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Phillies starters: Good news, bad news

5/5/2014

Below is a chart illustrating something that I found interesting about Roberto Hernandez’s start on Sunday in the series finale against the Washington Nationals. It displays the number of pitches Hernandez threw in each zone:

If you take that 2×2 square starting at the bottom middle of the strike zone and extending to the inside-third below the right-handed hitter’s knees, you account for 44 of the 104 pitches (42.3 percent) Hernandez threw.

Here’s a look at where Hernandez’s pitches have gone over his first six starts overall:

If we use the same 2×2 square as above, we account for 27.3 percent of his pitches on the season, so Hernandez was in that zone 15 percent more often than usual in Sunday’s start. Hernandez only racked up three strikeouts, but it’s not surprising that he was able to induce a season-high 13 groundball outs. He had previously induced 11 in his April 25 start against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and 11 in his April 14 start against the Atlanta Braves. It was Hernandez’s finest start of the season -- 7 1/3 innings, no runs, and a Game Score of 70. Hernandez has only twice had a game score of 70 or better since the start of the 2012 season.

The Phillies have assembled a rotation full of groundball pitchers and as a result, they have baseball’s highest groundball rate among starters at 52.5 percent. The Houston Astros come in second at 50.4 percent.

 

Pitcher (Starts) BABIP GB% GB/FB Ratio

Kyle Kendrick (5) .292 55.6% 2.00

A.J. Burnett (7) .258 54.1% 2.44

Cliff Lee (7) .361 52.4% 2.03

Roberto Hernandez (6) .325 51.8% 2.53

Jonathan Pettibone (2) .417 48.6% 2.57

Cole Hamels (2) .400 44.1% 1.50

NL Average .291 47.3% 1.47

As the table shows, Burnett has been a bit better than we would expect on balls put in play. Kendrick has had average results on balls in play, and everybody else has an above-average BABIP. Some of it is luck, but the Phillies’ infield defense, particularly on the right side, hasn’t been very good. To put this in perspective, the Phillies have allowed the fourth-highest batting average on groundballs at .257, 26 points above the league average.

Take a look at Hernandez’s groundball chart from Sunday to the right. A majority of the groundballs hit were to the left side, to shortstop Jimmy Rollins and third baseman Jayson Nix. Only four were hit to the right side.

When we narrow the location of groundballs to the right side, we find that the Phillies have allowed the second-highest average on groundballs to the right side in the league at .256, 61 points above the league average. They’re about average on balls up the middle (.261 to the league’s .256) and slightly below average on balls to the left side (.254 to the league’s .235).

Drilling further, if we limit the sample to 30 to 45 degrees to the right, plays to the first baseman (Ryan Howard), the Phillies have allowed a .333 batting average compared to the league’s .230. If we make the range 0 to 20 degrees, plays to the second baseman (Chase Utley), the Phillies have allowed a .203 batting average compared to the league’s .202. To illustrate what this looks like:

Unfortunately, Howard has been a liability defensively, but this isn’t a surprise to anyone, really. The sample is small -- there have been 33 ground balls in Howard’s sample pictured above -- so there is still plenty of time for improvement. But with so many groundballers taking the hill, the Phillies may want to consider slightly shifting their infielders further to the right so that Howard is responsible for less area on the field.

Alternatively, the Phillies can hope their starters can do what Hernandez did on Sunday -- induce as many groundballs to the left side as possible.