Inside the Phillies: Phillies face instability in left field

John Mayberry Jr. is the front-runner for the Phillies in left field, but the 28-year-old must prove he can be an everyday player.
John Mayberry Jr. is the front-runner for the Phillies in left field, but the 28-year-old must prove he can be an everyday player. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 18, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - For 14 straight seasons, from 1983 to 1996, the Phillies used 14 leftfielders on opening day. It's a position that attracts obscurity because a poor defender with a decent bat can hide there. The Phillies reluctantly embraced that idea.

But somehow, for the last 11 years, they were blessed with stability in the corner. Pat Burrell started eight opening days, and Raul Ibanez was his successor for three years. The plan was for Domonic Brown to assume that spot in 2012, but it was only a plan.

So left field is a question once again for the Phillies, and one not easily answered. This spring training, which begins Sunday when pitchers and catchers participate in the first workout, offers no promises.

John Mayberry Jr. demonstrated his ability in 2011 as a platoon player. But no one can be sold on his viability as an everyday player without a larger sample size. Laynce Nix mashes righties, but the Phillies won't know if he can handle an everyday workload until he actually attempts it. Brown was a wreck defensively at the end of 2011 and, barring a blockbuster spring, will begin the season at triple A.

Regardless, the Phillies will be younger in left field. It's one of the only spots on the roster where (relative) youth can be infused.

They are banking on Mayberry, a sentiment echoed by both general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and manager Charlie Manuel this winter. Mayberry's 15 home runs and .854 OPS in 296 plate appearances were enough to merit the inside track on winning the job. But his success is far from guaranteed.

No matter how many times Mayberry's name is connected with Jayson Werth's this spring, it's difficult to make such a comparison. Manuel described Ben Francisco as a "Jayson Werth-type player" last spring, a premise made solely on the fact both waited until deep into their careers to become everyday players. Francisco was on the bench by May.

There are reasons Mayberry is 28 and has never served as an everyday player in the majors. His inability to recognize breaking balls is one. His lack of consistent production against righthanded pitchers is another.

That's not to say Mayberry can't duplicate Werth's career arc. But his 2011 numbers warrant a more critical eye, especially since they are a chief reason the Phillies have faith in his skill.

Of Mayberry's 296 plate appearances, 40.5 percent came against lefthanders. Predictably, the righthanded Mayberry hit them quite well. Eight of his 15 home runs were off lefties, and his strikeout rate was a tenable 15 percent.

If Mayberry is to receive increased playing time in 2012, his platoon split will not be as favorable. Last season, hitters faced lefthanded pitchers in 26.7 percent of total plate appearances in all of baseball. The more Mayberry plays, the closer his platoon split should be to the major-league average.

Against righthanders, Mayberry wasn't terrible by any means. He hit .250 (opposed to .306 vs. lefties) and still managed a .785 OPS. But he struck out 21 percent when facing righties, and 61.9 percent of his batted balls were on the ground or infield pop-ups. That figure against lefties was 42.8 percent.

And pitchers now have better data and more video on Mayberry. Just like the recent pattern employed on other Phillies hitters, Mayberry could see fewer fastballs in 2012. Last season, he saw a fastball 57.7 percent of the time.

Mayberry passes the look test, something Manuel has often mentioned. His baserunning, opposed to the station-to-station type the manager despises, is a plus. His athleticism in the field can compensate for bad routes and makes him an above-average defender.

Ultimately, Mayberry could form one half of a platoon again. The team signed Nix for power he can provide off the bench, but his splits against righthanded pitching make him, on paper, a logical candidate for a rotation.

Nix batted only 31 times against lefties in 2011. All 16 of his home runs were hit off righties, and his rate statistics, such as on-base and slugging percentage, are comparable to Ibanez's from 2011.

And all of this eventually could be moot, too. If Brown regains his power stroke a full year after fracturing the hamate bone in his right hand and plays adequate defense in the minors, he could fulfill the original plan.

Spring training will supply limited insight. Remember, it was Francisco who was projected to man right field at this time last year. Now he's in Toronto, and Hunter Pence is a fan favorite.


Contact staff writer Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or @magelb on Twitter.

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