Mike Schmidt hit 548 home runs for the Phillies in his major-league career, and each of them traveled over the fence as the result of a batting approach and a swing that would not generally be taught today as the accepted way to drive a baseball long distances.
In fact, had Schmidt entered the team’s minor-league system this year, as he did as a 21-year-old in 1971, the organizational dedication to producing home-run hitters by demanding a cookie-cutter uppercut would have changed everything about the way Schmidt eventually hit for power.
Maybe he would have still hit 500 home runs doing it that way. We’ll never know. What we do know is that those 548 balls went over the fence doing it his unique way. (To be accurate, it was 547. He had one inside-the-park home run.)
Schmidt actually swung down on the ball every time. He stood way off the plate and twisted his hips until the pitcher could read the name on the back of his uniform, and then he uncoiled and chopped through the ball with a vicious downward top hand. This produced an underspin that lifted the ball up and, quite often, out.
Well, how silly. That can’t possibly work.
The Phillies are not outliers when it comes to the modern fixation on an upward “swing plane” and “launch angle” that seeks to maximize home-run output at the expense of the game’s more subtle aspects, not to mention at the expense of producing an obscene number of strikeouts.
The advanced metrics attached to the philosophy make the argument — and actually a pretty convincing one — that this is the way to win. If it produces a game that is less entertaining in some ways, well, that’s just collateral damage.
There’s no going back, at least nothing foreseeable, so it was interesting this past week when the Phillies fired their hitting coach, John Mallee, a modern sort of baseball mind, and put former manager Charlie Manuel back in uniform for the rest of the season.
Manuel might not have liked everything about Schmidt’s batting approach, as an example — Charlie is a dedicated bottom-hand guy — but he wouldn’t have tried to change him, either. That the Phillies chose to blend in some sepia tone to their more garish philosophical color scheme was a fascinating departure.
Certainly, there was a public-relations aspect to Manuel’s return, but it also carved in sharp relief the difference between where baseball is going and where it has been.
“Everybody is different. [Aaron] Judge has a different swing than [Ryan] Howard, and Howard has a different swing than [Jimmy] Rollins or [Chase] Utley,” Manuel said. “You work off that guy’s talent. Getting to know that guy … from a mental aspect and physical talent and things like that. I teach off the player. I don’t teach Charlie Manuel’s way.”
Gabe Kapler, who is as deeply into the analytics of the game as anyone, echoed Manuel’s defense of individual hitting approaches, even though most organizations in baseball, including his own, teach somewhat the opposite.
“Nobody likes to be made something they’re not. Nobody likes to be asked to be like somebody else,” Kapler said. “A: They don’t have the capability to be like somebody else. Or B: That’s just not their style. So, part of the reason Charlie connects so well is because he understands there are tons of hitting styles and there is no one-size-fits-all philosophy, and he’s going to treat every one of our hitters like an individual. I am certainly aligned.”
Well, OK, then.
As a byproduct of chasing home runs, the Phillies also chase bad pitches. To be honest, their biggest offensive problem is not how they swing, but when they swing.
Teaching plate discipline and pitch selection at the major-league level is a good trick, however, and it’s likely neither Manuel nor Kapler is up to that task. Reaching the major leagues means a player has succeeded while relying on his own tendencies. Changing those is not a matter of rotating a hitter’s grip or altering the angle of his back elbow.
Still, Manuel’s presence should be a bit of fresh air in what became a stagnant dugout this season as the team plodded joylessly through the first 120 games.
“I believe [that] in baseball if you have a different look or some things are different [that] morale or atmosphere changes. That happens,” Manuel said. “Down the road, that will wear off, and you’ve have to see consistency, and what’s a help and what’s a hindrance.”
Morale and atmosphere, as Manuel suggests, are as temporary as a winning streak and fragile enough to crumble during the next losing streak.
There is still a large bamboo plant sitting on a table in the middle of the Phillies clubhouse, the leftover of a goofy June morale-builder that coincided with a four-game winning streak. Entering this weekend, the team has gone 18-22 since. Manuel’s folksy influence on the atmosphere might be similarly brief.
We’ll see about that. What we know is that the Phils either have the wrong philosophy this season or the wrong players to carry it out. If nothing else, they have proved that needing to win by 6-4 or 7-5 every night is not the formula for success in baseball.