ATLANTA — John Middleton typically refrains from making public comments about the Phillies during the season. But there’s at least one person outside the managing partner’s immediate household who has a sense for how he’s feeling about the local baseball team.
“He’s been fantastic,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said Monday, shortly after returning a call from Middleton. “He says, ‘That’s why we play 162 games.’ He’s been very supportive.”
But after authorizing another $200 million in free-agent expenditures and pushing the 2022 payroll beyond the hiked $230 million luxury-tax threshold, Middleton’s patience probably only goes so far, especially when the 20-22 Phillies’ biggest problems are largely identical to last year’s.
Entering play here Tuesday, the Phillies ranked 26th in on-base-plus-slugging from the center-field position (.573) and 27th at shortstop (.562). The bullpen ranked 22nd in ERA (4.06). Although the defense hasn’t explicitly blown a game, the Phillies still had the fewest defensive runs saved (minus-22) in the majors.
Oh, and then there’s this: They were getting a combined .236 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot, second-lowest behind only the willingly woeful Cincinnati Reds.
The Phillies’ problems atop the batting order predate Dombrowski. Save for a two-month stretch in 2019 before Andrew McCutchen tore a ligament in his left knee, they have mostly struggled to find a consistent leadoff man since Jimmy Rollins’ salad days. Ben Revere had some success in 2014 and 2015; César Hernández led off through much of the rebuilding years; Freddy Galvis and Odúbel Herrera got opportunities.
But since 2018, when the Phillies began accelerating from rebuilding to contending, they have a .321 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot, tied with the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles for third-worst in the majors. Only the Miami Marlins (.317) and Detroit Tigers (.305) are worse. None of those teams qualified for the playoffs in a full (non-pandemic-shortened) season.
Dombrowski didn’t build this Phillies offense with an obvious leadoff man. Manager Joe Girardi has cycled through six options: Kyle Schwarber (.192 on-base percentage in 16 games), Jean Segura (.245 in 11 games), J.T. Realmuto (.154 in three games), Alec Bohm and Herrera (one game apiece), and Rhys Hoskins (.326 in 10 of the last 11 games). They aren’t prototypical leadoff hitters, but Dombrowski contends that such creatures are less common across baseball in 2022.
“No offense, when we were youngsters, you had a speedy guy, you had Mookie Betts-type guys,” Dombrowski said. “Well, yeah, I’d rather have Mookie leading off for us, but there’s not many Mookies around. A lot of guys end up in a position where they have on-base percentage, they hit the ball out of the ballpark every so often. We have guys that are doing that. I’m more concerned about run production.”
But don’t they go hand in hand? If the Phillies had a steady leadoff presence, couldn’t Hoskins and Schwarber settle into run-producing spots in the middle of the order for an offense that is averaging 4.5 runs per game but has been held to fewer than two runs 11 times?
“I’m not overly concerned about that,” Dombrowski said.
After last season, Dombrowski cited the Phillies’ .302 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot as an area that needed to improve. And although it hasn’t yet, he believes the Phillies have more viable, if nontraditional leadoff options now. Schwarber, Girardi’s initial choice to lead off, has a career .341 on-base percentage; Hoskins is at .356.
“Last year, our on-base percentage was way below, and Odúbel’s not meant to be a leadoff guy. He was the best guy that we had,” Dombrowski said. “But I don’t feel the same way this year.”
It really shouldn’t matter much. A leadoff hitter only bats first once in a game. But maybe there’s a psychological aspect to it. Of the six first-place teams, five have used the same leadoff hitter in at least 60% of their games. (The New York Yankees have led off DJ LeMahieu 57% of the time.)
Betts is the leadoff model, a blend of on-base skill and power. But most teams that are having success in the leadoff spot have done so with on-base consistency at the top, from the New York Mets (Brandon Nimmo) to the Chicago White Sox (Tim Anderson), the Colorado Rockies (Connor Joe), and the Cleveland Guardians (Myles Straw).
“You look for a leadoff hitter, you look for a guy that can drive in runs, you look for a guy who can put the ball in play and maybe move the baseball more than others,” Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long said. “That’s part of building a lineup.”
Long has previously cited Curtis Granderson as an effective leadoff hitter for years with Dombrowski’s Tigers teams and Girardi’s Yankees clubs “because he had the ability to change the score and he could get on base.” Long was the hitting coach in Washington when Schwarber went on a 19-game leadoff tear for the Nationals last season, going 25-for-71 (.352) with nine walks for a .427 on-base percentage. He also slugged 15 homers.
“Leading off a game he excelled because he was able to get fastballs and able to kind of set the tone for our offense,” Long said. “We didn’t really change anything about Kyle. That was just a spot in the order where he was able to fit in a little bit better.”
Maybe Schwarber ends up reclaiming the Phillies’ leadoff spot. Maybe Girardi will ride with Hoskins, 9-for-34 with two homers, four walks, and a .342 on-base percentage in the last nine games atop the order. Or maybe, in time, the Phillies will split the role between them, Schwarber against righties and Hoskins against lefties.
As leadoff types go, neither is cut from central casting. But in the absence of a more traditional solution, the Phillies still believe it could work.
“We signed people to be the potential hitting-leadoff [option],” Dombrowski said. “It’s just kind of how we’ve set our lineup together. We’ve got enough good hitters on the team. Somebody hits leadoff.”