Gabe Kapler stood in his office last week after another loss due to an analytically driven defensive shift and said the Phillies would remain steadfast to their beliefs as they mined the numbers to find advantages in the field.
The Phillies lost that day in New York, when Nick Williams was positioned extremely shallow and had no chance to catch a deep fly ball. They remained confident, Kapler said, that such decisions would pay off in the long term.
Friday night’s 2-1, series-opening win over the Rays offered some validation.
Odubel Herrera was positioned almost in right-center field when Adeiny Hechavarria led off the eighth inning with the game tied at 1. The sheet of paper in Herrera’s back pocket told him where to stand. He was in the perfect spot.
Each Phillies outfielder plays with instructions tucked in his back pocket, directing him where to stand for each batter. The instructions are drawn up before each game by player-information coordinator Sam Fuld and assistant pitching coach Chris Young, as they dig into analytics and spray charts to try to predict where each opponent’s batted balls will land.
Herrera didn’t need to move to catch Hechavarria’s sharp line drive, which might have been a double if Herrera was playing in straight-away center field.
“I’m really, really proud of the work that both Sam Fuld and Chris Young have done,” Kapler said. “Pregame, there’s been a lot of work put into where our guys are going to stand. And then, during the game, how close attention C.Y. is paying to where our guys are. We’re constantly communicating on the bench. Like, ‘Is that the right depth? Can he be a step in?’
“I think even (Friday) night, we looked out and said, ‘Wow, our outfielders are really deep right now in this very moment.’ And, sure enough, boom. We had a couple of perfectly positioned outfielders. Things have been going well. Sam and Chris can’t get enough credit for it. They’re both doing a great job.”
Progress for Eickhoff, Hunter
Pitchers Tommy Hunter and Jerad Eickhoff took key steps on Saturday as they worked to return from injuries they suffered in spring training.
Hunter threw 15 pitches and recorded four outs at an extended spring training game in Clearwater. He said he felt good and believes he could join the Phillies immediately, but the decision is not up to him. Kapler said Hunter will likely require one more outing before returning from his hamstring injury.
Eickhoff threw at Tropicana Field, as he returned to the mound for the first time since straining his lat muscle last month. He said he threw 15 pitches and felt “great.” He plans to throw bullpen sessions for seven to 10 days and then go to Clearwater within two weeks to throw live batting practice. He hopes to return by early May.
“But that’s me being anxious to get back,” Eickhoff said. “I know it might take a little longer. That’s where I’m at.”
Andrew Knapp was out of the lineup for the fifth-straight day, as he battles a stomach virus. He was expected to start Sunday. … The Phillies entered Saturday with the majors’ second-highest walk rate (11.6 percent), but also the third-highest strikeout rate (26.5). … Ben Lively will start Sunday’s series finale. The Rays did not have a starter named before Saturday’s game.