Jorge Alfaro the hitter is struggling while the catcher thrives for Phillies

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Phillies catcher Jorge Alfaro signals to the defense during a spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, FL on Sunday.

Jorge Alfaro has struck out in more than half of his at-bats, and it has been more than two weeks since he delivered his lone extra-base hit. But his work behind the plate grades him as one of baseball’s premier defensive catchers.

Alfaro sees himself as two different people and those two people have started the season in different directions.

“Jorge Alfaro the hitter and Jorge Alfaro the catcher,” Alfaro said. “I may not be doing well offensively, but that’s one thing. If I’m doing great defensively, that’s another thing. I’m trying to separate one from the other.”

There were concerns before the season about Alfaro’s defense. He has a great arm but he was thought to be raw with his mechanics and pitch framing. But the season’s first month provided some assurance that he can hold his own. He’s incredibly athletic and he ranks in the top half of almost every defensive metric as compiled by Baseball Prospectus. Jorge Alfaro the catcher looks fine.

Those concerns alleviated and new ones emerged. He has just eight hits in his first 47 at-bats (.170) with 24 strikeouts and only four walks. The Phillies have built their lineup to see pitches, but Alfaro (3.92 pitches per plate appearance) is just one of three hitters to see less than the league average. His contact percent (55.7 percent) is roughly 10 percent less than last season. He is swinging at more pitches outside the zone and less inside the zone. Jorge Alfaro the hitter is struggling.

“One of the things I really love about Alfie is that he sees himself as two different people,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “One is the offensive contributor and one is the defensive contributor. So one of the things he does especially effectively, he separates the two. On defense, he is really focused on how he can contribute from a game-planning perspective, from a game-calling perspective, his receiving, his calling and his throwing, which we all know is as athletic as anybody in the game. And then he can separate it and focus his at-bats. Now there is no disputing those haven’t been perfect and he’s working diligently to improve his approach at the plate and to be better for us.”

Alfaro has worked with hitting coach John Mallee about improving Jorge Alfaro the hitter. Alfaro, Kapler said, needs to adjust his approach. They want him to slow down his swing. A little less effort, the Phillies believe, will actually help. A 90 percent swing will have plenty of bat speed, where a 100 percent swing could be too tense, Kapler said.

“The moment I go to 100 percent, I squeeze the bat a little bit too tight, there’s just a little bit too much effort and I’m not as accurate, I’m not as loose and in a lot of ways, the bat speed is less,” Kapler said. “So for Alfie, less is a little bit more right now.”

Perhaps a relaxed approach could be the adjustment Alfaro needs to bring Jorge Alfaro the hitter up to the level of Jorge Alfaro the catcher.

“We will see,” Alfaro said. “I will try to get better in the cage and carry that practice into the game.”

Extra bases

Jerad Eickhoff and Mark Leiter threw bullpen sessions Wednesday afternoon. Pat Neshek will throw one on Friday. All three are expected to return in May. Eickhoff will return to the rotation when he’s healthy, general manager Matt Klentak said. … Ben Lively will face Diamondbacks righthander Matt Koch on Thursday afternoon. The telecast is available exclusively on Facebook.