I’m going to shock you with a fact: the Phillies’ defense in 2018 was bad.
I know you already know that because it’s true. Mike Petriello wrote about it in January, pegging last year’s defense as perhaps the worst in history, which was backed up by Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs. Going by DRS, this team wasn’t just bad, it was “I can’t even put words on it” bad. Even if you accept the fact that defenisve metrics are bad at best, abysmal at worst, the eye test didn’t fail you either. They just couldn’t make outs when they were supposed to. I would show you the numbers, but chances are you are reading this at or near work, and I’d have to label it NSFW so I’ll just save you the trip to human resources.
The defense was a problem for a few reasons - personnel and positioning. Scott Kingery is not a shortstop, yet Gabe Kapler believed he was. Rhys Hoskins is not a left fielder, but the team believed he could become one when they signed Carlos Santana. Santana, in turn, turned sour with the glove almost as soon as the ink dried on his contract. While first base and left field aren’t the most important positions defensively, having three well below average players does not help things. The team’s positioning algorithms were constantly being tweaked as the season wore on, and were more than likely something they looked to improve on as they went into offseason planning mode.
It also had a snowball effect on the pitching staff. Their final ERA’s don’t look as good as their final FIP’s. Of the top twelve Phillies pitchers in games last year, only 4 had an ERA that beat their FIP, as testament to how bad the team’s defense was and how much it cost the team on the stat sheet.
Luckily, the front office recognized this problem and went about fixing it. They saw the issue with the shortstop defense and acquired Jean Segura to shore it up. Segura hasn’t been anything too flashy with his glove, but he also hasn’t been the butcher that we were witnesses to last season. His average to above average glove should be the salve to fix the infield defense’s wounds. In order to get Segura, of course, the team traded Santana away which had to dual effect of removing Hoskins from left field and placing him at his natural position of first base. He may not be the greatest with the glove there, but his sheer lack of presence in left field means that spot will see an upgrade as well.
To realize that upgrade, the team went ahead and signed Andrew McCutchen. Now, in the past, I’ve written about McCutchen and how his poor positioning likely led to his poor advanced metrics in the field. His speed and a newer, smaller area to cover should lead to better numbers for him, making that spot another upgrade as well.
With the arrival of Bryce Harper, one of the things that people aren’t talking about while waiting in line to buy a replica #3 jersey is that by numbers and eyes, he wasn’t that good of a fielder last year. That might even be putting it nicely. Reading this piece by Ben Lindbergh in November, you’ll see several examples of Harper’s “fielding” that might cause you to cover your eyes. Even after looking at that and feeling like the Daniel Kaluuya’s character in “Get Out” when he wakes up in the chair, you can take solace in the fact that in that same article, it is noted that Jeff Sullivan found that most players who drop that much in defensive stats will rebound a bit. We’ve also got Scott Boras claiming that Harper’s knee injury from 2017 was still affecting him throughout the season and there is hope that he won’t be nearly as bad as he was last year.
Then we’ve got Odubel.
He really is a frustrating player. For all of his slumping with the bat last year (and slump he did), he also took a big step backwards with the leather as well. After learning on the fly how to play centerfield the first three years in Philadelphia, he had become quite adept at it. For some reason, he too fell into negative territory in DRS, a common theme with the team. It was more than a little jarring since he had been so good in the years prior. It made you think that there was something else going on team wide. Lack of work on fundamentals? Too much reliance on data and not enough on player judgement? We won’t know until this coming season.
In one offseason, the team was able to address perhaps the second biggest reason they missed the playoffs last year (the first being the incredible collapse by the pitching late in the season). It was helpful that they knew there was an issue and rather than simply hope for better equations from PHIL, they were proactive in getting players who were better. It’ll help not only the team’s run allowed totals, it’ll help the pitching staff pitch with a little more confidence. It should make this team a dangerous team headed into 2019.