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The Phillies’ fielding may be stabilizing

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Errors keep coming, but advanced stats indicate there’s improvement

The Phillies’ defense has been arguably the worst blemish on a good but flawed team so far this season. Their fielding has thrown away games (often literally), that the excellent starting rotation has fought to keep close, and many times turned comfortable leads into nail biters.

Based on the traditional go-to stats of errors and fielding percentage, that is as much a problem as it has been all season. No turnaround is apparent, and errors continue largely unabated. Their fielding percentage has been stuck within a point or two of .980 for most of the season, and their its ranking in the NL has been consistently at or near the bottom.

We’ll be comparing some stats below in two periods: through July 8th (their first 87 games), and then from July 9th on (24 games, through Sunday). While other stats may be showing signs of improvement, the errors have been consistent: 0.74 errors per game on average through July 8th, and almost exactly the same (0.71) since then.

However errors and fielding percentage are so flawed for measuring fielding as to be nearly meaningless.

Advanced fielding metrics were developed in an effort to close this gap in our understanding of a major facet of the game. They are not perfect by any means, and they certainly require large sample sizes to be reliable, but as I like to paraphrase Winston Churchill, in my opinion they are the worst way to judge fielding ability, except for all the others. (At least among the methods that are publicly available — we can assume that teams have refined these metrics and are using Statcast and Field f/x data to develop better ones.)

While advanced metrics require two or three years to be reliable, when talking about aggregate team stats, even a single month contains eight months’ worth of position player data. Still, it’s advisable to take any analysis of such a small window with a grain of salt.

Without further ado, below are various advanced defensive metrics. Each graph will show how the Phillies have tracked compared to the NL average and the median, as well as the league’s highest and lowest team ratings at each point in the season.

Ultimate Zone Rating (Defensive Runs vs. Average)

First up, the Defensive Runs vs. Average metric from Fangraphs. This combines the fielding metric Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), with all of the positional adjustments. Since those adjustments are fairly constant from team to team, essentially the only differences between teams are due to UZR. (I would have used UZR alone, but Def was more easily accessible going back to the start of the season.)

The improvement here is fairly subtle, but nevertheless, through July 8th the Phillies were dead last in the NL, at -2.7 runs.

Since then, they’ve been +4.9 runs, which ranks right in the middle over that time, #8 out of 15.

Total Zone

Next is Total Zone, from baseball-reference. Through July 8th, the Phils were 39 runs below average, worst in the NL.

Since then, they have been 11 runs better than average, good for 4th best.

Defensive Runs Saved

Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) has been the “low man” on the Phillies’ defense, which is saying something when all the metrics have been so bad. They have ranked last in the NL continuously since soon after the season began, and only over the last week or so have they climbed up into 14th place.

So the effect here is minor: from -67 runs through July 8th, to still negative but only -5 since then, ranking 12th in the NL over that time.

On a per game basis, that’s still a meaningful improvement: from 0.7 runs per game worse than average, to only 0.2 runs per game worse than average.

To summarize the improvement in these three measures:

There is one other metric tracked at baseball-reference, called Defensive Efficiency. This measures the rate at which fielders turn balls in play into outs:

Through July 8th the Phillies were at .675, and again dead last in the league.

This one isn’t easy to calculate how they’ve done since July 9th, but suffice it to say that they’ve managed to climb from 15th, to 8th, in just 24 games. A quick back-of-the-envelope estimate based on balls in play would put their Def Eff over that time at least at .700, and comfortably above the average.

Conclusion

Even if there is really a turnaround happening, the first half of the season was so bad that the full season stats will likely continue to look pretty bad through the end of the season.

But the full season stats are really neither here nor there. When it comes time to push for a playoff spot now through September, or even to play postseason games in October, it won’t matter how bad the defense was in April, May, or June.

It’s difficult to conclude much based on one month’s worth of fielding data, even at the team level. It’s possible that it’s all a blip and the stats will return to the bottom of the league. However the fact that all of these metrics improved at least provides some comfort that something positive has been happening.

It’s certainly something to continue watching. A competent defense would eliminate a glaring flaw in this team as it fights for a playoff spot and even (hopefully) to advance in the postseason.