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Are the Phillies putting themselves in the hole too often?

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Usually, fans’ opinions are always more anecdotal than analytical when it comes to diagnosing problems. This time, though, they might be right.

Philadelphia Phillies v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

As the Phillies have struggled to maintain their momentum from a great start to the season, the offensive struggles have awakened the analyst in all of the fans. Everyone has their own opinion as to what is wrong with the Phillies’ offense and these opinions have been put forth en masse:

  • They rely too much on the homerun
  • They don’t hit and run enough, putting things in motion
  • They strike out too much, not getting the ball in play and forcing the issue with the defense

Some of these have merit and some of the other ones I’ve heard have the same incoherent tone as the “get off my lawn!” crowd that frequents our sports radio airwaves. Through Monday night, the Phillies are striking out a National League worst 25.8% of the time, a rate they’ve almost never seen before as a franchise. It hurts a lot of the older fanbase because of the stigma they still attach to the strikeout, but it is a rather alarming number. It’s “balanced” by the fact that they are walking 10% of the time, second in all of baseball. However, this isn’t helping the team score runs, something they are unable to do. While we could chalk it up to a team-wide slump, there are little bits of evidence that are interesting to take note of. One I wanted to focus on was the initial pitch of an at bat.

One of the criticisms of the team is that they aren’t swinging at the first pitch enough. While it makes no sense to swing at the first pitch if it isn’t a strike, opposing teams have noticed this trend of not swinging at the first pitch as well, increasing the amount of strikes they throw with the initial pitch as the year has progressed. Here is percentage of pitches the team has seen as a first pitch strike by month:

  • March/April - 57.8% (27th in MLB)
  • May - 62.1% (3rd in MLB)

It’s a monstrous jump in the amount of times a pitcher throws a first pitch strike. And it’s working too. If that first pitch is a strike, the team’s OPS through that 0-1 count has dropped nearly 30 points from March/April to May. It wasn’t good to start with, but through May, the ability to do any kind of damage with an 0-1 count has gotten markedly worse. This jives with history, as many players tend to perform worse they get behind. The Phillies as a team are not immune. Here are their OPS numbers for then when they get ahead in the count and when they get behind:

After the first pitch

Player after 1-0 count after 0-1 count
Player after 1-0 count after 0-1 count
C. Hernandez 0.901 0.586
O. Herrera 0.846 0.770
R. Hoskins 0.963 0.612
C. Santana 0.863 0.553
J. Alfaro 0.891 0.592
N. Williams 0.871 0.677
M. Franco 0.714 0.642
A. Altherr 0.893 0.485
J. Crawford 0.304 0.654
S. Kingery 0.675 0.524
A. Knapp 0.407 0.388
P. Florimon 0.522 0.905
J. Valentin 0.000 0.286

For some of the guys, it makes all the difference in the world for them to get ahead, which is why they are probably taking more first pitches. However, if that pitch is in the zone and they watch it go by, they are suddenly finding themselves behind the eight ball.

Now, naturally, the next question becomes well what are they doing when they do swing at the first pitch? If you base it off of a small sample size of plate appearances this year, the answer for some of these players is: pretty good, thank you. Here is another chart detailing how each player has done by OPS when swinging at the first pitch:

Swinging at the first pitch

Player No. of times OPS swinging at the first pitch
Player No. of times OPS swinging at the first pitch
C. Hernandez 16 1.500
O. Herrera 30 1.079
R. Hoskins 19 0.737
C. Santana 17 1.353
J. Alfaro 17 0.882
N. Williams 10 0.500
M. Franco 25 1.025
A. Altherr 10 0.200
J. Crawford 4 1.250
S. Kingery 14 0.714
A. Knapp 7 0.857
P. Florimon 6 0.000
J. Valentin 3 0.667

Now, of course, this is an extremely small sample size to be working with. It’s almost small enough to dismiss out of hand. I mean, can you tell anything about any player based on 30 plate appearances? It is interesting nonetheless that some players are actually hitting quite well when they decided to take the bat off of their shoulders with the initial pitch.

Is swinging more often an approach this team might want to adopt? Well, maybe. Will they? Probably not. The mantra of Gabe Kapler and company this year has been to see as many pitches as possible, running up pitch counts and getting the starting pitcher out of the game. Swinging at that first pitch would go against something that has been ingrained since the beginning of February. However, I’m sure even Kapler would agree that if the first pitch is there, there is no reason to let a belt high pitch go right by. It might help counteract what pitchers are trying to do to them. It could also help get the team out of this mini-malaise they currently find themselves in. Either way, let’s hope the team finds a remedy soon to what ails them or they’ll soon find themselves too far out of a playoff race that we are all thirsting for right now.