Thursday, April 17, 2014
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A new approach: How the existing Phillies can improve

Last week, we started our ongoing quest to debrief 2011 and look ahead to 2012 by raising the key question the Phillies will need to answer as they formulate their offseason strategy. How much do they need to improve their offensive personnel, and how much can their existing personnel improve by altering their approach at the plate?

A new approach: How the existing Phillies can improve

It is difficult to pinpoint the technical details of Charlie Manuel´s work with the Phillies´ hitters. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff Photographer)
It is difficult to pinpoint the technical details of Charlie Manuel's work with the Phillies' hitters. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff Photographer)

Last week, we started our ongoing quest to debrief 2011 and look ahead to 2012 by raising the key question the Phillies will need to answer as they formulate their offseason strategy. How much do they need to improve their offensive personnel, and how much can their existing personnel improve by altering their approach at the plate?

The key points from that post, which you can read in its entirety here, are as follows:

  • The Phillies are clearly showing the signs of their age.
  • No NL team with as many players aged 32+ has ever finished in the top half of the league in runs scored.
  • Although Charlie Manuel's teams have always had a grip-it-and-rip-it reputation, they finished in the top four in their league in pitches-per-plate-appearance in each of his first five full seasons as manager. Over the last four seasons, the Phillies have finished seventh, fourth, sixth and eighth in pitches per plate appearance.
  • Manuel had three different players log at least 200 plate appearances and post an on base percentage under .296. In his first six seasons in Philly, he had zero.
  • Four of the Phillies' regulars finished at or better than their career marks in batting average and on base percentage

Pretty much, everything is Ruben Amaro Jr.'s fault. Grab the torches and pitchforks and meet on Pattison Ave. at 10 p.m!

Whoa - relax. That was sarcasm. In reality, nobody is to blame. Frankly, we should not even evaluate the situation using the word "blame." The Phillies won a team-record 102 victories. They lost to a hot team that is now in the World Series. Aces No. 2 and 4 allowed five runs each in their NLDS starts. More than anything, the Phillies' season serves as a reminder of the unpredictability of baseball's practice of following a 162-game regular season with a Best of Five playoff.

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The simple point is that if the Phillies are going to get appreciably better, it is going to have to come on offense. And as much as we would like to blame the manager and hitting coach for the offense's postseason failures, the approach at the plate probably wasn't the only biggest problem.

But unless the Phillies are able to make a fortunate signing like the Cardinals did with Lance Berkman, there is a good chance the bulk of their improvement is going to have to come from within. Which means they are going to have to change their approach.

Which begs the questions. . .

What, exactly, is approach? And how can the Phillies change theirs?

1) Manuel's approach

When the Phillies hired Manuel in the fall of 2004, he told reporters his approach was simple: relax, and make solid contact as consistently as possible. It is an approach that worked extremely well coming off the Larry Bowa era. Many people in the organization felt like Bowa's intense attitude and fiery rehetoric sometimes had a negative affect on the club's hitters, prompting them to be too uptight and afraid of failure. Manuel's easy-going demeanor had the opposite affect. When you get a good ball to hit, hit it hard, and don't worry about it when you fail to do so.

At the same time, it is difficult to pinpoint the technical details of Manuel's work with the team's hitters. Mostly because Manuel does not want to appear like he is micro-managing his hitting coach. Numerous times over the last four years I have heard him defer to Milt Thompson or Greg Gross when somebody asks him a technical hitting question. In a nutshell, though, Manuel seems to believe that the role of a manager or hitting coach is to let a player do what he does best, and attempt to fix things when they get out of whack. Manuel views Ted Williams as the authority on hitting, and Williams used to say that 50 percent of hitting is above the shoulders. He also said that an instructor can improve a hitter.

"More mistakes are made hitting than in any part of the game," he once told Sport Magazine.

Williams' philosophy jibes with what Amaro is challenging Manuel to do. Because the Phillies are slower and less powerful than they were when Manuel first took control of the team, they need to become smarter hitters.

At the same time, a manager can talk until he is blue in the face and still not get his hitters to change. Manuel has said this on a number of occasions. Once the pitcher releases the ball, the hitter is the only person who can identify the pitch, the only person who can decide whether to swing or take, the only person who can decide what type of swing to unleash, and the only person who can control what part of the bat meets the ball.

So what, exactly, can Manuel and Gross control?

2) Know thyself

Manuel has said these two words on countless occasions during the time I have covered him. Know thyself. Know your strengths. Know your weaknesses. Know what you are capable of. Know what you are not equipped to do. It sounds easy, but getting players to understand themselves is probably the hardest part of a manager's job.

Let's look at Manuel's objectives, player by player:

Jimmy Rollins -You can break Rollins career into two distinct sections: pre-MVP and post-MVP. His anomalous 2007 campaign is the only time he did not hear the usual criticisms of his approach. The first: he needs to walk more. The second: he hits too many fly balls.

Before 2007, Rollins walked in 7.3 percent of his plate appearances and averaged 0.72 groundballs-per-flyballs, both of which are slightly below league average (and well below the normal production of most leadoff men). Over the last four seasons, he has improved his walk rate to 8.4 percent, but his groundball rate remains at 0.73.

If Rollins returns, Manuel's challenge will be to get him to play in a manner that nobody has been able to get him to play in his first 11 seasons in the majors. More on this later.

Chase Utley -Utley could end up being the biggest referendum on Manuel's success in changing the approach of his hitters, because Utley is probably best equipped to change his style. He has a good feel for the strike zone and a good ability to recognize pitches, and nobody spends more pre-game study time than he does.

Utley also might be the player who most needs to re-invent himself. In his first eight seasons in the majors, Utley was a hitter whose strength was driving the ball to right field. Of his 167 home runs, 97 went to right field. Only six went to left. From 2003-09, half of his 404 extra base hits went to right field, while 45 went to left. Of 935 balls he hit to right, 10 percent went for home runs and 22 percent went for extra bases. Those rate stats remained the same in 2010. In 2011, however, his power to right field dipped. Of the 120 balls he pulled, only two went for home runs. Only 11 percent of his balls to right resulted in extra base hits.

That is concerning because Utley's power up the middle had already dropped. In Utley's first seven seasons in the majors, 12 percent of the balls he hit in the middle of the field went for extra bases. Of his 370 hits in the middle, 37 percent went for extra bases.

Over the last three seasons, those numbers dropped to seven percent and 29 percent. That would not be as problematic if the drop in power was accompanied by a rise in singles. But Utley's batting average up the middle fell from .333 in his first seven seasons to .260 in his last three.

We'll get into the details in a subsequent blog post, but for now, Utley's situation can be summed up thusly: He is still hitting the ball to right field with the same frequency as he did in his prime, but he is hitting it with far less power and is reaching base far less often.

Which indicates that he needs to change the way he hits the ball. In fact, the criticisms that Rollins has always faced could now be leveled at Utley. In his nine seasons in the majors, he has averaged a well-below-average 0.60 groundballs-per-flyball. But those flyballs are not traveling as far. His first seven seasons, 10.5 percent of his fly balls went for home runs. His last two seasons, that rate has dropped to 7.1 percent. Which would seem to indicate that he needs to put more of an emphasis on getting on base than hitting for power, which would mean he needs to hit fewer fly balls and draw more walks (his 8.6 percent walk rate was right at the league average and below his career rate of 9.7 percent).

Shane Victorino -Like Rollins, Victorino's approach is different from the one you see out of most speedy-but-undersized top-of-the-order hitters. Like Utley, he represents one of the Phillies' best hopes for change. But unlike Rollins or Utley, his power numbers have not dropped. In fact, they have risen. Which makes him perhaps the most complicated case that Manuel and Gross will have to tackle.

What, exactly, is Victorino supposed to be? Which way do you push him? Is he better off as a true leadoff type who reaches primarily via walks, groundballs and line drives? Or is he a hitter who can replace some of the power the Phillies have lost?

Over the last three seasons, Victorino's groundball rate has dropped from .84 to .80 to .75. His line drive rate has dropped from 20 percent to 19 percent to 16 percent. But his power has increased. In 2009, 4.1 percent of his flyball went for home runs, followed by 7.7 percent in 2010 and 7.9 percent in 2011. His ABs-per-HR has dropped from 62.0 in 2009 to 32.6 to 30.5. In 2011, he set career highs in walk rate (9.4 percent) and percentage of hits for extra bases (10.2 percent).

The reason why Victorino presents such a challenge is that he might be the hitter who least needs to change his approach. He does not need to re-invent himself. He was one of the Phillies' best two-strike hitters this season. From the left side of the plate, he still has good success pulling the ball. As we saw for the better part of the regular season, Victorino is just a little polish away from becoming a bona fide star. Maybe he will never take that final step. But the Phillies certainly do not want to risk messing with his head and taking him out of his comfort zone. Because unlike some of the other players on the team, Victorino's comfort zone is still working.

Carlos Ruiz - This is the guy who probably needs the least amount of work. Aside from 2008, Ruiz has done exactly what he is supposed to do in his first five-plus seasons in the majors. His on base percentage over the last two seasons was .400 and .371. He does not strike out. He does not get home-run-happy. He works the center of the field. If anything, Ruiz has made an argument for moving up in the batting order, where his walk rate will do more damage if he has somebody other than the pitcher hitting behind him.

Placido Polanco -Amaro said in his end-of-year press conference that Polanco is the kind of hitter the Phillies are looking for. The question is whether he is still Polanco. It's the sad irony of the Phillies' rise and subsequent plateau. From 2007 to 2009 he hit .310 with a .356 on base percentage for the Tigers. He did not strike out. He hit the ball to all fields, and he hit them on the ground and on a line. What would have happened had the Phillies had Polanco at third base during those three seasons? What if they made their big pitching acquisitions a couple years earlier, dealing for C.C. Sabathia in 2007 or 2008 and Roy Halladay in 2009? What if the Phillies had Sabathia, Hamels and Polanco in 2008 and then added Halladay in 2009?

Dynasties are like relationships - it all comes down to the right person at the right time. The Phillies of the early-Manuel era had a powerful offense but lacked pitching and a contact hitter like Polanco. By the time they added the pitching, their offense was declining. And by the time they added Polanco, the veteran third baseman was 34 years old. If Polanco can put together a whole season of the .300 batting average and .350 on base percentage he has posted when healthy, then he is the perfect fit for this new-look offense. But after two straight seasons of lingering injuries that left him as a shell of himself in the postseason, it is fair to wonder whether 2012 will be any different. As Amaro said, there is nothing wrong with Polanco's approach. It's his aging body that is the concern. And no managing or coaching can control that.

Ryan Howard -A couple years ago, Manuel labelled him the Big Piece. The designation remains accurate. Except then, he was the biggest piece of the lineup. Now, he is the biggest piece of the puzzle. Like Rollins' MVP year, we must forget about Howard's first two-and-a-half seasons in the majors. For the sake of this evaluation, we will also forget about his Achilles injury and assume that he is back in the lineup for the final four months of the season. Although Howard's power production has dropped significantly over the last two seasons, his strength is still his top tool. Besides, remaking him into a Joey Votto or Albert Pujols is probably a pipe dream, particularly since he will be spending the bulk of his time rehabbing his injury this offseason. The fact is, Howard hits the ball when he sees it well. He doesn't hit the ball when he doesn't see it well. His at-bat against Kyle Lohse in Game 1 was everything you want out of a $25 million player. He stayed alive by fouling off change-ups until he got himself a meatball over the heart of the plate. In the last three games of that series, you saw the other side of Howard: swinging at inside breaking balls well off the plate, failing to much of a charge into the pitches he did make contact with .

Since 2008, Howard's walk rate, strikeout rate, groundball rate and line drive rate have all remained relatively constant. In 2011, he hit a home run on 15.3 percent of his flyballs, the fifth-best rate in the National League. Maybe the Phillies can make him into a better two-strike hitter. Maybe they can get him to use more of the field, convincing him to settle for a single to left-center instead of waiting for a pitch he can drive to right-center.

But a manager can't teach a hitter to recognize pitch type and pitch location. If he could, all of us would be good hitters.

3) In Conclusion

All of the aforementioned objectives are contingent on a player's abilities and his willingness to adapt them to a manager's philosophy. We'll delve into further detail on each one over the course of this week. First, on Tuesday afternoon, we'll complete our look at Manuel's side of the bargain by examining the one thing he has complete control over: his line-up. We'll look at how a new Chase Utley might fit into the leadoff hole, and how Carlos Ruiz might belong at No. 6. Right now, though, it's well past time for the wrap-it-up box.

 


 

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David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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