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Can Joe Dillon fix this team’s off-speed woes?

The team’s new hitting coach has to find a way to improve his hitters’ performance against these offerings

Washington Nationals Photo Day Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Among the laundry list of important items laid before Joe Dillon as he enters his first season as Phillies hitting coach — getting Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery back on their feet after second-half slumps, pushing Adam Haseley to the next level — is a problem that has plagued Phils hitters for years: Changeups.

Over the last three seasons, only two teams have fared worse against changeups than the Phillies, their .361 combined SLG and .241 wOBA against changeups and splitters “beaten” only by the Giants and Cardinals. Back in July 2018, I covered this then-emerging issue, and over the last season-and-a-half things have not improved.

PHI Batters vs. Changeups and Splits

2017 .402 .297
2018 .380 .293
2019 .355 .267

No! Bad! Moving in the wrong direction!

The dips come despite the new flubber-made baseball, offset only slightly by league-wide dips against these pitches. The league as a whole experienced a nearly 6 percent production drop from ‘17 to ‘18, something the Phils are nearly doubling with their almost 12 percent drop over the full three seasons, but SLG rose slightly from ‘18 to ‘19 (.379 to .384). Accounting only for players who saw at least 50 offspeed pitches, the league’s average SLG on changeups was .435 and its wOBA was .324. Only Realmuto, Kingery, Hoskins, and Segura finished above that cut-off.

Beyond pure performance, there are underlying concerns about the lineup’s ability to properly identify or spoil these pitches, too. Among all teams, only the Minnesota Twins swung and missed at more changeups last season than Phillies hitters (561); the difference being that Twins hitters were thrown changeups more than 14 percent of the time (2nd-most in baseball), while Phils hitters sat just under 12 percent (24th-most). A pretty devastating combo to have such a huge percentage of bad outcomes within a relatively small component of total pitches faced.

Looking at data compiled by Inside Edge, we can see that basically every returning mainstay from the 2019 Phillies had their struggles in this department. The biggest exception is J.T. Realmuto, because he is a perfect angel, but the rest of the lot doesn’t come out looking so divine.

2019 Off-Speed Performance

Player Off-Speed AVG AVG Grade Off-Speed Well-Hit Well-Hit Grade Off-Speed Swings In Play In Play Grade
Player Off-Speed AVG AVG Grade Off-Speed Well-Hit Well-Hit Grade Off-Speed Swings In Play In Play Grade
Andrew McCutchen .155 D- .029 D- 30% D+
Bryce Harper .214 C .060 C+ 28% D
J.T. Realmuto .233 B- .066 B- 34% C
Scott Kingery .243 B- .036 D 29% D
Jean Segura .242 B- .043 D+ 46% A+
Rhys Hoskins .193 C- .032 D- 27% D-
Adam Haseley .184 D+ .028 D- 33% C-
Didi Gregorius .271 A- .071 B 34% C
Cesar Hernandez .306 A .044 D+ 40% B+
Maikel Franco .198 C- .050 C- 35% C+
Phillies (Team) .214 C .044 D+ 33% C-
League Average .233 n/a .056 n/a 35% n/a
Inside Edge

Included in the list are Didi Gregorius, Cesar Hernandez, and Maikel Franco for reference, even though they won’t be part of both the 2019 and 2020 Phillies. Some takeaways:

  • Did Scott Kingery get unreasonably lucky? He had low well-hit and in-play numbers, but somehow eked out a decent batting average. Statcast data shows 295 hitters put at least 25 off-speed pitches in play last year, and of them, Kingery ranked 271st in average exit velocity.
  • Swapping out Hernandez for Gregorius at least ensures one hitter should still be above-average in this group.
  • Segura’s contact ability didn’t totally leave him, which is obviously great, but here’s hoping his offseason workouts allow him to power through more of these pitches when he does get bat to ball.
  • The Phillies may have weakened themselves in this area as a result of focusing on zone fastball damage.

The last bullet there may be a bit of a reach on my part, but here’s where I’m coming from on that: With a heavier emphasis on fastballs, which are being thrown harder than ever, swings that start earlier and have to get adjusted on reflex when the hitter IDs an off-speed mid-flight could typically lead to worse contact (if contact is even made). There’s no good public data that could let me test this theory based on actual swing paths, so I’ll just leave it with an asterisk. It wouldn’t account for every bit of these dips, but could play a part.

One bit of evidence in support of that theory comes in the form of the lineup’s sub-par numbers when thrown an off-speed pitch in a hitter’s count. In those counts (1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1; no full counts) the Phillies slugged .464, which was 27th in the Majors. That doesn’t happen very often, and is usually a tactic reserved for surprise, so we’ll have to give pitchers a bit of credit, too. In even counts, when everything is on the table, the team’s rank rises to 10th.

In any count, it will be key for the Phillies to stay balanced so that these off-speed pitches don’t bedevil them quite so much in 2020. Joe Dillon, you’re up.