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The Phillies are the worst defensive team in baseball. Can they do anything to fix it? | Scott Lauber

History shows that teams that play defense as poorly as the Phillies don't usually make the playoffs. And improving a bad defense is much less straightforward than trading for a pitcher or hitter.

Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius has been one of the worst defenders in the majors this season, according to advanced metrics.
Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius has been one of the worst defenders in the majors this season, according to advanced metrics.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

In 2007, when the Phillies were short on starting pitching, they called up Kyle Kendrick and traded for Kyle Lohse. Four years later, when they needed an infusion of offense, they acquired Hunter Pence at the trade deadline.

But where does a team begin to improve the worst overall defense in baseball?

“It’s very difficult,” former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the other day. “When you have six or seven parts of the club, everyday players, that are below average [defensively], it’s hard to get them all turned around. I’d say it’s virtually impossible unless you change player personnel. And that’s tough to do.”

This is the Phillies’ predicament. One-third of the way through the season, after missing the playoffs nine years running, they are in the mix with four other flawed and injury-ravaged teams in the National League East. It’s a status they have come to occupy even as the offense isn’t producing as expected, the bullpen remains shaky, and organizational depth at almost every position is lacking.

Yet none of the Phillies’ problems is as urgent as this: They don’t catch the ball. It’s more than just making errors. They don’t get to enough balls, and when they do, they often hold it too long, or miss the cutoff man, or throw to the wrong base. And the mistakes, physical and mental, add up.

By any reliable metric, to say nothing of the old-fashioned eye test, the Phillies have the majors’ worst defense. Entering Memorial Day in Cincinnati, they had the fewest defensive runs saved in the majors (minus-26), according to Sports Info Solutions, and were tied with the Reds for last in Statcast’s outs above average (minus-17).

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Three everyday players — catcher J.T. Realmuto, second baseman Jean Segura, and center fielder Odúbel Herrera — are regarded as at least average defenders. But the left side of the field is a sieve. The Phillies had the fewest defensive runs saved at third base (minus-12) and were tied for the second fewest at shortstop (minus-7) and in left field (minus-4), positions manned primarily by Alec Bohm (minus-8), Didi Gregorius (minus-5), and Andrew McCutchen (minus-4).

It isn’t a surprise. The Phillies were poor defensively last year, too. And president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski conceded that he prioritized offense upon taking over in December. Specifically, he signed Gregorius to a two-year, $28 million contract despite considering shortstop Andrelton Simmons and second baseman Kolten Wong, former Gold Glovers who don’t hit as well as Gregorius.

But Dombrowski didn’t think the defense would be this bad. Not with fewer balls being put in play than ever. He also expected the Phillies to hit over their mistakes. Instead, they went into the week ranked 10th in runs and 11th in OPS among 15 NL teams in a year when offense is down almost everywhere.

“We knew we weren’t going to be a real good defensive club,” Dombrowski said. “But I thought we would outhit some of our defensive miscues. We really haven’t done that. Now can we? I think we’ll have a solid offensive club for today’s world if we put everybody together.”

Indeed, the Phillies might have a better chance of masking their defensive deficiencies than actually fixing them.

No defense for bad defense

Analysts who track defensive metrics discourage projections based on a 50-game sample. But the Phillies have been dreadful for a while. Since the beginning of last season, they had 20 fewer runs saved (minus-61 through 113 games) than the next-worst Los Angeles Angels.

Few teams have overcome such profoundly terrible defense. Since 2013, when the most recent version of defensive runs saved was developed, only three of the 15 teams with the lowest runs-saved totals made the playoffs: the 2013 and 2014 Detroit Tigers (minus-72 and minus-68) and the 2013 Oakland Athletics (minus-63).

Dombrowski, coincidentally, assembled those Tigers teams. But they were built to mash. The 2013 Tigers ranked second in runs and OPS in the American League en route to 93 victories, and the 90-win 2014 club led the league in OPS and was second in runs.

It’s more difficult to win that way in 2021, with the leaguewide batting average at a record low and strikeout rate at an all-time high.

“There’s not enough contact in the game, and that’s where it’s been trending for years,” Amaro said. “I can understand why the front office would think they would be a much better offensive team than they have shown. Because on paper, with Didi and Bryce [Harper] and J.T. and Segura, [Rhys] Hoskins, shoot, you should be scoring runs.

“But you have to be able to make the plays you’re supposed to make. And if you don’t, you put yourself in such jeopardy to be able to win consistently. You put too much pressure on your offense and your pitching to overcome it.”

Case in point: Last Wednesday night in Miami.

With the Phillies leading by one run and the tying run on first base in the seventh inning, McCutchen fielded a two-out single but held the ball too long and threw to third, enabling Magneuris Sierra to take second. One batter later, a foul pop clanged off Hoskins’ mitt. Somehow, reliever Connor Brogdon got out of the inning.

In the eighth, however, Sam Coonrod couldn’t pitch around a bad throw by fill-in third baseman Brad Miller on a potential ground-ball double play that started a three-run Marlins rally.

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It happens like that a lot. Almost every game.

“Look at the teams that have made the playoffs,” Amaro said. “They’re the teams that catch the baseball. I think it has to be something that’s cultural, and it’s important for the success of a contending club.”

The Phillies’ struggles aren’t from a lack of work.

Infield coach Juan Castro introduced drills in spring training to improve agility and footwork. He works with the analytics department to determine how best to position each infielder based on the situation and the hitter at the plate. He stresses what he calls “pre-pitch,” the actions that an infielder must take to be as ready as possible when the ball is hit. And manager Joe Girardi ordered additional fielding practice before a game last week and again Monday.

But Segura and Gregorius are 31; McCutchen is 34. If you hit them each 1,000 balls before every game, it’s unlikely their range or first-step quickness would improve. Bohm and Hoskins are younger, with more room for growth. But neither was known for defense in the minors. And while it’s possible that they will improve, it’s doubtful either will become an above-average defender.

“You can’t give outs away,” said Phillies senior adviser Larry Bowa, the longtime former shortstop. “Because guys aren’t hitting balls. Take a look at most games, and there’s usually double digits in strikeouts on both sides. It’s imperative that you make the routine plays.

“There are plays that we have not made this year that, I know we are better than that because I watched them for six weeks in spring training.”

But what if the Phillies are simply incapable of making more plays?

There’s no easy fix

Dombrowski has made more than 200 trades in 32 years as the head of baseball-operations departments for five teams. He has pulled off one-for-one swaps of major leaguers and three-team head-spinners involving money and prospects. He rarely stands pat.

But a midseason move to improve the Phillies defense would test even Dealer Dave’s creativity.

“You can clean it up and you can improve some, but it’s hard when you have several positions that are weaknesses,” Amaro said. “It’s hard to address all of them.”

In 2013, Dombrowski acquired slick-fielding shortstop José Iglesias at the trade deadline, although it was more a reaction to Jhonny Peralta’s drug suspension than the Tigers defense. It wasn’t until the offseason that he traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler and moved Miguel Cabrera from third base to first in an attempt to shore up the infield.

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What if the Phillies could make an in-season defensive upgrade at shortstop? Given that the Minnesota Twins signed Simmons to a one-year contract and have gotten off to a 21-31 start, would they trade the four-time Gold Glover for a mid-level prospect? Playing alongside a shortstop with more range might even make Bohm better.

Gregorius has been bothered by swelling in his right elbow and would have to prove he’s healthy before the Phillies could move him. But he drew interest from Cincinnati in the offseason. Could the Phillies match up with the Reds on a deal for, say, starter Sonny Gray? The money isn’t a wash — Gregorius will make $14.5 million next year; Gray, $10 million — but it isn’t far off.

More likely, though, the Phillies will have to live with what they have, at least for the rest of the season. They maintain they can improve without moving the chess pieces.

“You see glimpses of [improvement],” Hoskins said after saving a potential run last Thursday in Miami by cutting off a throw to the plate and nailing a runner at third base. “Like with most things in this game, the more reps that you continue to get at that game speed, the more comfortable guys are going to get. And the more comfortable guys get, usually there’s more plays made.”

It’s likely the universal designated hitter will be implemented next season and enable the Phillies to take away Bohm’s glove, or Hoskins’, or even Harper’s. But that won’t solve all their problems. And it won’t help them this year.

“They continue to put emphasis on it,” Dombrowski said. “I think you need to make the routine plays. That’s what we used to stress. Just have a couple good defensive players who can make the routine plays. The answer is, I think we can get better.”