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Surprise! Wade Knows Defense

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Ask any phan about the Phillies' defense and you'll get a glowing review of Jimmy Rollins and then a rundown of how awful the others are:

Bobby Abreu: never tries hard and is afraid of going back on balls against walls.
Pat Burrell: a stiff who can't run after balls.
Kenny Lofton: old guy who can't cover the ground he used to.
Jason Michaels: cop-slugging big oaf.
David Bell: despite an occasional gem, does his best tree impression at third base.
Chase Utley: clumsy and awkward in the field.
Jim Thome: big lug whose back inhibits him.
Ryan Howard: big lug who is so bad he can't play any other position though the team tried.
Mike Lieberthal: can't catch or call a game.

Although there's possibly some truth in all of these common perceptions, the Phillies' defense just might be one of those whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts phenomenon.

Using the most obvious statistics, the Phils this year have the fewest errors in the majors (59) and the highest fielding percentage (.987). But errors and fielding percentage are hardly the best way to judge a team's defense, as a team that reaches few balls in play but makes those plays will have a low error rate but will not be particularly effective.

A much better way to judge team defense is through defensive efficiency. Baseball Prospectus compiles this stat, which tells us the percentage of balls in play that a team converts to outs. This measure's simplicity belies its power. It tells us, in a very easy to understand way, how often a hit ball gets converted to an out by the defense. That's the bottom line of any defensive unit, isn't it?

How do the Phils compare with this stat? Quite well indeed - they are 4th in the majors and 1st in the NL. Here's the list of the top ten teams:

#  YEAR    TEAM    LG      PA      AB       H      BB      SO      HBP     HR      ROE     DEF_EFF
1.      2005    OAK     AL      4,487   4,019   964     370     779     46      111     49      0.716
2.      2005    CHA     AL      4,528   4,076   1,023   355     742     39      116     37      0.712
3.      2005    CLE     AL      4,547   4,147   1,036   312     781     32      130     49      0.710
4.      2005    PHI     NL      4,604   4,113   1,053   365     851     48      149     38      0.705
5.      2005    HOU     NL      4,509   4,064   1,002   338     885     39      118     40      0.705
6.      2005    SLN     NL      4,514   4,061   1,045   335     723     45      113     42      0.705
7.      2005    TOR     AL      4,544   4,124   1,082   322     697     47      130     42      0.703
8.      2005    SEA     AL      4,605   4,107   1,102   384     651     47      133     39      0.703
9.      2005    ANA     AL      4,614   4,183   1,054   343     851     36      116     34      0.703
10.     2005    DET     AL      4,497   4,050   1,075   344     691     37      138     43      0.702

What's even more telling is that the Phils, with a very similar core of players, have been very consistent in their defensive efficiency over the past few years. In 2004, they were 3rd in the majors and 3rd in the NL in defensive efficiency. In the pre-CBP years when the outfield space was bigger, their numbers weren't as great, but they were still very very good: in 2003, 8th in the majors and 4th in the NL; in 2002, 6th in the majors and 5th in the NL.

Ed Wade has several flaws: he is incompetent at making in-season roster adjustments; he hgas no idea how to assemble a bench; and he has an addict's weakness for aging ineffective middle relievers. But, he deserves credit where it's due, and in the area of team fielding, he appears to know what he's doing in assembling a good defensive team.