Phillies Offense Will Lack Speed Once Again
If you’re like me, one of the first things you did when Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for the Phillies was posted on FanGraphs, you went right to wOBA and sorted high to low. You probably also glanced at ISO, strikeout and walk rates, and plate appearances for context. Like me, you probably also skipped over the stolen base projections.
Base running is an often overlooked aspect of a player’s offensive game. It doesn’t impact offense nearly as much as a player’s ability to get on base — if the base running stat on FanGraphs is to be believed, the difference between the best base running team and the worst is about 40 runs or four wins. For context, the difference between the best offensive team and the worst in 2013 was nearly 300 runs or 30 wins. Still, four wins is four wins and could ultimately be the difference between playing meaningful baseball in October or scheduling a golf outing.
The 2008 world champion Phillies illustrated that point perfectly. While they hit for power as well as any team in baseball, they had a mediocre starting rotation beyond Cole Hamels but made up for it with a fantastic bullpen, solid defense, and a remarkably efficient approach to base running thanks to first base coach Davey Lopes. At The Hardball Times in 2010, I tried to illustrate how the Phillies’ approach changed (note: charts follow each sentence, click through to THT to see them):
With first base coach Davey Lopes, the Phillies’ base runners have been historically great. In 2007, Lopes’ first year on the job, the Phillies stole bases at an 88 percent success rate, setting an all-time Major League record. In ’08 and ’09, their success rates were 84 percent and 81 percent, respectively. From 2007-09, the Phillies were the most efficient baseball team in terms of stealing bases.
The team has also become more aggressive under Lopes. In the three years prior to his hiring, 2004-06, the Phillies were just in the top half to top one-third in the majors in terms of base-stealing aggressiveness (attempts to steal). With Lopes, from ’07-09, the Phillies have been in the top one-fourth to one-sixth.
While it is obvious that Lopes has made his runners attempt to steal second more often, he has also done the same at third base. Phillies runners have become more aggressive trying to steal third base.
It isn’t just blind aggression, either. From 2007-09, the Phillies successfully stole third base 85 percent, 89 percent, and 72 percent respectively, well above the 75 percent break-even point in two out of the three years.
As the Phillies’ core got older and the other personnel changed, they gradually become less and less proficient on the bases. Per FanGraphs, the Phillies ranked first among all 30 MLB teams in 2008 in base running. In 2009 they were fifth; from 2010 through 2013, they ranked eighth, 16th, 12th, and 27th. In 2008, they had four players attempt to steal at least 15 bases; this past season, only Jimmy Rollins and Ben Revere attempted at least that many.
The 2014 ZiPS projections see a lot of Phillies attempting at least 15 stolen bases, but one thing to note is that it projects players to get a lot more playing time than they will be afforded realistically. For instance, ZiPS projects Aaron Altherr, Leandro Castro, and Zach Collier stealing 15, 13, and 12 bases respectively with each taking at least 470 trips to the plate. ZiPS doesn’t have knowledge of a team’s roster construction, so we have to use our own judgment when reviewing them.
That said, among realistic projections, we have the following:
- Ben Revere: 34 steals in 44 attempts (77%), 530 PA
- Jimmy Rollins: 20 steals in 25 attempts (80%), 592 PA
- Domonic Brown: 9 steals in 14 attempts (64%), 517 PA
- Chase Utley: 9 steals in 11 attempts (82%), 455 PA
Addressing the team’s lack of speed is rather difficult. Each position has a starter written in pen, and only J.P. Crawford would represent a speed boost if and when he supplants Rollins at shortstop. Crawford will turn 19 on January 11 and just wrapped up his first season at A-ball, so he is still a few years away from contributing. Cesar Hernandez can steal bases — ZiPS projects 23 in 35 attempts over 594 PA — but his playing time will be a function of the starters’ ability to stay healthy.
One way the Phillies could address their speed deficit is by signing free agent outfielder Sam Fuld. Fuld, 32, has spent the last three seasons with the Rays as a back-up outfielder, stealing 35 bases in 47 attempts in 653 plate appearances. TotalZone also grades Fuld as a plus defender in very limited samples, for what it’s worth. Fuld isn’t eligible for free agency until 2017, which means he will be eligible for arbitration from 2014-16. Fuld doesn’t do much with the bat but he does draw walks, which is nice. Recent reports had five teams interested in signing Fuld to a Minor League deal with an invitation to spring training, so it’s essentially a zero-risk idea.
Of course, adding Fuld would require the Phillies to trade or release John Mayberry, and GM Ruben Amaro went out of his way to tender Mayberry a contract at the beginning of December. With Darin Ruf as the fourth outfielder and right-handed bat off the bench, Mayberry is a superfluous presence on the roster. The Phillies could trade Mayberry for Minor League filler or simply cut him by the end of spring training.
As we painstakingly point out, the Phillies aren’t looking like they’ll be very competitive in 2014, so their wheeling and dealing should be made with future rosters in mind. That Fuld would complement an otherwise rigid roster while staying under team control through 2016 is an example of the type of “icing” signing that made the 2008 team so successful — like when then-GM Pat Gillick picked Jayson Werth out of the bargain bin, for example. The Phillies are no longer built to slug their way to a win, so they will have to be more mindful of developing more well-rounded and dynamic rosters to squeeze extra runs (and subsequently, wins) here and there, and adding some speed is one way to do that.