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Don’t look now, but the Phillies are really good at defense

They’ve gotten a lot of practice, what with their pitchers putting the ball in play so often.....

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tough.

At this point in the season, there have been few positives to get people to continue watching the team. The offense has been really good, but the pitching and the surrendering of a late leads on a too frequent basis have made consuming this team about as pleasant as taking ipecac.

Yet ever so sneakily, this team has improved and become one of the top ranked teams in the National League at getting outs in the field. I know! I was just as shocked as you. However, when I head Larry Bowa gushing over his team’s leather on talk radio, I had to confirm it for myself and wouldn’t you know? They really are quite good with the leather.

Take a look at this table. Here are their ranks as a team in some of the major fielding categories in the game (all stats through May 16):

Phillies Team Defense

Category Total NL rank (MLB rank)
Category Total NL rank (MLB rank)
Fielding % 0.985 T-3 (T-8)
Errors 19 2 (5)
DRS -4 8 (21)
UZR 12.3 2 (4)
DE 0.715 5 (13)

They rank in the top five in the National League in four of five team categories, defensive runs saved being the outlier (I’ll get there in a minute). When you expand it to include the entirety of baseball, they are still holding their own, ranking in the top third in three categories. It’s impressive because they are ranking above some of the more shift happy, defensive oriented teams in the game, even though they have increased their own usage of the shift exponentially in the past few seasons. So what’s driving this success?

Well, one thing that is making them such an improved defensive unit is the success they are having in the outfield. Their ability to turn flyballs into outs (as measured by flyball defensive efficiency, found on Baseball Prospectus) is second only to the Miami Marlins (.939 vs. .934). They’ve used the athleticism of both Odubel Herrera and Aaron Altherr to become an elite team at outfield defense. Having this kind of defense is especially important on a team like the Phillies, which sports the third highest flyball percentage in baseball at 40.7%. Another reason that they are doing so well is that in the key position of shortstop, they are sacrificing some offense in order to get a better glove there. While Freddy Galvis has chipped in with power we actually never really though he could sustain, his calling card is still with his glove. He’ll make the occasional gaffe in the field, but for the most part, he’s rock solid up the middle.

Where there might be some concern is that they rank so low in defensive runs saved (DRS). I mentioned that I would talk about it here because it should be explained why. Here is a chart on the team’s starters at each position and how many runs they’ve saved according to Baseball Reference:

Phillies DRS in 2017 (through 5/17)

Player DRS
Player DRS
Rupp -3
Joseph -1
Hernandez 3
Galvis -1
Franco -4
Altherr 0
Herrera 5
Saunders -1

You have black holes already forming at third base and behind the plate, which is dragging the defense down in the eyes of that statistic. Fielding stats being what they are, we have to take it with a grain of salt, but it does seem to line up with the “eye test”. It doesn’t take much to know that outside of a rocket arm, Franco isn’t much of a defender with the glove, nor is Rupp anything special with his oversized mitt behind the plate. Even with these two providing below average defense, the team is still solid everywhere else around the diamond.

The real eye popper is Odubel Herrera. Last year, there were two deep dives into Herrera’s emergence as a plus defender, one by sorely missed Corinne Landrey (COME BACK, CORINNE!!!), and one by Eno Sarris, both of which I’d encourage you read up on. They both use gifs to make the argument that Herrera is actually a really good defensive outfielder. What I’d like to do is use a different picture.

Take a look at these two charts of catches made by Odubel Herrera and glove wizard Kevin Kiermaier in 2016:

Kiermaier is widely considered the best defensive outfielder in the game, yet judging from this, Herrera is right there with him, even showing an ability to go a greater distance for outs. Perhaps that Kiermaier is better positioned in the outfield and doesn’t have to go as far for outs, but still, Herrera is showing that he is in fact a top quality outfielder.

There is still work to be done. The probability that Michael Saunders will continue to be, according a DRS, roughly an average defensive outfielder is slim, given that he was not one in 2016. But with the team going through a rough patch right now, it’s nice to be reminded that they are still doing quite well in certain categories. If the pitching ever comes around, their defense will be there to make sure that the success is sustainable. At least on batted balls.