A member of the grounds crew carried a yellow extension cord Monday afternoon across the Citizens Bank Park infield before stopping near the pitcher’s mound.
The Phillies entered Monday riding a seven-game losing streak in which they combined to score just 15 runs.
The offense they bulked up this winter ranks near the bottom of the National League in nearly every offensive category. Instead of outslugging opponents, the Phillies have the fifth-worst slugging percentage in the National League. Change is needed.
At the mound, the extension cord connected with a pitching machine that Gabe Kapler said a day earlier would test his team with curveballs.
A Phillies coach fed the curveball machine while another coach threw fastballs. The Phillies began a four-game series against the Mets by changing the way they conducted batting practice. The mid-way point of the season is Thursday and the team’s offensive approach seems flawed. It will take more than a curveball machine and new batting-practice styles to fix it.
“We make adjustments along the way,” Kapler said. “We don’t think that the philosophy we’re using with our players is perfect and we work on it.”
The Phillies have begun to instruct their hitters to attack fastballs. It’s a very simple approach, Kapler said. But it is something the Phillies have struggled with. The Phillies have struggled against fastballs. They entered Monday with a .485 slugging percentage on fastballs in the strike zone. It is the fifth-worst mark in baseball and well below the league average of .530.
“We know that hanging breaking balls, you don't have to sit on, you don't have to look for them or try to hit them, they sit up there, they spin, you can be on the fastball and blister a breaking ball,” Kapler said.
“If you talk to our players or any players, for that matter, they’ll tell you the same. One thing we’ve toyed with is thinking about looking for specific pitches in counts and I think there’s some value to it. But to simplify things right now, I think we get on the fastball, we stay on the fastball, we never come off it and we look to not miss our pitch.”
The Phillies, under hitting coach John Mallee, have instructed their hitters to be “selective aggressive.”
They are told to be aggressive on pitches that are thrown in the zones identified by the coaching staff as a spot where a specific hitter would have success. The hitter is to be passive on pitches that are not thrown in those zones. The goal is to extend at-bats, drive up pitch counts, and force a tiring pitcher into a mistake.
With that instruction comes loads of information. Scott Kingery, one of the few hitters who has not regressed this season, said that his improvement this year stemmed from thinking less. He overthought every at-bat last season and struggled mightily with his new approach. He returned this year to the aggressive, freer mentality he had in the minor leagues and has been one of the team’s best hitters.
Could there be too much instruction and information for the rest of the lineup?
“The answer is ‘We don’t know.’ We are always trying to hit the sweet spot with our players,” Kapler said. “No two of them are built exactly alike. This is not rocket science, it’s not some revelation someone came up with today to get on the fastball and stay on the fastball. This is something that most teams preach and something we’ve preached in the past.
"But it is a really good time to simplify a message for an entire group of hitters that we have historically done damage on that pitch and we will get back on track and begin to do damage on that pitch again.”
Mallee was the hitting coach for the 2016 world champion Cubs before being fired after the 2017 season.
“I don’t think he forgot how to coach hitting,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “I think this is a bad stretch.”
A cast of hitters tested themselves in the batting cage before the curveball machine was unplugged and packed away. The Phillies, after assembling a lineup they thought would be a juggernaut, do not have the numbers to match. And it will take more than a curveball machine to fix it.
“I think in the last two weeks we certainly have not been a productive offense. Stating the obvious. we know this,” Klentak said.
“When we are at our best, we have a pass-the-baton mentality. One guy doesn’t have to be the hero on a given night. A player knows that if he has a good at-bat and passes the baton to the next guy, the next guy has a chance to do that. We’ve had a lot of success with that approach. In the last couple of weeks, we have gotten away from that.”
“No one player, no one staff member is going to be able to do this by themselves. The players and our team need to get back to a team-centric approach. Both offensively and on the mound -- a next-man-up mentality. We will do that.”