A Look Back: Run Prevention in 2011 by the Phillies and Some Thoughts on Defense in 2012

NOTE: Bumped back to the top, this great piece got overshadowed by the Conlin news and the Christmas holiday, two very not at all similar things. - WholeCamels

The Phillies gave up 529 Runs in 2011 over 162 games, for an average of 3.27 runs per game. tells us that no Phillies team that played 162 games ever gave up fewer runs. The closest was the 1976 version of the Phillies, which surrendered 557 runs. In fact, only 12 teams in Phillies history (out of 129 such teams) gave up fewer runs during a season. Two of those seasons were 1981 and 1994 - strike-shortened seasons of far fewer than 162, or even 154, games. Every other Phillies team that surrendered fewer runs played far fewer than 162 games and they all played during 1918 or earlier (during the Dead Ball Era).

How did the Phillies pull this off in 2011? Pitching and defense, of course. But with Raul Ibanez and Ryan Howard on the field along with nearly a full season of combined plate appearances by Michael Martinez and Wilson Valdez, how were the Phillies a good defensive team? Three-eighths of the eight position players were atrocious defenders. And Ben Francisco was pretty bad, too. The team UZR was in the bottom third of the league. Maybe it was all just pitching,,,

The pitching component resulted largely from the contributions of the starters, of course. Between Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, the Philllies had a huge number of innings pitched by elite players. Roy Oswalt, Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick (!) were broadly effective, and even superior at times. Add in Antonio Bastardo and Ryan Madson, and there were few true filler innings.

The number of innings pitched by the team overall was 1,477, requiring 3,887 outs. Of those outs, 1,299 were strikeouts. There are few plays involving a strikeout where a run scores. Still, the Phillies racked up fewer strikeouts than two other National League teams: the San Francisco Giants and the Atlanta Braves, both of whom gave up more runs. The strikeouts help, but don't tell the whole story.

Walks, or rather walk prevention, likely accounted for much of the team's success. The Phillies' staff walked the fewest batters in the NL in 2011 (404). The Milwaukee Brewers were next at 440. The Arizona Diamondbacks and the St. Louis Cardinals rounded out the top four in the NL. Given what is widely known about run expectancy changes resulting from walks, it is obvious that giving up 20% fewer walks than the NL average of 504 and 10% fewer walks than the next-best walk preventing team in the National League is going to suppress run scoring by the opponent.

A final component to the pitching side of the equation is the low number of home runs surrendered by Phillies pitchers. No team other than the Giants (96) gave up fewer home runs than the Phillies (120). Not even the Petco-dwelling San Diego Padres gave up fewer (125). The low number of home runs likely resulted from a combination of the swing-and-miss stuff of the Phillies pitchers (3rd in the NL in strikeouts), suppressed home run production from the fair play of Citizens Bank Park, and the ground ball tendencies of the Phillies staff (46.5% in 2011 - 3rd in MLB behind the Braves and Cardinals). In addition, the HR/FB% for the Phillies was 4th in Major League Baseball, after the Giants, Washingon Nationals, and the Padres.

If run prevention is about pitching and defense, then a real mystery here is the defense portion of the equation. The Phillies had a pretty ordinary (even bad) defense per Fangraphs' UZR numbers, which was 9th worst in MLB. Notably, the Braves and Cardinals were even worse. Still, the Phillies managed to give up fewer runs than any other team in baseball.

I have two theories about the poor defensive showing. First is the Valdez factor. Placido Polanco and Chase Utley each missed a substantial amount of time in 2011, during which they were replaced by some combination of Wilson Valdez and Michael Martinez. The latter two accumulated between them nearly a season's worth of plate appearances. Add in a full season of Raul Ibanez and Ryan Howard and the better part of a season from the combination of Domonic Brown and Ben Francisco (about 500 PA together), and the result is outright defensive ineptitude for more or less a full season at four defensive positions.

The second factor related to the poor defensive showing that I considered was the possibility that it resulted from the extreme ground ball tendencies of the Phillies' staff. There is certainly a signal extraction problem to be solved here, but the highest GB/FB% teams (Phillies/Braves/Cardinals) all appear in the bottom 9 for UZR. The teams that have the most fly balls (Diamondbacks/Rays/Red Sox) all appear in the top 5 in UZR. I think this is just a coincidence, but it seemed odd at first blush.

UZR, as calculated, shouldn't have a bias against teams based on GB/FB propensities - it should just be "did player X get to the ball in Zone X at a league average rate or not?" Then, it assigns a run differential based on the average value of a hit in the area on a similar type ball (hard ground ball to right fielder, for instance) with no reference to game situation (runners/outs). So my initial reaction ("UZR is unfair to GB teams!") is wrong.

The extreme ground ball tendencies of the staff and the large number of replacement level innings at 2B/3B during 2011 probably combined to produce the poor UZR showing for the Phillies when combined with the "slick" fielding (especially the throwing) of Ryan Howard. During games where where some combination of Valdez, Martinez, and Howard played behind a ground ball pitcher, the defense was apparently pretty poor, though Martinez, to be fair, was not really the problem, though he was not as good as Placido Polanco. It the final analysis, it is easy to understand why the Phillies' UZR was in the bottom half of the NL given the fact that the pitchers were causing balls to go to the worst fielders on the team. UZR is also a "counting stat" of sorts, and lots of chances going to the worst fielders...well, it is just not a recipe for success.

So if the defense was actually pretty bad in 2011, how did the Phillies give up the fewest runs in their non Dead Ball Era? The pitchers were fabulous. But we knew that already. So what can we learn from this as we await the start of the 2012 season?

First, the importance of the Jimmy Rollins deal is further reinforced. Offense aside, he is a far better option in the field than Wilson Valdez. To be fair to Valdez, he isn't awful at short, but he's not Jimmy Rollins, either. And Valdez is really, really bad at second and third. Back to short, nobody really knows what Freddy Galvis could have done, even just defensively, this year. I'm all for seeing the kid in Clearwater this spring, but it's nice to know he can get more seasoning in the minors when the season starts.

Second, it is pretty obvious that the Phillies are a ground ball team. They are one of the best teams at inducing grounders in all of MLB, in fact. And while the offense may decline this year, I can see a pretty valid argument to be made that the infield defense could be much better than last year's edition, subject to the usual caveats about the health of Polanco, Rollins, and Chase Utley. Replacing Howard with a statue of Harry Kalas should result in the addition of .5 WAR. A real, actual fielder might do even better, but, alas, solving for "real fielder" does not produce "Ty Wiggington" or "Jim Thome."

The departure of Raul Ibanez with John Mayberry (or Brown) and replacing the Brown/Francisco platoon in right with Hunter Pence likewise will result in marked defensive improvements at the positions. I don't think it is unreasonable to imagine the Phillies picking up 2.5 - 3.0 in dWAR in 2012. That's the near-equivalent of adding a $15M dollar per year free agent. And that improved defensive efficiency should help to offset the effects of games lost to injury or declines in other aspects of production due to age.

There are lots of ways to win in baseball. Scoring runs is an obvious one. But preventing runs is a pretty good method, too. And for a team that won 102 games, it is often hard to find areas where there may be a realistic area to find some extra wins. Defense is probably the best opportunity for the 2012 Phillies to find extra wins. If they can gain 2.5 to 3.0 games with defense, they can afford to lose perhaps 10 - 15 WAR and still make the playoffs. That allows for a lot of decline with a lot of margin for error.

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