Hitting instructors have always been a fascinating subject, and never more so than now in the age of analytics, long home runs and endless strikeouts.
The old-school guys will tell you that emphasizing launch angles, exit velocities and pulling the baseball as often as possible is no way to go about teaching the art of hitting, and if you do try to teach it that way you pretty much remove most of the art involved.
One of those guys, in fact, spoke up Tuesday night after the Phillies fired John Mallee as their hitting instructor and shocked the world by naming 75-year-old Charlie Manuel as his replacement for the remainder of this season.
“What you’re seeing right now, it’s very hard for hitters,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before his team opened a three-game series at Citizens Bank Park. “I look at scoreboards all the time – I look at stats – and I see guys with 25 home runs and about twice as many RBIs and all that points out to me is that they don’t know how to drive in a run with a single. It’s an all-or-nothing approach and it is being advocated.”
We should point out a few things here before we go on. First, Maddon’s Cubs fired Mallee after the 2017 season even though they had won the World Series the year before and had one of the elite offensive teams in baseball in 2017, too. By all accounts, the Cubs’ hitters liked working with Mallee just as the Phillies’ hitters liked working with him because he is considered a tireless worker.
“I thought he was great,” right fielder Bryce Harper said when asked if Mallee’s message was getting through to the hitters. “He prepared every single day to come in each day and make us as prepared as possible. I don’t think as hitters in here that we’ve done the best job on the field in scoring runs … so part of it definitely falls on us.”
No argument here on that point. Manuel’s first tough-love message should be that the hitters already got one coach fired, so let’s go to work.
But let’s get back to the Cubs for a second. Mallee was fired because he stressed launch angles and a “selective aggressive” approach at the plate, which is the hitting philosophy the Phillies adopted when they brought in general manager Matt Klentak and manager Gabe Kapler.
The funny thing is that the Cubs replaced Mallee after his approach failed them in a five-game series loss to the Dodgers in the 2017 NLCS. The Cubs hit .156 and scored just eight runs in the five games. They opted for a more old-school approach with Chili Davis as their hitting instructor in 2018, but he was fired after one season. Just before Davis was shown the exit, Cubs president Theo Epstein noted that “launch angle is not a fad.”
Maddon, unsurprisingly, has a ton of respect for Manuel. He said Tuesday that he can still envision the former Phillies’ manager celebrating the 2008 World Series title in front of the home dugout after winning Game 5 against Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays. He knows Manuel’s resume as a hitting instructor, which includes the 1999 Cleveland Indians, the last team to score 1,000 runs in a season.
“Charlie is awesome, man,” Maddon said. “He celebrated right over there. I know Charlie well. Good guy, good hitting coach. When he was in Cleveland, a lot of the guys there spoke well of him, too. I know when he was the manager here, there was a lot of input from him on hitting. Charlie is great.”
Charlie Manuel is great. It’s just hard to imagine that he is going to be in the Phillies’ dugout again, especially working under an analytically driven regime.
“He watches the Phillies all the time, often from the press box with me upstairs,” Klentak said. “And Charlie Manuel as a hitting coach in the 1990s was preaching a lot of the things that have now been labeled as ‘exit velocity’ and ‘launch angle’ and some other new titles. But that’s the kind of stuff Charlie was teaching back when he was helping Jim Thome become a Hall of Famer.”
At the very least, the final six weeks of the Phillies’ season became a little more interesting Tuesday regardless of whether the team continues to spiral in the wrong direction or goes on a streak that lifts them into the playoffs.
This was not just a changing of the hitting instructors; it was also the opening of a can of worms.
If the Phillies start hitting more, Manuel will get the credit. Can’t you hear the “We want Charlie” chants when Kapler goes to the mound to make a pitching change? Actually, you didn’t have to wait that long. They started in the middle of Tuesday’s game without Manuel even being in the ballpark.
If the Phillies keep on failing in the clutch, it could give Klentak and Kapler a chance to repeat Epstein’s refrain that “launch angle is not a fad.”