Sunday, February 7, 2016

The situational hitting myth

You've heard all of the explanations. You've probably invoked a few of them yourself. The injuries. The starting pitching. The situational hitting.

The situational hitting myth

The Phillies are hitting .263 as a team with runners in scoring position. (Jim Mone/AP)
The Phillies are hitting .263 as a team with runners in scoring position. (Jim Mone/AP)

You've heard all of the explanations. You've probably invoked a few of them yourself. The injuries. The starting pitching. The situational hitting. 

Actually, stop right there. Let's take a look at that situational hitting that has supposedly played a big role in the Phillies' lackluster start to the 2012 season. While there is no denying they have struggled with a runner on third base and less than two out, what if I told you that the Phillies rank in the top half of the National League in most other categories you would define as "situational?

Runners in scoring position? Their .263 batting average ranks fifth.

Man on second base with nobody out? They've advanced the runner 54 percent of the time, seventh in the NL.

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Productive outs? They've converted 31 percent of their opportunities (advancing a runner with nobody out, scoring a runner with the second out, or a successful SAC for a pitcher with one out). That ranks seventh in the NL. 

Since the Phillies are eighth in the NL at 4.30 runs per game, and they rank better than that in the aforementioned "situational hitting" categories, it is hard to say that situational hitting is the team's fatal flaw. True, they have driven in just 39 percent of their runners on third with less than two out, the worst mark in the National League. And if they instead drove those runners in at a league average rate, they would have scored 11 more runs over the course of the season.

But I'm not ready to concede that the Phillies are struggling to drive in runners from third because they are trying too hard. I'm sure that's part of it. You can't ignore the human element. Batting with a runner on third and less than two out can be like shooting a free throw in that you are expected to score. 

Still, Shaquille O'Neal wasn't a bad free throw shooter because he was trying too hard. He was a bad free throw shooter because he was a bad shooter in general. And I'd be willing to bet the bulk of any struggles the Phillies have with situational hitting arise because they aren't a good enough hitting team in general. And those flaws just happen to show up more when there is a runner on third and less than two out. 

The problem with the Phillies offense is far less complicated than "situational hitting." They don't reach base often enough, and they don't hit with enough power. 

The lineup is composed mostly of slap hitters who lack the gap-to-gap power that creates runs in bunches. They hit ground balls at the second-highest rate in the National League. They hit line drives at the third-lowest rate. Only one NL team hits more of its fly balls to the infield. Only four NL teams hit for extra bases at a lower rate. No team in the National League walks at a lower rate.

None of this should come as a surprise given the personnel the Phillies have used. They are who they are, and who they are is a middling offense that ranks in the middle of the National League. And to win with a middling offense, a team needs excellent pitching. Given the state of the bullpen and the state of Roy Halladay's body, they haven't gotten that pitching. If the Phillies had entered the season with a legitimate power/on base threat in left field, or a legitimate shut-down set-up man, they might be where they were in 2010, hovering on the good side of .500 while positioning themselves for a second-half charge. Instead, they are six games below .500, and facing the very real possibility that are too far back to make that charge. 

That's the real situation to focus on.

Staff Writer
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