Phillies can rely on their defense ... or maybe not

Chase Utley , slowed by injuries, can still turn singles into bang-bang outs.
Chase Utley , slowed by injuries, can still turn singles into bang-bang outs. (KEVIN C. COX / Getty Images)
Posted: September 30, 2011

If baseball is a religion, then the technology boom has ushered in a new Age of Reformation. For every bit of the game's accepted dogma, there are now heretics eager to challenge it, glad to nail their statistical-based theses on the Internet's door.

Take the schism that surrounds the Phillies defense, an unshakable tenet of faith among the National League East champion's supporters.

As Charlie Manuel's club begins play this weekend in its fifth consecutive postseason, it's almost universally accepted that, with the notable exception of starting pitching, fielding is its greatest asset.

According to this orthodoxy, the glovework was solid when the Phils first made it to the playoffs in 2007 and has remained so through the four NL East titles that have followed.

The statistics appear to validate that belief. The Phils tied with Tampa Bay for baseball's best fielding percentage (. 988), and only the Rays (73) had committed fewer errors than their 74.

You know the litany: Sure-handed Jimmy Rollins had just seven errors; Shane Victorino is a vacuum in center field; Chase Utley's dives turn countless singles into bang-bang outs; and Carlos Ruiz is a big-mitted maestro behind the plate.

Suddenly, though, that wisdom has come under attack from a sect of Lehigh County fanatics armed with video cameras and the zeal of true believers.

Researchers at Baseball Info Solutions in Coplay, Pa., insist that, far from possessing one of baseball's two best defenses, the 2011 Phillies are, in fact, one of the worst.

"You look at their low error total, which is the No. 1 thing I've seen people cite in defense of their defense," said Ben Jedlovec, a BIS research analyst. "They say, 'The Phillies don't make a lot of errors. They're a very good defensive team.'

"But there's a lot more to defense, obviously, than just not making errors. You have to get to the ball to not make an error in the first place. And if you're not getting to the ball, that ball goes through for a base hit rather than an out or an error or anything else."

Now that Rollins, Utley, and Ruiz are all 32 and Victorino is 30, Jedlovec posited, they're just not getting to as many balls as they once did, a shortcoming neglected in the traditional defensive measurements.

"They come out as a below-average team," Jedlovec said.

Way, way below average.

In fact, only three teams in baseball - the Cubs, Orioles, and Mets - are behind the 27th-ranked Phillies in BIS's runs-saved category, which is used by FanGraphs.com.

Individually, it's not any prettier.

Of the 35 players rated in terms of runs saved at each position, leftfielder Raul Ibanez is No. 35, first-baseman Ryan Howard 34, Ruiz 33, and rightfielder Hunter Pence 31.

Among the Phils regulars in the runs-saved category, only third baseman Placido Polanco (plus-16), second baseman Utley (plus-5), and Victorino (plus-1) are above average.

Diminished range

According to Jedlovec, the Phillies hit their peak about 2008, when BIS rated the world champions the game's best defenders. Four years later, injuries and time have pushed them well down into the pack.

Rollins is a good example.

BIS, in conjunction with stats guru Bill James and others, hands out a Fielding Bible award every season to the player they have ranked highest at each position. Rollins was a multiple winner, most recently in 2008. This season, though, despite his remarkably low error total, BIS has him as a below-average shortstop.

They did so by gauging how he and all other shortstops fared on balls hit right at them and those to their left and right.

In 2008, Rollins was a plus-2 both on balls hit right at him and on those to his right, meaning he produced outs two more times than what BIS deemed an average shortstop. On balls hit to his left, the Phils shortstop was sensational, an astounding plus-16.

This year, however, while Rollins improved to plus-10 on balls hit at him, he was a minus-6 on balls to his right and a minus-8 on balls to his left, a clear indication of diminished range.

"Good players tend to be better than average, and they continue to be better than average," said Jedlovec. "After they hit their peak age, which is usually in their mid-20s, they lose a little bit of that first-step quickness. They don't cover as much ground.

"They might get more sure-handed, as Rollins statistics on balls hit right at him indicate. He's not bobbling balls. He's fielding them cleanly and making good throws to first when he gets to balls. He just doesn't get to them as often."

BIS compiles its statistics with a team of video scouts who tape every ball that's hit in the big leagues. The speed and location of each is measured, and it's determined how often the game's defenders as a whole make those plays.

"If a ball is hit to a certain spot with hard velocity, we know that the league as a whole makes that play, say, 89 percent of time," said Jedlovec. "If the player makes it, we give him credit. If he doesn't, we dock him."

Based on those calculations, BIS assigns a runs-saved number to each player and each team.

In 2008, for example, the Phils led baseball in runs saved, with plus-79. By comparison, this season they were at minus-31.

"So their pitching staff, as good as it's been, would have allowed 29 fewer runs if it had had even an average defense," Jedlovec said.

Tampa Bay (plus-77) was No. 1. Significantly, all the Phils' potential NL postseason opponents were ranked as better defensive teams.

Arizona (plus-33) is No. 7, Milwaukee (plus-19) No. 11, and St. Louis (minus-13) No. 20.

"Arizona is particularly strong in the outfield with Chris Young, Justin Upton, and Gerardo Parra, all of whom cover a lot of ground," said Jedlovec. "Milwaukee has some defensive liabilities in the infield that they've overcome with positioning."

Just 27 outs

Still, video analysis is one thing, perception something else. And the Phillies remain convinced that no matter what these nay-saying nerds might say, they're a very good defensive ball club.

"I'm not sure where they're coming from, but I think we do as good a job as anyone in making sure the other teams get just 27 outs," said Rollins. "And when you can turn a potential hit into an out it boosts you up a little and takes something away from the other guys."

Utley was the Fielding Bible second baseman in 2010, but, likely because of his ailing knee and injury-related inactivity, he's slipped to No. 10 in 2011.

But maybe the most surprising ranking is Ruiz, who is rated No. 33 among big-league catchers.

"Although he has a decent reputation as a defender, he's rated below average by our system," said Jedlovec. "The two main components we look at for catchers are how well they control the running game and how well the team's pitchers pitch with him behind the plate as opposed to other catchers."

An assessment Ruiz's supporters - as well as those who've watched this Phillies team regularly - would undoubtedly label as heresy.

"I know," said Jedlovec of the divide between the perception of the Phils as strong defenders and his statistics. "It goes against intuition and observation. But that's what our numbers say."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

 

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