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Phillies need pitchers like they need a hole in the infield

Pitching may win championships, but defense stops the ball.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies
Phillies Flashin’ the Leather
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies have needs. Every team does, but the challenge for a successful off-season is prioritizing those needs and acquiring accordingly. Contrary to popular belief, starting pitching should be near the bottom of the Phillies list of needs. They field a very young rotation and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez are still developing. And then there’s Jerad Eickhoff, who missed almost all of 2018 with an injury but has earned a chance to join the rotation in 2019, at the very least.

To add another starter to the mix would be completely and totally superfluous and would only serve to further muddy an already messy situation. As is, they already have too much to consider for the rotation.

Where the Phillies would be best suited focusing their off-season efforts is defense. Pitching, after all, can only do so much to stem the tide of runs scored; balls will be put in play and the defense needs to step in. This is where the Phillies fell extremely short in 2018.

While defensive stats have come a long way, they’re still not as rock solid as offensive stats – especially in this current era of shifting. Defensive stats rely mostly on what someone sees and what someone thinks. Conversely, offensive stats are basically math. In today’s game the abundance of offensive stats make it possible to determine exactly how effective, or in this case ineffective, a team’s defense may have been.

The first thing to look at is the actual pitching itself. FIP or Fielding Independent Pitching is a stat that evaluates how pitching performed when the defense wasn’t involved. Quite simply it measures walks, strike outs and home runs.

Phillies pitching finished seventh in baseball and as high as second in the National League for best FIP (3.83), and that’s excellent. For context, every team in front of them went to the playoffs except the unlucky-to-be-in-the-AL-East Rays, who finished 18 games over .500 despite having to play the Red Sox and Yankees a combined 38 times. Phillies pitching walked few (11th lowest BB/9 in MLB), struck out a lot (6th most K’s/9) and kept the ball in the park (7th fewest HR’s/9). That HR/9 stat is especially impressive considering they play half their games in CBP, which ranks 11th in park factor. As far as pure pitching goes, we can count the Phillies as being among the best.

But things went wrong when the ball was put in play; batters facing Phillies pitching hit a whopping .303 on balls in play—the fifth worst in all of baseball. And with the eighth worst left-on-base percentage at 71.0%, the Phillies allowed those runners to score.

Hits and scoring are not good for a defense. They are in fact, bad.

Things start to look worse for the defense when we look at batted ball stats. Phillies pitching is second to only the Astros at fewest hard hit balls by percentage, and they allow the third fewest percentage of line drives in baseball. If that’s not enough, as a staff, Phillies pitchers had the second highest ground ball percentage and ranked third in soft contact percentage.

So basically the defense was tasked with fielding more soft grounders and fewer hard line drives than most other defenses, and somehow, incredulously, they still allowed the fifth worst batting average on balls in play. As Gob would say, “Come On!”

And lest you think it’s all Nola and Arrieta, among the 139 pitchers with 300 batted-ball events Vince Velasquez had the 13th lowest barrels per PA% and Eflin had the 44th lowest (Nola was 10th and Arrieta was 48th).

The Astros pitching staff was pretty good, right? Well, they were very similar in FIP, soft contact percentage and ground ball percentage but their BABIP was a full .020 lower and their ERA was more than a run lower. To illustrate how important one run is the Phillies were involved in 14 extra-inning games and they lost 18 one-run games. Allowing one fewer run would have made a massive difference in wins/losses.

The statistical site seems to sum it up best. They look at launch angle and exit velocity of batted balls and can calculate a “Hit Probability” based off of historical data. They use that information to calculate what a pitchers expected batting-average-against should be and they subtract it from the actual batting-average-against resulting in a differential. Of the 121 pitchers with 500 plate appearances faced, Phillies starter Nick Pivetta had the highest differential in batting-average-against with his fellow starters Zach Eflin at 8th and Vince Velasquez at 10th. That’s three starting pitchers in the top 10 who had an expected batting-average-against to be significantly lower based on the defense not making a high percentage out.

When you expand that list to the 517 pitchers who faced at least 100 plate appearances, every qualified Phillies pitcher except Aaron Nola ends up with a lower expected batting-average-against than their actual BAA, 13 pitchers in total. According to this data every Phillies pitcher was hurt by the poor quality of defense played behind them.

People will probably be quick to blame the defensive shifting and while they didn’t shift the most in baseball the shifts they did employ were most likely not very effective, maybe even having shifted themselves away from an out and into a hit more often than not.

The trade for Jean Segura should help, and there’s little doubt that his defense was of significant consideration by the Phils. He’s not a defensive maven by any means but he is a solid defender at the most important position on the field. While he was good for five defensive runs saved last year, Phillies shortstops were at -23, third worst in baseball. Quite frankly, he was the best option available by trade or free agent acquisition barring Addison Russell, who brings his serious off-field issues with him. It’s not a flashy game-changer type trade for the Phillies but it’s a smart one that prioritizes a severe need.

Moving Rhys Hoskins from left field, where he had one of the worst defensive seasons on record, back to his natural position of first base will also go a long way towards improvement and should they pick up a certain high profile outfielder that will make a difference as well.

With all that being said, should the opportunity arise where they can acquire a certified top-of-the-rotation pitcher without giving up too much they shouldn’t shut it down as “not needed”.

Perhaps by the end of next season the Phillies and fans alike will have a much more accurate portrayal of exactly how good the pitching staff really is.