When venerable Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin wrote last week that Shane Victorino was the greatest defensive center fielder in Phillies history, most of us just raised our eyebrows and thought that the hefty oldster must have missed his meds, if not the accompanying meal. But while the debate of Victorino’s merits with the glove compared to those of Rich Ashburn and Garry Maddox in their respective heydays is irresolvable by definition, what we can measure is that in his fourth full major-league season, Victorino has matured into an offensive force way beyond anything we could have anticipated when he cracked the Phillies roster about four years ago now. Grumbling from Pablo Sandoval partisans aside, the Flyin’ Hawaiian made the NL all-star team on merit as well as relentless campaigning and an assist from Chan Ho Park: Victorino put up a .309/.375/.464 first-half line, and he’s been even better since, hitting .323/.411/.512 in 33 games since the break.
But what’s elevated Victorino from a nice complementary offensive player who can steal bases and pop the occasional homer into arguably the team’s MVP this year is his dramatically improved patience at the plate. The newfound selectivity from a guy some of used to disparagingly call "Hacktorino" was on display this weekend at Citi Field: Victorino drew a walk against Mike Pelfrey in Friday’s 4-2 loss, two more against two Mets pitchers in Saturday’s 4-1 win, and three bases on balls in the wild Sunday victory. The first of those came after an extended battle with Mets starter Oliver Perez; as was the case in the sixth inning the night before, the next hitter (Chase Utley Saturday, Jayson Werth Sunday) followed with a homer that gave the Phillies the lead. He also was hit by a pitch and drew a walk (against Billy Wagner) in the Phils’ 6-2 win on Monday afternoon.
Victorino has raised his on-base percentage in each of his four seasons with the Phillies, from .346 in 2006 to .347, .352 and .385 this year. The trajectory of his walk rate has followed the same path: from 5.2 percent in 2006, to 7.3 percent as a full-time starter in ’07, 7.3 percent last year, and up to 9.5 percent in 2009. Perhaps surprisingly, Victorino isn’t seeing more pitches: his career high remains an average of 3.7 per plate appearance in 2007, followed by a 3.5 mark last year and 3.6 this season. But the walk number suggests that he’s making better choices about when to swing and when to take. Another hint of a much-improved approach is his line drive rate: 22.3 percent in 2009, a nice jump from the (solid enough) 19.2 percent he notched last season.
As WholeCamels noted a few days back, the Phillies have a pleasant dilemma on their hands with a surplus of quality outfielders: three all-stars at the major-league level, all under contract through 2010, and two top prospects in the higher rungs of the minor league system. There seems to be one school of thought among fans that, with Raul Ibanez probably less attractive as a trade commodity because of his age and contract—not to mention his slump since coming off the disabled list—and Werth the Phillies’ sole established power bat from the right side, it’s Victorino who should be moved to clear a space for Michael Taylor next season. If the player we’re talking about is the 2007-2008 Victorino, a superior defender and decent hitter with some clear flaws in his offensive game, that’s a defensible view. But if the 2009 Victorino is the guy we’ll see going forward—a legitimate .300 hitter who rarely gives away at-bats and can beat you with patience as well as power and speed—that’s a player you build around, not move aside.