Officially, the Braves have sewn up the NL East, after having completed a four-game weekend sweep of the Phillies. The division was already more or less decided, but an unlikely Phillies sweep could’ve at least brought it down to the wire. Instead, the Phillies will play out the string, while the Braves get themselves set for the playoffs. On the one hand, the Phillies can’t be too disappointed — they would’ve been arriving a year or so ahead of time. On the other hand, the Braves arrived a year or so ahead of time. And this is a plot of the 2018 Phillies’ playoff odds:
As recently as August 7, the Phillies were in first place and 15 games over .500. Since then, they’ve gone an NL-worst 14-28, while the Braves have gone 27-19. Very obviously, when a team collapses, several components have to be involved. One thing I’ll highlight, though: dating back to August 8, according to Baseball Savant, Phillies pitchers have ranked seventh in baseball in expected wOBA allowed, while Braves pitchers have ranked 16th. And yet, Phillies pitchers have ranked 26th in baseball in actual wOBA allowed, while Braves pitchers have ranked third. Call it noise if you want. I’m certain that’s a part of it. The other part is defense. The Phillies’ team defense has let them down, and as the headline suggests, they’re on the verge of establishing a new record.
The headline mentions DRS. For those of you who don’t know, DRS stands for Defensive Runs Saved. It’s one of the few advanced defensive metrics that exists. It isn’t perfect, and no one would tell you it’s perfect, but we can just get right to the point. DRS, as a metric, exists going back 16 years, to 2003. Here are the ten worst team DRS marks from the leaderboards:
There are three teams in there from this season alone. Maybe that’s worth talking about another day. But for now, just focus on the Phillies. It’s true that this season isn’t yet over. In theory, the Phillies might not end up in last place. Yet they have just seven games left, and they’re already nine runs worse than the 2005 Yankees. The chances of the Phillies making up that ground are exceptionally slim. They’d be exceptionally slim if the Phillies had a good defense, and, well, they don’t. That’s what the table is showing you.
In any worthwhile article about defense, be it about individuals or teams, one has to mention the caveats. No, we can’t measure defense precisely. No, the formulas haven’t remained consistent and identical over the past decade and a half. Yes, this era of non-traditional defensive alignment has made things ever more complicated. And even just at FanGraphs, there’s also UZR. UZR thinks this year’s Phillies have been very bad, but not exactly record-level bad. That’s worth something, too. There’s not nearly enough evidence to say the Phillies have absolutely had the worst team defense in a very long time.
But there is *some* evidence. There is DRS. I didn’t make up those numbers, and they didn’t make up those numbers. There’s no reason for them to have a bias. And it should be clear that, at the very least, the Phillies’ defense has been a season-long weakness. The team has acknowledged it time and time again. Just for fun, let’s run through the Phillies’ various positional ranks. There are, of course, 30 teams.
According to UZR, the Phillies have had almost the worst defense in baseball. Yet UZR doesn’t have information for pitchers or catchers. There are just zeroes. When you look at DRS, you see that the Phillies rank poorly in both areas. No team’s pitchers have been worse, while the catchers have also combined to be a problem. It’s totally fair to question the latter, since the numbers at Baseball Prospectus think the Phillies’ catchers have been slightly above-average, but I led with DRS, so that’s the main focus. Whatever the Phillies have done right, DRS hasn’t seen it.
In this day and age, there’s no reason not to explore further. Baseball Savant makes it so easy to do. To what extent can we confirm some impressions regarding the Phillies’ defense? Over the whole season, the Phillies’ pitching staff ranks third in expected wOBA on contact. They also rank 19th in actual wOBA on contact, with the second-greatest difference between the numbers in the league. To split it up a little bit, here are the biggest differences on ground balls between actual wOBA and expected wOBA allowed:
This is a partial proxy for infield defense. It doesn’t cover everything, but for what it does cover, the Phillies don’t look good. Moving elsewhere, here’s the big-league landscape in terms of Outs Above Average, which is a metric for outfielders:
The Phillies don’t look good, again, and this particular metric doesn’t consider outfield arms. This is just about range. Range is the most important component, absolutely, but arms matter, too, and the Phillies’ outfield arms, collectively, rank in the bottom five by both DRS and UZR. In other words, they’ve been even worse than just Outs Above Average would indicate. The infield has been a problem, and the outfield has been a problem, and when the both of those are problems, it can be a lot to overcome.
Doesn’t mean it’s a death sentence; sometimes teams happily concede defense for offense. And yet Phillies non-pitchers have a combined wRC+ of just 98, which is two points below average. The Phillies knew they’d be sacrificing some defense this season. You’ll recall they were the team that, in spring training, experimented with swapping left and right fielders based on the handedness of the hitter. For a while, the Phillies made it work, but ultimately, they just didn’t get enough in return for the sacrifice. With a defense so bad, you need to be able to hit. The Phillies haven’t done enough hitting, and so they’ll go into the offseason looking to make a major splash.
In retrospect, you could say the story of the 2018 Phillies is represented by the acquisition of Carlos Santana. Santana looked to be a fine hitter, and so the Phillies made room by bumping Rhys Hoskins to the corner outfield. At the time, the Phillies told themselves Santana was too good of a deal to pass up. But Santana hasn’t quite been that effective at the plate, while Hoskins, in the field, has been a massive liability. Nothing has been catastrophic. Santana’s been a useful first baseman, and Hoskins has been a useful left fielder. But, knowing what they know now, the Phillies presumably wouldn’t choose to repeat this. It’s something for them to figure out moving forward, assuming they don’t figure Hoskins’ range will improve. Overall, things have worked out okay, but they haven’t worked out well enough to win, and win consistently. The Phillies gambled on a suboptimal alignment.
In one sense, the offseason might be easy. The Phillies might just land Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, and then they’ll have a better lineup. They’ll have a roster good enough to hang around. Yet there’s a chance that doesn’t happen, and, even if it does, there are defensive improvements worth thinking about. There are studies to run, to see if maybe the team could improve its positioning. The Phillies will need to evaluate whether they already have the right personnel. Defense, in 2018, was the ballclub’s biggest detriment. Next year’s going to come with greater expectations.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.