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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

State of the Phillies Defense... 

“Hitting is solid, pitching is liquid, defense is gaseous … [Defense] is damned hard to capture, formless, hard to see.”

-Bill James

Less than three weeks to go until the All-Star Break and we’ve gotten to the point where we can make a few judgments about the Phillies season this far: the Phillies pitching has been inconsistent, with flashes of brilliance followed by disastrous lapses; the Phillies are powerful and aggressive at the plate, but aren’t creating runs by getting base-runners and moving them on the way they have in the past; and the Phillies have absolutely collapsed defensively.

The quote above from Bill James nicely sums up a problem that I always grapple with whenever I talk about defense: it is darn hard to make any definitive statements because there is a lot of opinion and speculation there. The impact of the pitcher on defense is difficult to judge as well. Alright, so here are a few thoughts and facts to consider before we get started.

-Objectively speaking, the Phillies were pretty darn good on defense in 2005. They ranked second in Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER)* in the NL last year. 70.5% (.705) of the balls Phillies pitchers allowed to be put into play were converted into outs by Phillies fielders. The only team better? Houston, at .706 … The Phillies were .009 better than the league average of .694 … If you consider John Dewan’s Plus / Minus fielding system featured in The Fielding Bible, the Phillies were the best defensive team in 2005, with a plus / minus rating of +108 (i.e., the Phillies made 108 more plays than they were expected to), over twice as many as the second-place NL team, the Astros (+50). The top AL team, the Indians, were 39 plays behind at +69. The Phillies were Top Ten finishers in Plus / Minus in 2003 & 2004 as well.

* Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER): (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.

I think we can safely say that the Phillies were pretty good on defense.

-How are the Phillies doing in 2006? Not well. Currently they rank second-worst in the NL:

DER: Bottom Five
12. Colorado: .683
13. Milwaukee: .682
14. Arizona: .681
15. Phillies: .677
16. Pittsburgh: .668
League Average: .696

The Phillies are also tied with the Washington Nats for tenth in Unearned Runs Allowed, with thirty.

There is something up here. Why have the Phillies, consistently one of the best teams in the NL in fielding, come up short? Why are they struggling?
Well, I’m a little baffled. You’d assume that defense is a constant, so why the Phillies have had the major problems they’ve had is a little bit of a mystery. I’ll try to examine each player in turn:

1B Ryan Howard. Ranked second in the MLB in Plus / Minus for 1B’s in 2005. Zone Rating*, however rated him one of the worst 1B’s in the NL at .722 … This season: ranks eleventh of thirteen NL 1B’s in Zone Rating at .838 (NL leader is the Reds Scott Hatteberg at .885). Has nine errors, four more than the next NL 1B.

* Zone Rating (ZR): Is a stat which measures a player’s defensive ability by measuring plays they should have made. Admittedly, this is a stat left open to subjective opinions.

Mid-term Grade: D. Howard should be playing better than this. He’s got good agility and footwork.

2B Chase Utley. Second in NL in Plus / Minus rating in 2005, middle of the pack in terms of Zone Rating. This season: ranks eight of twelve NL 2B’s in Zone Rating at .798 (NL leader is the Reds Brandon Phillips at .864). Has turned 46 double plays, tied for fourth-most in NL.

Mid-term Grade: C+. Looks like he’s improved turning the double play from 2005 and this range is the same.

SS Jimmy Rollins. Ranked fourth in the NL in Plus / Minus ratings. Middle of the pack in ZR too in ’05. This season: ranks seventh of fifteen NL SS’s in Zone Rating at .846 Has 48 double plays, third in the NL.

Mid-term Grade: B. He may be struggling at the plate, but I think J.Roll is still a valuable defender.

3B David Bell. Led all MLB 3B’s in Plus / Minus rating in 2005. (John Dewan anointed him as the man who should have won the NL Gold Glove instead of Mike Lowell.) Rated well with ZR in 2005. This season: ranks eleventh of fourteen NL 3B’s in Zone Rating at .779 (NL leader is the Giants Pedro Feliz at .859). Third in the NL in Range Factor at 3.03.

Range Factor: (Putouts + Assists) * 9 / IP. Essentially measures how much a player is involved in defensive plays.

Mid-term Grade: D. Looks like he’s slipping defensively.

CF Aaron Rowand. Led all MLB CF’s in Plus / Minus rating in 2005 by a wide-margin. Like with Bell, John Dewan anointed Rowand as the man who should have won the Gold Golve. This season: ranks eighth of thirteen NL 1B’s in Zone Rating at .880 (NL leader is the Marlins Reggie Abercrombie at .925).

Mid-term Grade: C. I was very critical of Rowand’s play early in the season and it looks like he’s coming around. He used to be dead-last or one of the worst. Now’s he’s in the middle and rising.

LF Pat Burrell. Ranked tenth of all MLB LF’s in Plus / Minus at +3. Rated one of the worst in baseball by Zone Rating. This season: ranks nine of thirteen NL LF’s in Zone Rating at .852 (NL leader is the Braves Ryan Langerhans at .957 … .957!).

Mid-term Grade: D+. Never that great, seems to be doing his usual below-average performance.

RF Bobby Abreu. The less said the better about Bobby. Despite earning the NL Gold Glove in 2005, he’s actually probably the weakest defensive player on the Phillies roster. This season: ranks sixth of twelve NL RF’s in Zone Rating at .873 (NL leader is the Padres Brian Giles at .921). That gaffe he committed back in May against the Mets at Shea under-scores his foibles in the field.

Mid-term Grade: D+. Same-old, same-old.

Conclusions: I think the Phillies problems lay with their corner defense. Where are the Phillies strong? Right up the middle: 2B, SS & CF. They are below-average in the outfield, which isn’t a big deal because they are typically below-average in their corner outfield. Their corner infield is a disaster. Ryan Howard needs to improve himself and get into a groove. Teams can survive having weak defensive first basemen, but they cannot survive having weak defensive third basemen, which is what is appears that they have with David Bell. Bell has traditionally been a strong defensive performer for the Phillies but he really seems to have slipped in 2006. Given that he’s a weak batter too, this show to me that he might be the Phillies biggest black hole on their roster.

-The Phillies pitching does enter into the equation here. The Phillies pitchers have surrendered a lot of line-drives this season, as people have noted to me in the past. Of sixteen NL teams they are tied for dead-last with the Pirates in line-drives allowed at 21% (i.e., 21% of the balls put into play are line-drives). According to The Hardball Times, a line-drive falls in for a hit 75% of the time, so when a team allows too many line-drives they are putting their defense at a serious disadvantage. The league average is 19%.

As a counter-point I’d note that this – line-drives allowed – doesn’t entirely explain why the Phillies are struggling defensively: they allowed more line-drives (22%) in 2005 and ranked dead-last in line-drives allowed last season too. And yet they still were nearly one of the best teams in the NL.

I said in my Season Preview that fielding was going to be crucial to the Phillies chances because good fielding could cancel out pitching struggles and equalize the Phillies: i.e., if they fielded well they’d no longer be a team that relied on out-hitting the opposition to win games. I’ve noted that the Phillies have struggled in moving runners over at the plate and that this was a major reason for why the Phillies batters were struggling to generate runs, well … fielding is becoming the Phillies principal Achillies Heel, worse than their hitting. The Phillies rank fourteenth in runs allowed. Only the Brewers and the Braves – the ATLANTA BRAVES! – are worse in the NL. The Phillies pitchers haven’t been bad. Their FIP ERA* (4.49), while worse than the league average (4.42), isn’t much off it and is better than nine other teams in the NL.

* FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor Evaluates a pitching by how he would have done with an average defense behind him by keeping track of things that a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs allowed) as opposed to things he cannot (hits allowed, runs allowed).

Those are my thoughts on the state of the Phillies defense. Comments?

After some regular starts, I'm wondering about the benefit of platooning Nunez with Bell - Nunez has made some pretty good defensive plays that I've seen, and I'm wondering how he rates from a ZR/+_ point of view. There's a similar argument to be made for victorino and the corner outfielders.

As for howard, I hope he improves in the second half. everyone has said he has lacked a sophomore slump, but I think his fielding suggests otherwise.
It is amazing to watch how bad the Phils defense has played at times this season. Even basic fundamental things like hitting the cutoff man, throwing to the correct base, and backing up a throw, seem to be missing.

Your analysis though proves how difficult it really is to value defense in baseball. So many different thing to consider including how far a player has to go to a ball, how hard the ball was hit, etc.
Defense values always need a grain of salt but I think large enough sample size and difference still give you a good idea...

Ouch, it looks like the one area where David Bell still has a little value is fast disappearing too .... he can't hit and now can't field much either... is there no better options out there?
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