The Phillies are getting absolutely nothing from their corner outfielders. Nothing at the plate, nothing in the field, nothing on the basepaths. The left and right fielders have batted fifth and sixth in every game, making their struggles something like a package deal. “Ben, I’ll see your infield fly with a ground ball to first base,” says Raul.
Of the 186 qualifying major leaguers, Raul Ibanez has produced the lowest WAR, -1.0. You read that correct. Ibanez is 186th of 186. To those unfamiliar, WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement. It is as all-encompassing a stat as you will find; WAR takes into account offense, defense, and the difficulty of one’s position. Take Chase Utley, for example. Utley has averaged a little over 7.0 WAR per season since 2007. This theoretically tells us that if the Phillies started Michael Martinez in those four years rather than Utley, they would have won about seven fewer games per year. Get it? Good, let’s move on to Ibanez.
Ibanez has been worth -1.0 WAR so far. That would be one win below replacement. He has cost the Phillies 5.4 runs at the plate and 5.9 runs in the field. After Tuesday’s frustrating loss, Ibanez’ slash-line sat at .171/.253/.232. His .485 OPS is lower than Placido Polanco‘s slugging percentage.
Ibanez is pretty much done as a major leaguer. Looming hot streak or no looming hot streak, the fact remains that he is at best a league-average offensive left fielder and the league’s worst defensive leftfielder. Straying away from numbers for a second, I want you to recount every throw home Ibanez has made in 2011. Think of as many instances as possible. STOP! How many of those images involved a throw bouncing before or parallel to the pitcher’s mound?
Ben Francisco has not been much better. Before Tuesday’s contest, in which he left four men on base in two crucial early at-bats, Francisco ranked in the lower third of rightfielders in nearly every offensive category: batting average, on-base percentage, walk rate, Weighted On Base Average, WAR, you name it. He is hitting an alarming amount of infield flies, most of which are self-induced.
Francisco has this strange tendency to get under the ball no matter where it is pitched. Sure, he hammers the ball at times (as he did in his meaningless ninth inning at-bat Tuesday night) but he gets himself out quite a bit. Consider that he is 5-for-22 this season when ahead in the count. A small sample, yes, but I’m not peering into the future just yet, I’m looking at how Francisco has produced in his first month as the Phillies’ full-time right fielder.
As far as defense, Francisco’s range has been a mixed bag. He made early season boo-boos with Shane Victorino, but the confusion has since cleared up. Francisco takes questionable routes to some balls and misplays others completely, but he has made several impressive catches on the west coast road trip. His arm, however, is only one small notch above Ibanez’. Both of the Phillies’ outfield assists (it’s sad that they only have two) have come from Francisco, but he showed again Tuesday that his arm is unreliable from even medium right field. A solid throw in the second inning would have nailed the slow-footed Miguel Montero at home, ending the inning 1-0 and irrefutably changing the course of a game Roy Oswalt left one inning later.
Yes…it’s only April. Yes…the Phillies are 15-8. But the corner outfield problems are ones that will persist throughout the season. Ibanez may not hit .170, but he probably won’t hit .270 either. And he’ll still be a terrible fielder at the end of the summer. Francisco’s .260/.320/.452 line is pretty much what we can expect, with maybe a few less points of slugging. This isn’t awful, but it’s the definition of mediocre. An OPS in the range of .760-.770 would have placed Francisco 17th among major league rightfielders last season.
One mediocre corner outfielder can be hidden if he has productive teammates. Unfortunately, the Phillies have one mediocre corner outfielder, one below average corner outfielder, and only three or four productive hitters on the roster. When you have so few big bats, you need production from the traditional “big bat positions,” left field and right field. The fact that the Phillies’ corner men are bad offensively and worse defensively is scary. It’s even scarier when one considers that they will continue to bat fifth and sixth.
There is no clear-cut solution here. You could wait it out and hope things improve, but you have to recognize that if the best-case scenario is mediocrity from your 5-6 guys, you’ve got yourself a problem. Domonic Brown begins a rehab assignment today, and what once looked like a patient re-introduction to the majors may turn into a need-based speedy return. Brown did not look good in the Winter or Spring, then he broke his hand. It was originally thought that he would need ample time in the minors to get his mojo back, but the Phillies might not possess the luxury of time. They might need Brown to come back and, if not be an offensive upgrade, at least improve the outfield defense.
Obviously, we’re far from trade season, but it should be noted that Ibanez is gone after the season and a non-platooned outfield of Brown-Francisco-Victorino is…less than optimal. Looking forward, there are available names to consider. Eric Seidman offered an intriguing, well-thought-out analysis of the corner outfield market several days ago, concluding that the best and most realistic option would be Hunter Pence. I wholeheartedly agree based on cost, need, production, and availability. Like I said though, that is a little while away. For now, we’re stuck hoping that Francisco and Ibanez make adjustments and offer some sort of protection for Ryan Howard. Middle-of-the-order run production should exist in more than our imaginations.
The ship ain’t sinkin’ yet, but the corner outfielders are sure poking holes.