CLEARWATER, Fla. — The most unheralded player in the Phillies’ potential opening-day lineup wasn’t a blue-chip prospect or a sabermetrics darling. He didn’t have a spot on the 40-man roster a year ago. He wasn’t even prominent on the team’s radar until he volunteered at the 2020 fall instructional league that he’s at ease playing multiple positions.
But Matt Vierling could always hit a baseball hard.
“When he barrels it up,” said Mik Aoki, Vierling’s former coach at Notre Dame, “it comes out pretty hot.”
In 77 plate appearances after the Phillies called him up last June, Vierling struck 52 balls with an average exit velocity of 91.5 mph, placing him in the 80th percentile among major leaguers. Even his outs were scorched. Vierling’s hard-hit rate, defined as balls that came off the bat at 95 mph or faster, was 53.8%, better than Kyle Schwarber (52.2%), Nick Castellanos (46.9%), and Bryce Harper (49.7%).
The Phillies were duly impressed. And when their offseason search for a center fielder landed on a one-year, $1.75 million reunion with Odúbel Herrera on the eve of the first spring training workout, they informed Vierling that he would compete for the job. Actually, they regarded the 25-year-old as a frontrunner.
At minimum, team officials saw Vierling as the righty-hitting side of a center-field platoon. Then, after Herrera went down early in camp with a strained muscle in his side, Mickey Moniak won a roster spot with a retooled approach at the plate. Vierling and Moniak figure to open the season in a timeshare, but manager Joe Girardi also considered turning Vierling loose on an everyday basis to start the season.
“My philosophy with young players, ideally you don’t want to throw them to the wolves where they’re overexposed,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “Ideally you’d like to complement them with somebody if you can. But do we think he can play [center field]? Yes, we do.”
Vierling appreciates the kid-glove treatment. He’s just not sure it’s necessary.
He played every game for three years at Notre Dame, mostly in center field. He faced both left-handed and right-handed pitchers in the minors and posted splits that weren’t appreciably different: .300 with a .338 on-base percentage and .408 slugging against lefties, .260/.333/.411 against righties.
“You’re just so used to coming up and playing every day no matter what,” Vierling said. “When you get up to the big leagues, you fill a role, and that role for me last year was hitting off lefties. But I definitely feel like I’m ready. I’ve never thought of me as like, ‘Oh, I struggle against one vs. the other.’”
What better time to find out. After plunking down $179 million for Schwarber and Castellanos, the Phillies have one of the deepest lineups in the National League. With Schwarber, Jean Segura, Harper, Castellanos, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, and Didi Gregorius — in some order — all they will ask of Vierling is to bat eighth or ninth and catch whatever is hit to him.
Given the team’s defensive shortcomings at most positions, the latter responsibility may be more important than the former.
Vierling maintains he’s most comfortable in center field, even though he played all three outfield positions in the minors. He started out as a right fielder at Notre Dame, but it wasn’t long before Aoki moved him to center.
“He had a good arm, so you could put him in both places,” said Aoki, now the coach at Morehead State. “The outfield at Notre Dame is a big outfield. You need guys that can run and get good jumps. He’s long and lanky and really athletic, and he can really run well.”
But Vierling also didn’t show up on campus as a freshman and get handed a spot in the outfield. Although he was recruited early and honored his commitment to Notre Dame despite getting drafted in the 30th round by his hometown St. Louis Cardinals in 2015, he competed for at-bats in preseason practices. He won a job, homered in his first game, and never left the lineup.
Vierling draws parallels between that experience and his situation with the Phillies.
“I did my best in the fall, did my best in the winter, proved to them I could play there,” Vierling said. “This is a little different, obviously, because you’re in the major leagues. But it’s kind of the same mentality.”
Drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round in 2018, Vierling caught Harper’s eye as a nonroster player in spring training last year. He got his big break when outfielder Matt Joyce went on the injured list in June with a strained back and punched a pinch-hit single to right field in his first plate appearance.
In 34 games, Vierling batted .324 with three doubles, one triple, two homers, and an .843 on-base plus slugging. But for as hard as he hit the ball, he also hit it on the ground a lot. His 53.8% ground-ball rate was among the highest in the league.
The Phillies may try to get him to lift the ball more often. But Aoki noted that Vierling has never been a launch-angle whiz. He’s made it this far with a level, compact swing.
“I don’t think it takes a data analyst to tell you that if you hit the ball hard, generally speaking, good things result,” Aoki said. “We preached that a lot, and I think Matt really bought into it. I don’t know if Matt’s going to hit 40 home runs in the big leagues, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s like 20 to 30 jacks with a bunch of doubles.”
Such numbers would surely warrant facing lefties and righties alike. If Vierling hits the ball as hard as he did in last year’s small sample, the Phillies can reasonably dream that those numbers might be attainable.
“When you see him, you realize how fast he is and how athletic he is,” Girardi said. “But the impact off the bat is pretty special. All young players have to make adjustments as time goes on, but there’s a lot of impact there.”