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The Best Bench Among National League Contenders

by Wendy Thurm on September 13, 2011

All of a sudden, there is some intrigue in the race for the playoffs in the National League. Yes, the Braves are in a tail spin, but their chances of making the playoffs as the Wild Card team are still 94.5%, according to Baseball Prospectus. There just isn’t enough time for the “surging” Giants to leap frog over the Cardinals and catch the Braves, although every Giants fan went to bed last night dreaming of revenge for 1993.

No, the intrigue in the National League is over whether the Diamondbacks or the Brewers will end the season with the second-best record to the Phillies, thus securing home field advantage in the Division Series.  The Brewers held that position for a while, but their recent slide opened the door for the Diamondbacks.  Those teams are now tied at 86-62.

That got me thinking about potential Division Series match-ups. And that got me thinking about which National League contender has the best set of bench players, because having a good bench–or not having one–often plays a big role come playoff time.

Phillies In First

Not surprisingly, the Phillies boast the best bench in the National League.

I assume Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Placido Polanco will be healthy and in the starting lineup every day in the playoffs. If so, I see Charlie Manuel adding utility guys Wilson Valdez, Ross Gload, John Mayberry Jr. and Ben Francisco, along with backup catcher Brian Schneider, to the playoff roster.

Off that group, only Mayberry’s hit consistently well all season. In nearly 250 plate appearances over 89 games, Mayberry’s batted .263/.331/.509 with 13 HRs and 7 SBs.  His wOBA is .362 and his wRC+ is 127, putting him in the top 20 in wRC+ for all National League outfielders this season.  Mayberry’s September numbers are a bit below his season line, but not by much. In 20 PAs, he’s hitting .250/.350/.438 for a wOBA of .354.

With the injuries to Rollins and Utley, Valdez saw consistent playing time in April and May and then again in August. Overall, he’s had more plate appearances (285) than any other Phillies utility player. It’s been an up-and-down year for Valdez at the plate, but he’s come on strong in August and September. His season line is .249/.293/.345 with a wOBA of .275 and a wRC+ of 67 but in 87 PAs since August 1, Valdez is batting .293/.328/.472 for a wOBA of .332 and a wRC+ of 106.5.  Valdez performs best in high leverage situations and with men on base–just the right combination for playoff baseball.

After the Phillies acquired Hunter Pence, Francisco’s playing time plummeted, but he’s done well off the bench. In 19 PAs since August 1, Francisco has 3 BBs and 7 hits, including 2 doubles. Those kinds of numbers come in very handy in the post season.

Gload also has been hot and cold this season, posting decent numbers in April, very good numbers in May and June, god-awful numbers in July and August, and good numbers so far in September.  Like Valdez, Gload performs better in high leverage situations, but unlike Valdez, Gload seems to wilt with runners in scoring position. He’s strikeout-prone and doesn’t walk alot, and hasn’t hit a home run all season.  I’d expect Gload to be used sparingly in the playoffs.

Diamondbacks A Close Second

With former Blue Jays Aaron Hill and John McDonald now firmly at second base and shortstop, respectively, the Diamondbacks bench consists of Willie Bloomquist, Lyle Overbay, Geoff Blum, Sean Burroughs, and rookies Colin Cowgill and Paul Goldschmidt.  Henry Blanco is the back up catcher.

Goldschmidt arrived in August from AAA and has shown impressive power so far. His overall line is .256/.326/.487 with a wOBA of .389 and a wRC+ of 121, evidencing a good walk rate (9.3%) but a not so good strikeout rate (30.2%).  He has 7 home runs in 129 PAs and all of them seem to come in crucial situations. His first major league home run came off Tim Lincecum at AT&T Park in a game against the then-first place Giants that the Dbacks won 5-1.

Overbay arrived in the desert after being released by the Pirates and he’s done very well off the bench. In 33 PAs with the Snakes, he’s got 3 BBs and 9 hits, including 2 doubles and a home run. That’s considerably better than he performed in Pittsburgh, so small sample size caution is warranted.

Bloomquist saw the most playing time early in the season and then again after shortstop Stephen Drew broke his ankle on July 21 and before Hill and McDonald arrived from Toronto.  Bloomquist seems to prefer regular playing time, as he posted his best months in April and July. Overall, he’s batted .270/.326/.349 with a wOBA of .297 and a wRC+ of just 78. Obviously, he’s not a power guy, but his strikeout rate of 13% is below the NL average, so he puts the ball in play.

The same is true for Geoff Blum. Blum was injured most of the year, returned to the Arizona roster in July, was injured again and returned for good on September 1. In only 34 PAs, he’s batting .267/.353/.500. His wOBA is .363, evidencing his nearly 9% walk rate.

Burroughs is the most interesting bench player for the DBacks. Burroughs was out of professional baseball for five years when Arizona signed him to a minor league deal this year. By May 19, he was in the majors, and he’s been up and down to AAA much of the season.  In 106 PAs, he’s posted a line of .265/.276/.333. He almost never walks, strikes out alot, and has almost no power. He’s been a fun story, but I can’t see Gibson taking Burroughs to the playoffs over Bloomquist, Blum or Overbay.

That leaves Cowgill–a light hitting outfielder who’s played excellent defense but done nothing to speak of at the plate. His overall line of .221/.294/.273 in 85 PA wouldn’t add much to the DBacks’ playoff roster.

Braves In Third

Just before the waiver trade deadline, the Braves added bench depth with shortstop Jack Wilson and outfielder Matt Diaz to compliment Brooks Conrad, Eric Hinske and on-again-off-again-regular Jose Constanza. In 40 combined plate appearances, neither Wilson nor Diaz has drawn a walk nor hit a home run and each has struck out more than 22% of the time.  Not much in the way of depth there.

Conrad and Hinske have had decent seasons off the bench, with Hinske having more playing time due to injuries to Braves outfielders Nate McLouth and Jason Heyward.  Unfortunately for Hinske and the Braves, he’s run hot and cold all season, hitting well in April, May and July, but dreadfully in June, August and September. Hinske strikes out alot (26.7%) but he does know how to work the count, leading to a walk rate of nearly 10%.  The biggest issue is Hinkse’s drop in power over the last few seasons: his .417 slugging is good, but his lowest since 2007. He has no home runs in August and September.

Conrad’s season line is .240/.333/.417 with a wOBA of .330 and a wRC+ of 108.  He’s been much more patient at the plate this year, pushing his walk rate to a career high of 11.2%. Unfortunately, his strike out rate is also at a career high (33.6%), in only 113 PAs. Conrad’s also been hurt in September with a sprained ankle.

And then there’s Constanza. Called up in late July with Jason Heyward hurt and struggling, Constanza hit the leather off the ball in August, batting .365/.392/.452, a walk rate of 7.3% and a strike out rate of only 11%.  But September has been a different story entirely: .235/.235/.235–that’s right, no walks, 4 Ks and 4 singles in 17 PAs.  With no post-season experience, it’s going to be difficult for Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez to count on Constanza for much in the 2011 playoffs.

Brewers In Fourth

The Brewers bench consists of Craig Counsell, Jerry Hairston, Mark Kotsay and Carlos Gomez. Even without looking closely at the numbers, that list does not inspire a lot of confidence.

With 236 PAs, Kotsay has seen the most playing time of the Brewers utility players and he’s been just a hair below replacement level. His overall line for the season is .263/.318/.346 with a wOBA of .295 and a wRC+ of 83.

Counsell is best known this season for his record-tying 0-for-45 hitless streak. His line reads .169/.273/.217 in 177 PAs. Yuck.  Gomez was replaced in center field this season by Nyjer Morgan and then broke his clavicle in July. He’s done nothing to speak of at the plate since his return from the DL.

When Rickie Weeks went down with a severe ankle sprain in late July, the Brewers acquired Jerry Hairston to fill in. And Hairston did a fine job, batting .311/.354/.392 in August. But September has been a whole other story. In 29 PAs this month, Hairston is batting .083/.241/.083.  That is not a typo. And it’s not a good situation for the Brewers.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Phillies are the best at everything this season, so it’s not surprising they have the strongest bench in the National League.  The Diamondbacks have done well by adding Overbay, calling up Goldschmidt and getting Blum back from the DL. Arizona’s re-jiggered bench has given the Snakes the added boost they needed down the stretch. On the flip side, the Braves and Brewers are struggling and haven’t received much help at all from their bench over the last several weeks. A weak bench will hurt both teams come playoff time.

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