For pitching staff's sake, Phillies must improve MLB's worst defense

For pitching staff's sake, Phillies must improve MLB's worst defense

ATLANTA — Over the last couple of seasons, there have been frequent cries to move Vince Velasquez to the bullpen. Velasquez’s big fastball and difficulty navigating the middle innings have fueled these cries.

But the Phillies are committed to developing a starting pitcher.

And manager Gabe Kapler thinks the best is yet to come from the 26-year-old right-hander, who is 8-11 with a 4.63 ERA in 29 starts this season.

Kapler uses the Fielding Independent Pitching metric (FIP) to support his opinion. FIP measures everything a pitcher can control — in simple terms, it eliminates defense. Among big-league starters with more than 140 innings pitched this season, Velasquez ranks 23rd with a FIP of 3.65. Nick Pivetta is a few notches down at 3.72. Jacob deGrom leads the majors at 2.02 and Aaron Nola is sixth at 2.77.

“FIP is more predictive of what will happen next year than ERA is and that’s why we look at FIP more than ERA,” Kapler said. “ERA tells the story of what happened including defense. FIP tells us what might happen going forward.”

Kapler pointed out that Velasquez’s FIP is in the neighborhood of Charlie Morton (3.65), Kyle Freeland (3.77), Zack Greinke (3.79) and David Price (3.90).

“Most of the people in that range are really good at their jobs,” Kapler said. “This is something that I have to explain to Vince — you’re OK. 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 and 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.”

By mentioning FIP, Kapler shined light on one of the Phillies’ biggest flaws: Defense. According to FanGraphs, the Phillies rank last in the majors in defensive runs saved (DRS) at minus-127. By comparison, the Braves, the team the Phillies are looking up at in the NL East standings, rank third best in the majors at plus-60 DRS.

“I acknowledge our defense has not been great,” Kapler said.

“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.”

Desperate to try to stay in the NL East race, the Phillies have recently prioritized offense over defense. The idea backfired on Thursday night as two instances of substandard infield play resulted in two runs behind Velasquez in the first inning. But Kapler took a similar tack Friday night. Looking for offense, he used Rhys Hoskins in left field, Carlos Santana at third base and Justin Bour at first base.

Next year, defense must be re-prioritized. It must get better. It will help the pitching staff.

“There are a number of things that we will dive into, that we will improve, that we will focus on to help our collection of defenders to be the best version of themselves,” Kapler said. “Quickness, agility, mobility, athleticism. If we get to two more ground balls, if we have two more throws that are this much better ... this is very much a game of inches. We have plenty of guys who have an opportunity to improve.”

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No jitters for Bryce Harper, just an RBI, a stolen base and a little 'glam'

No jitters for Bryce Harper, just an RBI, a stolen base and a little 'glam'

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Everybody's stomach is a little different.

So while Jake Arrieta had a few butterflies before his first start of the spring Tuesday, Bryce Harper's pulse barely quickened.

"Kind of the opposite," Harper said, comparing the feel of his spring debut to Arrieta's. "Spring training is kind of spring training. I don't want to get too high or anything like that. I just want to get out there, stay healthy and compete. When I get to opening day, there's your jitters."

Harper played five innings in right field. He came to the plate three times. He drove home a run with a sacrifice fly in his first at-bat and later walked and struck out. He also stole a base.

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, Harper was still a free agent, mulling offers from the Phillies, Giants and Dodgers. He chose the Phillies on the final day of February and camp exploded with excitement. Back in Philadelphia, the team sold 180,000 tickets within 48 hours of Harper's agreement with the team.

This year, things are a lot different for Harper. He has become a dad. And his hair is a lot longer.

"I'm going to keep it going," he said. "Yeah, keep it flowing. Why not? We'll see what happens."

Harper, of course, isn't the only one in camp with a new look. His pal, the Phanatic, unveiled his on Sunday.

"Hey, man, everybody needs a glam-up sometimes, you know?" Harper said. "Why not? I've got long hair right now. I'm always changing."

The general atmosphere around camp is also different than it was a year ago. Though there's a real sense of faith that the Phillies will improve under new manager Joe Girardi, there's none of the euphoric buzz that accompanied Harper's signing. The attendance for Tuesday's game against Toronto in Clearwater was just 4,004. It was a split-squad game for both teams.

Harper is OK with a calmer spring.

"It's definitely different coming into camp," he said. "It's good knowing I'll be here the next 12 years, a lot more calm, not as crazy, not as many cameras. I'll enjoy that and just get ready for the season."

Harper's spring goal:

"Just be healthy," he said. "Take good routes in the outfield, throw the ball well out there, have good at-bats."

Haseley in protocol

Centerfielder Adam Haseley left the game in Clearwater after hitting his face hard on the ground while attempting a diving catch. Haseley suffered a cut on his forehead, caused by his sunglasses. He was seen walking and talking in the clubhouse after the game but was unavailable for comment to reporters because he had been placed in concussion protocol. His condition will be updated on Wednesday.

The games

Arrieta gave up a single, a walk and a three-run homer in the first inning, but he enjoyed a quick second inning. He admitted to some nerves in the first inning but settled in after that. At this point of camp, all that matters with a starting pitcher is health and Arrieta feels good after having his elbow surgically cleaned out late last season.

The Phillies lost the Clearwater game, 13-6, despite a grand slam from minor-leaguer Jhailyn Ortiz. The Phillies signed Ortiz for $4 million as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in July 2015. He hit just .200 at Single A Clearwater last season but had 19 homers and 65 RBIs in 430 at-bats.

Catcher J.T. Realmuto gunned down a runner trying to steal second base from his knees.

In Bradenton, the Phils beat the Pirates, 6-2. Lefties Ranger Suarez and Damon Jones both pitched two scoreless innings. 

The victories left the Phillies at 3-1-1 in exhibition play.

Zach Eflin starts Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

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Phillies Talk podcast: Can Roman Quinn change complexion of Phillies' lineup?


Phillies Talk podcast: Can Roman Quinn change complexion of Phillies' lineup?

Joe Girardi is already impressed by Roman Quinn, who could significantly alter the Phillies' lineup if he can win the CF job. Ricky Bottalico and Corey Seidman discussed on Tuesday's Phillies Talk podcast.

• How Roman Quinn could change the complexion of the lineup.

• Can Andrew McCutchen be an effective leadoff man if the knee forces him to go station to station?

• How much a fast runner can mess with a pitcher's head.

• Phillies pitchers making clear (without saying it) what they thought of Chris Young and Gabe Kapler.

• Whose side are you on with the Phanatic lawsuit?

• Expectations for Scott Kingery in Year 3.

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