All along, at least since the beginning of spring training, Gabe Kapler has taken an uncomplicated approach to the allocation of at-bats for the Phillies’ two right fielders. Hit, the manager has said, and you shall play.
But what if Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams are both hitting?
Williams, making his fourth start in six games Monday night, singled in the second inning and belted a solo home run in the fourth against Atlanta Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz. Not to be outdone, Altherr delivered an equally massive blow with a pinch-hit homer in the seventh inning of a 3-0 Phillies victory in the opener of a three-game showdown for first place in the National League East.
So, who will be in right field for the Phillies tonight?
Maybe Kapler will flip a coin.
“I don’t think it’s a problem,” Williams said. “As long as we’re doing our part and producing for the team, then everyone’s going to be smiling and happy.”
But Williams wasn’t thrilled with his playing time early in the season. When Altherr started four of the first six games, including against some tough righthanded pitchers, lefty-hitting Williams blamed his inaction on the “computers” that make up the Phillies lineup, a derisive reference to Kapler’s fondness for analytics. Williams later apologized for his comment.
Instead of whining, Williams made himself relevant. Despite starting only 15 of the first 39 games, the 24-year-old former top prospect was productive off the bench. He tied the game with a single May 6 in Washington and swatted a three-run homer May 13 against the New York Mets. Williams is 7 for 17 (.412) as a pinch-hitter with a 1.209 OPS that ranks third among all players with at least 10 plate appearances off the bench.
And during the past week, Williams has elbowed his way into the lineup more often at the expense of Altherr, who has two homers but only five hits in his last 29 at-bats and is batting .202 with a .709 OPS in 114 at-bats overall. The pendulum of playing time appears to be swinging ever so slightly in favor of Williams, a .233 hitter with a .685 OPS in 86 at-bats.
Kapler has made a point of praising Williams’ “maturity” and using him as an example of a player who remains ready to produce despite irregular playing time. And Kapler has assured both Williams and Altherr that their value to the Phillies goes beyond the frequency with which they see their name on the lineup card when they arrive at the ballpark.
“Every night it seems like I’m having a conversation with Aaron or Nick. It’s like, either you’re playing or you’re not [the next day]. I’m giving them the heads-up,” Kapler said. “The guy who’s not playing, I’m generally saying to them, ‘Hey, stay ready. There’s going to be a big moment for you in this game.’ And that’s happened. It’s happened with Nick on several occasions. It happened [Monday night] with Aaron. Those guys have gotten some huge hits for us.”
If that keeps up, Kapler could default to a strict platoon that would involve starting Williams against righthanded pitchers and Altherr against lefties. More likely, though, Kapler will continue to divide their at-bats based on their production.
Williams insists that’s fine by him. He even claims to have had a sixth sense that Altherr would go deep Monday night after Scott Kingery reached base on a bunt single.
“I saw it in my head before it happened,” Williams said. “I told [pitcher Zach] Eflin that a homer would be great right now, but Kingery is on first and he can run so a double would be nice, too. But then I was like, ‘Nah, nah, scratch that. It’s a triple or a home run.’ ”
And when it actually happened?
“The pitch was thrown and I saw [Altherr’s] face and I said, ‘Pow. Homer,’ ” Williams said. “I went crazy. I didn’t even see where it landed because I went crazy.”
Almost as crazy as a manager trying to figure out which right fielder to put in the lineup.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Williams said. “Everyone is contributing in some way. I think, as of right now, it’s a good problem if he’s hitting and I’m hitting.”