Monday, June 18, 2012

The Phillies' Defense Is Offensive

It's no secret that watching the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies has been a painful experience with more than a third of the season behind us. They are six games under .500 and 9 games behind the NL East-leading Washington Nationals. With each passing game, the season looks more and more like a lost cause, especially following a weekend sweep at the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays.

The wheels have seemingly fallen off on a club that won a franchise record and MLB-leading 102 games just last season. We all know about the key injuries to guys like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay that have put a big dent in Philadelphia's armor, but the truth of the matter is the issues run much deeper. And the one that stands out to me the most is just how awful of a defensive team the 2012 Philadelphia are.

During this remarkable five-year run of NL East championships that included back-to-back trips to the World Series and one ring, the most consistent aspect of the Phillies was their stellar defense. In 2007, they had the third fewest errors in the National League and the second-highest fielding percentage in the NL. They were again stellar in 2008, committing the fifth least amount of errors in the NL and finishing with a .985 fielding percentage. And the defense just kept getting better.

In 2009, only the Pirates finished with fewer errors in all of baseball, and in 2010, they again finished in top three defensively in the NL. Last season, the Phillies had their best statistical season defensively to date, leading the Majors with a .988 fielding percentage by committing an NL-low 74 errors. Only Tampa Bay's 73 bested that mark.

Essentially, the Phillies over the past five years have not given anything away to their opponents. They played stellar defense behind Gold Glovers Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, not mention excellent defense from guys like Chase Utley at 2nd; Pedro Feliz and even Abraham Nunez at third, as well as Placido Polanco's Gold Glove last year; remarkable work behind the plate by Carlos Ruiz; and Jayson Werth's speed and arm in right field. Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell/Raul Ibanez were really the only question marks in the field, and we all saw Howard work his butt off to improve as he shed weight — though he still couldn't throw to second base — and while Ibanez and Burrell couldn't cover much ground, both had strong arms in left. Simply put, the Phillies saved a lot of runs with their defense and rarely gave any away.

This season, that simply has not been the case. Seemingly out of nowhere, the defense has dropped to the middle of the pack, and there are holes in the field all over the place. Hunter Pence is a mess in right field. He takes terrible routes to balls, completely misjudging more than any major leaguer should, and he's even been known to drop a fly ball or two. Ty Wigginton is a liability no matter where he's at, already committing a team-high 9 errors. Juan Pierre has been one of the few Phils doing work at the plate, but his arm is at a Little League level these days, and he doesn't come close to covering the ground he used to. Even the perennial Gold Glove candidates Rollins and Victorino have struggled. Rollins already has five errors this season, including a killer throwing error on Saturday, well on his way to shatter his single-season high of 14 errors. Meanwhile, Victorino seems to have caught some of Pence's fielding disease, misjudging or flat out missing more balls in center these first few months than I remember him missing the past five years, not to mention his arm strength clearly diminishing.

Honestly, only Carlos Ruiz has played at his typical defensive level as far as the healthy regulars are concerned. Polanco is still very good at third, but his range continues to lessen each year. John Mayberry is outstanding in the outfield, probably the team's best fielder out there right now, but he can't get in the lineup consistently. Freddy Galvis was playing a magical second base, but now that he's down, there's a void there too. This just isn't the same team defensively that we've grown accustomed to the past half decade, and it's one of the many reasons the 2012 Phillies are basement dwellers.

When you throw mediocre to bad defense on top of injuries, inconsistent hitting, overworked starting pitching and a rag-tag bullpen, it's no wonder the Phillies look nothing like the powerhouse they've been the past five years.

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