Groundballs, weak contact the root of Phillies' problems

Groundballs, weak contact the root of Phillies' problems

April 24, 2013, 10:00 am
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Michael Young and Ben Revere have hit into nine of the Phillies' league-leading 21 double plays. (USA Today Images)

We all know about the walks. The Phillies don’t walk. They don’t take enough pitches. They don’t work deep counts. The guys who had those skills during the playoff years – Jayson Werth and Pat Burrell – are long gone.

The home runs are a thing of the past. More than likely, Ryan Howard is never hitting 40 again. At this juncture it’s tough to imagine him hitting more than 30.

So, they don’t put enough men on base to create ample scoring opportunities, and they can no longer count on one swing quickly making up ground on the scoreboard.

But here’s a larger issue, one that goes beyond the power drought, one on par with the poor plate selection and one that explains why the Phillies fail so often with runners in scoring position: They hit the ball on the ground way, way too much.

Tuesday night’s best scoring threat came in the fourth inning against Pirates mediocre lefty Jeff Locke. John Mayberry tripled and Domonic Brown was hit by a pitch, putting runners at the corners with nobody out. Ben Revere hit a ball to third base – the worst possible place – on the first pitch, and Mayberry was cut down at home. Erik Kratz followed with an inning-ending GIDP.

The Phillies have grounded into 21 double plays this season, most in the National League. Michael Young leads all of baseball with six. Kratz is right up there with four.

The Phillies that actually hit from 2007-11 avoided double plays. They averaged 110 per season, fourth-fewest in all of baseball during that span. This season they’re on pace for 162.

What was the difference between those teams and the Phillies of 2012 and 2013, you ask? There are several. For one, Howard never used to hit into double plays. He averaged one GIDP every 56 plate appearances from 2007-11, mostly because he hit the ball so hard, and often in the air, when he put it into play. The past two seasons, as he’s recovered from a gimpy ankle that has drastically reduced his speed and ability to drive the ball, he’s averaged one GIDP every 41 plate appearances.

Obviously, a high-contact hitter like Young will add plenty of double plays. He’s averaged 21 per season since 2005.

Then there’s Revere. Revere has already grounded into three double plays this season, an oddity given his speed. But when you’re hitting the ball on the ground 76 percent of the time as Revere is – leads baseball by a wide margin, by the way – you’re going to ground into double plays.

Revere has hit the ball on the ground so much more than anyone in the majors. He’s at 76 percent; the AL leader is at 62 percent. Maybe it would be OK if Revere had more than two infield hits.

And that right there is the main issue with the way the Phillies of 2012 and 2013 have been assembled. The team is built around groundball hitters.

From 2007-11, only two NL teams hit fewer groundballs than the Phillies. From 2012-13, only the Padres have more.

All those years, even when the Phillies were winning games, we thought strikeouts were the problem. But what you’re seeing now is a team that strikes out far less, walks far less, and makes significantly more – but significantly weaker – contact.

And that’s why we are where we are with the Phillies, why Charlie Manuel is left to vent after yet another pathetic offensive performance from his team.

The Phillies have had several opportunities in recent years to bring in a difference-making, three-true-outcomes hitter. (The three true outcomes are a walk, strikeout or home run.)

They had a chance to sign Josh Willingham in the winter of 2011, but passed and the Twins got an incredible bargain at three years, $21 million. Willingham hit 35 homers last year and has a .370 on-base percentage the last two seasons. How would that patient, power bat look in this lineup?

They had a shot at Carlos Beltran the very same offseason, but again declined, and the Cardinals stole his services for two years, $26 million. Beltran hit 32 homers last year and has an .840 OPS the last two seasons.

This offseason, Nick Swisher was right there. He averaged 26 homers and a .367 OBP from 2009-12. But it didn’t appear the Phillies even pursued him.

No, they didn’t want to meet any of those prices. Instead they traded their best position player prospect, Jonathan Singleton – a guy whose best skills happen to be power and plate discipline – for Hunter Pence. Pence helped in 2011, but if there’s one regular in baseball with less plate discipline, we’d like to hear who it is.

The Phillies have had chances to replace what was once an extremely patient and powerful lineup. They haven’t done it. Burrell was at the end of his rope after 2008, and matching the Nationals’ offer for Werth would have been silly. But the Phillies could have cheaply reacquired those skills had they met the low prices for Willingham or Beltran, or focused more on Swisher’s big OPS than his big personality.

Instead, they’re stuck with a powerless lineup that ranks 22nd in slugging and 24th in on-base percentage. They’re stuck hoping all of these groundballs have eyes.

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