn’t the at-bats that provided either the runs. In fact, it was Erik Kratz‘s double with no outs in the top of the 2nd that advanced Nix to third base. The WPA for that at-bat was .112, while Ben Revere‘s RBI fielder’s choice two batters later to make 1-0 actually contributed a negative WPA (-.002) since it was the first out of the inning.

In the fourth game of the season, the Phillies’ home opener against the Royals, the team took a 4-0 lead, only to see that cushion evaporate like a fart in the wind as Kyle Kendrick struggled in the 6th and was followed by a bullpen that immediately imploded. Not surprisingly, the highest WPA at-bat of the game (.412) was Alex Gordon’s bases-clearing triple that gave the Royals a 5-4 lead. With runners on second and third base and righty slugger Billy Butler at the plate, Charlie Manuel called for an intentional walk (which drive the advanced-stat community insane). Manuel then removed Kendrick from the game and, with the bases loaded and two outs, brought in… Jeremy Horst?! Ugh. With the left-handed hitting Gordon up to bat, I had flashbacks to Mr. Burns’s immortal “It’s called playing the percentages, it’s what smart managers do to win ball games!” quote from The Simpsons. Listen, I understand Charlie — who’s as bad an in-game manager as there is around — is a slave to convention, especially when it comes to the misguided concept of bullpen roles, but, really, what’s the harm in using your best pitchers in the game’s highest leverage moments? What’s the point of “saving” your later-inning relievers if you can’t get to them with a lead anyway? I would’ve loved to see Manuel call on Mike Adams at that point to get out of the jam. Hell, if Charlie was bullish on the lefty-lefty matchup, he should’ve brought in Antonio Bastardo. Horst is a fringe MLB reliever and was nary exposed to pressure situations in 2012. Yes, he put up excellent stats last season but was also due for natural regression this season due to his limited track record. He’s simply not the reliever you bring into the game when you NEED an out to preserve a precarious lead. I don’t care if it’s the 6th inning, 8th inning, 9th inning or 37th inning — be smarter and more creative, think outside the box (even though it should not be considered thinking outside-the-box).

The same friend who told me about Howard’s at-bat and its WPA in the opener against the Braves? His name is Cary, his Twitter handle is @GeraniumNation, and, on the heels of that Horst fiasco, he opined that “failing to bring in your best reliever in [the highest leverage/WPA] situation is like waiting to hit on the hottest girl at the party because you’re banking on her being there at the end of the night when she might be a bit drunker.” Understand the analogy, readers? Just smile and nod. Good, thank you.

I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear — well, read — this, but the highest WPA at-bat (.892) of the next game against the Royals was Kevin Frandsen‘s bases-clearing, game-winning double in the bottom of the 9th inning. See, sometimes the most obvious contributed-to-the-win moment is the highest WPA moment, too!

I’ll cherry-pick the highest WPA at-bats from one game from each the Mets and Marlins series. In the second game of the Mets series, it was John Mayberry‘s two-RBI double in the 2nd inning (.128) to give the Phillies a 2-0 lead. And from yesterday’s series finale against the Marlins, obviously the highest WPA at-bat of the game was, unsurprisingly, Laynce Nix‘s (right choice, Charlie!) aforementioned home run in the top of the 9th (.388). So, I’ll go ahead and pass on that the most negative WPA at-bat of the entire game, for either team, was Michael Young‘s double-play groundout in the top of the 8th that nullified a juicy first-and-second-with-no-outs situation. The WPA for that was -.183. Even worse? Michael Young swung at what would’ve been ball four on a 3-2 count, and the pitch was in the same exact location that he took for ball three one pitch before. Instead of no outs and the bases loaded, the Phillies were left with a runner on third and two outs. An intentional walk and Jimmy Rollins‘ popup later, the side was retired without the Phillies scoring a run. Luckily, that 8th inning blunder was rendered moot when Nix did his thing in the 9th.

Anyway, it’s late, I’m tired, and this post is already too long. I guess what I’m trying to tell you is, always go back to the FanGraphs game log after every game and look for what were the highest positive and negative WPA at-bats. It shows you the exact moments where games, mathematically, were won and lost. Pretty cool, methinks.

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Dan Klausner

Dan grew up in Lower Merion and has been an avid Philly sports fan for as long as he can remember. His first sports memory is of attending a Flyers/Devils game with his father at the Spectrum in 1995, while his two most cherished in-person memories are of 4th & 26 and Game 3 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals. Dan graduated from the University of Maryland in May 2010 and started his own blog in December of that year, before being brought on board to write for SB Nation Philly and Bleeding Green Nation (author bio), one of the Internet's foremost Eagles blogs, in June 2011. In early April 2013, he joined The High Phive team as a Phillies writer.