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Phillies Defense Is Costing Them Games

The Phillies wanted an improved defense in 2014. They're not getting it so far.

Ben Revere didn't catch this one.
Ben Revere didn't catch this one.
Drew Hallowell

What used to be a strength for the Phillies has become a huge weakness.

The Phillies defense helped to cost them yet another game on this young season, this time a 9-4 loss to the Brewers at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night. And the last three games have been particularly ugly.

Last night, Ryan Howard let an easy ground ball get past him with a runner on third and one out in the 8th inning, allowing the Brewers to break a 4-4 tie. A two-run triple by Ryan Braun later, the Brewers were up 7-4 and this baby was over.

On Tuesday, the Phils committed three errors which resulted in three unearned runs in their home opener to Milwaukee, which they lost 10-4. Errors by Kyle Kendrick and Cody Asche led to four runs in the third inning, Asche failed to turn a double play in the fifth, and Ben Revere dropped a fly ball in center field, the second time in two games he'd done that. That Revere error in Chicago led to four unearned runs in the Phils' 8-3 loss to the Cubs.

This despite all the extra defensive work done by Ryne Sandberg in spring training. Sandberg was so concerned about the team's fielding lapses on Sunday and Tuesday that the team did extra infield work before Wednesday night's game.

Unfortunately, maybe this little league stuff doesn't work with a bunch of veteran professionals. Perhaps the Phillies just have a collection of not-so-great defensive players.

That's not to say Sandberg isn't justified in making defensive practice a focus. He needs to do everything he can to make sure everyone knows he's trying to address this. But at the end of the day, it's up to his players to make the routine plays.

The Phillies should be better than last year, when they were really, really, really bad.

Last year's Phillies ranked 29th out of 30 teams in terms of Ultimate Zone Rating and were dead last in Defensive Runs Saved, which says the Phillies defense cost them a staggering 102 runs last year over what an average defense would ordinarily do.

In what is admittedly a limited sample size, Fangraphs says the Phils' DRS so far this year is -8, meaning the team's defense has cost them 8 runs more than an average defense would. The only teams worse so far this year are the Rangers, White Sox and Tigers.

But you don't even have to look at the data to see the obvious. The Phils' defense is costing them runs, and games. And the manager is frustrated.

"We definitely have to tighten that up," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said after last night's game. "I don't know what to say about it. We work at it. We talk about it. Some of the plays are routine, and we have to make the routine plays."

The Howard error looked like the play a 50-year-old man would make. He seemed incapable of bending at the hips to reach for a ball that bounced right at letter-height and to his backhand. Revere's bumbling of two fly balls in recent days hurt at least as much as the two spectacular plays he made Wednesday night helped.

His early miscues aside, adding Asche at third base should be a plus for the defense. Certainly, they'll be better with him than with Kevin Frandsen and Michael Young. Marlon Byrd is a big upgrade in right field over Delmon Young and Darin Ruf. Rollins and Utley are still solid. But question marks remain with Domonic Brown in left field (although he's largely been OK this year) and Revere in center, as well as with the human glacier at first base.

Phils' pitchers also need to field their positions better. Kendrick did himself no favors on Tuesday with his error.

These Phillies are not going to be a team that makes a lot of highlight reel plays, aside from the occasional stunner by Revere. This team has virtually no range and must make the routine plays almost every time in order to be effective. But right now, they're not even doing that.

Not only that, the Phillies do not have a staff full of guys who are going to put up a ton of strikeouts. Aside from Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, the Phillies rotation is full of ground-ball pitchers. The bullpen hasn't been missing many bats at all so far. Teams are going to put balls in play and many of them are going to be hit near Phillies defenders.

Defense in baseball is a lot like putting. No one goes to the driving range to work on their putting, but when you get on the course, it's the putter that makes your score.

Playing fundamental defense isn't sexy, but it helps prevent losing ballgames. If the Phillies can't put a lid on their failure to catch and throw the ball properly, the losses are going to pile up.