The Philadelphia Phillies, if nothing else, are going to thoroughly take advantage of the designated hitter in the National League.
That much was obvious when they spent the winter loading up on powerful bats instead of plugging holes at center field or shortstop. Desperate to reach the playoffs with high-priced stars Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto, Dave Dombrowski’s front office went and signed slug-first-do-anything-else-later boppers Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber. The 2022 Phillies lineup would be terrifying to opposing pitchers. And also … possibly to their own pitchers.
The promise and peril of the plan made itself plain in short order.
On April 11, the Phillies opened their second series of the season by hosting the division rival Mets. Young third baseman Alec Bohm — whose potential escape hatch from an overwhelming defensive assignment was now blocked — made three throwing errors in the first three innings and cursed the uh, passionate Philadelphia crowd. He also reached base three times in three tries as the Phillies surged back to win the game.
But we later learned Harper hurt himself in that game. He damaged an elbow ligament making a throw that night, and was soon relegated to DH duty. He hasn’t played in the field since April 16 and will reportedly need at least four more weeks off from throwing. That means Castellanos and Schwarber have to play the outfield, at the same time, every day. It meant limited defense-free at-bats for Bohm and Rhys Hoskins turned into non-existent ones.
By almost any standard, Harper sustaining an injury that he can play through counts as good fortune. This weekend, he eviscerated the Dodgers, collecting 8 hits, 3 homers and 8 RBIs in a scorching three games before skipping Sunday’s matchup to get an injection in his elbow.
If this Phillies team is going to win and fulfill its hopes of reaching October, it might have to look like that — all gas, no brakes.
Without Bryce Harper, a bad defense gets worse
There’s been no doubt the Phillies are going for it since they signed Harper. Before this winter, they already had $563.5 million committed to the trio of Harper, Realmuto and Zack Wheeler. With their playoff drought still stubbornly stretching back to 2011, they were intent on adding talent to break out of .500 purgatory.
As you might expect after a frustrating 82-80 season where an NL MVP season from Harper wasn’t enough to reach October, the Phillies had some clear needs.
One was the bullpen, which finished 2021 with a 4.60 ERA, 25th in MLB. You can quibble with how they addressed it — and you can certainly point out that it isn’t working out right now — but the front office made efforts to shore things up by nabbing Corey Knebel in free agency, along with less splashy reinforcements in Brad Hand and Jeurys Familia. In building a baseball team, you’re sometimes going to make moves to address a problem and have them go awry. It happens — you could argue it happens more often than it should when Dave Dombrowski tries to build a bullpen, but it happens.
The other glaring problem — like, 10-car pileup on the Turnpike glaring — was the defense. Defensive metrics are famously murky approximations of ability, but directionally, they get the point across: The Phillies ranked dead last in the league in Defensive Runs Saved, 20th in Ultimate Zone Rating (though dead last in its range metric), and 24th in Statcast’s Outs Above Average.
The Phillies … did not react to an obvious problem by seeking solutions. Their winter appeared to posit that, actually, perhaps two (or four) wrongs do make a right.
As soon as the lockout was over and the designated hitter was locked in for NL teams, they committed $179 million to Castellanos and Schwarber, two great hitters who are nominally corner outfielders but clearly better served in the DH role.
At the time, that meant one of them could play left field or first base and the other could DH on any given day. Sure, it was still a defensive sacrifice, but the slugging trade-off was potentially worth it. However, the Phillies didn’t upgrade the center field defense that would be stretched thin by those additions. And after expending that money, they didn’t sign a shortstop at all in a deep, star-studded class of middle infielders.
What they could have easily known, and probably did know, was more than enough to foresee a potential crisis here. Their offseason choices amounted to allocating resources to rostering MLB’s three worst defenders of the past five seasons, by OAA.
Out of 254 qualified players, declining shortstop Didi Gregorius rated as the worst defender in baseball from 2017 to 2021, Castellanos was second-worst, and Schwarber was third. This looks less stark if you use other metrics, some of which give Schwarber credit for some sharp throws in his Cubs years, but the thrust of it remains the same.
And that’s before taking into account the defensive struggles of Bohm, a young hitter boxed into a nightmare at third base, and Rhys Hoskins, who is a regular negative at first base. Of the nine Phillies who have at least 40 fielding attempts so far this season, seven have cost the team runs, by OAA. Only center fielder Odubel Herrera and utility addition Johan Camargo have been positives.
Can Harper and the Phillies muster a playoff run?
It’s possible to make the playoffs with a bad defense. With an expanded postseason now in place, it’s more possible than it ever has been outside of 2020.
The 2021 New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox also had defenses that rated near the bottom of the barrel, but wound up with more wins thanks to more abundant success elsewhere, like in the bullpen. Though it’s worth noting that by Baseball-Reference’s DRS-based defensive WAR model, no playoff team in the past decade has sported a fielding group as bad as the 2021 Phillies.
The Yankees, for what it’s worth, went out of their way this winter to address key defensive spots like shortstop and catcher. The moves looked underwhelming compared to some of the options on the table, but the goal was sound.
What’s frustrating about the Phillies is that their big swings have been both thrilling and successful. Harper has 92 homers, 42 steals and an elite .398 on-base percentage in Philadelphia. Realmuto has been the best catcher in the game since his arrival. Wheeler turned into an ace when he crossed New Jersey.
They make the headline-grabbing, jersey-selling, fist-pumping decisions we want a baseball team to make.
Unfortunately, all the little decisions underneath those headlines are starting to feel like self-sabotage. It’s not a simple task by any stretch of the imagination, but the Phillies haven’t built a sturdy enough foundation to support the mansion they’re constructing.
They reportedly switched leadership this offseason to fix a “dysfunctional” player development system — a positive step, but probably years too late for a team hoping to contend right now. Even in smaller transactions, this surface-level thinking seems apparent — they traded for worm-killing pitcher Kyle Gibson to lift their rotation last year and ran him out there in front of an abysmal infield defense, which went as you might expect.
Recent MLB success stories have repeatedly bubbled out of the next-level thinking that prizes deep talent pools, flexible rosters and adaptability (see former manager Gabe Kapler and the Giants). It girds against total breakdowns and acknowledges the vast number of things about the sport that are actually unpredictable.
An MLB roster has to work together like a big, complicated organism. When one muscle is compromised, others have to compensate.
That’s why Harper’s elbow-induced DH stint feels so emblematic. He’s improvising and contributing as much as he can, but weathering this relative bump in the road will demand superhuman effort from the already strong parts of the team.
This is a sport where slow and steady wins the race, where clubs build for the endurance and reliability it takes to conquer a 162-game schedule. The Phillies are essentially a carnival act choosing to attempt the same heavy lift with one hand tied behind their back. It may yet work, but watching it won’t be for the faint of heart.
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