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Have the Phillies positioned themselves to be unsuccessful on defense?

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A question that only leads to more questions

Cincinnati Reds v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

This weekend, I attended the Baseball Prospectus event in Philadelphia that was hosted by our fearless leader Liz Roscher. It was an enjoyable time that was also informative at the same time. While we heard from manager Gabe Kapler about various topics and listened to some interesting thing some front office members had to say, one of the questions that was presented to the BP panel was my main takeaway from the session. I don’t remember the exact question, but it was somewhere along the lines of what was the most difficult thing to get right in baseball analysis. Prospect gurus Jeffrey Paternostro and Jarrett Seidler both answered, almost in unison, “Defense!”

We all know that measuring defense is difficult at best, shoddy at worst. While there are many advanced metrics out there in the public sphere, it’s pretty widely recognized that this is the area that is most in need of improvement when it comes to doing analysis. To suggest that someone like Manny Machado can magically become a plus defender this season simply by moving teams is one of the more prime examples of this. He was a poorly rated defender at shortstop while in Baltimore (-18 DRS), yet, in a small sample size with the Dodgers, has found himself on the positive side of the ledger at the same position (+1 DRS). That means that the BP guys’ answer made a lot of sense, at least in theoretical terms.

Then a tweet for a story showed up the other day that led to the purpose of this article. It came from Mark Simon, researcher with Sports Info Solutions. It was this:

We all know that the defense has been poor this year, whether your using statistics or the old fashioned “eye test”, but to see this much of a disparity between the Phillies and the best team by DRS was still shocking. What got me thinking was this line in the piece (italics mine):

Meanwhile Odubel Herrera (-10 DRS) is having issues on a ball he’s never had before: the one hit to shallow center field. Per Statcast, Herrera is playing at an average depth of 323 feet this season, seven feet deeper than he typically plays. He’s trading off balls falling in front of him for making catches on deep balls.

Why is Herrera playing deeper than normal? There is probably a reason for this, since we know that the team has emphasized moving their fielders around a lot more this year than in the past thanks to a new regime that believes in advanced metrics. However, this brought up another question.

If telling Herrera to play deeper than in previous years has caused his numbers to judge him differently, are the Phillies positioning their players poorly, leading to an overall dropoff in advanced fielding metrics?

Let’s use Herrera as an example. By any metric you use (Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Reference), Herrera is rating as a poor centerfielder this season. This comes after he has been a positive or average fielder in the past two seasons. Has something all of a sudden turned him into a poor fielder, or has he simply been overrated the past few years? If we go by the “eye test”, many observers will say that overrated would be likely, citing examples such as the ball in Boston he misplayed that ultimately cost his team a win. Those things will happen from time to time, jading one’s opinion of a fielder, which is why metrics have been trying so hard to quantify a fielder’s defensive ability. For every one error, we might miss the nine or ten plays Herrera makes that other centerfielders would not.

So, we try and dig a little bit. Using Statcast and the indispensible Baseball Savant, we are able to find the average position that the team has installed their fielders for most any situation. Below, we see where Herrera is for 2018 on average when there is no shift:

When there is a shift on, not much changes except for the depth at which he plays (you can find that by clicking here for RHH and here for LHH). The confusion, at least for me, is found when you look at the spray chart against Phillies’ pitchers, also found on Baseball Savant.

You can begin to kind of see how the balls in front of him are falling for hits. There seems to be some darker shades of yellow in front of where he is being positioned on the field. However, to my layman’s eyes, I see a problem here that doesn’t necessarily have to do with balls in front of Herrera. It’s balls to his right and left.

Against right handed hitters, for example, more often than not, hitters are pulling the ball into the gap to Herrera’s right. This means that if he wants to catch a ball there, he has a lot further to go than he did even last year. Of course, if you look back at the positioning chart, you see that has been mitgated somewhat by having Rhys Hoskins play off the line more, in essence, to take away that ball in the gap. This doesn’t seem to be the best use of each player’s skillset though. Herrera is a far superior runner when it comes to speed than Hoskins. Asking Hoskins to use one of his worse assets as a player to try and chase down a ball in the gap doesn’t seem like the best use of these players. Moving Herrera further away from where balls are seemingly hit more often looks like an error in judgement.

In the previous paragraph, I mentioned that Herrera had a long way to go in comparison to last year. First off, let me tell you that by looking at last year’s positional chart, we can see that Herrera, against right handed hitters and not shifted, was much closer to straight up center field than he is this year.

This allowed him to get to those balls in the left-center gap more often, as he was closer to them. Clicking on this link shows the spray chart for right handed hitters against Phillies in 2017. It justifies a bit the conclusion that he’s further away from where balls are to a certain degree. It makes the question of whether or not positioning with the Phillies’ defense this year has been the main culprit to their defensive struggles a valid question.

Of course, this is just one player on the team and there are a whole host of other things we can be looking at. How has someone like Maikel Franco performed this year in comparison to last year? You can scroll back up through the charts and see that he might a shade or two to his left compared to last year, but is that enough to make a real difference? It throws into question the entire concept of evaluating defense, at least in my mind. If players are playing in different spots for a reason, shouldn’t we be evaluating that as its own entity?

Like I said at the top, the question of whether the Phillies’ positioning of players only leads to more questions. They are obviously being put where they are for a reason. With those reasons (stating the obvious) staying internal, we’ll likely never know. I’m not here to claim that I am correct in what I’ve shown. I’m not even here to tell you that they haven’t been that bad defensively because it is plainly obvious that they have been. I’m just stating that perhaps when citing advanced defensive statistics to discuss this team, perhaps we’re not giving out the best information. I know I have been guilty of that this season. For the time being, let’s just use caution when we throw numbers around with this team’s defense. Maybe the good old fashioned “eye test” is the best way to go for now.