This week, the Phillies added a couple of farmhands to their 40-man roster, beginning their journeys toward major league playing time. They by no means have a guaranteed future, but the move can be one of the early indicators that a player’s shot is about to arrive.
Nick Williams was once an ambiguous name with an uncertain future, as well. Added to the Phillies’ meandering rebuild at the 2015 trade deadline, he had a reputation for lightning bat speed that gave him the edge over his fellow prospects. With several, or perhaps all, of their outfield spots opening up, Williams was an exciting addition to the fray of talent now in a frenzy just below the Phillies’ big club. By the end of 2016, he was added to the 40-man.
It was the close of June when Williams saw big league daylight this season (Howie Kendrick’s wonky hamstring had sent him to the DL again), at which point the Phillies had already lost all but six of their games in May and dropped 13 of 14 during a repeatedly putrid stretch earlier in the month. By then, the clamor for Williams, other prospects we’d heard about, a dog wearing a ball cap; anybody who could offer respite (or just a different brand of failure) from the bleary malaise of last-place, mid-season doldrums, was hailed as a saint. With 15 home runs for Lehigh Valley, the city was eager for some power, runs, or, again, that dog sounded pretty cool. People in the stands for Williams’ debut against the Mets settled for a non-RBI single off Jacob deGrom.
Williams played left field all night on June 30, logging the aforementioned single, and continued to get regular exposure for the rest of the season, thanks in part to Matt Klentak trading a lot of the Phillies more veteran inning-eaters at his position. By the time Jeremy Hellickson had been traded in a deal to the Orioles that brought outfielder Hyun Soo Kim to Philadelphia, the Phillies were straight-up saying that Kim’s presence on the bench wouldn’t impinge on Williams—or any other young outfielder’s—playing time.
Which was for the best, given that at the time, Williams’ was inserting himself onto lists of fairly prominent names—Greg Luzinski, Chuck Klein, Lefty O’Doul—as only the fourth Phillies player to log four straight multi-hit and multi-RBI games in a row in over a century. Not Phillies rookies. Phillies.
In his first month as a big leaguer, he was slashing .277/.320/.511 with four home runs (including a grand slam) in 94 AB. He let it ride through August and then lit up September with a season high in monthly hits (35), RBI (25) and BA (.310), all stats I know mean very much to you. But it did all culminate on the last day of the season with this:
Williams raced home to put the icing on the cake of an 11-0 smashing of the Mets in game 162 and had to come out for a curtain call to his adoring fans. By the end of the year, we’re all stretching for narratives, and it was all too easy to look up and see a future star soaking in the adoration; perhaps a glimpse of final regular season games in the near future, when there will still be more baseball to play.
Williams was not immune to the same discipline issues infecting even the best young hitters in this lineup, and a decent chunk of his ABs ended in strikeouts (94 on the season, 37 in July). He started in left field, then bounced over to right, got dropped into center while Odubel Herrera and Aaron Altherr worked out some injuries, and then shifted back over to right, so consistency and correct route-taking weren’t there yet. This was evident in certain moments, such as August 24 against the Marlins, when Williams (in center) missed a pair of catchable balls due to a misplay and the sun.
With a new hitting instructor in the fold in the form of John Mallee, Williams and his contingent of under-25-year-olds (Rhys Hoskins, Maikel Franco, J.P. Crawford, Jorge Alfaro) in 2018 should hopefully benefit from the guru’s storied tutelage, and with more time comes greater experience to shake off some of those greener quirks. Earlier in the season, back when Williams’ reputation still included a lack of hustle despite a few benchings in Reading, then-IronPigs coach and current Phillies bench coach Dusty Wathan brought Williams into the video room after he had jogged to first base on a play. Jim Salisbury described the moment of Williams’ hustling epiphany in a look back at his first 300 ABs in the majors:
The next day, Wathan brought Williams into the video room and cued up several shots from above home plate that showed Williams running from home to first. Williams busted it on some of them. He coasted on others.
Any reporter who has ever done a background story on Williams knows he has two younger brothers, Seth, 13, and Jonah, 11, back home in Texas. Williams' love for them is clear. He mentions them all the time — with a big smile crossing his face. Seth and Jonah are both ballplayers and their big brother is their hero.
In the video room at Lehigh Valley earlier this season, Wathan looked at Williams.
"What if your brothers or a kid who had just gotten your Bobblehead see that?" Wathan asked Williams. "What do you tell them?"
The visual resonated with Williams. So did the manager's words.
But, the Phillies’ future, as easy as it is to imagine, isn’t the most clear: Their plans for the outfield don’t seem to necessarily be as straight forward as Williams-Herrera-Altherr, so Williams’ future could, depending on the rumors of the day, be murky. However, the promise he showed, the electricity he emitted, the defense in the corners he put on display, and the XBHs he logged with those long arms are all reasons to conclude that this exciting young hitter has a real chance to some day be an older, more experienced exciting hitter, no matter what the Phillies decide to do.
Williams, meanwhile, has already solidified a crucial part of his Phillies legacy.
That inside-the-park HR by Nick Williams just clinched the worst staff ERA in Mets history.— Vince Ruggiero (@VINCE_RUGGIERO) October 1, 2017