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The Phillies’ Defense Might Be Good Enough

The Philadelphia Phillies were expected to be one of the worst defensive teams in baseball this season, with enough errors to fill a weekly blooper reel. That made it all the more surprising on Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia that a baseball team lost on a routine defensive miscue … and it wasn’t the Phillies.

So far this season, the Phillies haven’t been quite the defensive nightmare everyone predicted. In fact, the team is performing well enough on the defensive end that its playoff aspirations are well within reach, even in a National League East where the New York Mets are running away with things. Entering Wednesday night’s games, the Phillies are 20-23, which puts them just 3.5 games out of the final wild-card spot — well within contention, despite the sub-.500 start.

But the team’s Pythagorean record is more indicative of its true level of play so far, as well as a better predictor of what it will do going forward, based on runs scored and runs allowed. That’s 23-20, or an 87-win pace — one that puts them in the playoff conversation. The FiveThirtyEight forecast model gives them a 41 percent chance to make the playoffs.

This is all further support for the team-building theory of Dave Dombrowski, Philadelphia’s president of baseball operations, who helped put this roster together not on the notion that the Phillies would be the best defensive team in the league, but rather on the idea that they’d simply catch the ball enough.

“I think some people have even exceeded what we thought,” Dombrowski told me last week, as we chatted just outside the Phillies clubhouse. “We knew we’re not going to be an outstanding defensive team. But I think we have basically performed as well as we could perform.”

Back in March, manager Joe Girardi defined that success level as “catch the balls and field the balls that you’re capable of fielding,” and by that measure, the Phillies are succeeding. They are 14th in total chances as a team and tied for tenth in putouts. Quite literally, they are converting chances to outs at a greater-than-expected level. And they are tied for the ninth-most errors among the 30 teams — middle-of-the-pack territory, not anything world-historically bad.

But even by the measures that extend beyond the simple catch-the-ball mantra, there are bright spots in some unexpected places for the Phillies.

By the metric of ultimate zone rating (UZR), for instance, the Phillies currently rank 24th in MLB. By FanGraphs’s defensive runs above average, they are 22nd. And they get there through an interesting combination, one foretold by Dombrowski and Girardi. They’re 28th in range runs, which measures how many runs a team prevents through its range, but are fifth in error runs, which measures how effectively a team avoids errors. 

“I think everyone has chipped in, and it seems like when we have a bad day, it’s one day, right?” Girardi observed when I asked about his team’s defensive performance. “And then they’re able to turn the page. So I think that’s the biggest thing to give them credit for. They don’t let a bad day turn into a couple bad days. And I think that’s when you can get in trouble defensively.”

Alec Bohm is an example of this. He committed three errors on April 11, punctuated by famously getting caught on camera decrying the city of Philadelphia. But he quickly made amends, and he has made only three more errors in the six weeks since.

He is quick to credit infield coach Bobby Dickerson with helping him (and the other infielders) be “a little more focused on it … fighting for outs.” Dickerson was a popular figure among other Phillies infielders as well, and while Bohm’s advanced metrics at third base aren’t great, the Phillies are more than making up for it with the play of Bryson Stott, whose UZR/150 is 5 at shortstop and 6.5 at second base, along with Johan Camargo, who is currently posting positive UZRs at all four infield positions while seeing regular time in Girardi’s lineup.

Still, the area that drew the most preseason scorn was Philadelphia’s outfield. Early in the spring, the Phillies signed Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, a pair of hitter-first acquisitions, and the team planned to blunt any negative impact they’d have on the defense by playing one or the other primarily at DH, along with a center fielder and Bryce Harper. Then Harper hurt his elbow, and he isn’t expected to play the outfield until August, Girardi said last week. Harper has played eight games in right all season.

And yet: The metric defensive runs saved, the lone catchall team defensive stat that has Philadelphia last in the major leagues, has the Phillies mostly competitive with other teams at all three outfield spots. Philadelphia’s right fielders collectively have outperformed the Cardinals in that stat, while its center fielders are ahead of the Yankees.

No outfielder has logged more time in the field at any one position for the Phillies this year than Schwarber, whose 315 innings in left have been notable for what they aren’t doing: costing his team games. The converted catcher drew widespread praise from his teammates for his work ethic. Still, a man who said early this spring that defensive metrics could “kick rocks” wasn’t about to change his take on the stats even as they continue to publicly move in his favor — a change that corresponds with what Dombrowski told me was a three- to four-year improving trend in how the team’s internal defensive stats have rated Schwarber over this time.

“I think that the more time you get at a position, the more you see things and the more that you recognize different things over a period of time, right?” Schwarber said, sitting at his locker right next to Castellanos, who held an expression of deep skepticism as I cited the numbers to his teammate. “Obviously, that’s a big factor, getting experience and playing the position. And then once you see different things, you learn from different things, and you go from there.”

Schwarber and Castellanos both praised their outfield coach, Paco Figueroa, who also serves as the team’s first-base coach. The routine that the outfielders take involves not only shagging fly balls but also taking outfield grounders. Again, the emphasis is consistency — not missing the plays they need to make. But Schwarber is actually, per defensive runs above average, precisely average — well above his previous levels.

Few wondered before the season whether the Phillies would hit. Well, they have. (Only catcher J.T. Realmuto is below 100 OPS+ among the regulars.) All five starting pitchers have ERAs at 4.12 or lower, and the bullpen ERA has dropped from 4.60 in 2021 to 4.15 so far this season.

The stage is set for a Phillies run at a playoff spot. And they’re determined not to let the defense get in the way of that.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.


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