CLEARWATER, Fla.--In reporting a story for tomorrow's paper about what the Phils infield is working on this spring, I naturally had a long conversation with infield coach Sam Perlozzo. Perlozzo is always good for shop talk, and generous in sharing specific insights about his players.
I did not know that he was good with nicknames and slogans. Impressed by the boldness and skill of his infielders, Perlozzo is experimenting with a nickname for the group.
"I have a whole thing where I call them the Phearless Phour, with a "'ph'," said Perlozzo, the third base coach who also oversees infield defense. "They don't back down off of any play, so I call them the Phearless Phour."
The designation was news to Jimmy Rollins, who chuckled when informed of it yesterday.
"Phearless Phour?" Rollins said. "Oh no. That's good. I hadn't heard that."
Perlozzo has been impressed by the defensive aggressiveness--consistent with the general on-field swagger that characterizes the team--thet he sees from Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Hence the nickname.
"If there's a play they have a chance to make, they go for it," Perlozzo said. "They don't back down or take the easy way out."
But even with a talented and confident infield, the coach has been busy since January. Perlozzo's primary job has been to aid Placido Polanco in returning to third base after playing second for four seasons in Detroit. He is also helping his returning infielders--already widely viewed by scouts and statisticians as top defensive players--identify areas of in need of improvement.
Here is a sample what we learned about Howard and Rollins. Much more on them, Utley, and Polanco's transition to third in your Sunday Inquirer.
Perlozzo's work with Howard led to improvements last season in the first baseman's primary weakness, throwing to second base. As the coach explained it last week, Howard is too tall to make the throw consistently without sending it into the outfield. Last year, Howard began to drop down before making the throw, which led to greater accuracy.
"He's a real big guy, and he knows that he can't stay straight up and throw overhand," Perlozzo said. "We established that last year, so now he gets down into a three-quarter slot and the ball comes out pretty good for him. He likes it; he feels good about himself when he makes good throws. He's way ahead of where he was when he started last year."
For the second consecutive year, Howard contacted Perlozzo in January, and the two worked at Bright House Field five times before spring training.
"It's something we made strides on last year, and now we want to take it to another level," Perlozzo said. "You're always looking for more consistency. When we started with him, it was like he hadn't forgotten anything, so he's in a good place to build on that."
Howard is also looking to improve his range.
"We've got a little footwork thing, hitting the ground on time," Perlozzo said. "That's what gives him the range. When you get lazy and flat-footed, that's when you don't get a good start."
Essentially, Howard is aiming to lift the back of his feet by the time the pitch crosses home plate, rather than have them planted on the ground. That will allow him to react to ground balls more quickly, and give him a better chance to field them.
The Phillies shortstop asks that his coaches not only tell him what to do, but explain why he should do it. So his sessions with Perlozzo are often discussions of infield theory, and his spring training work is as much intellectual as it is physical. Confident in his speed and range, Rollins' goal is to enhance what he calls "baseball intelligence."
"When I talk to Sammy, it's more about philosophy," Rollins said. "Catching the ball and throwing the ball, either you can do it or you can't. So we talk about positioning, when to play a guy this way or that way. That philosophy stuff is all I care about. Year after year, you still have to ask yourself those questions: Why am I going to do this as opposed to that? That allows me to understand the underlying reasons behind a play."
Rollins and Perlozzo often discuss positioning against individual hitters, studying spray charts and debating different approaches.
"Let's say there's a lefthanded guy up, a slap hitter who likes to shoot the ball between me and the third baseman," Rollins said. "Early in the game I might take that away from him by playing toward third."
But if there were a runner on first later in the game, Rollins continued, he would probably move closer to second base. That positioning would concede the single to left, but prevent a hit up the middle that could advance the runner to all the way to third.
"You give something up--the single--to prevent the chance of something worse from happening--the runner going from first to third," Rollins said. "Those are the kinds of philosophical things I want to talk about."
Rollins also uses Perlozzo as a deciding vote when he is unsure whether to pay attention to the scouting report or a different impulse.
"Sometimes you have to go against the hitting chart," he said. "You have to see what the pitcher is doing, or what the hitter looks like between pitches. If I don't know what I want to do, I'll look in at Sam, like 'what do you think?'"