Hey, why aren’t the Phillies scoring?
Well, to be fair, they are scoring some runs. Through 11 games they have 43 runs, tied for 14th in MLB. Only 10 teams have more homers (10) than them, their team OPS is also 10th while their on-base percentage is 11th.
So saying the Phils’ offense has been “bad” would be a misnomer, although it’s hard to look at it objectively when they have been held to one or fewer runs in three of their last six losses. The so-called “Beefy Boys” have largely been on a diet thus far, and it’s certainly been frustrating. There are a number of things happening here, both collectively and individually.
Straight Ball, I Hit Very Much
MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki noted how well the Phils are doing against fastballs this season, a positive trend that hasn’t been the case in recent seasons.
The Phillies entered Monday batting .325 against fastballs, which was the best mark in baseball. But here is the problem: they are seeing fastballs only 50.8 percent of the time, which ranks 27th in the Majors.
Conversely, they are batting .175 against offspeed and breaking balls, which ranks 22nd. They have seen those pitches 49.2 percent of the time, which ranks fourth.
Hitters are taught to get themselves in fastball counts, 2-0, 3-1, etc., and hunt for fastballs to hit. When the Phillies have done that, they’ve been successful. However, their impatience at the plate has resulted in fewer fastballs and more breaking pitches.
The Phillies offensive woes are easy to identify:— Robert Orr (@NotTheBobbyOrr) April 19, 2022
•3rd in SLG on 4S/sinker
•24th in SLG on everything else
•2nd highest chase rate
•4th lowest % of pitches while ahead
They aren’t giving themselves a chance to get into the fastball counts where teams do the most damage.
The Chase Rate is the real issue here, as Phils hitters are swinging at way too many pitches out of the strike zone, giving pitchers free strikes.
According to Fangraphs, the Phillies have swung at 35.1% of pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing%), the third-highest rate in baseball. Only the Yankees and Red Sox have been worse. As a result, the Phils are tied for the 5th-highest Swinging Strike rate (SwStr%) at 13.3%. The worst culprit is shortstop Didi Gregorius, with a 47.2% O-Swing% thus far. Nick Castellanos, one of the few players who has hit well this year, is 2nd at 41.5%, followed by Johan Cmargo (40.0%), J.T. Realmuto (39.1%) and Bryson Stott (37.9%).
Some of the hitters who are struggling the most, Kyle Schwarber, Matt Vierling and Bryce Harper, have mostly avoided this pitfall, with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th-fewest swings on pitches out of the zone (27.6%, 29.8% and 35.1%, respectively).
So what’s up with Schwarber and Harper?
Can’t Hit a Groundball Homer
Schwarber’s strikeout rate (29.5%) is right in line with his career totals, and he is walking a bit less (9.1% would be a career low). However, the big issue with Schwarber is he’s simply not hitting the ball in the air very much, with a ground ball rate (59.3%) that is highest on the team. Just 3.7% of his batted balls are considered “line drives” by Fangraphs, the primary reason his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a ridiculously low .120. He’s also just not hitting a lot of balls hard, with a hard-hit rate of just 33% that is down from 52.2% a year ago.
In other words, a lot of weak grounders on balls in the zone from Schwarber thus far that have resulted in an 11.1% barrel rate far below last year’s 17.5%.
But what about Harper?
His .790 OPS is certainly not what anyone expected, but Harper’s grounder rate is 2nd-lowest on the team (34.5%). However, he’s exchanged some fly balls for line drives this year, and while that doesn’t sound bad, nor does a 51.7% hard-hit percentage that is actually a bit better than last year’s, very few line drives go for dingers.
Through 11 games, Harper has barreled just two baseballs this season, both of his home runs, 6.9%. Last year, his barrel percentage was 18.1%. And while he’s been unlucky at times (.259), his expected batting average is only 30 points higher than his real average, and his expected slugging percentage and wOBA are a few points lower. Harper has seen more changeups this year (23.0%) than his career average (13.8%), as pitchers have been taking advantage of his aggressiveness.
In short, Harper needs to recognize changeups and spit on them, elevate the ball more often and hit more doubles and dingers. Same with Schwarber. Easy, right?
Perhaps it is the lofty expectations the players hoisted upon their own shoulders, perhaps it was the photo shoots of the so-called “Beefy Boys,” or perhaps it’s just the pressure of knowing they need to break this 10-year playoff drought. whatever it is, it’s clear hitters are pressing.
Chasing too many balls outside the strike zone indicates Phils hitters are a little overanxious at the plate and a little overeager to live up to their preseason billing. They know the team is built around their ability to mash the ball, and it looks as though in most plate appearances, everyone is trying to hit a 5-run homer.
To be fair, young players at three key positions, shortstop, third base and center field, are struggling. Bryson Stott’s slow start is to be expected, given his inexperience, Alec Bohm has been mashing the ball, but his defensive struggles kept him buried alive in Joe Girardi’s doghouse until the series opener against Colorado, and Matt Vierling got off to a BABIP-induced slow start that has now morphed into a general slump that has rendered three different positions offense-free zones. Simon Muzziotti is a fine looking defensive center fielder, but one can only hope Mickey Moniak recovers from his broken wrist and rediscovers the stroke he had down in Clearwater.
This offense destroyed the ball this spring when the pressure was off and the pitching wasn’t quite as good as what they’re seeing now, and it is a lineup filled with very good hitters. They should bust out of this soon. But it will only happen when they stop chasing balls out of the zone, force teams to throw more fastballs in hitters counts, and hit fewer grounders.
Until that happens, the Phillies are going to be a frustrating watch and lose a bunch more games.