Phillies' Matt Stairs among those helping young sluggers become smash hits | Marcus Hayes
CLEARWATER, Fla. - Franco, Galvis, and Crawford are the names that will sell the tickets. Stairs, Wathan, and Rende are the names trusted with the Phillies' future.
CLEARWATER, Fla. - Franco, Galvis, and Crawford are the names that will sell the tickets.
Stairs, Wathan, and Rende are the names trusted with the Phillies' future.
The Phillies hired Matt Stairs to calibrate a major-league team with an underachieving, young lineup.
The Phillies promoted Dusty Wathan from double-A to triple-A manager and paired him with veteran hitting coach Sal Rende to make sure that the mashers at Reading last year don't regress at Lehigh Valley.
Certainly, it's Maikel Franco and Freddy Galvis who will win the games in Philadelphia, and it's J.P. Crawford who will lead the team in Allentown. But they are among a dozen or so hitters who are at a crucial point in their development. As such, the men in charge of that development daily - Stairs, Wathan, and Rende - are as important as any of the nine or 10 players who are the Phillies' immediate future.
"No question: We are in the player-development business," general manager Matt Klentak said. "The three instructors you named are critical to that effort."
Stairs is charged with, among other things, turning Franco, 24, into a competent cleanup hitter; and making Galvis, 27, a legitimate major-leaguer at the plate. Franco's 25 homers last season and Galvis' 20 are nice, but both need to get on base more than 30 percent of the time; the Phillies were second-worst in the majors at getting on base. Tommy Joseph, 25, hit 21 homers in just 315 rookie at-bats but he seldom walked; the Phillies were second-worst at drawing walks. Joseph's .257 batting average was third-best among regulars, which explains how the Phillies were second-worst in hitting - in a hitter's park.
"We've coined the phrase internally, 'Control the strike zone,' " Klentak said.
Stairs is ready to take control of his lineup.
"I think it's an important year for Franco. Taking the next step toward being that guy we want to build an organization around," he said. "Freddy? I don't care if he hits 20 home runs again, or 10. I want him to work counts, see more pitches, be a more patient hitter. I think it's a big year for Tommy as well. I always say when a guy gets  at-bats their first year in the big leagues and hits 21 jacks, he snuck up on people."
Meanwhile, Wathan and Rende will oversee the franchise's most promising collection of triple-A hitters in Phillies history. Crawford was a first-round pick in 2013 and has received the usual hype, but, for the moment, he's just the featured face in a collage of premium prospects. In two months that collage could feature selective slugger Rhys Hoskins, 24, or Dylan Cozens, his 22-year-old "Bash Brother"; switch-hitter Roman Quinn or Nick Williams, 23-year-old outfielders; or, the most intriguing prospect of all, Jorge Alfaro, a bearded Colombian who signed with the Rangers as a slim 16-year-old and who now, at 23, is the size of a small RV.
"I've never been around a group like this. Maybe at a minor league all-star game, or something," Wathan said. "We've got guys out there that we expect to contribute in the major leagues at some point or another. Which ones will end up being the superstars and which ones end up being the average major-league players has yet to be seen. They're a special group."
Uniquely special, said bench coach Larry Bowa, who has spent 33 of his 52 years in pro baseball with the Phillies.
"There's been nothing like this," Bowa said. "I mean, we had some good teams in Eugene when I was coming up."
Eastern, Ore., got to see the triple-A skills of Bowa, Mike Schmidt, Bob Boone, Greg Luzinski, and Mike Anderson at one time or another, but never all together, and never with such high expectations.
"Our triple-A team's going to be unreal," Crawford said. "We're going to win a lot of games."
"Man on third, less than two outs," Wathan called in to Nick Williams, who stood in the batter's box Monday morning.
Wathan then threw three pitches in three different locations. Williams hit the first two pitches sharply to the right of second base. He lined the third pitch directly back at Wathan, who flinched slightly as the ball bounced off the protective screen.
"I'm good with that," Wathan said.
He threw another, this time a little outside. Williams scorched it off the scoreboard beyond the leftfield wall at Robin Roberts Field.
"I'm good with that, too," Wathan said.
When the session ended a few minutes later Wathan sat next to the practice mounds at the Carpenter Complex and explained the exchange.
"Today we were asking him to keep the ball out of the air, so he was hitting a lot of line drives and hard ground balls. Sometimes they're enamored of the home run. He's going to have to work on keeping the ball out of the air," Wathan said. "The line drives will turn into doubles and home runs. The biggest thing we're looking at is how the ball comes off the bat. I don't want pop-ups. If the ball goes out of the ballpark on a line drive, we're good with that. We want balls to come out with velocity and proper trajectory."
That happened often for Williams in his first four professional seasons. Part of the midseason deal that sent Cole Hamels to the Rangers in 2015, Williams hit .320 at double-A Reading - but managed just a .258 average at Lehigh Valley last season with 13 homers, just 19 walks, and a .287 on-base percentage.
"Yeah, they just started working with me on that today," said Williams.
In 2016, Williams didn't even seem acquainted with the strike zone, much less in control of it.
"We talk about controlling the zone, but it doesn't mean you're going up there looking for a walk. You're looking for a pitch to drive in a certain area, and if it's not in that area you have to have the confidence to lay off that pitch," Wathan said. "Some guys mature easier than others and learn what pitch they can handle themselves, as opposed to what pitch they think they can handle. Nick's made a conscious effort; for instance, laying off pitches in the dirt, especially early in the count."
At 6-3 and 195 pounds, Williams is a prototype for potential but he's also one of the players for whom 2017 carries extra weight. So is Franco, whose violent swing and poor eye often betrayed him in his first full major-league season.
"I am trying to be more selective, calmer, more relaxed, quieter; don't force the situation," Franco said. "My swing right now is more compact."
Galvis had the same problem, which resulted in a .274 on-base percentage in 2016, worst among qualified hitters. For the moment, that swing has vanished. Monday night against Blue Jays fireballer Aaron Sanchez, who topped out at 96 mph, Galvis worked back from a 1-2 hole, took the count full with the sixth pitch, and sent the seventh, a running sinker, off the right-field wall. He then stroked a 3-1 single up the middle with the bases loaded in the fourth.
"Before, Freddy would've tried to get four RBI there instead of just a single," Stairs said.
"That's the key for me this year," Galvis said. "He's throwing 95, 96. You've got to pick that one spot and try to stay there. Try to stay with the plan. I took some pretty good pitches. Saw the ball in different locations. I threw the hands, didn't try to do too much."
Franco worked a seven-pitch walk in the third and drilled a single to center in the ninth. Joseph, a righthanded hitter, singled up the middle, doubled to right-center, homered to left, and singled up the middle again.
"He's locked in," said Stairs, who seemed relieved that cuts have narrowed his focus: "I'm concentrating on the 13 hitters I have here."
Stairs no longer has to worry about Alfaro's plate discipline; or Williams' trying to hit homers; or Cozens, who hit 40 homers at double A last season but struck out 186 times. For the moment, they are Wathan and Rende's problems.
Stairs instead will focus on keeping rookie catcher Andrew Knapp's hands low; asking 26-year-old leadoff hitter Cesar Hernandez to take as many pitches as possible; keeping Franco's head on the ball; keeping Joseph from getting pull-happy . . . you get the idea.
They will be very busy, very important men.