Pitching was bound to be a problem for the Phillies when they decided against making offseason upgrades to the starting rotation and then placed almost their entire bullpen on the injured list. But as another season threatens to slip away before Sept. 1, the Phillies are faced with another, more mystifying question.
What on earth has happened to the offense?
The Phillies were idle Monday, but through Sunday night’s crushing 9-6 loss in San Francisco, they ranked in the bottom half of the National League in most statistical categories: ninth in runs (557); 10th in hits (991); 11th in home runs (149); 10th in on-base percentage (.322); 12th in slugging (.417); 12th in OPS (.738). Even in the analytics that they value so highly, the Phillies are 12th in weighted on-base average (.312) and 10th in weighted runs created plus (91).
It’s a striking lack of production for a team that was built to mash and a lineup that is filled with accomplished hitters such as Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, and Jean Segura. The Phillies have missed leadoff-hitting Andrew McCutchen since he went down with a season-ending knee injury in June, but it’s difficult to believe that the subtraction of one player could soften the offense so much.
Manager Gabe Kapler has backed hitting coach John Mallee. Ditto for general manager Matt Klentak. The Phillies trust that their organizational hitting philosophy is sound. They believe in the track records of their best players.
"When you're in a pennant chase like we are and playing for what we're playing for, each at-bat seems to manifest into the next one. So it's a confidence thing," Mallee said Sunday. "As human beings, we think we've got to change our behavior, and sometimes you have to stay the course. As staff members, we know how this can get. We're trying to keep them relaxed and let them understand that we're going to come out of this."
Indeed, during the Phillies’ just-completed western swing in which they went 2-5 in Arizona and San Francisco, Kapler often mentioned the need to keep the mood “loose” in the clubhouse. But they went 2-for-17 with runners in scoring position last Tuesday night and were held to one hit — a pinch-hit single, no less — Thursday night and three hits Saturday.
Before Sunday night's game, Kapler said the Phillies decided not to provide their hitters with as much statistical information as usual. The idea: "We're just going to go out there and let our natural athleticism take over," Kapler said. "We know when we're loose and relaxed that we produce our best swings."
It worked, at least somewhat. The Phillies scored six runs, notched 10 hits, and worked 11 walks. But they also went 4-for-14 with runners in scoring position and left 15 men on base.
Kapler rejected the premise that the “less-is-more” tack to pregame preparation was an indictment of Mallee’s data-heavy approach. But Scott Kingery, one of the few Phillies hitters who has actually improved this season, said recently that he prefers thinking less and allowing his natural ability to take over. It’s likely that other Phillies hitters feel the same way.
“If you took a poll, you’d find some guys who can’t get enough and want to devour and digest as much information as possible on a daily basis, and some guys who legitimately plug their ears,” Kapler said. “You’re always kind of tweaking and adjusting. It’s just that today we want to loosen up and just be athletic.”
Mallee preaches a "selective aggressive" plan at the plate, stressing that hitters attack pitches in zones identified by the coaching staff as spots where a specific hitter has success and take a pass on pitches that are not in those zones.
But Mallee and Kapler also tried recently to simplify the message. They instructed the hitters to “hunt fastballs,” in Kapler’s words. 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.
"Any hitting coach will tell you, you've got to hit off the fastball. You've got to take control of the fastball," Mallee said. "If the pitcher is throwing a fastball in an area you can't handle, he's going to be successful. When he misses, we're going to be successful. It just feels like recently they haven't missed as much as we'd have liked."
Hoskins, in particular, is in the midst of a miserable slump. He went 2-for-24 on the road trip and is 8-for-59 in his last 16 games. And the Phillies’ other heavy hitters haven’t been there to compensate. Realmuto has had a big game here and there, and Harper bashed two home runs to win Friday night's game in San Francisco. But neither has lifted the Phillies by being a consistent force.
“That’s the hard part, when you have the middle-of-the-order guys and they’re all either having bad luck or they’re all just not rolling at the same time,” Mallee said. “All these guys are really close friends, really good teammates, and really good players. But when you look up and you’re getting one run a game or two runs a game, lining out and those types of things, we have to keep it from manifesting into something worse.”
It certainly hasn’t gotten better. If anything was going to sink the Phillies this season, it was supposed to be the pitching. But the offense has underachieved, and Mallee is running out of time to make it right.