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Can the Phillies actually put a high quality defense on the field?

If Rob Thomson wanted to, he could.

MLB: Game One-Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

If you are like me, you grew up watching baseball in the late 80’s/early 90’s and had to suffer through the dominance of the Atlanta Braves. Thanks to their games being beamed to every television in America with TBS with annoying regularity, we were forced to watch this team progress to a dynastic collection of talent that routinely beat up on the Phillies.

Pitching? They had it.

Hitting? They had it and traded for it.

Fielding? They had it.

You could also see the changing of the guard too, with new players coming into to take the place of older ones, cranking out above average to great players like Ford put out Model T’s. One of the best ones to play was Andruw Jones, the centerfielder who made Garry Maddox look like he could cover only half of the Earth. Jones is the best defensive outfielder we had seen at that time and probably the best we have seen since. Others have tried to claim his crown, but the ease of which he chased down fly balls in whatever expanse of grass he was on made the game look almost too easy.

Why do I bring up the Braves and Andruw Jones specifically? Well...

After watching him for a little bit now, I think I can safely say that Johan Rojas has a chance to enter that pantheon of center field greatness if he can stay there.

Notice: I’m not saying that Rojas is going to be Andruw Jones. That would be ludicrous. But just watching him move out there, one can’t help but be reminded of how good he actually is.

Is that a tangent to begin this? Sure. Is it a naked attempt to be able to look up Andruw Jones highlights? Absolutely. But it also speaks to a larger point about the team, one that looks like it is beginning to become more obvious, at least to me, every time Rojas and Brandon Marsh are on the field together. There was so much concern last year about how bad the defense was going to be...and...well, it was. It was bad. Those concerns were not going away any time soon at the start of this year since there would be no Bryce Harper in the outfield and, even though Rhys Hoskins was going to miss the season, first base was still going to be rough with either Darick Hall or Alec Bohm at the position. Bringing in Trea Turner was meant to help the team, but there were still safety in calling the entirety of the team’s defense “subpar.”

Yet overall, the defense looks like it might be improving somewhat. Here is what the team looked like coming into the season with their current OAA numbers and what it looks like now when they have their best alignment on the field (min. 10 attempts through Saturday):

2023 defense by OAA

Position Expected lineup OAA Best current lineup OAA
Position Expected lineup OAA Best current lineup OAA
1B D. Hall -1 B. Harper -1
2B B. Stott 11 B. Stott 11
SS T. Turner 0 T. Turner 0
3B A. Bohm -2 E. Sosa 2
LF K. Schwarber -16 B. Marsh 1
CF B. Marsh 4 J. Rojas 5
RF N. Castellanos -6 J. Cave 0

The difference in what they can do is quite stark. If they so chose, they could have a defender on the field at six out of seven positions that are at least average or above with the one negative just a tick below. This alignment can get even better once Cristian Pache returns as well. An outfield on Pache-Rojas-Marsh may not allow a ball to fall should it be lifted into the air. That kind of security for the pitching staff could be valuable as the team continues its fight for the wild card. It’s a remarkable change from what they had last year at any given point.

Now, there is no one here suggesting that this should be the permanent lineup. You may recall years ago when the Seattle Mariners decided that with their ballpark, fielding a lineup that was defense-first/offense-second in its construction was their best course of action. All it led to was a team that could not hit. There is a reason that teams still pay for offense in the offseason with defense being a secondary condition. One also has to factor in that the pitching can also allow baseballs to be deposited into the seats, causing leads to evaporate quite quickly. But what that chart shows is that if Rob Thomson wishes, if he has a lead he feels comfortable with, he could make substitutions to his lineup that would allow him to field a highly competent defense on the field.

It’s not the ideal lineup with the bat, but down the stretch, when wins are valuable and cannot be fumbled away with certain players in the field, it makes a lot of sense to put as many solid gloves on the field as possible if the Phillies are holding a lead. We’re likely to see it late in games when the chips are down more often than we will to start a game, but seeing what they are capable of, I like the team’s chances of securing that win should the ball be put in play.

We’ve come a long way, baby.