Maikel Franco had confidence, and now he just needed a fly ball. It was the seventh inning last weekend. The Phillies were down by one, with runners on second and third and one out. Franco, two innings earlier, had clobbered a hanging breaking ball into the seats. He looked imposing.
The next five pitches epitomized the forgettable first half of this Phillies season.
Franco hacked at the first pitch, a fastball on the outer edge. He fouled it with a wild swing and fell to one knee. He took a breaking ball in the dirt. He lurched at another fastball away and missed. Again, he resisted a breaking ball in the dirt to even the count at 2-2. San Diego righthander Kirby Yates did Franco a favor and threw him a belt-high fastball, a little inside, and Franco swung hard. He hit it off the end of the bat. It fluttered to the shortstop, not deep enough to score the runner from third.
The Phillies have the worst record in baseball, a glaring pockmark, but more alarming was the first-half regression of Franco and Odubel Herrera, two hitters with which the Phillies hoped to build. Their issues have been diagnosed and explained. The Phillies wanted to learn about their young players, and now they will learn whether Franco and Herrera can adjust.
They will have every chance to do that.
"I have to get better," Franco said. "I know I'm just too much up and down. A couple days good, a couple days bad. But you have to stay positive."
Franco is blessed with incredible strength and bat speed. Herrera, when right, owns exceptional pure hitting abilities. Few of the players on the current roster possess a particular skill rated as a high, and that is why the Phillies will ride those players through down times.
Herrera is the only player on the roster signed to guaranteed money past 2017. Franco is the organization's only viable option at third base; it's one of the weakest positions in the system, and he'll have at least another full season to prove he can be the man there.
He does not turn 25 until the end of August.
"Still young," Matt Stairs said. "Still learning."
The first-year Phillies hitting coach ran some numbers on comparable hitters to Franco's potential ceiling — Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Miguel Tejada — and found similarities in all four players' first two full seasons.
"Am I saying he's going to get to that point? He could," Stairs said. "It could take him a week to finally realize, 'You know what, maybe I do have to start thinking backward.' A 2-0 count, look off-speed. First pitch, off-speed. Hitter's counts, off-speed. Mikey has the talent to be a MVP-caliber player, with the power he has, the strength. But until he has the mindset of, 'I'm tired of getting myself out,' you're going to see the .220 and inconsistent at-bats."
Stairs and Franco have often had this chat. The numbers do not lie. Major-league hitters this season have batted .270 with a .487 slugging percentage against off-speed pitches when ahead in the count.
Franco has hit .119 with a .167 slugging percentage.
Opposing pitchers have started Franco with an off-speed pitch in 152 of his 347 plate appearances. Only 11 hitters saw more off-speed pitches to begin a plate appearance in the first half.
"There are still a lot of trends in Mikey's game that will lead you to think that better days are ahead," Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said. "He has an improved walk rate, he has improved strikeout rate and he hits the ball hard.
"It hasn't all come together, and I'm well aware of what the overall stat line looks like. But where we are as a franchise trying to find out about players, the effort level is there every day from this kid."
Stairs is succinct in his assessment of Herrera, 25, who ended the first half with a .292 on-base percentage.
"Wild and out of control," Stairs said. "Wild swing. Out-of-control swing. I don't know why, all of a sudden, he started swinging at everything. You know? Pitches in the other batter's box."
Herrera, according to Baseball Info Solutions data, has swung at 40 percent of the pitches he's seen out of the zone. The league average is 29.7 percent.
Klentak pointed to Herrera's numbers since June 1 — a .311 batting average, .336 on-base percentage and .496 slugging percentage — a productive stretch of 140 plate appearances. "Arguably, as good a stretch offensively as he's had in his career," Klentak said, although Herrera enjoyed a .368/.482/.500 line over 141 plate appearances last April and May. Herrera's defense alone, the GM said, justifies his presence. Minus recent mental mistakes, Herrera has played a fine center field.
"The total package that Odubel brings is still a really good baseball player," Klentak said. "Even with hot and cold streaks and occasional inconsistencies. If you look at it purely objectively, in the aggregate, he's a good player."
The contract — $30.5 million guaranteed — is less than the price for a "good player" in the majors. Maybe Herrera is no more than a complementary piece; he could bat sixth in a good lineup.
Or he's more. Stairs, in the second half, will ask for a greater focus.
"I'm not saying I want him to walk all the time," Stairs said. "I'm saying: I want him to get back to picking a side of the plate. Don't chase out of the zone for strike one. Or take a pitch on the corner that's off the plate and then swing at one further off the plate. Let's focus on his at-bats and work the count and get in good hitter's counts.
"When his timing's on, he could be one of the better pure hitters."