Friday, October 17, 2008

Chase Utley for NLCS MVP: A Redux Argument

Now that the dust has settled and the champagne has gone flat, I want to take a closer look at the real National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player, Chase Utley. I want to compare him to the guy who won the award, Cole Hamels.

Again, I don't claim to be objective about Chase Utley.

And I don't want to diminish how good Hamels was; he was fantastic. In two games of a series that went five.

Chase hit .353, tops of any Phillie with over six at-bats. His on-base percentage was .522, tops of any Phillie with over six at-bats. His slugging percentage was .647, tops of any Phillie with over six at-bats. Obviously, the same was true of his 1.169 OPS.

No Phillie had more walks, hits, doubles, homeruns, total bases, or runs scored. Although Utley shared the top spot in several of those categories, he was still on top.

Only Shane Victorino had more RBI (six) than Chase (three) and Victorino hit .222 while trailing in the other offensive categories as well.

See a theme here? I am saying that he led the Phillies' regulars in every major offensive category except RBI, where he tied for second.

However, those are pure stats and I'm not a pure stat guy. The above means nothing if they were A-Rod numbers i.e. Utley generated them after the game's outcome had been decided or in losing efforts. But for the sake of simplicity and that of brevity, I think we can agree that Utley's stats were not empty and that he was the most valuable offensive player by a safe margin before moving on to look his performance in the context of the actual games (if you don't agree, you can decide for yourself when I get there).

Pat Burrell and Victorino are his closest competitors and they're comfortably in the rearview mirror. Especially when you consider the fine and important defensive contributions all three players made; Chase just made his from a more premium defensive position.

On to the games where I'll start mixing in Hamels' performance, having dispatched of the everyday players. I'll also go in reverse order because Game One seems to be where the argument lies.

Game Five: This is no contest. It was probably Utley's worst game and Hamels was awesome. Chase struck out twice, grounded into a double play, and failed to get a hit. Meanwhile, Hamels went seven strong innings, surrendering only five hits, three walks, an earned run (on a bomb to Manny Ramirez with a five run lead; no great shame in that), and struck out five.

Even so, it's not as big of a rout as it first appears.

Chase's game was better than it looks on paper. He managed to draw a walk and score two important, early runs. He also bailed Hamels out of a disastrous start to the fifth inning with that spectacular pick to begin a four-six-three double play for the first two outs of the frame. Forget diving plays, short hops, backhands, etc. That right there is the hardest play to make - when you have to wait until the ball gets beyond you before snaring it.

And Utley turned it into a double play. Made it look easy, too.

Furthermore, Hamels' performance wasn't quite as impressive as it looked. He needed the aforementioned double play to avoid serious damage. He had a three-run lead before facing the opposing pitcher for the first time, pitched for a while with a five-run lead, and still didn't make the eighth.

No matter. Game Five easily goes to Hamels.

Game Four: Another easy call. Chase turned a huge, unassisted double play to bail the Phils' out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth. An inning that had already seen the Bums answer Philadelphia's game-tying rally with one of their own to retake a two run lead. If not for his play, that inning could have gotten away from the Phils. It could have changed the entire series, let alone the game.

Utley also went 3-5 at the plate, drawing first blood in the opening frame with an RBI double.

True, he wasn't the biggest hero of the game (hello Matt Stair or Victorino). But Hamels didn't play. At all.

Game Four easily goes to Utley.

Game Three: Neither Hamels (who didn't play) nor Utley did much. Chase did hit a double and score a run, but Philadelphia lost. Game Three is a wash.

Game Two: This is a closer call, but still not much of a contest. He didn't do much, but that's because Los Angeles walked Utley four times. I won't get into the shades of significance in having a guy on base 80% of the time. Or having the other team totally intimidated by your three hitter.

Instead, I will once again point out that Cole Hamels didn't play. At all. Again.

Game Two must go to Number 26, which brings me to...

Game One: This is the only real debate and I don't really understand it. I'm prepared to admit this is because of my aforementioned bias. But I really don't think so.

Start with the pure stats.

Utley went 2-4 with a homerun and accounted for 67% of Philadelphia's total offense. Hamels pitched seven strong innings, allowing six hits, two walks, two earned runs, and striking out eight. On the surface, both were about as excellent as you can expect.

So let's go beneath the surface.

Hamels pitched well, but fell behind immediately and at home. Consequently, the Philadelphia offense was working under additional pressure to perform against Derek Lowe; a challenge with which it was already expected to struggle since Lowe was riding a hot streak.

And struggle it did.

Until Utley's two-run homer. That was the first chink in Lowe's armor and, no surprise, Burrell's go-ahead bomb followed almost immediately.

Hamels' came back out, retired three more batters, handed it off to the bullpen, and had his win. But before deciding on who gets the edge in Game One, I must address the momentum argument that seems to be a significant part of Hamels' winning resume.

It goes something like this: the Dodgers were scorching hot coming off a sweep of the best National League team (the Chicago Cubs) and Hamels' pitching in the opener stopped that momentum, allowing the Phillies to ultimately advance to the World Series.

I say that is total garbage.

If the above analysis of Game One is sound, it was actually Chase who stopped the momentum (Hamels got touched twice in the first and Lowe cruised until the homer).

More importantly, did anyone who voted watch the Los Angeles-Chicago series? The Cubs played that whole thing like Rafael Furcal played Game Five. Sure, they did some good things. But each step forward was followed by several fatal leaps backwards.

Leaps like the whole infield committing errors in a single half-inning. Or trading lumber for a limp noodle whenever runners were on base. Or running into outs, failing to execute simple baseball strategy, caving to the pressure, etc.

The Bums played well, far better than I expected. But the Cubs blew that series by playing like chumps and allowing a clicking Dodger team to eliminate them.

So, add all this up and who gets the edge in Game One? I have no idea.

What I do know is that, if it's not another wash, Game One goes to either Hamels or Utley by the slimmest of margins. Let's give it to Hamels.

That means for the series, Game Five (an no-contest win for Hamels) cancels out Game Four ( a no-contest win for Utley). Game Three is a wash. And it comes down to Games One and Two.

Game One is a photo-finish while Game Two clearly goes to Chase. And yet, between Game One and Game Two, this idea developed that Cole Hamels had effectively de-clawed the Dodgers by breaking their momentum.

Since Chase isn't a shameless self-promoter, his dominance (as usual) flew under the radar and groupthink took over. It became a given that, if Hamels won Game Five, he was the MVP. I didn't read or see a single discussion or argument to the contrary.

I understand it's only the NLCS MVP and no one really care, least of all the athletes at issue, so this is really a moot point.

But it is (to me) a blatant example of groupthink overwhelming obvious common sense. And since it's a relatively unimportant award, what better time to have a dispassionate discussion of a larger problem?

Because if you think this exact phenomenon is relegated to the League Championship Series' MVP voting only, you're crazy.

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