ATLANTA — The concession speech will come in a few days. On Friday, though, manager Gabe Kapler finally conceded something that has long been apparent to everyone who has watched the Phillies this season.
"I acknowledge our defense has not been great," Kapler said.
The admission came in the middle of Kapler's defense of his pitchers, specifically right-hander Vince Velasquez. Although Velasquez has a 4.59 ERA, Kapler cited his 3.65 fielding independent pitching, a metric that measures only that which a pitcher can control (home runs, walks, hit by pitches, strikeouts), and noted that Velasquez is on par with Houston's Charlie Morton and better than Colorado's Kyle Freeland (3.77), Arizona's Zack Greinke (3.79), and Boston's David Price (3.90).
"The people on that list are on that list for a reason, right? Because they're good at their jobs, and most of the people are really good at their jobs," Kapler said. "One of the things that I will submit is that if we caught the ball as a team better this year — if we made plays better as a team, that includes everything you can think of defensively — I think our pitchers would stand out even more than they have."
The Phillies entered Friday night's game here against the Atlanta Braves with the worst defense in baseball with minus-127 defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs.
One area, in particular, where they have struggled is with infield shifts. The latest example came in the first inning Thursday night when Carlos Santana, already playing out of position at third base, was shifted into the hole at shortstop when he was unable to knock down a one-hopper by Freddie Freeman. The ball went through the infield, and one batter later, Nick Markakis hit a game-tying RBI single.
"There are a number of things that we will dive into, that we will improve, that we will focus on to help our fielders be the best version of themselves," Kapler said.
Velasquez isn't the only Phillies starting pitcher whose FIP is lower than his ERA. Nick Pivetta entered Friday night with a 4.67 ERA and 3.75 FIP, while Zach Eflin has a 4.09 ERA and a 3.78 FIP.
"This is something that I have to explain to Vince — you're OK," Kapler said. "If a team doesn't value a guy with a low FIP and a high ERA, they're not paying attention. Those guys get snatched up, they get asked for in trades. They're in high demand because the expectation is that with an improved defense and a little bit of luck, you get a much better pitcher and maybe a superstar pitcher."
Right fielder Nick Williams was out of the lineup for the fourth consecutive game because of a sore and swollen finger on his right hand.
"He made a mechanical adjustment where he was hanging his fingers off the bat, and we just don't want to push him in those situations," Kapler said. "Until we feel like he's really ready to be the best Nick Williams he can be, we should protect him. This is really for him and his well-being at this point."
For the second game in a row, Odubel Herrera played right field with Roman Quinn in center.