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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