Michael/Male/26-30. Lives in United States/Pennsylvania/Wexford/Christopher Wren, speaks English. Spends 20% of daytime online. Uses a Fast (128k-512k) connection. And likes baseball /politics.
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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Why The Phillies Can't Phield 

A little over a week ago my good friend Tom recently argued on his blog, Balls, Sticks ‘n Stuff, that I had latched onto the poor play of the Phillies defense like a dog gnawing on a bone and that my belief that the Phillies had suffered a collapse on defense this season was wrong. In support of his argument, Tom submitted that the Phillies pitching staff was allowing too many line drives, and since three-quarters of line drives automatically fall in for hits, you can’t entirely fault the Phillies defense for their performance this season when the Phillies hurlers allow too many line-drives.

The primary flaw with Tom’s analysis is simply this: yes, pitchers do influence a team’s DER ratios by how many line drives they allow. The problem is that the ’06 Phillies pitchers aren’t really allowing many more line drives than the ’05 Phillies pitchers did, and the ’05 Phillies were second in the NL in DER. The ’06 Phillies are fifteenth last I looked. The difference between the ’05 and the ’06 teams is something like thirty points, which is enormous. If there was a big upsurge in the number of line drives allowed by Phillies hurlers, I’d be in agreement with Tom.

But there isn’t.

E.g., Brett Myers. In 2005 Brett Myers allowed 23.1% of the balls put into play off him to be line-drives and the Phillies bailed him out by converting .724 of those balls into outs. In 2006, Brett has improved, allowing just 17.7% of the balls put into play as line-drives. If Tom were correct, then the Phillies DER for Brett Myers should be higher than 2005’s .724.

It isn’t. It is .696 …

Jon Lieber? Same thing. He cut down on line-drives from 21.5% to 20.6%, and yet the Phillies DER behind him went down from .722 to .698. Ryan Madson? The same once more: 25.3% to 22.2%, DER fell from .701 to .653.

To be sure the result is not unform: Cory Lidle dropped his line-drives slightly and the DER behind him went up this season slightly. But the point is this: the Phillies pitchers are allowing as many (or fewer) line-drives and the quality of the Phillies defense, quite frankly, sucks.

The Phillies have declined from the second-best defense to second-worst. Such a decline, so sharp and drastic, is really only explained by the decline in play of the Phillies fielders, not their pitchers. And that decline is a dramatic one. There is scant evidence to suggest any other factors in play here. You certainly cannot fault the Phillies pitchers for the decline, after all, they are pitching the same way they have in years past (or better) and the Phillies have been ranked #2, #3 and #4 in DER over the last three seasons.

Tom also faulted me for using Zone Rating, a mildly subjective stat that rates the plays a player makes in his “zone”. Yes, ZR is subjective and imperfect. But it is the only real stat I have to measure a player’s contribution on the field. And ZR makes it clear that there isn’t a single Phillies near the top or even middle of his position in fielding in the NL. The evidence is clear: the Phillies are playing lousy, lousy defense.

The bottom-line is that the Phillies fielders must bear the brunt of the scorn on this matter: they did so well with the balls the Phillies pitchers allowed to be put into play in the past, why not now? I suggest it is due to a change in the Phillies defensive alignment (i.e., adding Aaron Rowand) and an overall decline in the quality of play from several players.

Good points Counselor. I feel kind of dumb for not comparing the numbers to previous years. But, can it be a glass half full/empty type of thing? Maybe this year's D is simply what one should expect for the line drive rates while last year's D went far and above what would be expected given the line drive rates. Hard to say.

To bad we can't look at defensive stats for different parts of the season. I'd be curious to see if the team's D has gotten better during the recent stretch of play where the W's have finally outnumbered the L's on a consistent basis.

Thanks Mike!
Tom, I think you are probably correct in assuming that the defense is playing better these days. I think The Hardball Times annual does DER by month, so I think that might answer the question at the end of the year.
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