The 2013 Major League Baseball season opened on the night of March 31st. It’s been 17 days since that time, and in that fortnight and a few days, the Philadelphia Phillies have managed 6 wins and 7 losses.
That isn’t counting last night’s postponed game to be completed today. The Phillies 6-7 record places them 4th in the NL East, 1 game back of the Mets, and a solid 6 behind the first place Atlanta Braves. Now, it’s still early, so don’t panic. Still, given the Phillies team as constructed, and their performance thus far on the field, a .462 winning percentage may not constitute pessimistic, but realistic.
In the Phillies last 46 innings the team has scored 8 total runs. That’s an average of 1.6 runs scored per 9 innings. I think we can all agree that averaging 1.6 runs scored per 9 innings just won’t cut it in when your in the “winning baseball games” business. Oh, but wait, there’s a cherry on top of this sundae. The Phillies last 5 games have come against the Marlins and the Reds. The starters they have faced haven’t been of the highest quality either. Here is a glimpse:
Scoring runs has been an issue, but this is a very small sample size. Teams often go through hitting slumps, even against the most mediocre of opposing pitchers. You can flip a coin 1,000 times and I guarantee we’ll find a string of 20 or 30 heads within those 1,000 flips. Still, these offensive struggles could indicate a troubling pattern, one that could persist as the season moves ever forward. Just in case, let’s dive a little deeper into the numbers.
In order to zero in on the Phillies’ core issues, we must first factor out some possible and even probably causes. With numerous articles surfacing recently concerning the rising numbers of strikeouts, looking and swinging, in baseball, the Phillies’ hitting issues could be tied to an increase in strikeouts. In recent seasons the Phillies have sported a number of players that strike out often including Ryan Howard, John Mayberry Jr., and Raul Ibanez, but even still, it doesn’t seem as though striking out too much has been an issue in 2013. At a 20.9% strikeout rate, the Phillies are just a touch above the league average of 19.6%.
Well, if not strikeouts, maybe the Phillies have had bad luck, maybe the hard-hit balls aren’t falling in. Batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, has been shown to have lots of randomness associated with it. Sabermetricians continue to work on BABIP, teasing facts and connections from the data to determine anything of significance concerning the statistics and our prior assumptions therein. Still, at least a portion of BABIP comes from randomness, and so if a team’s BABIP is demonstratively high or low in comparison to the league average, it could tell us something. In the 2013 Phillies’ case, their .298 BABIP is actually just higher than the league average .295 BABIP leading this writer to believe that the Phillies have not suffered from bad luck offensively.
Strikeouts, check, bad luck, check. What else is there? In my opinion, the Phillies hitting struggles have simplistic origins. The team has issues getting on base, and most importantly does not make up for this lack of men on base with any sort of consistent display of power. The Phillies team on base percentage is .304, while the league average is .320. This may not seem like a lot, but only 2 teams with OBPs lower than the league average currently have winning records, the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals. Getting on base derives from two major sources, hits and walks. The Phillies rank 18th in MLB in batting average at .251, but worse than that, the team’s walk percentage of 7.0% is 24th in the league, in front of only the White Sox, Cubs, Royals, Cardinals, Astros, and Brewers.
Baseball is a simple game, get men on base, and you have a chance to score runs, score more runs than your opponent, and you win. While on base percentage remains vital to scoring runs, teams, especially recently, have shown that sizable power numbers can often overcome other offensive issues. The Phillies roster looks to have plenty of power, save Ben Revere who has yet to hit a home run in his career. Between Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Domonic Brown, and Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies have substantial power sources, both from the left and right sides of the plate. More importantly, Citizens Bank Park is known for being home run friendly, confirmed the park factors for 2013 showing CBP as the 4th most homer-friendly ball park in the majors (this is noisy data given the small sample size, but it isn’t insignificant).
Given the team’s various power hitters and the home power advantage, you might expect the Phillies to rank in the top of the league in home runs and slugging percentage. Unfortunately that isn’t the case.
|2012 Phillies||2012 League AVG||2013 Phillies||2013 League AVG|
The 2012 Phillies fell just below the league average in 3 power-hitting categories, and thus far in 2013 those results remain unchanged. So, the Phillies are significantly below average in getting men on base, and almost average in most power-hitting categories. The only question left to ask is how this team isn’t worse than only 6-7?
That answer is relatively easy to discover. The Phillies pitching, known as remarkably better than the team’s hitting has given the team a chance to remain afloat. Add in some decent defense, and solid base running and you get a team that exudes a .462 winning percentage. Does all of this mean that the team is destined to play at a .460 clip the rest of the season? Absolutely not. The Phillies may not have the league’s most dynamic offense, but in now way do I expect them to continue combining for an 88 wRC+, I see that number rising closer to 98, which although not a dramatic difference, it’ll help turn close losses into close wins.
Finally, we’ve arrived at the most pressing issue for the Phillies. They are merely average power-hitters and don’t fair particularly well in the OBP department, but the Phillies’ greatest offensive transgression comes with runners in scoring position. In those instances, when the Phillies have a runner on 2nd base, 3rd base, or both, the team has a combined wRC+ of 111. Wait, 111? That’s higher than the 88 the team averages in all hitting situations.
Has this writer lost his mind? No, he has not. If we remove pitchers and pinch-hitters from that equation that number falls from 111 to 104. Remember, 100 is the league average, but we are still a ways off from the 88 wRC+ the team has put together in all hitting situations. So, the data shows that the Phillies haven’t been all that bad when hitting with runners in scoring position. The team has compiled 39 runs batted in and 40 runs scored with runners in scoring position, which isn’t out of the ordinary, but their ground ball percentage sends up a red flag. When runners are in scoring position the defense wants one of two outcomes, strikeouts and ground balls. That isn’t to say fly ball outs aren’t productive, but when ball is hit in the air, especially to the outfield, that ball has a chance to be a home run, and much better chance of going for extra bases than a ground ball does.
The Phillies GB% with runners in scoring position is 52.4%, and they have a 2.15 ground ball:fly ball ratio. That in comparison to a 1.35 gb/fb ratio, and a league average 44.9% ground ball percent in all hitting situations. When the Phillies have opportunities with men on base, and more importantly in scoring position, their hitters need to look to drive the ball, in the gaps, down the lines, or better yet out of the ballpark. Instead it seems as though Phillies hitters are playing into the pitcher’s hands by getting overly anxious, and toping the ball, thus keeping it in the infield, a safer place for the defense.
The Phillies hitters have other problems such as an inability of their left-handed hitters to hit, let alone make contact, with left-handed pitching, but given a thorough dissection of the numbers it is fairly obvious that Phillies hitters are doing most things right, and even some things well, but their inability to drive the ball, be patient, and methodical with runners in scoring position is killing their chances of turning close losses into wins, and a .460 winning percentage into a .560 clip.