A few hours before Matt Klentak entered the Phillies clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon, the general manager told his hitting coach that he was fired.
The Phillies -- after an offseason that infused their lineup with four all-stars -- have failed to produce the type of offense that many expected. They ranked below the league average in nearly every offensive category. And it was John Mallee, the hitting coach whom the Phillies seemed to stand by as the offense limped all season, who took the fall with seven weeks left to play.
Klentak replaced him with Charlie Manuel, the 75-year-old hitting guru who has more wins than any manager in franchise history.
It felt like a drastic move, almost a direct referendum on the analytics-inclined practices the Phillies have used to instruct their hitters. They replaced the new-school Mallee with the old-school -- good school, Manuel prefers -- manager of the 2008 world champions.
That is what brought Klentak, with manager Gabe Kapler by his side, into the clubhouse to address the team he built with the intentions of being an offensive power. The Phillies, according to projections by FanGraphs, entered Tuesday with a 6.2-percent chance to reach the playoffs. They are in fourth place in the National League East and the wild-card picture is crowded.
Manuel in the dugout again will not be enough to simply power the Phillies to the top of the standings. But it was easy to see that a change -- especially after the team limped through a West Coast road trip -- was needed.
The odds may not be in their favor to make the postseason, but Klentak told the Phillies on Tuesday that they are not yet dead. They are this close -- Klentak told the Phillies with his fingers an inch apart -- to playing October baseball. And Manuel could help get them there.
“I want to make clear, I don't think there's a silver bullet here. I don't think there's a special formula. Charlie isn't going to come and magically change things,” Klentak said. “To suggest that any one person has that ability is not correct. What I do think Charlie can do is bring an energy level, a love and a passion for hitting, a looseness and confidence and a different message to our hitters. I think that can be pretty helpful for the next 44 games.”
Manuel will join the Phillies before Wednesday’s game. His assignment, Klentak said, is not expected to extend past the season. He has not been on a coaching staff since he was fired as Phillies manager in August 2013. He was a hitting coach, but always considered himself to be a hitting savant. He studied the teachings of Ted Williams and keeps a copy of Williams’ book in each bathroom of his Florida home. He groomed Jim Thome and Ryan Howard and oversaw some of baseball’s most dangerous lineups.
“I don’t think anybody in baseball or this world loves hitting more than Charlie. He’s a guy who always has fun and enjoys the game and wants you to work hard,” Bryce Harper said. “Things are very simple with his message and what he wants us to do, so I’m looking forward to getting in there and talking to him.”
He will have seven weeks to try to introduce the Phillies to “hitting season” and turn around a lineup that ranks 23rd in baseball in slugging percentage, 18th in on-base percentage, 24th in batting average, and 23rd in homers. Manuel’s message will likely be much simpler than the strategy preached by Mallee, who prided himself on pregame research and scouting reports that were presented to the players.
“Our offense hasn’t been good for some time now,” Klentak said. “Philosophically, this may not be as big a shift as it seems. Charlie Manuel’s been very instrumental in the development of our organizational hitting philosophy. Charlie, although he has a senior adviser title, has been very active in our minor leagues. He was very close with John Mallee. He knows our players very well. He watches the Phillies all the time, often from the box with me upstairs.
"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 have some new titles. But that’s the kind of stuff that Charlie was teaching back when he was helping Jim Thome become a Hall of Famer.”
The season will be a disappointment if the Phillies do not reach October. They did not infuse their roster this offseason to finish in fourth place. And Klentak never could have imagined being in the clubhouse in the middle of August to tell his team that their playoff chances were still alive. The season, after an exciting offseason, has been a struggle. It will not be Manuel’s sole responsibility to change the Phillies’ course, but his voice could help.