In case you might not have noticed, the prospect lists are coming out from national writers regarding what the Phillies have in their system. It’s a time to get excited about what the future holds, but it also picks at something that has been an issue with the team. The bugaboo about the Phillies’ rosters of late is that they are not developing players to help supplement the free agents they sign and stars they trade for at the big league level. Since the time known as “The Rebuild”, we’re not seeing the fruits of a team that should have been stocking young talent and drafting properly. It’s not a wrong way to lean since it’s the correct way to lean. There have been some hits along the way (Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins), but there have been far fewer, and arguably more costly, misses that have been catching up to the team.
Now, as these lists come out, there is a little more hope for help on the horizon, just maybe not the superstar talent people hope for. At this point, the team has some more pitchers that look better than hitters, but some of these hitters are coming on strong. One of them that has popped up has been Matt Vierling. I wrote about him last week how an improvement to his launch angle might be just the thing to help him breakout in 2022 should he earn a big league spot on the roster. Looking at some of his video, there might be two other issues to work on first. Let’s see what we can find.
When looking at his batted ball data, as noted last week, Vierling hits the ball hard, but it goes into the ground a lot. We know from modern ways of watching the game that due to the prevalence of defensive shifting in baseball, teams have leaned into discouraging flatter plane swings and are encouraging their hitters to increase their exit velocity while also improving the launch angle at which the ball leaves the bat. That would help the hitter beat the shift, drive the ball into the gaps or, even better, over the fence. It’s a solid theory, but as we’ve seen from previous changes to prospects, it doesn’t always work (see: Kingery, Scott). The teams (and people that follow the game) that develop hitters the best have realized that simply waving a magic wand at the team and hoping the launch angle improves isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to teaching hitting. It has to depend on the hitter.
This is where Vierling comes in.
Before we get into his actual data and video, let’s start at the beginning. To start, we have to see what kind of a hitter he is. Here is Vierling’s spray chart for 2021.
What we see is an all fields approach, a hitter who isn’t a dead pull hitter, but has the ability to go up the middle or the other way, depending of course on pitch and pitch location. This isn’t something that a hitting coach is going to want to disrupt since it was effective for him. It’s reminiscent of another former Phillies outfielder that also employed an all field approach.
There is only the final three years worth of data like this available for Jayson Werth, but anecdotally, we remember that he was very good at driving the ball up the middle and to the opposite field, and being able to do so with power. I’m not about to call Vierling to next Jayson Werth, only that their approach looks like it is similar based solely on looking at spray charts.
So, we have a player in Vierling that is good at using the entirety of the baseball diamond, but one that we, and the team, think could be a little bit better. Simply telling him to improve his launch angle isn’t going to be enough though. There is another small, subtle change that might help him. Using Baseball Savant, I searched for all BBE (batted ball events) from Vierling in 2021 in which he had a launch angle between -62 degrees and 19 degrees and an exit velocity of greater than 90 miles per hour. What we’re looking for are examples of ball that were hit for an out that he could have done more damage with.
Why -62? That was his lowest launch angle of any ball and I wanted to do Steve Tyler proud.
The full results can be found here. Since he had a small sample size of plate appearances, there aren’t many BBE to cover, but there is enough to find some things. First is that the videos provided will confirm that Vierling is a consistent “use all fields” hitter. In all of these events, we can see the evidence of this by looking again at his spray chart.
It could be easy to say that he should probably try pulling to ball more, but then you see that it is a fine approach when one sees where he is being pitched. Here is where pitchers are attacking him in the zone.
In the old- and new-school terms, he’s going with the pitch. Again, this is a good thing! But there are also some times when maybe that’s not the best way to go with it. Here is one example. You’ll see from here, this is a pitch from Taijuan Walker that Vierling should be demolishing to his pull side. Instead, it’s hit to right field for an out.
Here’s another one from Keegan Akin that he should put into the seats in left field.
It’s hard to complain about the second one since it went for a single. It’s also hard to, again, argue with a swing that has the ability to go inside/out like this one, but if he was able to pull the ball on a better angle, more damage could have been inflicted and that is the point. It looks, at least to the untrained professional eye, like Vierling is a touch behind these pitches, making contact with the ball deeper in the zone than maybe he could be. Scroll through the videos on your own and you’ll see a few more examples of balls he could be pulling, but since he is making contact deep, he is punching them to the right side. Now, “punching” here is not meant to be used in the same manner as a “punch and Judy hitter”. Here, it means he’s still getting good contact on it since these balls are hit hard, only they’re being hit the opposite way. If there was room for improvement with Vierling, one spot could be in getting him to start the whole process of his swing a touch earlier, therefore meeting the ball more out in front of the plate. There is another, more mechanical issue that he can fix as well. Notice in each of the two videos above, Vierling is stepping more towards third than straight at the pitcher. As pitchers gain more knowledge about him and his approach, he’s going to have to clean that up, or anything on the outer half is going to be his kryptonite.
It’s really difficult to call what Vierling is doing a bad thing. It almost feels a little disheartening since he’s one of the few Phillies prospects to emerge from the minor leagues and have some success at the major league level. Of course, we’re talking about all of 77 plate appearances, but in that small sample size, he hit the ball hard all over the field. With the team in a constant payroll crunch entirely of their own doing, they need players to emerge that are not in the top tier of salary.
Players like Vierling.
The Phillies hired Kevin Long to really help get Alec Bohm on track, but having another project like Vierling will show how much faith the team has in their new hitting coach. These are no more than mere observations about his swing, but if Long is able able to kickstart both Bohm and Vierling and help them reach their respective ceilings, the Phillies could have a formidable pair of players from their player development system that they can point to as successes, something that has been increasingly rare of late.