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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Big D: The Outfield 

I said at the beginning of the season that the Phillies defense would be the decisive advantage the Phillies would have to leverage in their push to the post-season and it looks like I was utterly wrong: the Phillies have played very poor outfield D this season and it looks like their push to the post-season is proceeding despite the defense and not because of it.

To give everyone a rough idea about how important defense was going to be to the Phillies in 2006, let me back up and discuss how well the ’05 team played D. The 2005 Phillies were second in the NL in Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER), meaning that they were second-best, to the Astros, at turning balls put into play into outs:

1. Houston: .706
2. Philadelphia: .705
3. St. Louis: .704
4. New York: .702
5. Chicago: .701
6. Los Angeles: .700
7. San Francisco: .700
8. Milwaukee: .698
9. Washington: .698
10. Pittsburgh: .695
11. Atlanta: .694
12. San Diego: .690
13. Arizona: .684
14. Cincinnati: .678
15. Florida: .678
16. Colorado: .671
League: .694

DER – Defense Efficiency Ratio: (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.

The Phillies had ranked third in DER in 2004 and fourth in DER in 2003, so this team had been consistently one of the best at making outs in the field for the last several seasons. More impressively, the Phillies led, by a wide margin, the rest of the major league in Plus / Minus, a stat developed by The Fielding Bible’s John Dewan. Plus / Minus are plays that a team makes above (or below) average. The Phillies led the majors in + / - in 2005:

Plus / Minus:
1. Philadelphia: +108
2. Cleveland: +69
3. Anaheim* Angels: +57
4. Chicago (AL): +52
5. Houston: +50
6. Atlanta: +47
7. Oakland: +40
8. Los Angeles: +36
9. St. Louis: +34
10. Toronto: +31
10. Minnesota: +31

* Anaheim is not L.A.!

The breakdown of the Phillies defense contained some interesting information:

Corner Infield: +57
Middle Infield: +50
Outfield: +1
Total: +108

i.e., the Phillies had a strong infield defense alignment … and indeed, Plus / Minus rated David Bell as the best third baseman, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard as the second-best second and first basemen, respectively, and Jimmy Rollins as the fourth-best shortstop … but looked pretty average in the outfield. In fact, their +1 in the outfield ranked them seventeenth in the majors, while ranking first in both corner and middle defense.

The Phillies did not get good play from their starting outfield defensive alignment:

Jason Michaels: +4
Pat Burrell: +3
Kenny Lofton: +1
Bobby Abreu: -13

I welcomed the addition of Aaron Rowand, who led the MLB in Plus / Minus amongst centerfielders in 2005 at +30. The deal to bring Rowand to Philly would dramatically improve the Phillies D, I felt certain, by bolstering the weakest point of a strong unit, the outfield. We won’t know how the Phillies did as a team or individually in terms of Plus / Minus until the season ends and Baseball Information Solutions (publisher of The Fielding Bible) publishes their findings (although The Hardball Times keeps rough track of Plus / Minus and pegs the Phillies at -23, one of the worst teams in the majors). But we can look at the current team and make a few conclusions:

1. Aaron Rowand had a horrible year for the Phillies*.
2. The Phillies outfield is stronger with Bobby Abreu gone.
3. The Phillies outfield is probably stronger with Rowand gone as well.

* Save your comments, I am aware that this is a topic I’ve beaten to death.

Let’s start with a few numbers. First, how the Phillies are doing in terms of DER:

2006 DER:
1. San Diego: .712
2. New York: .708
3. San Francisco: .708
4. Chicago: .706
5. St. Louis: .704
6. Houston: .696
7. Colorado: .692
8. Washington: .692
9. Los Angeles: .690
10. Florida: .689
11. Atlanta: .689
12. Milwaukee: .684
13. Cincinnati: .681
14. Philadelphia: .679
15. Arizona: .676
16. Pittsburgh: .670
League: .692

That is a major drop in raw numbers and in ranking. The Phillies are doing 2.6% worse this season than last. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is a big deal, given that there is just a 4.2% difference between the Pirates and Padres, the worst and best teams in the NL.

Here is how the Phillies are doing defensively:

Left Field: Innings Played (%) / Zone Rating*
Pat Burrell: 775.1 (68%) / .862
David Dellucci: 230 (20%) / .897
Shane Victorino: 101 (9%) / .846

* 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.

Center Field: Innings Played (%) / Zone Rating
Aaron Rowand: 901.2 (79%) / .857
Shane Victorino: 238.1 (21%) / .843

Right Field: Innings Played (%) / Zone Rating
Bobby Abreu: 846 (74%) / .873
Shane Victorino: 156 (14%) / .897
David Dellucci: 108 (9%) / .826

A few players have played scattered innings here and there in the outfield, principally Chris Roberson, who has logged 57 & 2/3 innings in right and left field, but I’m not including anyone who played less than 100 innings.

A few things jumped out at me:

1. The Phillies strongest defensive alignment would probably be Dellucci in left, Victorino in right and Rowand in center field. If the Phillies can deal Pat Burrell this off-season, expect that to be the Phillies 2007 defensive alignment.

2. Victorino has a nice arm. In just 156 innings of work in right he had three assists, while Bobby Abreu had just four in 690 more innings of work. Victorino also had four assists in center to Rowand’s six while logging 663 fewer innings, and two assists in left to Burrell’s five with nearly one-eighth the innings. He should take over in right field, where his arm is an asset when it comes to throwing out runners advancing to second and third. Based on the numbers, his ZR also looks best for right field as well.

3. With Rowand gone for the season, Dellucci ought to play in centerfield, not Victorino. Dellucci’s arm isn’t quite as good as Victorino, but I think he covers more territory and Victorino’s arm is better served playing in right.

As I said earlier, Rowand was having a bad season in center field. Rowand ranked ninth of thirteen regular centerfielders in Zone Rating:

Center Field:
1. Beltran (Mets): .914
2. Pierre (Cubs): .909
3. Byrnes (Dbacks): .906
4. Cameron (Pads): .895
5. Taveras (Astros): .893
6. Edmonds (Cards): .892
7. Finley (Giants): .888
8. Sullivan (Rockies): .864
9. Rowand (Phillies): .857
10. Lofton (Dodgers): .856
11. Jones (Braves): .853
12. Clark (Brewers): .852
13. Griffey (Reds): .817

If he had enough innings to qualify, Victorino would rank just ahead of Griffey, but I suspect this might be more a factor of Victorino not playing much and perhaps playing away from his more natural position: right field.

Burrell’s injuries and reputation as a sub-standard outfielder continue to dog him. He’s played just 68% of the Phillies innings in left, despite not really being injured all season long. He’s been removed for Victorino and Roberson as defensive replacements more times than I can count (of the 44 games Victorino has played in left, he’s started just three and Roberson hasn’t started in any of the fourteen games he’s played in left for), despite being a pretty decent fielder. Burrell’s 2005 Plus / Minus was respectable (and good for tenth of thirty-plus left fielders), and he’s got a good arm, but the Phillies either don’t jav confidence in his abilities, or they are trying to alienate him and compel him to waive his no-trade clause this off-season. (Which would leave him bound for Baltimore, Boston or the White Sox.) Here is how Burrell stacks up:

Left Field:
1. Ethier (Dodgers): .887
2. Murton (Cubs): .882
3. Bonds (Giants): .875*
4. Holliday (Rockies): .871
5. Soriano (Nats): .867
6. Burrell (Phils): .862
7. Gonzalez (Dbacks): .847
8. Lee (Brewers): .842
9. Bay (Pirates): .829
10. Dunn (Reds): .813
11. Willingham (Marlins): .782
12. Wilson (Astros/Cards): .740

* a note about ZR: it is not a perfect system but I use it because it is widely available and generally accurate. Oftentimes I do scratch my head and treat the numbers with a healthy amount of skepticism. E.g., ZR’s numbers for Barry Bonds conflict with what my eyes tell me: Bonds is a terrible outfielder. He just doesn’t care anymore about defense and plays awful out there.

I’d say that Burrell isn’t as awful as he’s cracked up to be. I’d also note that, going strictly by ZR, if Dellucci played in left (and had the innings), he’s be the top-rated left fielder in the national league.

The position the Phillies find themselves in without Bobby Abreu continues to evolve. Since the team dealt him, they’ve been on a tear through the N.L., jumping right back into the wildcard race. I can’t help but think of the irony if the Phillies go on to make the playoffs and make a run on the World Series: here the Phillies deal their most valuable player and become a contender. When Phillies GM Pat Gillick ran the Mariners he let Ken Griffey Jr., go to the Reds and saw his team improve by a dozen or so games from the previous season. Then Gillick let Alex Rodriguez leave for Texas and saw the M’s improve by two dozen games, winning 116. Wouldn’t it be a shocker if the Phillies did the same?

Nobody is going to miss Bobby’s glove. Despite his winning the 2005 Gold Glove, nobody takes his fielding abilities seriously. Bobby is a born batter and defense has always been an after-thought at best. Anyone who has ever watched him track a flyball knows that is true. His -13 Plus / Minus rated him one of the worst right fielders in baseball in 2005 and the only truly weak player on the Phillies defense. ZR confirms that nobody will miss Bobby’s glove:

Right field:
1. Encarnacion (Cards): .911
2. Giles (Padres): .899
3. Drew (Dodgers): .888
4. Jones (Cubs): .888
5. Kearns (Reds / Nats): .883
6. Abreu (Phillies): .873
7. Francoeur (Braves): .864
8. Jenkins (Brewers): .864
9. Hawpe (Rockies): .861
10. Green (Mets / Dbacks): .841

And I think that ZR over-estimates Bobby’s abilities with the glove. There is little question in my mind that Dellucci and Victorino are both upgrades for the Phillies defense and that the team might just be better off without Bobby’s bat too.

In the final analysis, the Phillies are probably playing much better defense with Bobby Abreu gone and Aaron Rowand on the DL. The Burrell-Victorino-Dellucci alignment in the outfield will serve the Phillies well and might hopefully improve the team’s terrible DER rating. Maybe the improved defense play will be the decisive factor helping the Phillies catch up with the Padres and leapfrog into the playoffs. We’ll see.

Wildcard Watch! A nice 5-1 victory last night for the Phillies: Cole Hamels was his usual unhittable self, allowing just four hits in eight innings. Ryan Howard got his 127th RBI as well. Ryan probably won’t challenge the Phillies single-season record for RBI, which is 170 by Chuck Klein in 1930, but he’s probably going to finish with 150 RBI at this pace.

The AL playoff race has really become a snoozer: the A’s and Yankees are seven and a half and eight games up on the Angels and Red Sox respectively, while the Tigers hold a four and a half game edge over the White Sox and Twins. Essentially, the Twins and White Sox battle for the wildcard in the sole playoff race still being seriously contested in the AL. None of the other races have much fizz to them. The A’s are streaking, the Tigers have been playing great baseball all season long and the Yankees are running away with the AL East largely because the Red Sox have collapsed.

Meanwhile, here in the NL things are seriously muddled. There are ten teams within five games of the wildcard, and the divisional races (aside from the NL East) are far from decided. Who would have expected the St. Louis Cards to be fighting for their playoff lives? Or that the Dodgers would be back in first after collapsing after the All-Star Break? Teams like the Reds and Padres are in dual playoff races: they still have a shot at their division and they are in the thick of the wildcard. This year has been odd because there are so many variables in play and so many teams that have a chance. Oh well. Here are the standings …

Wildcard Standings:
1. San Diego: 68-65
2. Philadelphia: 67-65 (0.5)
3. Cincinnati: 67-67 (1.5)
4. Florida: 65-67 (2.5)
5. San Francisco: 65-68 (3.0)
6. Houston: 65-68 (3.0)
7. Arizona: 64-69 (4.0)
8. Atlanta: 63-68 (4.0)
9. Milwaukee: 62-71 (6.0)
10. Colorado: 61-71 (6.5)

This will be the final post from me for the next week or so. Tomorrow morning my wife and I are (probably) leaving for Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for a much-needed break, so A Citizens Blog will be going on hiatus for a few days. The wife and I are off for a fun-filled week of lounging in the sun, provided that Hurricane John moves away from the Mexican coast and our hotel is still standing. The trip is costing us a pretty penny, so I intend to enjoy myself and not think about the Phillies, baseball or Cole Hamels amazing arm for an entire week. I will be doing nothing more than lying on a beach, listening to the waves and smearing suntan lotion onto my wife’s back. I shall return on September 11th.

I don't know if you'll be able to go until Sept. 11th without thinking about Cole Hamel's arm.
"With Rowand gone for the season, Dellucci ought to play in centerfield, not Victorino. Dellucci’s arm isn’t quite as good as Victorino, but I think he covers more territory and Victorino’s arm is better served playing in right."

Saying Dellucci's arm isn't quite as good as Victorino's is a bit of an understatement. Saying Dellucci's arm is one of the weakest in the entire NL is more accurate. Centerfield is your most important outfield position -- particularly in CBP where you need to cover a lot of ground. Victorino is superior to Dellucci is ever facet of outfield defense (arm strength and accuracy, routes he takes on balls, jumps on balls, overall speed, you name it). Suggesting that David Dellucci should play centerfield instead of Victorino is just foolish. There is a reason Dellucci was primarily a DH in the AL.
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