Desperate times call for drastic measures. And that's how the winningest manager in the history of a franchise comes to return to the dugout ... as the hitting coach.
The 2019 Phillies need a life jacket. They now have Charlie Manuel.
If Tuesday’s decision to fire hitting coach John Mallee was a surprise, it was only because the Phillies had committed to him so completely. Hired before last season, Mallee preached a philosophy of “selective aggressive” hitting that was not only shared by manager Gabe Kapler but implemented throughout the organization with changes to the minor-league coaching staff.
But the Phillies aren’t hitting. They haven’t hit for four months. They were built to slug their way to the playoffs, and they rank in the bottom half of the National League in nearly every statistical category. So, with seven weeks left in a season that is slipping away -- and despite Kapler’s unwavering support for all of his coaches -- they swept Mallee out the door.
“It’s about results,” general manager Matt Klentak said in a news conference at Citizens Bank Park. “We just haven’t seen the results lately.”
Indeed, if any of this qualifies as a surprise, it was the selection of Manuel as the savior, er, replacement.
The beloved manager of the 2008 Phillies was working for the team in an advisory role. He was in uniform in spring training, and when the team is home, he often observes batting practice from behind the cage and watches games from the executive suite alongside Klentak. He works closely with each of the Phillies’ minor-league affiliates. He isn’t exactly coming in from the cold.
But he’s 75, six years removed from managing his last game and 20 years from his last hitting coach gig with the Cleveland Indians. His existence around the Phillies under the new regime of team president Andy MacPhail, Klentak and Kapler sometimes felt ceremonial. A lifelong hit doctor, he had become a goodwill ambassador with that familiar Virginia twang and homespun style.
Once again, though, Manuel is the Phillies’ best hope to reach the postseason, a place they haven’t been since he led them there. And the more you think about it, the more it makes sense, even though the dugout presence of a World Series-winning manager will make things more than a little awkward for Kapler.
Pitching was bound to be a problem when the Phillies decided against making offseason upgrades to the starting rotation and then placed most of the bullpen on the injured list. But the offense? Sure, the loss of leadoff-hitting Andrew McCutchen to a season-ending knee injury in early June was a considerable blow, but a group that includes Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, and Jean Segura should be able to overcome it.
Instead, they have all underachieved.
Entering play Tuesday, the Phillies ranked ninth in the NL in runs (557), 10th in hits (991), 11th in home runs (149), ninth in on-base percentage (.322), 12th in slugging (.417) and 12th in OPS (.738). Even in the analytics that Mallee values so highly, the Phillies are 12th in weighted on-base average (.312) and 10th in weighted runs created plus (91).
As recently as late June, Klentak defended Mallee by saying, “I will remind you that just a few short years ago he was the hitting coach for an offensive juggernaut World Series champion in Chicago [with the Cubs]. I don’t think he forgot how to coach hitting.”
But things came to a head during a just-completed western swing in which the Phillies went 2-5 and slipped to fifth place in the wild-card race. After the Phillies went 2-for-17 with runners in scoring position last Tuesday night in Arizona, Kapler mentioned the need to keep the mood “loose” in the clubhouse. But the Phillies were held to one hit — a pinch-hit single, no less — Thursday night in San Francisco and three hits Saturday.
There were signs that perhaps Mallee’s message was no longer getting through. Before Sunday night’s game, Kapler said the Phillies decided not to provide their hitters with as much statistical information as usual. He rejected the premise that the “less-is-more” tack to pregame preparation was an indictment of Mallee’s data-heavy approach.
But Kapler has been trying to simplify the message. He directed Mallee to instruct the hitters to simply attack fastballs in the strike zone. Like everything else, though, the Phillies have struggled to hit the fastball. Their .442 slugging percentage against heaters is 13th in the league, ahead of only the Giants and Marlins.
That isn’t entirely Mallee’s fault, of course. But it can’t hurt to have a new primary voice around the batting cage.
“What Charlie can do is provide a positive influence from a guy who absolutely loves and devours hitting,” Kapler said. “I think our players will respond well to that.”
Good luck finding someone on this planet who knows more about hitting than Manuel. Want to really get him started? Ask about the time that he got into a heated debate with none other than Ted Williams -- over a few VOs, of course -- in a hotel restaurant in Washington about whether the top hand or the bottom is more important to a hitter. Jim Thome credits Manuel with getting him to the Hall of Fame. Members of the 2007-11 teams swear by him.
Know this, though: Manuel isn’t a long-term fix. He will finish out the season, and playoffs or not, the Phillies will hire a new hitting coach. They might even reconsider their organizational philosophy.