Phillies, Mackanin must solve the puzzle that is Maikel Franco | Matt Gelb

Phillies' third baseman Maikel Franco throws to first base against the Washington Nationals on May 5. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer.

W hen, for the second straight season, the Phillies shredded Pete Mackanin's contract so they could extend his tenure as manager, his bosses praised his patience. That is the trait those in the front office have sought to generate from upstairs at Citizens Bank Park down two levels to the clubhouse and coaches' room. They have asked Mackanin to manage a flawed roster, one in transition, and to maximize whatever he can from it.

"That all boils down to leadership - whether it's a young player Pete is trying to help through the early paces, or having a tough conversation with a veteran player about playing time," Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said. "Whatever the case may be. All of that boils down to leadership and communication. Those are things over the last year and a half that, yeah, we've evaluated."

Klentak listed the examples of Mackanin's guidance: Cesar Hernandez, Aaron Altherr, and Tommy Joseph. Mackanin and his staff found ways, Klentak said, to push those players in both good and bad times. The GM spoke, with Mackanin at his side during a news conference, for more than a minute about the highlights created by Mackanin's patience.

Then, Klentak arrived at Maikel Franco, the great conundrum that awaits Mackanin and his newfound job security.

"The same thing is going to happen with Franco," Klentak said. "He's continuing to motivate him through a tough stretch early and we know we're going to see better times ahead for Maikel."

That is less certain than it was six weeks ago. Franco, by Baseball-Reference's wins above replacement measurement, was the Phillies' least valuable player in the season's first 32 games. He hit into some bad luck at the start of the season. The results arrived for about two weeks. Then, he descended into his current slide.

Mackanin has his contract. Now, his most pressing task is to find the best possible place for Franco to succeed.

So it was interesting to see how Mackanin pivoted from his previous plan, after Franco looked lost in an 0-for-5, three-strikeout and error-prone game last Tuesday. The manager decided Franco needed a mental break. He convened a meeting Wednesday morning in his office with Franco and hitting coach Matt Stairs.

"I wanted him to talk to me and let me know how he felt," Mackanin said. "He's fine. He's down a little bit. We tried to pick him up a little bit. We told him how good he was and it's early in the season."

Listen to Franco talk hitting, and it is clear he has a good idea at the plate. He is blessed with exceptional skill. But he is excitable, especially with men on base, and often tries to do too much with a wild swing.

The scouting report is quite obvious. Franco has seen just 39.4 percent of pitches in the strike zone, according to Baseball Info Solutions data. That is the lowest percentage of any Phillies hitter this season. Pitchers have thrown him fastballs 45.3 percent of the time. That, too, is the lowest figure for a Phillies hitter.

Mackanin and Stairs know this. So does Franco. But instruction can only do so much; Franco must implement the adjustment and mind-set. He might benefit from moving down in the lineup, maybe to fifth or sixth, where the pressure is diminished. That is something the manager can control.

"All I can say is we try every day to make the players better," Mackanin said. "I try to put them in positions where they're going to succeed."

Cautious with counts

No number better illustrates the current game than this: The Phillies had just six starters throw 100 pitches or more in their first 32 games. Zach Eflin, who underwent two knee surgeries last fall and started the season in the minors, has accumulated the two highest totals: 106 and 103 pitches. Vince Velasquez hit exactly 100 in two starts. Jerad Eickhoff and Nick Pivetta each threw 101 in a start.

Teams are generally more cautious with their starters in April. The Phillies have a younger rotation than in years past. They'd rather have a pitcher make 30 starts than throw high-stress pitches in an early-season game.

And that's not just a Phillies' strategy. The major-league average for pitches per start, entering Friday's action, was 92. The Phillies had averaged 91. There were seven teams with fewer 100-plus pitch starts than the Phillies.

The caution extends to the minors, where a starter has thrown 100 or more pitches seven times this season. The pitchers who did it: Ben Lively (101), Ricardo Pinto (100), Drew Anderson (103), Jose Taveras (103), Seranthony Dominguez (100, 100), and Nick Fanti (113).

Updates on three

1. Jerad Eickhoff: No one inside Citizens Bank Park wants to see one of their more reliable players endure a rough patch, but this is a great test for Eickhoff, who has avoided major adversity in his brief big-league career. He has the aptitude to make necessary adjustments.

2. Jesen Therrien: The Phillies could contemplate some roster changes as June 1 approaches, and the 24-year-old reliever at double-A Reading is someone to watch. The former 17th-round pick is throwing the ball better than he ever has.

3. Andrew Knapp: For someone who has never played in a reserve role, the rookie catcher has adapted well. He walked as many times (seven) as both Michael Saunders and Freddy Galvis in the team's first 32 games, with significantly fewer plate appearances.