The Phillies’ Defense Could Be Rough

© Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

When the Phillies signed Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos to free agent deals within a three-day span in March, there were more than a few giggles about the moves’ effect on what already figured to be a shaky team defense. Monday night provided ample demonstration of those concerns, though neither of those two new sluggers figured in the mishaps. Instead, the misadventures of third baseman Alec Bohm were in the spotlight, drawing attention to an area that might be of even greater concern.

The 25-year-old Bohm, who has struggled mightily at the hot corner during his brief major league career, was charged with throwing errors on three separate plays in the first three innings of Monday’s game, though the runs that scored in the wake of the first one were earned. He later found a measure of redemption by sparking a five-run rally in the team’s come-from-behind win over the Mets.

In the first inning, after Brandon Nimmo led off with a single, Starling Marte hit a comebacker that deflected off pitcher Ranger Suárez and over to Bohm, who made an awkward, sidearmed throw on a ball that he should have just kept in his pocket. The throw went into foul territory about 15 feet up the right field line as Marte took second and Nimmo third; while Bohm fielded grounders on the next two batters cleanly, Nimmo scored, and Marte soon did as well as part of a three-run inning.

In the second inning, James McCann hit a chopper to the left side of the infield where Bohm, moving to his left, fielded the ball and then sailed his throw over the head of first baseman Rhys Hoskins. In the third, he made an offline throw on a Pete Alonso grounder that pulled Hoskins off the bag, and while first base umpire Marvin Hudson appeared to signal that Alonso was out, the call was challenged and overturned, with Alonso ruled safe.

Neither of the last two runners scored, but Bohm added fuel to the fire after the McCann play. When he made a routine play on a Marte grounder, he received a sarcastic ovation from Citizens Bank Park fans, and was caught on camera muttering, “I hate this fucking place” — a line that he confirmed saying after the game.

Bohm’s night wasn’t a total loss, as he started a 5-4-3 double play to end the fourth inning, scorched a double in the fifth, and walked twice. His second walk led off the eighth inning and was followed by four hits and another walk, turning a 4-0 deficit into a 5-4 lead that the Phillies’ bullpen preserved. Afterwards, he apologized to the fans, acknowledged that his emotions got the best of him in the heat of the moment, and that he did not mean what he said. His reward was a more sincere ovation during Tuesday night’s game, where as a pinch-hitter he made his first out in seven plate appearances. Prior to that he had gone 3-for-3 with two doubles and three walks to accompany his three errors, a decidedly mixed-bag start for a promising player who entered the season with question marks about his role and his future.

The number three pick of the 2018 draft out of Wichita State, Bohm reached the majors in mid-August of the pandemic-shortened ’20 season and hit a sizzling .338/.400/.481 (138 wRC+) in 180 PA en route to a second-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Brewers reliever Devin Williams. However, he was also 1.6 runs below average at third base according to UZR and six below average via DRS. He struggled mightily (Bohmed?) on both sides of the ball last year, batting .247/.305/.342 (75 wRC+) in 417 PA, with -1.0 UZR and -13 DRS; by FanGraphs’ version of WAR, he slipped from 1.2 to -0.2, while by that of Baseball Reference, he dropped from 0.8 to -1.3.

Believing that his offensive woes were affecting his defense and vice versa, manager Joe Girardi benched Bohm last August, when the team was battling for a playoff spot, and the Phillies sent him to Triple-A Lehigh Valley later in the month. While there, he missed nearly three weeks after being hit on the left wrist by a pitch, and didn’t return to the majors until September 29, just in time for the team’s mathematical elimination.

Bohm’s continued woes this spring opened the door for the Phillies’ top prospect, 24-year-old Bryson Stott, the 14th pick of the 2019 draft out of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Stott rocketed from High-A to Triple-A last year, hitting a combined .299/.390/.486 and landing at number 34 on our Top 100 Prospects list. A lefty-swinging shortstop with some pop, he’s “basically big-league ready. We expect him to usurp Didi Gregorius as the Phil’s everyday shortstop at some point in 2022 and remain entrenched there for at last the next half decade,” wrote to our prospect team. That assessment comes despite his having played just 10 games at Lehigh Valley. Not being on the 40-man roster enabled Stott to get a head start during the lockout, and the expanded roster rules that allow teams to carry 28 players through May 1 helped his cause as well.

As for Gregorius, he too entered the season on thin ice after a dreadful 2021. In the first year of a two-year, $28 million deal, he hit .209/.270/.370 (68 wRC+) with -2.6 UZR, -10 DRS and 0.0 WAR, that while missing seven weeks due to impingement in his right elbow, which he blamed on his COVID-19 vaccination — a claim that experts have refuted, and one that also ignores the elbow injury Gregorius suffered while making a catch earlier in the season, one that later required draining to alleviate inflammation.

Gregorius showed enough this spring to retain his job, and started four of the team’s first five games. Stott started the other while also getting the Opening Day call at third base, where Bohm has started twice. Johan Camargo replaced Bohm in the field in the late innings of both of those games (including Monday night’s) and started two others, including on Tuesday night. Stott made his major league debut at second on Tuesday while Jean Segura got the night off.

Regardless of the permutations involving Stott (who graded out as a 45 present/50 future value fielder in his prospect report), Gregorius, and Bohm, the left side of the infield is likely to be shaky, which won’t help a pitching staff that had the majors’ second-highest groundball rate last year (45.4%), with Suárez (59.2%), Kyle Gibson (51.7% including his time in Texas) and Zack Wheeler (49.8%) their most groundball-dependent starters.

All of this would be less of a big deal if the team didn’t have so many other defensive sinkholes. Recall that the Phillies ranked last in the majors with -54 DRS in 2021, third-to-last with -33 in 20, and last with -89 in ’18, having taken leave of their senses to put up a +66 mark in ’19. That 2018 mark has actually been revised from what Jeff Sullivan termed “The Worst DRS We’ve Ever Seen” thanks to a change in methodology relating to defensive shifts. Meanwhile, the Phillies were 24th in OAA (-20) and its related Runs Above Average (-15) in 2021, tied for 30th in ’20 (-15 RAA), and tied for 29th in ’18 (-29 RAA) with near-average numbers in ’19. Here it’s worth noting that OAA and RAA are range-based metrics that don’t include throwing, while DRS does; it still doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

In other words, this problem predates the Dave Dombrowski regime, though as tempting as it may be to chalk it up to the ballpark’s water supply, the situation does reflect the team’s more recent choices, such as signing both Castellanos (-47 DRS in 4,168.1 career innings in right field, though only 83.1 in left) and Schwarber (-12 DRS in 4,339 innings in left) instead of, say, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Trevor Story, or Marcus Semien — all of whom cost more money than the pair the Phillies signed for but play better defense, generally at more important positions. Instead of making an effort to shore up the infield with one of those moves, they may be left with this, at least on some days:

Projected Phillies Lineup Defensive Metrics, 2020-21
Pos Player Innings DRS UZR RAA
C J.T. Realmuto 1264.0 -1 10.8*
1B Rhys Hoskins 1188.1 -12 0.6 -5
2B Jean Segura 1319.2 7 1 10
SS Didi Gregorius 1318.1 -12 -2.2 -19
3B Alec Bohm 1134.0 -19 -2.5 -2
LF (or DH) Kyle Schwarber 1087.1 -8 -4.2 -9
LF (or DH) Nick Castellanos 1590.0 -11 -4.5 -10
CF Odubel Herrera 819.0 2 -1.2 5
RF Bryce Harper 1544.0 -7 0.3 -5
Per 1400 -58 -2.8 -29
* = framing runs

That’s not pretty, and if you’re noting the much smaller UZR numbers, remember that those don’t include shifting, which particularly for infielders reduces their utility. The prorated team total — 1,400 innings is about a full 162-game season — looks better because I’ve included Realmuto’s framing numbers, as they’re the parallel input to UZR for fWAR.

To be fair, the table above doesn’t reflect the presence of either Stott or center fielder Matt Vierling, neither of whom have enough major league data to include. Stott is projected to have about the same number of PA as Gregorius and considerably more than Bohm. Vierling, a 25-year-old prospect who started the Phillies’ first four games in center field with Herrera recovering from an oblique strain, is fringy as a fielder according to his prospect report, with grades of 40 present and 45 future value. Mickey Moniak, who also figures to see substantial time in center, is down with a broken right wrist but grades out as average defensively.

As for Schwarber and Castellanos, manager Joe Girardi is still figuring out how he’s going to piece together their playing time, but figures something like two or three games in the field for the former and then one at DH, with the latter taking the field on such occasions. Castellanos actually played right field on Wednesday night while Harper DH’ed and Schwarber played left, a configuration more manageable with the groundball-friendly Suárez on the mound. Note that for the table above, I used two parts Schwarber, one part Castellanos for a full-time equivalent in left; it’s a pity we’ll never see such a large lad Frankensteined together and wearing a glove.

Particularly since the use of infield shifts became prevalent in 2012, it’s been a very rare day when such a defensively challenged team makes the postseason. The Dombrowski-built 2013 and ’14 Tigers (-72 DRS and -68 DRS, respectively), the ’13 Athletics (-63), and the ’21 Yankees (-41) and White Sox (-40) are the only ones that have made the postseason while at least 40 runs in the red, and none got further than an LCS. The Phillies, who haven’t made the postseason since 2011, left the gate with Playoff Odds of 59.5% but only a 17.5% chance of winning the NL East, where their competition figures to be the Braves (50 DRS last year) and Mets (48 DRS); yes, both of those teams have undergone turnover, though not in the direction of beer-league softball outfields. Who catches the ball the best could well decide in the division race, and if the Phillies miss — well, they’ll have no defense when it comes to the obvious flaw in the team’s construction.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

Well, maybe the Phillies can take note of how the Cardinals turned around their team defense pretty quickly. Just a few years ago, the Redbirds were starting guys like Matt Carpenter, Aledmys Diaz, Marcell Ozuna, and Jose Martinez; and now they have the best defense in MLB (and with a pretty good offense, as well).

2 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Cardinals have a strong reputation for player development, for generations. Phillies acumen in the same department isn’t remotely close recently.

2 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

well they’re committed for at least the next 2 seasons of Hoskins, Harper, Schwarber, and Castellanos so I don’t know where the short-term turnaround is coming from. The quickest fix for now is replacing Didi, who hasn’t been a viable shortstop in at least a half decade (if he ever was to begin with)

2 years ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

i doubt Didi will be a starter come may. a lot hinges on stott’s ability to defend