As Chase Utley tells it, he was in a dreadful slump, the kind that even a six-time All-Star fears will last forever. He rolled over another pitch for a weak ground ball to the right side, put his head down, and ran hard to first base, then retreated to the dugout.
"Good swing," said the manager, a longtime hitting instructor, placing a hand on Utley's shoulder. "You just missed that one."
Now, Charlie Manuel probably knew better. Utley certainly did. Always his harshest critic, he thought, “I didn’t just miss it. That was a terrible swing.” He shook his head, took a seat, and stewed for another few minutes.
But Manuel's words resonated. They made Utley reflect. Maybe he was being too hard on himself. Perhaps it wasn't as bad as he thought. Somehow he felt better, or at least more self-assured.
"It made me think, maybe I did just miss that one, and it gave me a little confidence," Utley said recently. "It made me feel better about myself, and any time you have confidence in the batter's box, you have an advantage."
Behold, the tao of Charlie.
When the Phillies asked Manuel to come down from the front office and take over for hitting coach John Mallee — a move that was set in motion a few weeks ago by owner John Middleton and executed Tuesday when general manager Matt Klentak told Mallee he was being fired — they didn’t expect miracles. The winningest manager in Phillies history might have debated swing mechanics with Ted Williams and taught Jim Thome and nurtured Ryan Howard, but he can’t change the specific approaches of 13 hitters in seven weeks.
Instead, they are hoping that Manuel can help brighten everyone’s outlook by delivering his message in a different way. Mallee’s solution to a struggling offense was to dive even deeper into the numbers and double down on the data-driven approach that often served many of his hitters well. Manuel’s is to offer tips and encouragement but also connect with players through his homespun style.
"I don't think I ever had any trouble communicating with the players," said Manuel, who managed his last game for the Phillies six years ago and hasn't been a hitting coach since 1999 with the Cleveland Indians. "Everyone has a different way of saying things and presenting things. I'm a basic guy and a conventional-style teacher. I work with that guy's talent."
If there's any genius in Manuel's approach to teaching, it's this: No two hitters are alike. As a result, there isn't a once-size-fits-all way to hit.
Take, for instance, Utley and Chris Coste. Utley was a former first-round pick with a compact, precise swing. He transferred weight from his legs, rotated his hips, and was quick to the ball, enabling him to spray it all over the field and lift it over the fence. Coste was undrafted and didn’t reach the majors until age 33. He tended to dive at the ball and had a hitch in his swing that made it unorthodox, even ugly, at times.
Yet Manuel was able to help Utley and Coste because he could relate to both of them.
"When Charlie was a player, he was every kind of hitter you could be," Coste said by phone Thursday. "In Japan, he was that No. 4 hitter, Babe Ruth-type figure. In the major leagues, he was an extra guy, the 25th man on a roster behind Harmon Killebrew.
"He could walk into a clubhouse and identify with every different level of ability. He knew what it was like to be Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, but he also knew what it was like to be a Chris Coste just trying to get by and stay as long as he can.
"He allowed every hitter to be themselves. He knew guys were going to have their ups and downs. But when you were 0-for-4, he could make you feel like you were 4-for-4. He’d make you feel like you were the best hitter on the planet, even if you were the worst at the time.”
Coste said he appreciated that Manuel never tried to change his swing by teaching him the more conventional mechanics used by other hitters. Instead, he worked with Coste to improve upon the foundation that he had already established.
Or, as Manuel says, “I teach off the player. I don’t teach off Charlie Manuel’s way.”
Coste adheres to that philosophy as a coach at Division III Concordia College in Minnesota and the hitting coach for Fargo-Moorhead of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. He said he often sees light-hitting shortstops who are taught the same approach as power-hitting first basemen.
“That makes zero sense to me,” Coste said. “That’s what surprises me a lot in today’s game. They want to take a guy that’s never going to hit a ball over the fence and still want him to get the ball way up in the air. I’m not saying we should teach ground balls. But with Charlie, it was everybody’s going to be a little different.”
Indeed, hitting instruction has changed since Manuel was beginning his coaching career 36 years ago.
It isn't that Statcast-era concepts such as "launch angle" and "exit velocity" are so revolutionary. Manuel paid attention to launch angle before it had a name. But the increase in available information has enabled coaches to break down every pitch, study patterns or trends, and tailor an approach that can vary from opposing pitcher to opposing pitcher, at-bat to at-bat.
There’s also a greater emphasis than ever on hitting home runs. Manuel likes the long ball as much as anyone, but he also knows that homers don’t happen because a hitter sets out to hit them. Back when he worked with Thome or even Howard, he said, the focus was on trying to hit .300. Get enough hits, and you’ll hit home runs.
“Hitting a home run is hitting the ball correctly or putting the kind of swing on the ball that you like and letting it happen,” Manuel said. "If I could get all the Hall of Fame guys that I just saw last month and line them up in the dugout and let the players ask them, do they try to hit home runs, and see their reactions, they’d probably get a ‘no’ answer. My saying is, ‘A home run is a well-hit fly ball that comes down behind the fence.’ "
It’s one of the Manuel-isms that Phillies hitters will be hearing a lot over the next six weeks. It’s not yet clear how much different the message will be from what Mallee was preaching, but it will be delivered in Manuel’s classic way.