No team in baseball has won fewer games since the start of the 2012 season than the Phillies (427). There are myriad reasons that a team went from five consecutive division titles to six straight seasons of irrelevancy. The pitching failed; the farm system was too reliant on a certain type of high-risk player; the front office held too long onto an aging core.
But last Friday, when the Phillies traded their longest-tenured player and agreed to their biggest free-agent signing in seven years, they addressed what is the most festering issue with the post-glory Phillies: They make outs at too frequent a rate.
The Phillies, from 2012-17, posted a .307 on-base percentage. That ranked 29th in baseball, better only than the San Diego Padres' mark of .303. The Phillies play in a hitters' park. The Padres do not.
The acquisition of Carlos Santana, for three years and $60 million according to a source, looks underwhelming when measured by traditional counting statistics. He has topped 30 homers just once. He is a career .249 hitter. He does not play a premium position, he has never made an all-star team, etc.
What Santana does is reach base. He has a career .365 mark. He has played seven full seasons in the majors and accrued more than 600 plate appearances and a .350 on-base percentage in each of those seven seasons. The Phillies, as a team, have had four qualified hitters since 2011 with a .350 on-base percentage.
For context: The world-champion Houston Astros boasted five players on their 2017 roster with a .350 on-base percentage and enough at-bats to qualify. They had more in one season than the Phillies have had in the previous seven years combined.
Santana has averaged 98 walks per season since 2011. No Phillies batter has walked 98 times in a season since Pat Burrell, who had 102 in 2008. The Phillies will not pay Santana $60 million to walk, but it is a significant dynamic added to a young lineup.
The Phillies' deficiency is even deeper when position is considered. Since 2011, major-league first basemen have posted a .339 on-base percentage, the highest average for any position on the field. The Phillies, in that span, have received a .309 on-base percentage from their first basemen. That is the lowest figure in the National League.
Santana, as a first baseman, ranks behind these players in on-base percentage from 2011-17: Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Prince Fielder, and Freddie Freeman.
The Freddy Galvis trade, to San Diego for a double-A pitching prospect who might end up in the bullpen, speaks to the on-base problem. Had the Phillies built a lineup of players with strong on-base skills, they could have carried someone such as Galvis — a slick-fielding shortstop and popular teammate — as the No. 8 hitter.
Galvis reached base at a career-high .309 clip in 2017. It was still below the league average of .325. It was closer to the average for NL shortstops, .320, but lacking. The Phillies decided his valuable defense could not compensate for the on-base flaw.
The future is unwritten for J.P. Crawford, who will succeed Galvis at shortstop, but evaluators agree that Crawford has an exceptional on-base skill. Some are skeptical that he will hit for enough average and power to be a first-division shortstop. Crawford posted a .367 on-base percentage in the minors with almost as many walks (311) as strikeouts (340). He did not hit for average or power in his quick 23-game stint with the Phillies last September, but he walked 16 times in 87 plate appearances for a .356 on-base percentage.
That helped nudge the Phillies to a decision.
"We've always liked the style of J.P.'s offense, his ability to control the strike zone and work good at-bats, and that is obviously something that we put a lot of value in," Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said late Friday. "What we saw from J.P. in the second half of last year was exactly the guy we think J.P. is going to be moving forward. The fact that we had a one-month look at J.P. in the big leagues to evaluate his readiness to compete against major-league pitching to evaluate his defense gave us confidence to make this move with Freddy."
The Phillies' projected opening-day lineup now contains five hitters with reputations for wearing down opposing pitchers: Santana, Rhys Hoskins, Cesar Hernandez, Crawford, and Odubel Herrera, albeit at an inconsistent rate. The team's on-base percentage jumped 14 points, from .301 in 2016 to .315 in 2017. It should be even higher in 2018 when the Phillies feature their best offense on paper since 2010.