The big breaking baseball story coming out of Philadelphia on Tuesday was of particular interest to Greg Gross, the Phillies’ all-time leader in pinch hits and a current coach with the Reno Aces, the triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“So there’s still hope?” Gross said by telephone a couple of days after learning that Charlie Manuel had been named the Phillies’ hitting instructor for the remainder of the season.
Gross, who is 67, was joking because Manuel is 75 and seemed to be finished with an on-field role in the big leagues before Phillies general manager Matt Klentak called him Monday. Now, he’s back in a big-league dugout and the crowds at Citizens Bank Park are chanting his name as if he is a rock star on a stadium tour.
Gross, of course, knows Manuel well. He served as his hitting instructor for 2½ seasons after previously working as the Phillies’ bench coach and hitting instructor under manager Larry Bowa in the early part of the century.
He knows the not-so-secret formula to Manuel’s success as a hitting instructor and it has a lot less to do with launch angles and exit velocities than it does with people skills.
“He pumps them up,” Gross said. “He’s always positive. He would never say anything negative to anybody. At least he wouldn’t say it to them. He always had that laid-back type personality and, of course, he can spin a story with the best of them. It might be two stories by the time he was done and you might have forgotten what you asked, but that’s his charm. That’s why people like him.
"If you have a pitching guy and a hitting guy who are all into [analytics], it might help to have a guy who says, ‘Let’s go whack it.' It might be good for them. It can’t hurt.”
Gross was fired as the Phillies’ hitting instructor minutes after the 2012 season ended in Washington. It hurt and he decided to move away from the organization he played with for 10 seasons and worked for as a coach for another 12 years. He landed in Reno and is now in his seventh season with the Aces, serving as a hitting instructor, manager, and now simply a coach.
Albeit at the minor-league level, Gross has watched the game of baseball drastically change since his departure from the Phillies. The way hitting is taught is among the most drastic alterations of them all and not really in line with the way Manuel or Gross taught hitting most of their lives.
“It’s all more analytical-driven, numbers-driven, and there’s so much more information,” Gross said. “There’s a new-wave drive line and everything is broken down.
"I think the jury is still out on whether it is going to take over baseball or not. It’s tough to groove a baseball swing because there are too many variables. Pitches change, locations change, and the eyes of every hitter are different. I do know this: Players still get upset when they don’t do well and they want a fix.”
Gross was the last Phillies hitting coach who did not have an assistant. At that point, the Phillies were far behind in the analytics revolution and in the early stages of becoming a fallen National League East dynasty.
The free fall had a lot more to do with the decaying core than anything any hitting instructor or heat map could have helped. That said, Gross is a firm believer that the analytics revolution is good for baseball if properly used.
What Gross does not like – and Manuel feels the same way – is the attempt by so many organizations to develop players with similar swings that emphasize launch angles.
“Everybody is trying to create an angle to create more lift,” he said. “The result is obviously more home runs and more strikeouts. For me, it works for some people and it doesn’t work for others.
"If you listen to Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner, what they say they’re doing isn’t really what they do. But in their minds, it puts them in the right swing path and it allows them to stay in the strike zone longer than other people. It works for them, so that’s good.”
Gross believes there needs to be a marriage between the analytics generation and the old-school way of doing things.
“If you read Ted Williams’ book, it talks about the initial downward motion, then it starts to level off before going into an upward plane,” Gross said. “That’s still valid today. Now we have numbers to put on all that is involved in that swing. I like knowing how hard a guy hits the ball. Obviously if someone is consistently hitting it hard they are doing something right.”
Fangraphs.com bears out that fact. The top three hard-contact hitters in baseball are Justin Turner, Christian Yelich, and Cody Bellinger. The Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto comes in at No. 19 on the list and Bryce Harper is No. 20.
“Obviously I like the heat zones, knowing where a guy hits the ball best in the strike zone,” Gross said. “All that kind of information is great. But for some guys it can be information overload. Sometimes guys just need to get into a box and compete.
"From a coaching standpoint, you need to know each guy. Guys like Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs and Chase Utley wanted all kinds of information. But guys like Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Pat Burrell didn’t want as much information.
"People used to get on Jimmy for hitting the ball in the air because he was a little guy, but if you had tried to make him into a ground-ball hitter you would have lost out on a lot of good things he brought to the table.”
Gross said the biggest change he sees in today’s game from a half-decade ago is that players do not seem to be having as much fun because they are bogged down by so much information. He believes that hitters should think about the challenge in front of them when they walk to the plate and worry about mechanics and swing analysis only before and after games.
“I’ve always believed the hitting gene is a thought process,” he said. “A lot of it is in your head. These guys are mechanically good athletes or they wouldn’t be where they are at. Charlie should be good for them because he is laid-back, he is relaxed. Maybe guys will have more fun with him around.”
By bringing Manuel on board, the Phillies’ analytics regime welcomed a member of the franchise’s old-school ways into the dugout for the first time since Gabe Kapler was hired as manager.