Marcus Hayes of the Daily News offered the following observations on the Phillies’ fielding woes in a piece this morning (skip these if you have already read them elsewhere and see my take below):
The Phillies held pregame fielding practice yesterday for the first time since spring training, and for the first time during the season since Charlie Manuel was named manager.
What took them so long?
The Phillies' fielding fiasco featured in the first two games of a crucial series with the Mets, completed yesterday, served to display the gross miscalculation made by Manuel and general manager Pat Gillick.
Before the season began, to the questioned hearing of listeners, both opined that their infield might be the best in the National League East.
Maybe what they meant was that they had the best infielder - shortstop Jimmy Rollins - but, really, could a pair of baseball lifers with 92 years in pro ball between them so poorly evaluate this quartet? Were they serious?
Third baseman David Bell, who has a penchant for making the fearless, spectacular play, nonetheless is on his way to a third straight season with more than 20 errors. He leads the team, and all NL third basemen, with 11 errors. At 33, he probably is what he is.
Chase Utley, like Bell, is fearless and sacrificing. Sadly, he is an errant thrower, and he has trouble turning doubleplays. Period. This might never change.
What could change is the play of first baseman Ryan Howard, whose nine errors lead all first basemen. Without generous scoring in road ballparks by scorers seemingly bent on padding the homeboys' hit totals, Howard easily could have 15 errors. And that is ridiculous.
Of the trio he is clearly the most gifted fielder. He possesses soft hands, feet unfairly quick for a 6-4, 252-pound man, and athletic ability reminiscent of Andres "Big Cat" Galarraga .
However, Howard can be about as attentive as a sick cat and, at times, less fundamentally sound.
"It looks like he's always on the move when he throws the ball. He doesn't have good balance," said Manuel, who gushes that his first impression of Howard 4 years ago was that the kid was going to be a great fielder.
He still could be... if he works at it. Made to do it the right way. Every day. Not just once every 2 ½ months.
Reading some of the other blogs and readers’ responses to Hayes’ piece, I am frankly amused how many people are flabbergasted to read that major league team’s no longer take infield practice. It’s all about offense these days, sports fans, and your average major league player is not going to work up a sweat taking extra ground balls. Heck, after Spring Training, none of them practice bunting either not to mention hitting behind the runner. Small ball is out and with it all the necessary skills required to play the game that way. (A side note: Jose Reyes dragged a perfect bunt to open the game the other night and three pitches later the Mets had essentially won. Can you imagine anyone on the Phillies even thinking of such an approach let alone executing it?)
It should also be noted there are some exceptions to this general rule. During an interview broadcast the other night on Comcast Sportsnet, David Wright spoke of taking lots of extra fielding practice trying to improve that part of his game, seen previously by some as his only “weakness”. Tell Pat Burrell how weak Wright is with the glove.
No one has gotten on Ryan Howard’s case more than I, but I remain convinced his fielding lapses are errors of concentration. Nothing in his play last season suggested he would be so unreliable this year. Nothing in the abilities he has flashed at times suggests he cannot correct the problems going forward. But he has to work on them and he has to do it more than once during the season. Take him out there with a few other guys and hit ground balls at him. How hard is that? As for setting up on relays, how are guys going to learn what to do if they practice those skills in March and never again during the season?
As I wrote only yesterday, David Bell has always made the tough plays; his trouble is with balls hit at him. Hayes says what you have seen is what you are going to get with a guy who is 33 years old. I prefer my mother’s take: “as people get older they get more so”.
Chase Utley has improved on the pivot but will never be particularly graceful on that play. Still, he has shown far more improvement in that area than Hayes intimates. Where he has shown even more remarkable strides is in getting to balls. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he goes all out on every ball hit within his zip code. That sort of hustle makes up for a lot of deficiencies. As for his throwing, it hasn’t been all that bad until the last week or so, especially on relays. Look back over the course of this season and you will see a number of great plays by Utley. He is much more than a decent second baseman in this, the end of his first full year as a regular.
Jimmy is a damn good shortstop. Period. His only real flaw appears to be when taking throws at second on steals. He rarely seems positioned correctly, something the Phillies’ TV analysts point out at least once a telecast. It could be the throws (Fasano is utterly incapable of putting the ball on the money) or it could be the way J-Roll is most comfortable.