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2018 Phillies in Review: Statistical Signals and Noises

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Statistical oddities of the 2018 Phils, both meaningful and not so much.

The 2018 Phillies season included a number of unusual statistical nuggets, some of which were indicators of meaningful trends in the development of the game, of the Phillies team, or at least of individual players.

Other stats are really just interesting noise, and are the equivalent of the infinite monkey theorem [insert joke about the Phillies defense here] — whenever a team participates in over 12,000 plate appearances, invariably some oddities will pop up.

(For a more comprehensive statistical review of the ‘18 Phils, check out Phillies Stat Notes: Analyzing The Collapse.)

Before we jump in, a reminder that always feels unnecessary but somehow is often needed: pointing out that a player or team did a particular thing well (or badly) is not an endorsement (or indictment) of everything about that player or team.

Three True Outcomes

Three True Outcomes (TTO) refers to the three events that fielders typically have no involvement in: the home run, walk, and strikeout. The percentage of events in MLB that are TTO has been rising, driven primarily by the inexorable increase in strikeouts. Walks and home runs combined have been bouncing around 10-11% of all Plate Appearances as far back as the 1950s. However over the 60+ years since then, strikeouts have risen from the 10% range to 22.4% of PAs in 2018:

And in an era of rising TTO across MLB, the 2018 Phillies were the poster child of the trend. They walked a lot, struck out a lot, and hit their share of home runs.

In fact, through the first 90 games of the season, the Phillies were on pace to be the most TTO team in history, surpassing the Brewers of the last two seasons:

1) 2018 Phillies (games 1-90): 38.7% TTO
2) 2016 Brewers, 38.5%
3) 2017 Brewers, 38.2%
4) 2017 Rays 37.6%
5) 2017 Athletics 37.4%

Over their final 72 games, the Phils changed their approach to a degree. Whether pitchers noticed they were passive and started throwing more strikes (debatable), or whether they adjusted their approach to look for pitches to drive earlier in the count, the result was they walked and struck out less as the season wore on.

They were still very much a TTO team, just not to the same extent as in the first 90 games, ranking 4th in TTO over the final 72:

1) Dodgers 37.8%
2) White Sox 37.6%
3) Yankees 35.8%
4) Phillies 35.6%

As hinted at by that list, TTO by itself may or may not be aesthetically pleasing to many fans, but there is nothing wrong with it per se in terms of engendering winning baseball. For example, if we compare this season’s cohort of 10 playoff teams to the league overall, there is very little separation in the % of their PAs that were TTO:

2018 MLB average: 33.7% TTO
2018 Playoff teams: 33.8%

In the end the Phillies, despite their mid-season adjustment, still finished 2018 as the most TTO team in MLB (37.3%, 5th highest all-time), but their approach later in the season may be a better indicator of what’s to come going forward.

Jorge Alfaro: “K”ing of the Hill

Jorge Alfaro has some good attributes and has a chance to be very good one day, as Ethan pointed out in his Catchers review, but his approach and lack of plate discipline led to some extreme numbers this season:

  • Out of the 247 players who came to bat 350+ times in 2018, no one wiffed at more of the pitches they swung at than Alfaro, who had a contact rate of only 61.0%.
  • That led to the 3rd highest K rate (36.6%) in MLB, which, combined with a low walk rate (4.8%), gave him the second worst BB/K ratio, at 0.13 (18 walks, 138 Ks).
  • It gets worse when you consider that 6 of Alfaro’s 18 walks were intentional, since he often batted in front of the pitcher. So when looking at non-intentional walks (NIBBs) per K, Alfaro’s ratio was 0.09 (12 NIBBs/138 Ks), which was the worst in MLB:

1) Jorge Alfaro 0.09 (12 NIBB/138 K)
2) Dee Gordon 0.11 (9/80)
3) Lewis Brinson 0.13 (15/120)

  • Alfaro was also hit by quite a few pitches this year, 14 times in 377 PAs, a rate that compares well with Chase Utley’s seasons when he led the league in HBPs. That meant that Alfaro became only the 9th player of the last 100 years to get plunked by a pitch more often (14 times) than he worked a non-intentional walk (12).
  • BTW, in addition to the 3rd highest K% of 2018, his 36.6% was also the 10th highest in MLB history among hitters with 350+ PAs in a season. With K rates rising, that’s a list that is dominated by recent years, so it’s worth taking a moment to note those players who were “ahead of their time” in their wiffiness:

#1 all-time: Melvin Nieves, 1997 Tigers - 38.8%
#12 Bo Jackson, 1987 Royals - 36.4%
#15 Dave Nicholson, 1964 White Sox - 36.0%
#25 Dave Kingman, 1973 Giants - 34.8%

(Also on the list at #27 on the 2002 Devil Rays — Jared Sandberg, nephew of Ryne.)

  • And I mentioned Dee Gordon above — Gordon recorded only the third season of the last 50 years with 500+ PAs and fewer than 10 walks:

His 1.5% walk rate was the lowest by a qualifying hitter in 69 years, since someone named Virgil Stallcup with the 1949 Reds, who also had 9 walks, but with one additional PA. If not for that additional PA, Gordon’s walk rate would have been the lowest in 96 years.

Scott “Owen Tu” Kingery

Kingery seemed to get down 0-2 in most at bats this season, to the point where someone gave him the nickname Owen Tu in the game threads (I don’t remember who, they’re welcome to give themselves credit in the comments).

Despite only getting 486 PAs, he was still 3rd in MLB in the number of PA’s starting in an 0-2 hole. By the way, some familiar names both ahead and behind him...

1) Carlos Sanchez 166
2) Freddy Galvis 162
3) Scott Kingery 153
4) Whit Merrifield 152
5) Charlie Blackmon 151
6) Odubel Herrera 149

As a percentage, he found himself in an 0-2 count in 31.6% of his PAs, which was by far the highest percentage of any player with 400+ PAs this year:

1) Scott Kingery 31.6%
2) Lewis Brinson 28.8%
3) Matt Davidson 28.6%

In fact, it was the highest percentage ever in the 31 years since pitch counts started being tracked in 1988...

1) Scott Kingery 2018 – 31.6%
2) Clint Barmes 2009 – 29.3
3) Chris Johnson 2011 – 28.9

I still have faith that he’ll be a pretty good player, but it was not an auspicious rookie season for Jetpax.

Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana’s season was somewhat disappointing given his track record, but he continued building on a very solid career...

  • Santana came into the league with a partial season in 2010, and since then has been a fairly unique combination of pop and getting on base. Since his first full season in 2011, he is one of only four players in MLB with at least 1900 of both total bases and times on base:
  • Since 2011 only Andrew McCutchen has more seasons with 50+ extra base hits.

And nobody has more seasons combining 50+ XBH and 80+ walks:

  • Santana’s high walk rate caused some people to think of him as someone who doesn’t put the ball in play enough, for example in cases like man on third and less than two out, when you need a fly ball or grounder. What’s often overlooked though is that Santana also strikes out relatively little, and in fact he walked more (110) than he struck out (93).

It’s only somewhat surprising then that Santana was 6th among all NL qualifiers in productive outs, or that he led all NL qualifying hitters in scoring runners from third base with less than two out:

1) Carlos Santana 71.8% (28/39)
2) J.T. Realmuto 68.0% (17/25)
3) Gregory Polanco 66.7% (22/33)

  • Walking more than he struck out made him the first qualifying Phillie to do that since Jimmy Rollins in 2008 (58/55) . Chase Utley had exactly as many walks as Ks (63/63) in 2010.

Cesar Hernandez: OBP vs. Slugging

Heading into the September 15 games, Cesar’s slash line stood at .257/.361/.356, in the unusual position of having an OBP higher than his Slugging Percentage.

It had been a down year for Cesar. In 2016-2017, he had become more patient, walking a respectable 10.6% of the time in each year, and hit for a high average (.294 both years) that pushed his OBP to the .370s, while also improving his pop. His overall stats reflected that very solid production, with wRC+’s of 107 in 2016, and 112 in 2017. After a fast start this year, by the end of May he had put together a two-year stretch that was pretty impressive:

1257 PAs, .295/.382/.423 (.805 OPS, 118 wRC+)

However the season unraveled from there — while his approach didn’t seem to change much, the quality of his contact did, and his power was drained to the point where heading into the last two weeks his Slugging Percentage dipped below his OBP.

Qualifying hitters with a higher OBP than Slugging Percentage are something of a dying breed. They used to be more common in the 2000s, and even more so in the 1990s, but no one has done it now in four years, since Matt Carpenter in 2014: his slash line rounded to .272/.375/.375, but the OBP was very slightly higher than SLG (.37482 vs. .37479).

Hernandez had continued to struggle but did hit two home runs after September 15th, which helped his Slugging. Even so, heading into the last day of the season it was going to be close, as he was at .253/.357/.358. But with another home run on that final day, Hernandez wound up at .253/.356/.362 and avoided becoming the topic of a future trivia question.

Once and Future Phillies

In 2005, Chase Utley was 26 and had (belatedly) completed his first full season as a starter. That was his first of several Hall-of-Fame caliber seasons, putting up 7.2 WAR (fangraphs) to bring the total for his nascent career up to 9.0.

Thirteen years later, Utley has played the final regular season game of his career, having compiled 63.2 WAR, an impressive total that will undoubtedly garner him support for the Hall, as it already has.

Mike Trout meanwhile has just completed his own age 26 season, and he has already passed Utley’s career WAR total.

In fact, Trout has compiled more WAR through his age 26 season than any player in major league history.

Other Ex-Phils

You might recall Carlos Tocci, who first appeared in the Phillies system as a rail-thin 16 year old international signee out of Venezuela, way back in 2011. Seven years later he’s still rail thin, but he now has a major league season under his belt. After being picked up by the Texas Rangers in the Rule 5 draft this past winter, there was a lot of doubt about whether he would last all season with the Rangers, and many of us were hoping he would be sent back to the Phillies once he showed how overmatched he was by MLB pitching. Fortunately for him though the Rangers quickly realized they weren’t going anywhere this year and, with a DL stint mixed in, did keep him on the major league roster the entire year. He may well head back to AAA in 2019, but he rewarded the Rangers’ patience with this first-half/second-half split:

A .668 OPS (72 wRC+) still isn’t great, but it may be enough to at least keep him in the running for a roster spot in Spring Training.

When you start carving up a 135-PA sample into even smaller splits, you get some funny numbers, such as Tocci’s home-road splits:

Maybe they should devise a home-away platoon to get that bat in the lineup.

Non-Phillies

  • Chris Davis had the first season of the 2000’s with -3 WAR, per fangraphs, combining the worst hitting in MLB (.168/.243/.296), with below average baserunning, and below average defense at the easiest position on the field. The Orioles still owe him $23 million — per year for the next four years, a total of $92 million to go.
  • Mookie Betts generated the highest WAR (10.4 - fangraphs) by someone other than Barry Bonds, in 27 years (Cal Ripken Jr, 10.6 in 1991) — despite playing in only 136 games. By the way, Mike Trout had get another stellar season, recording 9.8 WAR in only 140 games.

Team HR Streaks

The Phillies homered in 16 straight games in May, the second longest such streak in franchise history, behind only an 18-gamer by the ‘08 WS champions.

The Phils’ May streak stood as MLB’s longest HR streak of 2018 all the way until September, when the Dodgers finally blew past it:

Extra Base Hit Streak

The Phillies also had an extra base in 110 straight games this year, and that one did survive as the longest in MLB this season:

It was the second longest such streak in franchise history, behind only a 129-game streak by the 1929-30 team:

Obviously it doesn’t take an offensive juggernaut to hit one extra base hit in a game, so this is not to imply that it is anything more than a statistical oddity. Note, for example, the lower slash line for this year’s streak.