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.
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.
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|
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.
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.