Can Phillies hold up defensively? ‘The naked eye tells me more than numbers’

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Corey Seidman
·4 min read
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Can Phillies hold up defensively? ‘The naked eye tells me more than numbers’ originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

As the April 1 season opener approaches, we'll look at a big picture Phillies topic each day, beginning today with their defense.

Seven players in the Phillies' lineup either hit for power, hit for average, reach base at a high rate, or do at least two out of three.

Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin have a chance to be one of the National League's best 1-2-3s. Nola's pitches have been dancing like usual in Grapefruit League games. Eflin looks locked in, as does lefty Matt Moore, back from Japan on a one-year deal and solidly in place as the Phillies' No. 4 starter.

The bullpen should be much improved in quality, quantity, velocity, strikeout potential and experience, with a better assortment of looks.

If you ranked the four aspects of this Phillies team, you'd likely go offense, starting pitching, bullpen, defense.

That defense will need to be solid for the Phillies to withstand the National League East and go where they want to go. They're set up well with a lineup that remained intact but will not out-slug teams every night or every series.

Wheeler, Nola and Eflin ranked 2, 6 and 11 in the National League last season in groundball rate. That was nothing new for Nola or Eflin, while Wheeler jumped to 56% from 43% the previous year.

The infield behind them of Rhys Hoskins at first, Jean Segura at second, Didi Gregorius at short and Alec Bohm at third doesn't need to be spectacular, it just needs to be sound. It would certainly accentuate the strength of the pitching staff if the Phillies had some defensive wizardry in the infield and that was why they pursued Andrelton Simmons in addition to Gregorius this winter.

You don't look at this defense and expect that sort of flashiness. Aside from J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies' starting position players offer more offensive value than defensive value. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Offense outweighs defense in this game. If you can hit .310 with 25 homers and a high OPS, you'd have to be a remarkably bad defender for it to cancel out.

The metrics don't peg the Phillies as a good defensive team but Larry Bowa sees it differently. There are few more qualified to speak on the Phils' infield than Bowa, who has dedicated his life to defensive excellence, first as a player, now as an instructor.

"Sometimes, to me, the naked eye tells me more than numbers," Bowa said from Clearwater on this week’s Phillies Talk podcast. "Didi, we had a meeting the other day about who was at the right place at the right time last year. And Didi was (ranked) in the top five. And yet you read another article and it says Didi's range is down. But if you're in the right place, it really doesn't matter if you've lost a step.

"I believe that our infield, we're going to make all the routine plays. Are we going to make great plays every night? Probably not. But Bohm is definitely improved. I love Segura at second base. Didi, I'm fine with at shortstop. And we've got the best catcher in baseball. Harp, I thought played very good in right field. Andrew McCutchen's going to be on two legs this year in left.

"I would say our defense isn't great, but to me, it's not below average. I think it's a good defense. We're going to make the plays, hit our cutoff men, be where we're supposed to be."

If the Phillies can be a middle-of-the-road defense, stay healthy and meet expectations at the plate, they could end a lot of nights pounding fists around the mound. Remember, this team held a lead in more than 80% of its games last season and now has a bullpen better equipped to hold them.

It feels at least worth noting that three of the final four teams in last year’s playoffs were bottom-ranked defenses, per Fangraphs. The Rays were first, while the Braves were 28th, the Astros were 27th and the Dodgers 23rd.

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