By Dan Keely
Before we get started, I should mention that this is more an exploratory piece than an exposition. If you’re looking for a cause and solution, stop here. Likewise, if you want hope for the future I am not offering that here. With that said, let’s delve into the depressing state of the Phillies outfield in recent years.
Since 2010, the Phillies have had 27 different players patrol one of the outfield spots during a game. Some have been significant contributors, but most have been spot/emergency starters or fliers taken by the front office in the hopes of finding a diamond among the garbage. Notably, though, only eight of these players have accrued more than 500 PA in that time span, attesting to the spinning door that has been the Phillies attempt to field a starting outfield.
Perhaps the most indicting fact about this front office’s ability to identify quality outfield talent though is that of the top four, two have produced a negative aggregate WAR and another one is John Mayberry, Jr. That means that of the top four players in PA for Phillies outfielders since 2010, only Shane Victorino has been a useful starter. Those two players who accrued a negative WAR were Raul Ibanez and Domonic Brown, by the way. And of the two, Brown was more of a detriment to the Phillies with Brown having a -1.3 mark while Raul sported a -0.5, according to Fangraphs. Are you sad yet? Well don’t start crying yet, because you won’t want to run out of tears; this gets worse.
Going by both wRC+ and wOBA, of Phillies outfielders with at least 100 PA (mostly to exclude the illustrious Jason Pridie’s small sample stats) only three of the top ten offensive players are currently on the team; and two of those three aren’t among the starters. Darin Ruf is at number four, Grady Sizemore at number six, and Marlon Byrd at number seven. Brown, by the way, slides in at number 12 for both and Ben Revere at number 15 for wOBA and 14 for wRC+.
Hold on, though, we still have defense to provide us some value. And provide they did! With eleven whole players contributing a positive UZR/150, there is some hope… unless you care about the stats being accurate. Because of those eleven, only Victorino provided a large enough sample to draw any conclusions from, and only he, Byrd, and Laynce Nix have provided positive defense in more than 300 defensive innings. If you look at DRS, however, the outcome becomes… bleaker. Juan Pierre joins the other three as the only ones with a positive impact with 300 or more innings, but the number of total positive impact players drops to nine.
Speaking of nine, that is Byrd’s DRS and it represents the only number above two of the entire group; Pierre, Nix, and Freddy Galvis (79.2 innings) saved two runs, while Victorino, Ross Gload (65 innings), Brandon Moss (4 innings), Casper Wells (52.1 Innings), and Aaron Altherr (9 innings) saved one. Brown and Revere? They sit comfortably on -33 and -20 DRS, respectively, with the defensive wizard Ibanez (-34) representing the only player below them. And just for fun, that means that Roy Oswalt represents a defensive upgrade over our aggregate starting outfield in both DRS (0 versus -44) and UZR/150 (-1.2 versus -15). It also means Delmon Young (-10) is an upgrade over two thirds of our starting outfield in terms of DRS.
And just to rub salt in the wounds I have inflicted upon the Phillies fandom as a whole, here is one more stat: since 2013 (the first full year without any of them on the Phillies roster), Moss, Pence, Werth, and Victorino have combined for 29.2 fWAR, whereas the Phillies OF in the same time frame have contributed 0.4 fWAR.
Now all this being said, it’s difficult to determine what exactly the front office should have done differently. Of those four big contributors, Pence is the one that really hurts losing in the grand scheme of the team but we’ll get to that in a second. While Werth is an excellent player, that contract is not something that we should yearn for. Victorino meanwhile had his monster year in right field, which would have helped if it were for us, but if he were around it’s hard to justify trading for Revere which means Shane stays put in CF. Which is not to say he is not an upgrade over Revere in center, but it’s more of a difference of 1 WAR rather than 3 or 4. In addition, while Revere has his warts, he is young and under team control still which has to count for something, and trading Victorino may have netted us some additional value if Ethan Martin can ever truly harness his electric arsenal. Moss, on the other hand, is an interesting case. But it’s a bit disingenuous to refer to him as an outfielder. He’s more first baseman than left fielder, and there’s no way the front office was bumping Ryan Howard for him.
Now as for Pence, he is a great player. But his success in San Francisco is a bit unexpected. Not completely, of course, but it’s not something that anyone should have bet any real money on happening. Between his debut (2007) and 2012, Pence averaged just under a 118 wRC+, .3535 wOBA, and a little shy of 3.2 WAR per season. His peripherals while with the Giants have all remained very similar to his career, and yet he’s seen some of his best years in his career while out west. The one glaring difference? Base running. Turned from someone who hovered right around 1 BsR between 2007 and 2012 into a player posting 6.1 and 6.5 BsR the past two years. In addition, he showed improvement across the board defensively in San Francisco over what he had done in Philadelphia. But even without those improvements, a 3 WAR player in his prime is a nice piece to have. Especially on a team as apparently inept at finding outfielders as the Phillies.
But here’s the thing; trading for Hunter Pence in the first place was almost universally lamented. It’s easy to say, with hindsight, that we should have kept him. But you can’t make that argument if you were against ever acquiring him to begin with. Most people, including myself, agree that we surrendered far too much talent to get Pence. Plus at the time we were clamoring for Brown to take over (remember those days?) In addition, people bash the return Ruben got when flipping him to the Giants, except the package we got is right around what we should have expected. Hindsight is again at play because Tommy Joseph, the centerpiece of the trade, has been plagued by injury since we acquired him. The problem with that is you can’t really anticipate concussions. Especially since he had been perfectly healthy while with the Giants. And when he’s on the field he has shown the offensive tools to be a solid catcher with improving defense. In addition Seth Rosin briefly cracked the majors this year (with the Rangers before being returned to us) and showed that, absent some bad luck, he could be capable of pitching in the majors. Nate Schierholtz, too, has proven capable of producing value when used correctly; even if that value was produced for another team. The point is, we received a solid return for Hunter Pence, but people were hung up on the fact that Amaro way over-paid Houston to get him in the first place. But you can’t say that was too much for Pence and then turn around and expect to get that much in return. When you make a mistake like that the only thing you can do is mitigate the damage, and that is what Ruben was realistically doing. Go figure Pence would turn into a 5.5 WAR player.
So without the benefit of hindsight, what most people wanted to happen was this: never acquire Pence, let Werth walk because of the insane contract, and trade Victorino because we were rebuilding and there’s no point having him on the roster for that. That probably means we still trade for Revere and possibly still sign Byrd. That means we end up exactly where we’re at right now in terms of outfield strength and depth, except we have Domingo Santana in AAA. That would be nice, but his cup of coffee pretty clearly demonstrated he’s not ready yet. In that case, the only place we could have realistically expected any better outfielders is through the draft, right? But that is something to save for another time.
What all this boils down to is this; the Phillies have been comically bad when it comes to decision making regarding their outfielders. It’s hard to judge whether that has more to do with bad luck than skill because some of the bad moves are what most would agree with (plan around Dom Brown rather than Hunter Pence), while some of the good moves seem like a stroke of luck (Ibanez’s first season, Byrd, Sizemore). But regardless of the cause, something needs to change if this team ever hopes to turn their fortunes around.