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MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

Phillies' subpar defense has cost them in 2012

Leach: Phillies' subpar defense has cost them

Phillies' subpar defense has cost them in 2012
NEW YORK -- It's strange to look at the standings and see the Phillies as a mid-pack team, after five straight years of Philadelphia reign in the National League East. It may be even stranger to look at pitching stats and see the Phils as middle-of-the-road.

Cliff Lee didn't have a great first two months, and Roy Halladay has spent some time on the disabled list. Still, starting pitching is the Phillies' hallmark, and to see them eighth in the league in ERA is jarring. And before you point to the ballpark, they're sixth in the NL in park-adjusted ERA+, making it clear it's not just a matter of balls flying out of Citizens Bank Park.

So what's going on here? Well, part of it has nothing at all to do with pitching.

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As Bill James long ago pointed out, a great deal of what we think of as pitching is actually defense. And that's definitely one element of the Phillies' surprisingly so-so run prevention. This has not been a good defensive team in 2012.

"Catching the ball has been one of our biggest problems this year," manager Charlie Manuel said Monday. "If we could have played cleaner games, we would have won those games."

They're seventh in the NL and 16th in the Majors in fielding percentage, but that doesn't tell the story. Teams that don't get to balls, don't make errors, and besides, there are any number of issues with what's a hit and what's an error. So let's look a little deeper.

Measured by Defensive Efficiency Rating, which is the ratio of balls in play that turn into outs, the Phillies rank 24th in the Major Leagues. Measured by Baseball Prospectus' Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, they're 19th. That's a significant fall; the Phillies were ninth in PADE in 2011 and seventh in 2010. They're 17th in Team Runs Saved, according to BillJamesOnline.com's plus-minus system.

"I can't put a number on it," Manuel said when asked just how much the defensive issues have cost this team. But he acknowledged, "it's been an off year."

That's how it's possible to have the No. 2 strikeout rate in the Major Leagues, the No. 1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the fewest walks allowed and the 12th-best ERA. Well, that and giving up too many home runs, which is an issue for another day.

It's not that nobody on the Phils can play defense. Jimmy Rollins still looks outstanding, and according to some rating systems, he's still an excellent defender. Carlos Ruiz is one of the best, and Freddy Galvis is a quality defender. It's not as though there's no hope.

Besides, the Phils will be making some changes over the winter. They're likely to have a new center fielder, and depending on their faith in Domonic Brown, could have a different look in left field as well. Chase Utley may move to third, leaving Galvis at second, or they could find a new third baseman.

But it's clear that as they assemble the 2013 roster, one goal for the Phillies should, and will be, to upgrade the defense. It'll make those pitchers look a lot better.

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. Jane Lee contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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