Within days of getting hired by the Phillies, hitting coach Kevin Long hopped on a flight to Clearwater, Fla., to meet Alec Bohm. They tweaked Bohm’s hand position and shortened his swing, adjustments designed to help him catch up to more fastballs and better use the whole field. By all accounts, the work was productive.
That was the third week of October. And given Long’s proclivity for visiting players in the offseason and Bohm’s importance to the Phillies lineup, they almost certainly would have gotten together more often throughout the winter. Restoring Bohm’s production to its promising 2020 levels after a sharp downturn last year is Long’s biggest project.
Keep that in mind, then, the next time someone says that nothing has been lost yet in Major League Baseball’s lockout.
It’s true that the players won’t miss a paycheck until opening day. Unsigned free agents will get contracts, eight- and nine-figure ones in many cases, once a new collective bargaining agreement is in place and the transaction freeze is lifted. The owners don’t stand to lose money either, unless the work stoppage that they directed commissioner Rob Manfred to enact on Dec. 2 eats into the 162-game schedule.
But under terms of the lockout, team employees aren’t permitted to communicate with players who are on 40-man rosters. The players are also denied access to team facilities. And so, for the last eight weeks, players have been left to prepare for a season that may not begin on time without hands-on guidance from coaches, trainers, or other members of their organization.
That may be acceptable to, say, Bryce Harper or J.T. Realmuto, established stars who have perfected their offseason training programs. But for players who are coming back from injuries or young players such as Bohm, it ranks somewhere between not ideal and potentially unfavorable, at least for their short-term outlook.
Before the lockout, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and manager Joe Girardi signaled that Bohm will get another opportunity to lock down the third-base job that he fumbled in August when he got demoted to triple A. To that end, this figured to be a critical offseason for the 25-year-old former third overall pick in 2018.
The Phillies dispatched Long and newly rehired infield coach Bobby Dickerson to drop in on Bohm, who years ago bought a condo on Clearwater Beach to be closer to the team’s spring-training complex. Long, in particular, has found such trips to be effective with other players. Last year, after the Washington Nationals signed Kyle Schwarber, Long went to Florida to work with him. On Long’s suggestion, Schwarber lowered his stance and wound up hitting 32 homers with a .928 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the best year of his career.
Bohm batted .247 with seven homers last season, including .190 against fastballs. Among 188 players with at least 400 plate appearances, he ranked 177th in OPS (.647) and 187th in extra-base hits (22). It was a considerable regression from 2020, when he posted an .881 OPS and was runner-up for rookie of the year.
But player development isn’t a linear process. And because Bohm’s debut was a 44-game snapshot within a 60-game pandemic-shortened season in fan-free ballparks, at least some backslide should have been expected. Girardi has drawn a parallel to Atlanta Braves third baseman Austin Riley, who bashed nine homers in his first 18 major-league games in 2019, struggled to a .716 OPS in 2020, and was an MVP candidate last season.
Some team officials believe Bohm’s problems were as much mental as physical, with his struggles at the plate often affecting his defense at third base. Bohm led National League third basemen with 15 errors and ranked last with 13 fewer runs saved than average.
“He shows you flashes, but we need him to be consistent,” Dombrowski said before the lockout, when team officials were not yet muzzled from publicly discussing players. “At times has he lost his focus because he’s carried his offense to his defense? I don’t think we’re thinking he’s going to be a Gold Glove third baseman. But could it work? Yeah, I think it could work.”
Part of the Phillies’ solution was for Long and Dickerson — the replacements for Joe Dillon and Juan Castro, respectively, who were fired on the final day of the season — to help rebuild Bohm’s confidence, a process that would have continued beyond their initial autumn visits.
But it’s nearly February, the lockout is raging on with minimal signs of progress, and not only has Bohm lacked access to Long and Dickerson since Dec. 2, but his time with them in spring training may be abbreviated if camps are shortened to allow for the season to open on time.
In previous years, Bohm has been lauded by no less than Girardi and Larry Bowa for his work ethic and desire to improve. The Phillies have no reason to believe, then, that he hasn’t been working out privately over the last two months. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have benefited from organizational direction or getting better acquainted with two coaches who were hired, at least in part, to help unlock his potential.
“This guy, I saw him in 2020 and he was one of the best hitters in the league,” Long said in October. “It’s my job to figure out what he was doing then and try to get him back to that high level of performance.”
If not for the lockout, Long and Dickerson may be closer to having those answers.