Phillies

Countdown to Clearwater: Matt Stairs has a challenge — and a plan

Countdown to Clearwater: Matt Stairs has a challenge — and a plan

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors with 610 runs scored in 2016.

They were also last in OPS (.685).

They ranked second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) and drew the second fewest walks (424) in the majors.

Congratulations on your new gig, Matt Stairs. You’ve got your work cut out for you.

The Phillies made just one personnel change on their coaching staff after last season with Stairs, one of the heroes of the team’s run to the 2008 World Series title, replacing Steve Henderson as hitting coach.

Stairs, who turns 49 later this month, requires no elaborate orientation for his new job. He is a devoted student of hitting and for years has tutored young, amateur players on an individual basis. He’s also extremely familiar with most of the Phillies' hitters after spending the last three seasons as part of the team’s TV broadcast crew.

“I already have a book on every hitter’s strengths and weaknesses,” Stairs said. “I love hitting and teaching it. I’m really excited to get going.”

Stairs has actually been in Clearwater for a couple of weeks working with early arrivers such as Odubel Herrera and Roman Quinn. With each passing day, more and more hitters will arrive, leading up to the first full-squad workout on Feb. 17.

So what can the Phillies' hitters expect from Stairs? What will he stress in camp as he tries to build a better hitter and improve the team’s on-base skills?

“Don’t give away at-bats,” Stairs said. “I’m going to communicate that to them over and over until I almost become a pain in the butt: Don’t give away at-bats. Know your strengths as a hitter. Go up there with a game plan. Be ready to hit.

“If every player gave away five at-bats per week that’s 120 at-bats per season. Now, think about it if you can cut that number in half.”

In order to become a tougher out and not give away at-bats, Stairs will stress to his hitters to hit off the fastball early in the count. But he doesn’t want his hitters simply hacking at any fastball. He wants them to look for the pitch in a certain location — their strength area. If they get a fastball in that area, drive it. If they don’t, lay off and let the pitcher run up his pitch count and move closer to his exit.

“Be aggressive early in the count, but make sure the pitch is in your strength location,” Stairs said. “But you don’t have to swing at the first pitch, you don’t have to expand the zone early in the count if it’s not in the location you’re looking.

“If you’re sitting fastball early in the count and you swing at a slider low and away, that’s giving away an at-bat. Work the count to a hitter’s count. Next thing you know you’re improving your selectivity.

“We are driving through the minors to be more selective, cut back on the easy outs. If guys stay on that program, you will notice the on-base percentage climb.”

Phillies hitters saw an average of just 3.81 pitchers per at-bat in 2016, which ranked 27th in the majors. General manager Matt Klentak wants to build a team that “controls the strike zone” — both in the batter’s box and on the pitcher’s mound. The concept — characterized by swinging at strikes and throwing them — is being stressed from the low minors on up and Stairs will do his part at the big-league level. It will start with dugout communication and the reminding of a hitter to have a game plan before each at-bat during a game.

“I want them to realize if you play the first game of a series and give no at-bats away you’ll be in the bullpen early in the first game and you have a good chance to win the series,” Stairs said. “Be patient, get in 'pen early, especially in the first game, win the series. That said, I don’t want them taking a fastball down the middle.”

Stairs will stress a basic hitting approach during batting practice each day.

“We want these guys to think gap to gap, less body and more hands in their swings,” Stairs said. “Drive the ball through the wall in the gap. BP will really have a purpose. It’s not going to be one of those things where you hack and see how far you can hit it. If you hit a home run in BP we want it to be to right-center or left-center, at least until the last round, then you can let it rip. But bad habits carry over into a game. You don’t get into bad habits when you stay gap to gap.”

Maikel Franco is a gifted offensive talent who needs to be reminded to use the middle of the field more. When he gets pull-happy, pitchers can have their way with him with pitches away or off the plate. If he can learn to drive pitches away to the opposite field or lay off them when they are off the plate, he will eventually see more pitches middle-in and ultimately become more dangerous.

Stairs is eager to work with all the Phillies' hitters, in particular Franco, who reminds him of a former Oakland A’s teammate.

“He reminds me of Miguel Tejada,” Stairs said of the former American League MVP. “When Tejada first came up, he swung at everything. He was a free-swinger like Franco. Then he calmed down. He figured it out and became a true professional hitter. He’d spit on the stuff low and away and wait for the pitcher to make a mistake. Franco has good hands and a good swing. He’ll be an MVP candidate once he figures it out.

“If you work counts, the pitcher will make a mistake. I’ll try to make all of our hitters realize they don’t have to be in a hurry to hit and you do that through a lot of communication, film study and work.”

Stairs is ready to put in the work.

And the progress of his pupils is key to this team’s improvement.

Next: Day 5 — A look at how the starting rotation will shape up

Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

CLEARWATER — Aaron Nola did not have a bad season in 2019 by any stretch of the imagination. He made every start and went 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA. There are pitchers all over baseball who would love to have a season like that.

But it's indisputable that Nola's 2019 season was not nearly as good as his 2018 season. In 2018, he was brilliant. He went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Nola's WHIP in 2018 was a sterling 0.975.

Last season, it was 1.265.

After pitching two scoreless innings in his spring debut Sunday, Nola reflected on his 2019 season.

"I didn't get ahead," he said.

He's right.

Check out the numbers.

In 2018, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. That ranked second in the majors to St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas (71.1).

Last season, Nola's first-pitch strike percentage slipped to 62.3. That ranked 39th in the majors, well behind leader Max Scherzer (70.4) and teammate Zach Eflin, who ranked fourth (68.6).

Nola ended up walking 3.6 batters per nine innings last season, up from 2.5 in his big year of 2018.

So, it's no surprise what Nola is working on this spring.

"Just fill up the strike zone and throw the ball down a lot," he said. "That's kind of the key. Get ahead of guys and stay ahead of guys. I just want to focus on having that tunnel vision around the plate."

If you've paid attention to the things Phillies pitchers have said this spring and even late last season, you know they weren't always comfortable with the practices of former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young. The theme in this camp, at least among the pitchers, can be summed up in one word.

Simplify.

"I'm just going to simplify some things and throw my fastball for strikes," Nola said. "I don't want to throw too hard too early in the count."

Nola pointed to his outing Sunday. He allowed a hit to open the game then got a double-play ball with a strike down in the zone.

"I want to try to get ground balls and I felt like I did that today," Nola said. "I got a double play and it's satisfying to get double plays."

Nola, 26, has so far enjoyed bonding with Bryan Price, his fourth pitching coach in as many seasons. Price espouses some traditional philosophies, like keeping the ball down. In that regard, he is similar to Bob McClure and Rick Kranitz, two former Phillies pitching coaches that Nola thrived under.

"That's been my mindset ever since I started to pitch and it is really stressed now," he said of pitching down in the zone. "I think that's what pitching should be and that's what we've always learned how to do.

"I think the state of the game is to simplify things and get back to that part of it. I look forward to my one-on-one bullpen sessions with (Price). When you have a bad game or not as good of a game as you want to go back to basics in the bullpen sessions. I've had previous pitching coaches like that and it has helped me a lot. Just to simplify things is going to go a long way."

Nola believes if he does a better job getting ahead early in counts that his curveball and particularly his changeup will become better weapons for him in 2020. His changeup blossomed under McClure and Kranitz during their stints in Philadelphia.

"My changeup wasn't as consistent as it was in previous years," Nola said. "I am just trying to get back to throwing that for strikes down more.

"When I'm throwing everything for strikes, I have three pitches."

Manager Joe Girardi has not named an opening day starter yet, but Nola is expected to be the guy when he does.

And when Nola takes the mound March 26 in Miami, his goal will be this:

Strike 1.

That's a big reason he had a great season in 2018 and why he slipped some in 2019.

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Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies ace Aaron Nola made his first start of the spring Sunday while their new No. 2, Zack Wheeler, is slated to debut Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

Wheeler has been throwing to hitters at the Phils' minor-league complex.

Fifth starter candidates remain in focus as Vince Velasquez makes his first start on Monday against the Orioles in Clearwater.

Nick Pivetta, another candidate, made his first start Saturday and showed a potential new weapon.

Lefty Ranger Suarez is being stretched out as a starter and could be a dark-horse candidate for the fifth job. He will get a start Tuesday at Bradenton while Jake Arrieta starts in Clearwater that day. Suarez pitched well out of the bullpen last year but was groomed as a starter in the minors.

Zach Eflin will make his spring debut Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

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