It may be true that three seasons' worth of defensive statistics are the right benchmark for whether they accurately represent skill -- but both Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are strong indications of what happened on the field (especially on a team basis), and what happened in Philadelphia last season was atrocious.
Don't get me wrong -- some Phillies, like Chase Utley, were above average defensive contributors, or at least adequate in 2013. In many of the components that make up both DRS and UZR, the Phillies did quite decent, but for both metrics, defensive range factors in more than anything else, and what the Phillies achieved along those lines hasn't happened much.
Here are the team defensive totals for the Phillies, with the main components of both DRS, together with how they ranked in MLB:
|PHI 2013: DRS||rSB||rGDP||rARM||rGFP||rPM||DRS|
And for UZR and its components:
|PHI 2013: UZR||ARM||DPR||RngR||ErrR||UZR|
Not very good. In DRS, the Philles were mediocre at how they handled the running game (rSB), average at turning double plays (rGDP), more than decent in terms of their outfielders' arms affecting base running (rARM), and even better at Good Fielding Plays (rGFP). UZR more or less agreed, with similar ranks for outfielders' arms (ARM), turning double plays (DPR), and Error Runs (similar to rGFP).
For most of the components of both defensive metrics, there was nothing too special about the Phillies. But in terms of Range Runs (RngR) and Plus Minus Runs Saved (rPM), the team really set itself apart.
Given the year-to-year volatility of defensive metrics, it's interesting that the Phillies ranked dead last in both range stats last season. In the eleven seasons for which we have both metrics, this is just the fifth time that both have ranked the same team last, putting the 2013 Phillies in select company. The Rockies accomplished that feat in 2012, as well as the 2010 Pirates, the 2004 Yankees, and the 2003 Brewers. Here's a full list of all 17 teams to have finished last in the majors in either RngR or rPM (or both) in the last eleven seasons:
|Team||DRS||rPM||Worst: rPM||UZR||RngR||Worst: RngR|
The 2005 Yankees deserve a special mention, having tied the Phillies for second-worst rPM ever while obliterating the next-worst RngR totals. The only player on that team with more than 500 innings in the field and a positive RngR was Tino Martinez (3.3 in 770.2 innings). Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Bernie Williams and Gary Sheffield all had RngR marks below -15, with Hideki Matsui, Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi also contributing RngR numbers below -5. The 2005 Yankees' overall -141.7 RngR mark was 68.1 below that of the next-worst team that season.
That next-worst team was the 2005 Royals, the team that also has the distinction of logging a worse rPM total than the 2013 Phillies. In fact, last season's Phillies team achieved a feat almost as distinctive as the 2005 Yankees' incredible RngR gap, putting 42 "runs" of distance between themselves and the next-worst team in 2013 in rPM, the Mariners (-62 rPM). In the ten seasons preceding 2013, the largest gap between 29th and 30th in rPM was just 26 runs, in 2009 (-46 Athletics and -72 Royals). The average such gap was 11.3.
OK, you get it -- the Phillies defensive range last year was pretty bad, in some ways unprecedented. But why?
It was mostly a combination of the old and the Youngs. Of the position players (other than catchers) with more than 200 innings in the field, only Chase Utley made a positive contribution with his range (per RngR; rPM does not agree). A declining Jimmy Rollins did not help, but considering the number of innings he played, his range didn't hurt his team significantly. The Darin Ruf experiment in RF did not work out well, and Ben Revere didn't seem to be as outstanding in the field as was advertised before he was traded by Minnesota. Considering the limited number of innings for both Delmon Young and Michael Young, however, it's remarkable that together, they put up a staggering -18.7 RngR and -25 rPM.
The 2014 Phillies may be better, but it may not be by much. The Youngs are gone, but Domonic Brown will still inconsistently roam left field, and in limited playing time, Revere and Cody Asche have not shown that they're very likely to help. Defensively, the reunion with Marlon Byrd may be addition by subtraction (at least for 2014), as he rated out as slightly above average last season for range (0.6 RngR, 7 rPM), and he's been decent in his career. Still, the team will be a year older in 2014, and for an old team like the Phillies, that probably isn't a good thing.
How does a team fare as poorly in terms of range as the Phillies did in 2013? It could be partly the hand that the Phillies dealt themselves several years ago -- Utley and Rollins weren't about to go anywhere, and Rollins in particular is not the fielder he used to be. It's also partly the result of a couple of specific part-time player acquisitions in Michael Young and Delmon Young, single decisions with singular defensive consequences.
It could also be the result of a team philosophy or team priorities, however. As noted, Phillies players did tend to adequately field the balls hit right at them, to turn double plays, make decent throws from the outfield, etc. But a team adept at avoiding errors is not the same thing as a team that fields well, and the 2013 Phillies bear all the marks of a front office that uses fielding percentage to evaluate defensive contributions.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Ryan P. Morrison is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site on the Arizona Diamondbacks with a sabermetrics slant. You can follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.