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.