jorge alfaro

The 2 things holding Jorge Alfaro back from being a difference-maker

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The 2 things holding Jorge Alfaro back from being a difference-maker

Throughout the offseason, we'll take a look at the best and worst aspect of each key Phillie's season and look ahead at what the goal should be for 2019.

Let's start behind the plate with Jorge Alfaro.

The best: Power, pitch-framing

The worst: Whiffs, blocking

Alfaro hits the ball hard. He had the fifth-highest line drive rate of any major-league catcher at 23.2 percent, ahead of guys like J.T. Realmuto and Buster Posey. 

The issue is he doesn't make enough contact. Alfaro swung and missed this season at 23.8 percent of the pitches he saw, a comically high rate for a major-leaguer. The next-highest rate in the NL was Javier Baez's 18.2.

Midway through the season, I asked Gabe Kapler if Alfaro could be a productive offensive player long-term if his plate selection never improves. The gist of the manager's answer was that Alfaro could but it would require a big cutdown of his strikeout rate. That is a major if that will define Alfaro's career.

Too often in 2018, the Phillies' 7-8-9 of Scott Kingery, Alfaro and the pitcher went weak out, weak out, weak out. 

Theoretically, Alfaro's penchant for swinging and missing means wasted opportunities with runners in scoring position. Yet that wasn't really the case in 2018. In 15 at-bats with a runner on third and less than two outs, Alfaro drove in nine runs. With two outs and runners in scoring position, Alfaro hit .344.

Still, his whiffs stuck out even on a Phillies team that struck out 103 more times than any season in franchise history. There are impressive tools there, but the hit tool is the most important in this sport. 

Catchers must be able to catch

The Phillies raved about Alfaro's pitch-framing this season. By some metrics, he was a top-five pitch-framer leaguewide.

That's great. But he was awful at blocking the ball. So many passed balls that even a league-average catcher catches. So many times he wasn't able to help his pitcher by preventing a "wild pitch" many other catchers would have blocked.

There is a case to be made that the Phillies' obsession with pitch-framing has resulted in their catchers focusing more on *snatching the ball the best possible way* than simply catching it.

To which I'd ask: What is more important, buying your pitcher an extra strike here and there, or preventing a runner from advancing?

Mathematically, it's closer than you think. But you have to go beyond merely the numbers. For example, Alfaro caught 31 of Aaron Nola's 35 starts. Nola is an elite pitcher who gets respect from umpires. All the pitches Alfaro was credited with "framing well" for Nola … who is to say the ump's respect for Nola always being around the strike zone wasn't equally or more so the reason for those extra strikes?

2019 goals

Alfaro's main focuses this offseason need to be:

1. Laying off fastballs over his head and breaking balls well off the plate

2. Improving his blocking fundamentals

To the first point, there were so many plate appearances this season when Alfaro got behind in the count and just gave up. So many times a pitcher threw a waste pitch nowhere near the plate and he swung anyway. Think about this: Alfaro was in an 0-2 count 74 times this season and 54 of those at-bats ended in a three-pitch strikeout. That is ridiculous.

But despite these negatives, the Phillies still might have something good and valuable in Alfaro. He has the power, the throwing arm, and — despite the whiffs — a career .270 batting average with an OPS one percent below the league average.

He just needs to make major strides in his age-26 season to be the difference-maker the Phillies believe he can be. Especially if Wilson Ramos doesn't come back.

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Phillies cannot improve without making these defensive fixes

Phillies cannot improve without making these defensive fixes

The Phillies' defense was atrocious this season. It was the worst in the majors. It was the worst this city has seen in decades. 

When looking at why the Phillies fell apart in the second half, the offense deserves its share of the blame, but the defense faltered all year long.

The Phillies are not going to contend with below-average defenders at nearly every position. You just can't, even if you have a staff full of aces.

I personally take defensive metrics with a grain of salt, but the Phils' figure of minus-129 defensive runs saved this season is hard to ignore and certainly passes the eye test. It's 28 defensive runs worse than the next-worst team, the 111-loss Orioles.

The four main reasons:

1. Infield defense an overall weakness

There was a 100 percent chance the Phillies' shortstop defense was going to be worse this season. That's what happens when you move on from a defensive whiz like Freddy Galvis, who by the way is still making sensational plays and saving his pitching staff in San Diego.

Phillies shortstops have committed 19 errors this season, a dozen more than their league-low seven last year.

Scott Kingery did improve at short after a shaky start. And it seems clear the Phillies aren't sold on J.P. Crawford's defense at short. Crawford had more errors — mostly on throws — in 30 games at shortstop this season than Galvis had in 155 starts last year.

To make matters worse, the Phillies received Galvis-like offensive production from their shortstops this season. They got Galvis' bat without his glove. Don't be surprised if the Phils add a defensive-minded veteran shortstop this offseason, especially if Kingery moves to 2B.

2. Catchers couldn't catch

Jorge Alfaro graded out well this season with pitch-framing. Every other aspect of his receiving was poor. There is a case to be made that Alfaro's focus — and really the organization's focus — on pitch-framing and catching the ball perfectly made him worse at catching it, period.

The Phillies have the most passed balls in the National League. A lot of them were inexcusable for a major-league catcher. Only the Pirates have more combined passed balls and wild pitches.

These are costly, costly events that increase the other team's scoring chance in a substantial way. 

Alfaro's offseason focus will likely be enhancing his receiving ability. If the Phils move on from Wilson Ramos, they need to add a second catcher who excels defensively. The free-agent pickings are slim. Yasmani Grandal is out there but why would the Dodgers let him walk?

3. Rhys Hoskins is not a leftfielder

It's not his fault he's out there, but Hoskins is not a leftfielder, he's a first baseman. Hoskins' range is comparable to Pat Burrell's midway through Burrell's career, but Burrell could at least make up for it with a strong and accurate throwing arm.

The Phillies had the fourth-most errors in left field this year and the fifth-fewest assists.

Hoskins at first base with Carlos Santana at 3B is a legit possibility for 2019. Third base defense would be sacrificed for the betterment of offense and left field defense ... which is definitely more palatable if it means Bryce Harper is there.

4. Odubel Herrera regressed in CF

The defensive metrics liked Herrera until this season, and again, the eye test backs up the change. Herrera did not get good jumps this season. He did not make strong throws and was routinely tested by baserunners. The throwing arms of Herrera and Hoskins both grade out toward the bottom of baseball, with Hoskins ranking dead last among 58 qualifying outfielders.

Roman Quinn's above-average defense was glaring because of what it replaced.

Herrera had another multi-blunder game Tuesday night in Denver, not hustling on a double-play ball he had no excuse to not beat out, then later muffing a ball in deep right field.

The Phillies probably realize at this point Quinn is the better all-around player, but Quinn's constant issues staying healthy mean that the Phils would also have to bring in a fourth outfielder they'd feel comfortable playing a lot in center. Keeping Herrera as that fourth outfielder if no intriguing trade offer materializes could be an option.

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Keep an eye on the record – will they finish over .500? – and Scott Kingery in final week of Phillies season

Keep an eye on the record – will they finish over .500? – and Scott Kingery in final week of Phillies season

ATLANTA — The final week of the Phillies season is upon us.

The team has been eliminated from all postseason possibility after a collapse that has seen it post a record of 15-29 since it was in first place in the NL East on Aug. 5.

Here are a few things worth keeping an eye on over the final week:

• Will the team finish with a winning record?

On Aug. 5, the Phils were 15 games over .500 and the thought of a sixth straight losing season seemed incomprehensible. Now they are just a game over .500 and need to win four of their final seven — no easy task with four against contending Colorado on deck — to finish with a winning record.

“It’s very important,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “Everybody understands that there's a lot of value in having a winning season.”

The Phils have not had a winning season since 2011, the last time they made the playoffs. They finished .500 in 2012.

• Will Aaron Nola get one more start (see story)

• How much more will Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro and J.P. Crawford play?

Williams is nursing a sore and swollen right middle finger and it hurts when he swings. Alfaro came out of Sunday’s game with a sore right quad muscle. Crawford still has a sore right shoulder. He fell on it making a play in the field Wednesday night and was not ready to play Sunday.

• Will Scott Kingery get some time at second base?

It’s his natural position and he could be the guy there next season if Cesar Hernandez is dealt.

“I don't think there's a need, but I think it would be cool to see him out at second base before the season's over,” Kapler said. “We're not going to force anything. If it makes sense for our club and it gives us a chance to win and is the right thing for Scott Kingery, we'll do it.”

Kingery has played just 23 innings at second this season and not started there since April 16.

“At this point, I think it might feel a little bit weird to go over there,” Kingery said. “But I think to get back to the natural position, maybe just find some rhythm over there and get at least a couple games over there. So if something ends up happening and I play there a little more next season, I’ll be ready for it.”

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