For the past three seasons, Matt Stairs has been sharing his hitting philosophy and offensive ideologies from behind a microphone. That hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing, and many Phillies fans would agree that they’ve learned at least a thing or two from listening to The Man Who Never Has to Buy a Beer in Philadelphia Ever Again.
It wasn’t exactly an out-of-left field decision that the Phillies made when they named Stairs as the team’s hitting coach for the 2017 season, seeing that he had been itching to get back into the game in some way since the day he left it. Broadcasting seemed to be serving him just fine, but there’s that special sort of feeling that emerges when you put a uniform on that apparently folks who have never played in the Majors just can’t quite grasp. Fair enough.
So here we are, just a little over a week into what will be a marathon Spring Training in Clearwater, thanks in part to the World Baseball Classic and a longer slate of games than normal. It also means a little bit more time to explore and talk about the positives and negatives of years past when it comes to Phillies baseball.
To say the least, the Phillies haven’t had a great approach at the plate over the past few seasons. Steve Henderson was at the helm from 2012-2016 as Phillies hitting coach, with some assistance from Wally Joyner sprinkled in there throughout the 2013 season. With Stairs, the Phillies appear to be charting a different course.
If what he has said this spring is any indication, it’s going to mark a shift in offensive philosophy, and maybe even cause what would hopefully be only a friendly rift in the dugout with a certain fiery bench coach.
In a wide-ranging interview with MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki last week, Stairs discussed what he wants to see out of Phillies hitters in 2017. And from these words, we can glean that Stairs has a widely different philosophy than even someone he shares a dugout with.
"The approach we have this spring is the first two rounds [of batting practice], I want you killing the second baseman and shortstop, up the middle and hard. Don't think about hitting the ball on the ground. Think about having that good top hand, driving the ball through the infielders on a good line drive. And if you clip it a little bit, now you have gap power."
Hm. Well, that’s a little bit of a different way of looking at things than what the Phillies, and in particular, Larry Bowa, had told Cesar Hernandez late last season.
Bowa told Hernandez he needed to hit the ball on the ground.
“You think you’re not playing because you’re getting a rest,” Bowa told Hernandez. “You’ll be on the bench with me if you don’t start doing it.”
Hernandez responded to Bowa’s pep talk by promptly trying to pound each pitch into the ground during batting practice.
Yes, there’s your classic new school vs. old school way of doing things. It can be astounding to hear these two different philosophies and think that these two guys even played the same sport. Stairs has by no means sounded like a sabermetric genius during broadcasts (maybe he secretly is), but he does seem to understand that guys should be doing the exact opposite of what Bowa told Hernandez last year.
And that’s a good thing. It had become obvious that fresh thinking was needed. Along with the Hernandez anecdotes, seeing Maikel Franco take a step back was incredibly frustrating, as was watching Aaron Altherr’s approach after a decent 2015.
And you might think to yourself, “Well, Cameron Rupp drastically transformed his swing for the better, so not all was lost,” but that didn’t really seem to be Henderson’s doing either, as Rupp met with manager Pete Mackanin at the end of 2015 and then worked last off-season with hitting instructor Chris Edelstein to improve his stroke. So, what exactly was Henderson providing the Phillies as hitting coach? It’s pretty hard to tell. When you have a ship that appears to be rudderless, well, it probably is.
There’s no question that having talent goes a long way. The Phillies have been in the bottom of the pack in many offensive categories for the past few seasons because they haven’t had enough firepower offensively. At the same time, seeing players perform well but not in a consistent manner, and seeing the talented guys that you are lucky enough to have go through long slumps can be tough to watch.
Franco, indeed, seems to represent Stairs’ biggest challenge, and the Phillies’ new hitting coach has recognized what he thinks are the third baseman’s main flaws.
"When he takes a swing and his helmet comes off and he makes contact, the ball isn't coming off his bat because he's got too much body movement," Stairs said. "The more body movement you have, the slower your swing is. That's why Cameron Rupp’s exit velocity [92.4 mph] is so impressive. He thinks about using his hands, and he has good technique. Franco gets in trouble because he swings from his heels."
Stairs’ goal is to make sure that Franco’s head can stay still to help him track the ball, but he will also be trying to ensure that Franco isn’t guessing as much at the plate, something that he has done a lot of throughout his career. Sure, it’s always easier said than done, but what Franco did in 2015 was impressive and the raw power he has is certainly notable. Stairs will be trying to harness that power while teaching Franco how to approach at-bats in a better way. There’s no question about it; Franco should do better than the .306 on-base percentage he posted in 2016.
To be fair, Stairs should be helped with the additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. Those are two veteran bats that Henderson and the rest of the coaching staff didn’t have over the last few years. There’s more help on the way, too. When you know you have Mickey Moniak, Jorge Alfaro, Dylan Cozens, and others waiting in the wings, that can make any hitting coach salivate.
A tall task still awaits Stairs and the rest of the coaching staff. It does appear, however, that when it comes to hitting the Phillies are in more capable hands than they have been in years past.