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Part III – Phillies Fielding

Again the Phillies thankfully proved me wrong by beating a bad team last night – and Marlins sure are one of the worse.  Though the Phils tried to lose the past two, Florida lived up to their now 6-18 record and handed them right back.  Jon Lieber got his first win of the season and the Phils twice delivered in bases loaded situations.  One unfortunate stat though was the Phillies’ two errors, each of which cost them a run – more on them in a bit.

Back in March, A Citizen’s Blog provided an excellent preview of the Phillies defense and claimed it would be the most important aspect of the season.  Coming off placing near the top of almost every defensive category, there was much reason for optimism.  With the release of the The Fielding Bible by John Dewan, pieces such as this were written about the Phils:

In 2005, the best defensive team in baseball by a mile was the Philadelphia Phillies at 108 bases prevented versus average. This year, the Phillies should be even better as they added the league’s best defensive outfielder in ’05, Aaron Rowand (who made 15 more plays than average, preventing 30 total bases).

Though this article went on to say this:

There are numerous recent Gold Glove winners who the data prove are actually poor fielders: Cubs first-baseman Derrek Lee, Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and Phillies right fielder Bobby Abreu, to name a few.

However though April, the 2006 squad has been more like the second paragraph than the first.

When discussing the Phillies fielding, a look back at last night’s game provides a perfect starting point.  If you missed Florida’s first run of the game, don’t worry, you’ll be seeing it the rest of your life on Mike Golic’s blooper reels.  Florida had Dan Uggla at third and Josh Willingham at first with two outs, when Willingham attempted a steal.  Sal Fasano faked a throw to second, but the ball slipped out of his hand, rolled down the third-base line, and Uggla passed the bumbling Fasano on his way to the plate.  Truly embarrassing.  To boot, rather than making up for the play at the plate, Fasano struck out twice and hit into a double play.  But wait, there’s more defensive follies from last night.

In the fifth (score 3-2 Phils), with runners on second and third and no outs, Willingham grounded softly to Ryan Howard who tried to make a difficult throw to the plate.  It’s questionable whether there was enough time to get the runner, but Howard tried anyway and gave Fasano a throw he couldn’t handle – the runner scored and everyone was safe.  This is the second time in as many weeks that I’ve questioned Howard’s decision-making in the field.  It’s no wonder he leads the majors with four errors this season.  Unfortunately last night’s performance is indicative of the Phillies defense as a whole this season.

In terms of defensive efficiency (the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs by a team’s defense), the Phillies are second-to-last in the majors with a .655 mark.  They are also tied for sixth in the NL for allowing a runner to reach first on an error 11 times.  This is not typical of the best defensive team in baseball just a year ago.  Individually we have seen that youngster Ryan Howard has made some mental and physical mistakes, but that can be understood.  The real issue lies in some of the other defensive let downs.

Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley both have two errors on the season, which is more than most players at their respective positions; however, they do combine for more double plays than most.  David Bell, who is supposedly in the lineup for his defense, has put up middle-of-the-pack numbers in all defensive categories among third basemen.  The outfield is no better. 

Bobby Abreu’s decent fielding stats only mask the fact that he’s slow to the ball in the field.  Though The Fielding Bible may expose this phenomenon, this is one of the cases where simple qualitative analysis proves more valuable than common statistics.  Aaron Rowand has required some time adjusting to the expansive center field dimensions at CBP and has subsequently been tagged for two errors (second most in the league).  He also has the second worse fielding percentage in the NL.  His situation though is likely the reverse of Abreu, whereby his numbers do not do justice to his range and hustle.  But then again, those characteristics don’t always produce outs.  Still, I more time and evaluation needed to make a proper verdict on Rowand’s defensive abilities with the Phils.  Pat Burrell, on the other hand, we know is declining in defensively .  His persistent leg injuries, while not affecting him at the plate, has significantly reduced his range.  He has a .791 zone rating – which measures the percentage of balls fielded by a player in his typical defensive "zone." – putting him third from the league bottom in that category.  Similarly, he is 12th out of 14 in range factor, only beating out two geriatrics, Barry Bonds and Luis Gonzalez. 

Although most of the above-mentioned statistics paint a bleak picture of the Phillies defense, on a whole the club is certainly above-average.  The purpose was to show that the Phils have not lived up to the bar of fielding excellence they set for themselves last season.  It’s early, so we can make allowances, but if this continues it will become a big problem.

So after looking at the Phillies pitching, offensive, and now defense, what can we surmise about this year’s club thus far?  Well, the main issue I see is their lack of situational hitting as described yesterday.  They are not moving runners, making it harder to drive in runs off singles and sacrifice flies. Also, they are not disciplined at the plate, something that we’ve complained about for quite some time.  Bobby Abreu has instilled his batting practice routine in JRoll but Jimmy doesn’t seem to be able to retain his plate discipline lessons.  The pitching is about as good (or as poor) as we suspected coming into the season.  The starters generally allow 3-5 runs per outing (and occasionally 8-10) but the bullpen has been able to mitigate the damage and Tom Gordon has filled Billy Wagner’s shoes nicely.  Defensively things will have to improve as the season progresses and Ryan Howard especially needs some work.  Though the Phils went 3-2 against the two worst teams in the league that’s definitely not good enough if you want to make the playoffs.  The pitching isn’t likely to improve much, unless Gillick brings in a stud or calls up Cole Hamels, so offensive and defense will be key.  The Phillies need to tighten up and get back to fundamentals their fundamentals, meaning better defense, more walks, and the more productive use of baserunners, including more stolen bases.  It will be interesting to see if Charlie’s passive managerial style will get them going in this regard.  I already blamed him for the poor offensive production, so if he fails to motivate as well, then Gillick will need to let him go – and soon.

Breaking News:  MLB has chosen a new owner for the Nationals.  Surprisingly, it’s not the odds-on favorite, Washington Baseball Club.

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