Donnellon: Matt Stairs has Phillies' hitters' ears, vice versa

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Tommy Joseph is 25, with 107 major league games under his belt. This spring, he is a teacher. Not intentionally, not because he wants to be, but because his new hitting coach has pretty much forced him to be.

"He's got one of those attitudes where he always wants to learn," the Phillies' first baseman was saying of Matt Stairs. "He's trying to learn from us. He's got a sense of pride when it comes to his work, and how he handles himself around us. You can tell he cares. He wants to be here.

"When coaches show that passion, it makes you want to work for them, too."

As they prepare for another season of speculative promise, the Phillies remain an intriguing collection of incompletes and unknowns. Stop me if you've heard this before, but some of the more interesting pieces to this team are again lockered down at the minor league camp, predestined for further development regardless of how their stints with the big boys had turned out; compliant, at least for the time being, with that philosophy.

Nick Williams, J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro will have their day, but they are no longer on Stairs' watch. His day is spent fixing, or attempting to fix, a group of players whose own promise has been sabotaged, at least at times, by an assortment of sins. For Aaron Altherr a technical adjustment to his swing. For Freddy Galvis, a mental one. For Maikel Franco, plate impatience and/or pitch recognition.

Flaws so easily identified. And so, so difficult to fix.

"He hasn't lost his helmet on a swing in BP or in a game yet this spring," Stairs said of Franco, sounding as proud and hopeful as, well, a father would be.

For anyone who tuned into even a dozen games last season, no explanation is needed. For Stairs, who tuned into more than 10 times that many as a Phillies broadcaster over the last two seasons, the image of a flailing Franco retrieving his helmet serves as one symbol to his challenge.

That challenge starts and ends with trust. Which is why he has spent as much of this spring asking questions as he has answering them.

"Being a hitting coach, you hear a different theory every day," he said. "And you build off them. You're not trying to change everyone. You're not trying to change anyone . . . "

"You're building trust. You're building something so that, when you make a little suggestion . . . "

Take Altherr, whose two-month stint late in 2015 created some rare buzz for the Phillies that season. From his point of recall in early August that season, Altherr led the Phillies in runs, triples and doubles, and had a memorable inside-the-park grand slam. He was a line-drive machine. But an injury to his left hand early last spring killed that buzz, especially when Altherr returned in late July with little of that electricity to his game. He finished 2016 with a .197 average and 10 extra-base hits in 198 at-bats.

He is batting .300 with a .941 OPS this spring.

"We took his hands from the top of his head to his shoulder," Stairs said. "We worked a whole lot on calming his body down and calming his hands down and getting from Point A to Point C as quick as possible. You're probably wondering where B is. B is bad. We don't want B. B's a cast, B's a drop of the hands cast, makes you swing long. Not just with him. With everybody.

"And he trusted us. And now he's had such good success. He's driving the ball. He's not hitting ground balls. He's driving the ball all over the ballpark, driving the ball to rightfield. That's a trust thing. And if it doesn't work, you go back to your old way and we go from there and we start all over again."

Stairs played in 13 cities over 19 big-league seasons. A slugging specialist at the end of his career, he hit for average as well as power at the height of it, finished with more than 100 strikeouts just twice, and walked a ton. He played just about every role, batted just about everywhere in the lineup.

A hitting coach in Montreal, Jay Ward, helped him with his balance and power. Mickey Brantley, the hitting coach in Toronto, helped him adjust and survive when his role changed and at-bats became less frequent.

Suffice to say, he believes hitting coaches can make a difference.

And question by question, he's trying to prove it this spring.

"He wants us to feel comfortable," Joseph said. "He's trying to make sure that every day, whether there's something he can say or something he can do, to make sure that we feel our best. He understands. He was a player. And he was a player in many roles. And he was a good player in those roles.

"He's got a good understanding of this job."

donnels@phillynews.com

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