Phils-Cubs observations: RF defense, fickle Burnett

Phils-Cubs observations: RF defense, fickle Burnett
April 7, 2014, 9:30 am
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A.J. Burnett (right) has put 21 men on base in 11 2/3 innings this season. (USA Today Images)

Five observations from the Phillies' series win over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field:

1) Right field defense is crucial, and improved
The Phillies used nine different players in right field in 2013: Delmon Young, Darin Ruf, Roger Bernadina, John Mayberry Jr., Laynce Nix, Casper Wells, Domonic Brown, Ezequiel Carrera and Michael Martinez.

Those nine players combined to hit .243 with a .305 on-base percentage. Ugly. They combined to cost the Phillies 21.6 runs on defense, according to Fangraphs, fifth-worst in baseball.

Enter Marlon Byrd, who not only destroys left-handed pitching but also puts together solid at-bats and has already displayed well-above-average defense in right field.

In the first week of play, Byrd went 6 for 25 (.240) with a homer. Nothing eye-popping. But as Ryne Sandberg pointed out Saturday, Byrd made defensive plays that Phillies rightfielders would not have made a season ago. His running catch in the first inning of Saturday's 2-0 win saved the Phillies multiple runs and maybe even the game.

Run-saving plays in the field don't show up on stat sheets. But if they did, Byrd would have "produced" more than one run in his first week back with the Phillies.

2) A.J. Burnett in a nutshell
Burnett's two outings last week perfectly epitomize his career, his potential, his stuff, and the reason why some baseball minds view him as a No. 2 starter and others view him as a mid-rotation arm.

Burnett has filthy stuff -- multiple curveballs and a heavy fastball that misses bats and induces ground balls. He's going to have 12 to 18 starts this season where he looks unhittable.

But he's also going to have a half-dozen or more starts where he simply cannot locate. It's the burden every pitcher with excellent movement but inconsistent mechanics faces.

Burnett walked six batters and hit one on Sunday. The last two Phillies starting pitchers to do that were J.A. Happ in 2009 and Paul Abbott in 2004. But would anyone really be surprised if Burnett comes out Friday vs. the Marlins and tosses seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts?

3) A right-handed reliever must step up
Jake Diekman has already made four appearances. Antonio Bastardo has made three.

As a whole, the Phillies' bullpen has walked 12 batters in 15 2/3 innings. Way, way too many. Diekman and Bastardo both have electric stuff, but were projected by ZiPS, a reliable forecasting system, to combine for 5.3 walks per nine innings this season. That kind of control is going to make the eighth inning a question mark all year long if Mike Adams can't come back successfully or if B.J. Rosenberg, Justin De Fratus and Brad Lincoln fail to seize opportunities.

Plus, you need a right-handed arm to turn to in the late innings. Not every team is going to be lefty-heavy like the Cubs with Anthony Rizzo and Nate Schierholtz or the Rangers with Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder.

4) Lefty success must stick
One of the main knocks on the Phillies entering the 2014 season was their ability to hit left-handed pitching. Ryan Howard hit .173 against southpaws the last two seasons with eight walks and 84 strikeouts. Chase Utley hit .219 against lefties over a three-year span.

But through one week, the Phillies have been better against lefties than pretty much every team in baseball. In nearly 100 at-bats vs. lefties, the Phils have hit .319 with a .379 OBP and .500 slugging percentage. They're in the top-three in MLB in all three categories and lead both leagues with four homers off lefties.

That kind of production won't repeat itself for the next 23 weeks, but if the Phillies' lefty hitters can hold their own against same-handed pitching, it can turn into an area of strength.

After all, the Phils already have two righties who feast on opposite-handed hurlers -- Byrd was second in the majors last year with a .344 batting average vs. lefties, and Carlos Ruiz has hit .303/.393/.446 against them since 2011.

5) Dom Brown is quietly producing
With all of the Week 1 storylines, heroes and goats ... did anyone notice Domonic Brown is hitting .381?

Brown went 8 for 21 with a double, three RBIs, two walks, two runs and a steal in the opening week. He went 3 for 9 against lefties and 5 for 12 against righties. He reached base in each of the five games he started, and in the Cubs series he made just five outs in 13 plate appearances.

If the Byrd/Brown tandem can combine to hit .285 with 60 homers and 170-180 RBIs -- really, not out of the realm of possibility -- it's going to be an exciting season for a Phillies lineup that few analysts gave any credit to over the winter.

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