COMMENTARY| Survey a valid sample of Philadelphia Phillies' fans concerning the regularity with which they step into a batter's box and return to the dugout after experiencing strike three, and an overwhelming majority would tell you that it happens much too often. That is a common misconception. But while their strikeout numbers aren't as egregious as most fans think, they were horrendous at drawing the strikeout's counterpart in 2012 -- bases on balls.
Over the last three seasons, dating back to 2010, the Phillies have ranked 25th or better in strikeout percentage. Remember, this is a statistic where you want to be low on the list.
This is a team whose fans have clamored for a dead-ball era type leadoff hitter while they have one in Jimmy Rollins. Rollins' "leadoff hitter" stats are near league averages, while his run producing numbers out of the leadoff spot trump just about all other table setters. Rollins' pop-ups were problematic in 2012, leading the league in In-Field Fly Balls percentage (IFFB%) at 19 percent. The Phillies hope this is a statistical anomaly since his career percentage is 11.3 percent. While that needs correcting, Rollins struck out at a 13.7 percent rate, which would rank 107th out of a possible 143 players who had the requisite 502 plate appearances to qualify for leaderboards. In fact, Rollins was the only player to accumulate enough PAs in a Phillies' uniform in 2012 to qualify for those leaderboards. That should tell you something about the Phillies' 2012 season.
This is a team with one of baseball's habitual strikeout artists in Ryan Howard, who often looks like Happy Gilmore teeing off on 17 with a blindfold rather than a hitter facing left-handed pitching. But those concrete, visual frustrations mask Howard's value to the lineup, as evidenced by the team's 44-34 record after his return from a torn Achilles and a subsequent wound infection. Simple math will tell you they were 37-47 without him. And yes, of course, other factors (Chase Utley and a successful youth movement in the bullpen) helped lead to the second-half surge.
While Howard will have to prove that he can still hit 35 to 40 bombs and knock in 110-120 runs to justify the cost of all the Ks, and there is a ton of money to be sent his way that would have any team's executives nervous, you have to give him a full season to rebuff the critics who say he's finished before you can ignite the torches.
In 2011, when the Phillies won a league-best 102 games, they struck out 16.3 percent of the time, the 26th lowest rate in baseball. In 2012, when the Phillies went 81-81, they whiffed at a 17.7 percent clip, slightly higher than the previous year but still tied with three teams for the 25th lowest rate in the game during an era defined by pitching.
Conversely, in 2011 the Phillies drew walks at a an 8.6 percent rate, 9th best in baseball. In 2012, that rate dropped to 7.4 percent, or 25th in the league. In raw numbers, they drew 454 walks in 2012. In '11, they drew 539. That's 85 less base runners with just a 100 less plate appearances. That may not seem like much, but considering they were 25-27 in one-run games and were shutout 11 times, you have to wonder how many games may have been altered by just one more runner on the base paths. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but in a league whose latest statistical gold standard measures a player's value against an imaginary replacement (WAR), a little hindsight doesn't hurt.
There are a couple of things that may help explain that drop. First, the Phillies were behind in many more games in 2012 than they were in 2011. When you are playing from behind, pitchers are less likely to pitch around hitters. They go after them.
Second, Howard only had 292 plate appearances and only walked 25 times, or 8.6 percent. Howard has a career 12 percent walk rate.
Third, for years the Phillies had better options hitting out of the 8-hole than the parade of minor-league level slop they trotted out there in 2012. In 2011, Carlos Ruiz hit 8th 37 times and the Phillies drew 53 walks out of the 8-hole. In 2012, with Freddy Galvis leading the way hitting 8th 39 times, the Phillies drew just 29 walks. That's just 4 walks less than the 29 9-hole hitters drew on a National League team. There was no reason for pitchers to pitch around the 8-hole to get to the pitcher. There simply wasn't much difference.
The Phillies' team on-base percentage dropped .06 points from .323 to .317 from 2011 to 2012. That doesn't seem like much until you account for the team's .255 batting average in 2012 to just .253 in 2011. You can harken back to a lack of patience at the plate to help explain that statistic.
Hot stove fans are waiting anxiously to see what moves the Phillies make this offseason. We know they'll be procuring a centerfielder, and almost anything would be better than the 5 home runs and .357 slugging percentage they got out of the third base position in 2012.
Kevin Youkilis has the reputation of a hitter that makes pitchers work, and his career 12.3 walk percentage would help solve the problem, but he would also increase the strike out ratio. He's a career 18.5 percent strike out guy and was at 21.2 percent in 2012 with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox. Meanwhile a platoon of Kevin Frandsen and Eric Chavez would provide balance from each side of the plate. Frandsen rarely strikes out and Chavez is patient at the plate. Chavez would also provide some pop at third in a woefully barren third base market.
In center, things get trickier. B.J. Upton is the hot name on the radar for a lot of teams, including Philadelphia. Upton, a career .255/.336/.422 (average/on-base percentage/slugging) hitter who draws walks at better than a 10 percent pace and strikes out at better than a 25 percent pace, would certainly provide the Phillies with the right-handed power bat they are searching for while undoubtedly adding another bat to the lineup that will drive fans crazy. If you want to see balls fly out of the yard, usually you are going to have to endure things you definitely do not want to see. Upton's .246 average, .298 OBP and 7.1 percent walk rate in 2012 is a frightening mix that the Phillies would be betting, or more aptly begging, was a fluke.
Michael Bourn is a high on-base percentage player who could allow either Rollins or Utley to move into the 2-hole in the order (a gaping hole). However, Bourn was terrible in the second half of 2012 and is demanding an astronomical salary that I believe is too risky for the Phillies to accommodate.
The amount of inexperience in the Phillies' 2012 lineup led to a lack of patience. You don't have to break the bank or create breaking news by signing supposed superstars in order to remedy that. It's likely Dominic Brown will have 400-plus plate appearances this season, which will provide everyone with their quotient on impatience and inexperience.
Patience is a mantra for Phillies' fans this offseason as we wait to see if general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. can find the right puzzle pieces to fit a lineup living in purgatory. The nucleus is heading toward the sunset. The youth, what little talent exists, isn't there yet. The starting staff still leaves fans with visions of pennants dancing in their 2012-clobbered heads.
Finding a little patience at the plate will help make those visions a reality.
Pete Lieber is a freelance writer who has been covering the Phillies for more than three years and has lived and died with red pinstripes since well before Bo Diaz electrocuted himself. Follow him on Twitter at @Lieber14.
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