Fans who have followed the Philadelphia Phillies closely this season continue to shake their heads in amazement that the club remains tied for first place in the National League East Division in late July.
Those fans who do more than simply watch news highlights and follow the results and standings know that the defensive baseball played by this team on a nightly basis is sloppy at best and can be downright atrocious at times.
It has been more than simply the easy-to-follow fielding and throwing errors. Passed balls, pick-offs thrown away, and wild attempts to throw out opposing runners as they try to steal a base have been part of the equation as well.
Errors of commission. Errors of omission. The 2018 Philadelphia Phillies have been guilty of it all on a far-too-frequent basis.
Still, there have been some defenders of this team and its defensive abilities. Every time that Odubel Herrera runs down a ball in the gap or makes a diving catch, some allude to his hustle and range. Maikel Franco bare hands a slow roller and guns out a runner at first base, there are comparisons to Mike Schmidt.
It’s frankly enough to make one wonder if these folks have actually ever seen a fundamentally strong defensive baseball team.
I was spoiled. I grew up on a Phillies team in the 1970’s which included the best collection of defensive talent at one time in franchise history. Schmidt at third base. Larry Bowa at shortstop. Manny Trillo at second base. Bob Boone behind the plate. Garry Maddox in center field.
Schmidt won 10 career Gold Gloves at the hot corner, including nine straight from 1976-84. Bowa won a pair and was robbed of maybe a half-dozen more by voters who were often swayed by offensive statistics in those years.
Maddox earned his moniker “The Secretary of Defense” by winning eight Gold Gloves in a row in center field from 1975-1982. “Two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water. The rest is covered by Garry Maddox” was how bumper stickers of the day described his play.
In four seasons with the Phillies, Trillo captured a trio of Gold Gloves. Boone won his first pair of seven career Gold Gloves while with the Phillies.
You don’t have to go back that far, however, for great Phillies defensive play. One of my all-time favorite players was Scott Rolen. While some fans who were around in the early-2000’s will always hold a grudge against Rolen for his outspoken desire to get out of town, the fact is that he was one of the greatest defensive third basemen in the history of the game. Rolen won half of his eight career Gold Gloves during his Phillies years.
Jimmy Rollins has four Gold Glove Awards sitting at home on his crowded trophy shelf. Shane Victorino also has four, including three earned while patrolling center field at Citizens Bank Park with the Phillies.
So, you have to excuse me if I find this current group turning my stomach. Now, it’s easy to make off-hand comments calling these current Phillies a poor defensive team. But do the statistics back up such a claim? As it turns out, they do.
On Monday, prior to the opener of the current series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) revealed their Defensive Index rankings for the first half of the 2018 Major League Baseball season.
SABR describes the Defensive Index compilation process and significance as follows:
“The SABR Defensive Index draws on and aggregates two types of existing defensive metrics: those derived from batted ball location-based data and those collected from play-by-play accounts. The three metrics representing batted ball data include Defensive Runs Saved from Baseball Info Solutions, Ultimate Zone Rating developed by noted sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman, and Runs Effectively Defended based on STATS Zone Rating and built by SABR Defensive Committee member Chris Dial. The two metrics included in the SDI originating from play-by-play data are Defensive Regression Analysis, created by committee member Michael Humphreys, and Total Zone Rating.”
They also added that the SABR Defensive Index “accounts for approximately 25 percent of the Rawlings Gold Glove Award selection process that will be added to the votes from the managers and coaches.”
So how do the 2018 Philadelphia Phillies regulars stack up at their respective positions? If you guess “not too well”, you can count yourself a winner.
Forget the American League, and let’s see how the Phillies defenders rate when compared only to their counter-parts among the 15 clubs of the National League.
Players who have appeared as regular starters with this year’s Phillies team through games of July 15 were ranked within the NL as follows:
Jake Arrieta (9), Vince Velasquez (20), Nick Pivetta (28t), Aaron Nola (44t), Jorge Alfaro (9), Carlos Santana (6), Cesar Hernandez (12t), Scott Kingery (11), Franco (16), Rhys Hoskins (15), Herrera (13), Aaron Altherr (10t), Nick Williams (15).
The highest-ranked Phillies defender within his position is Santana. His defense was supposed to be one of the big selling points when he signed as a free agent last winter with a $60 million commitment over three years.
But the 32-year-old is only ranked 11th at the position when considering all big league first basemen. No longer in his prime, fans should not expect that Santana’s first-ever career Gold Glove Award will come as a member of the Phillies.
In last night’s 7-6 loss to the Dodgers, there were no official errors charged to the Phillies defense. But a pivotal ninth inning wild pitch was charged to reliever Seranthony Dominguez. It could just as easily have been ruled a passed ball against Alfaro. Maybe should have been ruled that way.
The Phillies are trying to build a sustained winner. Their current place in the MLB standings shows them ahead of schedule. If they wish to remain ahead of schedule and stay atop the divisional standings, changes will be needed to improve those defensive metrics. But when you’re winning, recognizing and acting on necessary change can prove to be a difficult proposition.