MILWAUKEE — Matt Vierling returned home after his first full minor-league season in 2019 with 118 games of frustrating results and a swing that looked nothing like the one that helped him get drafted just 15 months earlier.
He displayed an ability to hit for power at Notre Dame (.528 slugging percentage in his final two college seasons) but the Phillies — and Vierling — thought there was more to tap into. An instructor who is no longer with the team guided Vierling in the 2019 season to adjust his swing and crouch down in his stance, believing that would speed up his bat and generate more power.
The Phillies overhauled their minor-league hitting instruction in recent years and pushed prospects like Vierling to chase power and homers.
“Just the way baseball is,” said Vierling, as the sport is hitting more homers than ever. “So I tried forcing it a little bit. That didn’t work out.”
Vierling hit .232 with a .329 slugging percentage and just five homers in 483 plate appearances with high-A Clearwater in 2019. The new swing did not work.
Vierling latched on that offseason with Kevin Graham, a private hitting instructor near his home in St. Louis. Graham, who studies the biomechanics of swings and emphasizes a hitter’s ability to adjust to pitches, instructed Vierling to stand taller at the plate.
It was a simple adjustment, but it paid off. Vierling could already feel a difference when he returned to the Phillies for spring training in 2020. When the pandemic canceled last summer’s minor-league season, Vierling returned home again to work with Graham.
Progress continued and his swing felt even better when he returned to Clearwater, Fla., last fall for the team’s instructional league. This season, he finally had the chance to test his swing in actual games.
The 24-year-old Vierling hit .276 with a .802 OPS over 338 plate appearances between double A and triple A, reached the majors in June, and carved out a role this month as a bench player during a playoff push.
“Now I’m letting the game come to me more and letting my swing take care of itself instead of forcing things,” Vierling said. “It’s funny because it’s kind of counterintuitive. When you don’t try to do it, they come more. But if you try to do it, they don’t happen. Just trying to go with it and let my hard work in the offseason and practice show up.”
The power has been easy to see. Entering Tuesday’s game, seven of his 10 balls in play since returning last month to the majors had left his bat at 97.9 mph or faster. He became the 10th player since 2015 — which is when MLB started using StatCast to measure data ― with five batted balls faster than 102 mph in one game.
It’s a small sample size, but Vierling had six hits in his first 14 at-bats and gives the Phillies a bench option who can handle first and third base along with his natural outfield positions. In less than two years, he went from a struggling single-A player to a late-season contributor in the majors.
“I have more rhythm in my swing. That’s helped a ton,” Vierling said. “Trying to hit the ball more out in front and let my athleticism be itself and not try to force things. It allows me to use my body and my arms better. Now, if I barrel the ball, it’s hit a lot harder and it’s hit more out in front. That leads to more success.”
The Phillies, under former general manager Matt Klentak, tried to aggressively update their minor-league program by integrating the use of technology and analytics. They hired Josh Bonifay from the Houston Astros, one of the most tech-savvy organizations, to run their farm system and appointed several instructors from Driveline, a high-tech baseball training center in suburban Seattle, to have key roles in the new minor-league system.
The Phillies were behind in baseball’s analytics arm race and this was a way to catch up. But Dave Dombrowski’s decision last month ― less than a year after being hired as the president of baseball operations ― to remove Bonifay signified that the Phillies were going to shift the way they instruct in the minors.
“I believe in a balance of traditional methods with bringing as much contemporary information as you possibly can,” Dombrowski said last month. “It’s a big job. It’s a hard job. It’s not easy. To me, if I say, ‘OK, 30 years ago, well, we did this.’ And we did, but we’ve learned a lot more since then. So, you look back, well, how do you incorporate both of them together? It’s hard. Really smart people that I know struggled with doing both of them. So we need to make sure it comes from me on down that this is what we believe, contemporary and yet traditional.”
Since Bonifay was hired, the Phillies’ system has produced just one hitter ― Alec Bohm — who has been worth more than one offensive win above replacement in the majors. Bohm is now back in the minors because of his struggles this season to hit for power.
Vierling could be a valuable piece in September, but it’s concerning that the adjustments he credits for righting his career had to come at home.
Last summer was his first away from baseball since he was 10 years old. He spent time with family and hung out at the lake with his friends and girlfriend. It wasn’t a total loss, Vierling said. And he had more time to fix his swing with Graham. His swing is no longer broken and the power he was looking for two years ago is starting to flash.
“It’s pretty satisfying,” Vierling said. “Obviously, there’s a long way to go, but it’s so satisfying to see the work you put in during the offseason, especially during the COVID season, when you’re home for so long, seeing it all pay off. It’s pretty cool.”