In the past couple of years, the Philadelphia Phillies have become a pitching juggernaut. Fronted by Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee, the Phillies' rotation was by far the best in all of MLB. They led MLB in all pitching statistics as they combined for an ERA of 2.86 (2nd in MLB: 3.28), a FIP of 2.98 (2nd in MLB: 3.38), an xFIP of 3.17 (2nd in MLB: 3.65), and a SIERA of 3.24 (2nd in MLB: 3.70). So, of course, when the biggest offseason signing was a pitcher, and not a position player, it left many of the philly.com commenting crowd scratching their head wondering why Ruben had not acquired "more bats".
The Phillies offense was obviously terrible in 2011. They were nothing but a group of free-swinging, unclutch, lackadaisical bums who just don't love the game. Between the laziness of Domonic Brown, the never-ending pop-ups of Jimmy Rollins, and the lack of "small ball", it's a wonder that this team scored any runs at all.
Of course, the Philadelphia Phillies did manage to score 713 runs, so they must have been doing something right. In this post (and future posts), I'll examine what that was, and how it bodes for this years' iteration of the team. Additionally, I'll be referencing stats for which the league averages and expected values aren't widely known. Knowing absolute percentages is useful, but only when presented in the proper context, so whenever I write a number in parentheses next to another value that will indicate the league average.
In baseball, patience can refer to several things, but I'll limit this to just two: percentage of balls taken, and pitches taken overall. I choose these two both to dispute the description of the team as "free-swinging" and to give a bit more perspective to those who'd like to draw a conclusion based upon a postseason series of five games. Now, on to the numbers (link for those who'd like to explore them in greater depth).
The Phillies swung at 30.8% (30.6%) of the balls they were thrown. That put them 16th in the majors, and right around average as well. The range in MLB was about 33% to 28% with the A's as an outlier at 26.2%. The Phillies were not great, certainly, but not terrible either. However, it's important to note that this team was actually thrown a greater percentage of balls than any other team in the majors, comprising a full 56.8% (54.7%) of the pitches they saw. Teams have decided that when they face the Phillies, they'll avoid the strike zone as much as possible. The Phillies could certainly benefit from realizing this to a greater extent and ending up closer to the bottom of the league at swinging at balls, but it'd take quite a stretch to call them free-swinging.
Now as for overall pitches taken, the Phillies swung at 44.9% (46.2%) of the pitches thrown to them. This isn't really a positive, as it's more indicative of the fact that they swung a mere 63.4% (65.0%) of the time at pitches in the strike zone. However, the team is thrown the most balls in the majors, so on a level it makes sense, though it's odd to see them taking more strikes rather than taking more balls. While taking pitches is key to shortening the opposing starter's night, swinging at strikes and either fouling them off or hitting them into play can be even more crucial. If anything, the Phillies should be criticized for being too cautious, not too free-swinging. It's because of this, it seems, that while the Phillies are taking more pitches than most teams, they're actually below average in pitches per plate appearance, at 3.81 P/PA (3.82).
Doing a quick calculation, and given the fact that the Phillies were thrown 57.7% first-pitch strikes, the Phillies were thrown strikes only 33% of the time after the first pitch. Taking first pitch strikes and then swinging at balls just doesn't work as an offensive strategy, so the next time you watch Jimmy Rollins swing at the first pitch and pop-up, keep in mind that he probably swung at the best pitch he'd get in that at-bat. Obviously, it'll depend on context, and in situations where a pitcher is struggling to find the zone, it's the wrong approach. But on a general level, Rollins and other Phillies would be best off swinging at a few more first pitches, and taking more pitches when down 0-1.
Of course, the 2011 Phillies are in the past and many members of that team will no longer be in red pinstripes come April 2, 2012. Let's see how the current roster will vary with the 2011 edition in terms of patience and plate approach.
Legend: All values provided refer to the 2011 season.
O-Swing%- Swinging Percentage at pitches outside of the strike zone
Z-Swing%- Swinging Percentage at pitches in the strike zone
Zone% - Percentage of pitches thrown that are in the strike zone
With the 2011 team totals serving as a baseline, and assuming that the players' percentages don't vary too much from 2011 to 2012, we can use these values to see how patient (or impatient) the 2012 Phillies will be. Between Rollins, Victorino, Polanco, Ruiz, Utley, and Howard, we can estimate that they'll see about the same combined PA that they saw in 2011, as Howard's missed month or so will be similar to Utley's in 2011. Again, assuming there isn't too much variation in any direction, this means that any differences in patience will come from outside that group. In particular, this change will come from LF, from the 1st PH, from the 4th OF, and from the utility infielder.
In LF, the Phillies will be replacing Raul Ibanez, who was a fairly patient hitter in 2011, with a combo of more John Mayberry and Laynce Nix. Mayberry can certainly be classified as a patient hitter, assuming that his 2011 was representative of his approach. Nix on the other hand, is about as good of an approximation of free-swinging as it gets. Nix gets thrown a ton of balls, and swings at them nearly half the time. Even worse, he only makes contact with pitches thrown outside the zone 64% of the time. He's pretty bad at recognizing which pitches to hit, and even worse at hitting the ones he chooses. Mayberry's increased time will balance Nix somewhat, but there will be a drop-off in LF patience. While both Nix and Mayberry will swing at the strikes they get, Nix more so than Mayberry, Nix's lack of patience will be painful to watch and won't help the team build up opposing starters' pitch counts.
Replacing Ross Gload as lefty bench bat and 1st overall pinch hitter will be Jim Thome. Remember how frustrating it was to see Ross Gload get thrown out to hit in close game after close game? Well get ready for the opposite feeling, as Jim Thome is anything but helpless at the plate. And what a difference it will be, as Thome swings at a mere 20% of the balls he's thrown, compared to Gload's 44%. Gload swings at more strikes than Thome, but it's not anywhere near as large as their O-Zone% difference. As a result of their approaches, Thome averages about 4.2 P/PA, while Gload averaged 3.5 P/PA. Clearly, the 2012 Phillies will have a far, far more patient pinch hitter in important situations than the 2011 Phillies did.
At utility IF, the 2012 Phillies will feature Ty Wigginton and Michael Martinez, with the major change being Wigginton replacing Wilson Valdez and Pete Orr. Given the massive amount of injuries in the infield last year, it's likely that this combo will receive fewer PA than did Valdez and Martinez in 2011. Wigginton, an offense-only player, will certainly provide a more patient approach at the plate than Wilson Valdez (and fewer double plays too). Wigginton swings at fewer balls and more strikes than Valdez, although he has a fairly pitiful contract rate on out of zone pitches, at only 56%. Overall though, the Phillies are upgrading their plate discipline in their utility infielders replacing Valdez with Wigginton.
At 4th OF, the Phillies will replacing Ben Francisco/Domonic Brown with what will likely be a mix of Laynce Nix and Juan Pierre, though more of the former than the latter. As with the utility IF position, these two are likely to get less PA than the 2011 duo, as both started in RF for a good portion of the season. However, in that reduced amount of PA, the Phillies will be getting a far less patient combo than they had in 2011. For all the complaints about their combined defensive abilities, the one thing no one would (well, should, I'm sure many have and would) complain about was the patience of Brown and Francisco. Both swung at far fewer balls than the team average, and swung at strikes at about the team average combined. In comparison, Nix as mentioned earlier will be far, far less patient. Pierre is less patient than either of Brown or Francisco, but he's far closer to them than Nix is. The 4th OF position will be a whole lot less enjoyable to watch with Nix and Pierre hacking away in place of Brown and Francisco.
In total, the Phillies will have a more patient group of pinch hitters and utility infielders, while a great deal less patient outfielders. While this will hurt the Phillies in the regular season, especially when Nix starts while Howard is out, by the end of the season the 4th OF hopefully won't be having much of an impact on the team. Adding Thome and subtracting Valdez, Orr, and Gload will leave the 2012 Phillies as a somewhat more patient team on the edges, and a full season of Pence will help as well. At least with this cursory look, the 2012 Phillies would seem to be a more patient offensive bunch than the 2011 group, which in itself was a fairly patient group. It'd benefit this team to try and be a bit more aggressive, but they'll do fine even if not too much changes beyond the players mentioned earlier.