Phillies Severely Lacking Discipline

Three Phillies are tied for the team lead in walks with six. The National League leader has 20 walks. Only four Phillies have a walk rate above the National League average of 8.2 percent. One is a pitcher (Joe Blanton), one barely manages a game per week and just went on the disabled list (Jim Thome), one is drawing walks at a rate nearly three times his career average (Laynce Nix), and the other is Ty Wigginton. The rest — your regulars — are well below the league average.

Last year, the Phillies as a team had the ninth-highest walk rate in Major League Baseball thanks to Ryan Howard (11.6 percent) with an honorable mention to Domonic Brown with the team’s best walk rate (11.9 percent) among those with at least 200 plate appearances. However, Chase Utley, John Mayberry, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz, Hunter Pence, and Ben Francisco also drew walks above the league average 8.6 percent. Among the players who were on the team in both 2011 and ’12, all have seen their walk rates shrink.

While it’s quite easy to chalk this up to small sample variance, the odds of all seven players experiencing a dip in their walk rate at the same time are quite low. This speaks of a change in organizational philosophy. Manager Charlie Manuel has made no secret that he doesn’t think that his offense, left to its own devices, can push runners across the plate at an acceptable pace. That’s why you saw a rash of sacrifice bunting, particularly early in the season. Manuel also defended outfielder Juan Pierre‘s inefficient base running, saying he wants Pierre to continue to be aggressive on the base paths.

Since taking over as Phillies manager in 2005, Manuel — a well-regarded hitting guru — took a mostly hands-off approach, only getting involved with individual hitters when they hit the skids. Manuel was particularly instrumental in guiding a young Ryan Howard through the valleys (the few of them) early in his career. The self-sustaining Phillies offenses of old did not require the manager to call for egregious amounts of sacrifice bunts or hit-and-run plays. In fact, those Phillies teams were criticized roundly for being “too reliant on the long ball” — waiting around for the three-run home run rather than bunching a few singles together every now and then.

After being shut out in Game Five of the NLDS last October, GM Ruben Amaro talked about a change in offensive approach. Via Matt Gelb:

Ability-wise, there is no question in my mind this is a championship-caliber lineup and championship-caliber players. We have to go about it in a different way. I have talked to Greg Gross and talked to Charlie. We have to have a different mindset or different approach than we did in ’08 or 2010. We don’t have nearly as much power, have to be better with two strikes, better situational at-bats. Those are frankly things we have to change.

Obviously, the personnel Amaro has collected and was left with due to injuries did not portend for a powerhouse offense. When you add Juan Pierre to your spring training roster with a shrug, and he then becomes your every day left fielder, that is simply going to be the case. However, in compensating for the lack of offense, it seems that the Phillies went too far into the small-ball mindset. Along with the miniature walk rate, the Phillies also have the ninth-lowest strikeout rate in baseball (18 percent), the lowest isolated power (.099), the eighth-highest ground ball rate (48 percent), and the third-most bunt hits (seven).

As a result of this “just make contact” approach, the Phillies are also simply swinging at worse pitches. Compare the swing heat maps from 2011 to 2012.

Hunter Pence

Carlos Ruiz

Shane Victorino

The downside to small ball is that you don’t work counts. The Phillies have seen the fewest three-ball counts in the league. The average batter reaches base 56 percent of the time he reaches a three-ball count. Conversely, they have seen the most counts in which the pitcher was ahead (0-1, 0-2, 1-2), when the average batter reaches base less than 20 percent of the time. The Phillies have also seen the second-fewest even counts (1-1, 2-2) in which the average batter reaches base at a meager 27 percent clip. What’s interesting is that the Phillies rank 12th in two-strike counts, which means the Phillies are ending their at-bats early. The following table shows the amount of times each hitter has ended an at-bat in one pitch:

Player 1-Pitch AB % of PA
Brian Schneider 3 15.8%
Jimmy Rollins 15 15.5%
Jim Thome 3 14.3%
Ty Wigginton 10 14.3%
Hunter Pence 13 13.5%
Pete Orr 2 9.1%
Shane Victorino 9 8.7%
Freddy Galvis 6 7.8%
Placido Polanco 6 7.3%
John Mayberry 2 3.9%
Carlos Ruiz 2 2.7%
Laynce Nix 1 2.7%
Juan Pierre 1 1.4%

Ending plate appearances early has many bad side effects. Among them, you allow the starting pitcher to stay in the game longer and he rarely labors* (fewer “mistake” pitches); you reach the opposition’s front of the bullpen (ostensibly their worst pitchers) infrequently; and you rarely get what your Little League coach often referred to as “your pitch” — the pitch you know is coming based on deductive reasoning.

* The opposing starter has completed at least six innings against the Phillies in 21 of 24 starts so far this season. The three who didn’t: Josh Johnson, Randy Wells, and Trevor Cahill.

Walks are also unsexy. As a hitter, it’s hard to feel like you’ve done something when a pitcher fails to place his pitch within the strike zone, you don’t swing, and you lightly jog your way onto first base. Even getting hit by a pitch sparks the “you’ve done a good job!” part of your brain because you “took one for the team”. However, walks are nearly as instrumental to run-scoring as hitting singles. In trying to manufacture runs with an impotent offense, they have taken some hitters away from a natural strength. Take Carlos Ruiz, for example. His walk rates since becoming a regular in 2007: 10%, 12%, 12%, 13%, 10%. And then there’s 2012: 5%.

Small ball and plate discipline don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but the Phillies have made it that way, and it is a big reason why they are among the lowest-scoring teams in baseball. If the Phillies drew more walks, they wouldn’t have to wait for three or four singles to bunch together or for a successful sacrifice bunt and subsequent sacrifice fly to score runs. (Someone once pointed out that the OBP of a ground ball — BABIP, essentially — is around .230; the OBP of a walk is 1.000.) No, this amalgamation of Phillies players will not go toe-to-toe with the 2000 Colorado Rockies, but it doesn’t mean they’re destined to be a bottom-feeding offense, either. There is no reason why this team can’t finish the season averaging four runs per game.

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7 comments

  1. Keith

    May 02, 2012 02:42 PM

    Definitely agree with the fact that we are playing way too much “small-ball”. The only person I disagree with, is Chooch. I think his is a product of a small sample size so far, as he is hitting the ball pretty well, and have been one of the most productive hitters on the team. I think part of the problem is that everyone is trying to be the person that saves the Phillies season until Howard & Utley come back, when all we really need is everyone to play like they are expected too (especially Pence & Victorino) and I believe we’d be a few games over .500 if that happened.

  2. Bill Baer

    May 02, 2012 02:47 PM

    Ruiz has benefited from an unsustainable HR/FB rate. When that regresses, his wOBA will go from around .360 to around .320-330. If his walks don’t catch up, then it’ll be a painful process.

  3. Phillie697

    May 02, 2012 03:10 PM

    @Bill,

    I have to agree with Keith on Chooch. I think there is a team trend that can’t be ignored, but Chooch’s also getting more hits, which we know result in lower walk rates. If we change two hits into two walks, Chooch would be almost in line with his career walk rate. I don’t think it’s a concern with Chooch.

    Can’t really say that about anybody else since they’re not hitting AND they’re not walking either, a lethal combination.

  4. Richard

    May 02, 2012 03:23 PM

    I think Rollins has started to be a little more selective in the last few games; but, yeah, overall it’s a disturbing team-wide trend that needs to be reversed, and quick.

  5. Jake

    May 02, 2012 04:45 PM

    Gone are the days of the good old days where the Phillies saw 5, 6, and 7 pitches an at bat.
    Fantastic article.

  6. HBP

    May 02, 2012 08:01 PM

    This isn’t going to help stop those who nicknamed J-Roll “One Pitch Jimmy”.

  7. steve

    May 09, 2012 07:05 AM

    Phillies also take alot of first pitches in count.

    They have highest pct in league this year and last of taking first pitch.

    This is good if pitch is a ball. But if pitch is a looking strike then right away you are behind in count and that is a bad thing.

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