The 2 things holding Jorge Alfaro back from being a difference-maker

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The 2 things holding Jorge Alfaro back from being a difference-maker

Throughout the offseason, we'll take a look at the best and worst aspect of each key Phillie's season and look ahead at what the goal should be for 2019.

Let's start behind the plate with Jorge Alfaro.

The best: Power, pitch-framing

The worst: Whiffs, blocking

Alfaro hits the ball hard. He had the fifth-highest line drive rate of any major-league catcher at 23.2 percent, ahead of guys like J.T. Realmuto and Buster Posey. 

The issue is he doesn't make enough contact. Alfaro swung and missed this season at 23.8 percent of the pitches he saw, a comically high rate for a major-leaguer. The next-highest rate in the NL was Javier Baez's 18.2.

Midway through the season, I asked Gabe Kapler if Alfaro could be a productive offensive player long-term if his plate selection never improves. The gist of the manager's answer was that Alfaro could but it would require a big cutdown of his strikeout rate. That is a major if that will define Alfaro's career.

Too often in 2018, the Phillies' 7-8-9 of Scott Kingery, Alfaro and the pitcher went weak out, weak out, weak out. 

Theoretically, Alfaro's penchant for swinging and missing means wasted opportunities with runners in scoring position. Yet that wasn't really the case in 2018. In 15 at-bats with a runner on third and less than two outs, Alfaro drove in nine runs. With two outs and runners in scoring position, Alfaro hit .344.

Still, his whiffs stuck out even on a Phillies team that struck out 103 more times than any season in franchise history. There are impressive tools there, but the hit tool is the most important in this sport. 

Catchers must be able to catch

The Phillies raved about Alfaro's pitch-framing this season. By some metrics, he was a top-five pitch-framer leaguewide.

That's great. But he was awful at blocking the ball. So many passed balls that even a league-average catcher catches. So many times he wasn't able to help his pitcher by preventing a "wild pitch" many other catchers would have blocked.

There is a case to be made that the Phillies' obsession with pitch-framing has resulted in their catchers focusing more on *snatching the ball the best possible way* than simply catching it.

To which I'd ask: What is more important, buying your pitcher an extra strike here and there, or preventing a runner from advancing?

Mathematically, it's closer than you think. But you have to go beyond merely the numbers. For example, Alfaro caught 31 of Aaron Nola's 35 starts. Nola is an elite pitcher who gets respect from umpires. All the pitches Alfaro was credited with "framing well" for Nola … who is to say the ump's respect for Nola always being around the strike zone wasn't equally or more so the reason for those extra strikes?

2019 goals

Alfaro's main focuses this offseason need to be:

1. Laying off fastballs over his head and breaking balls well off the plate

2. Improving his blocking fundamentals

To the first point, there were so many plate appearances this season when Alfaro got behind in the count and just gave up. So many times a pitcher threw a waste pitch nowhere near the plate and he swung anyway. Think about this: Alfaro was in an 0-2 count 74 times this season and 54 of those at-bats ended in a three-pitch strikeout. That is ridiculous.

But despite these negatives, the Phillies still might have something good and valuable in Alfaro. He has the power, the throwing arm, and — despite the whiffs — a career .270 batting average with an OPS one percent below the league average.

He just needs to make major strides in his age-26 season to be the difference-maker the Phillies believe he can be. Especially if Wilson Ramos doesn't come back.

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Phillies' top pick Mickey Moniak could be poised for big leap in 2019

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Phillies' top pick Mickey Moniak could be poised for big leap in 2019

It’s not always easy being the No. 1 overall pick in the major league baseball draft. Oh, the attention is great and the money ain’t bad, but the spotlight is relentlessly glaring and it can burn a hole right through you if you don’t immediately produce.

Mickey Moniak has walked in these spikes for 2½ seasons now. He’s felt the euphoria of hearing his name called above all others. He’s also felt the glare and the burn.

And the main thing he’s learned?

“You can’t panic,” he said.

The Phillies selected the wide-eyed Southern California native with the first overall pick in the 2016 draft and lured him away from a UCLA commitment with a $6.1 million signing bonus. For 2½ seasons, the young outfielder’s every move has been closely scrutinized. That’s just the way it is when you’re a No. 1 pick. Moniak has had his ups and downs and maybe a few too many downs for some. But there are a couple of big reasons to believe that Moniak is headed in the right direction on the often fickle development curve:

• He’s 20 years old for gosh sake, and won’t turn 21 until May. If he had gone the college route, his junior season would not even have begun yet.

• And he played eye-opening ball over the final two months of the 2018 season at Clearwater of the Florida State League. Over his final 52 games, he hit .302 and with 24 extra-base hits and an .829 OPS. His strikeout rate came down and his walk rate went up. That his improvement came late in the season, after months in draining Florida heat that has eaten up more than a few players, was a promising sign.

Moniak’s late-season success was fueled by something intangible. He took a deep breath, put faith in his talent, stopped putting pressure on himself and had some fun playing ball again. It all started last summer when a group of his pals from high school in the San Diego area traveled across the country and visited him in Clearwater.

“There were 10 of us in a two-bedroom apartment just hanging out,” Moniak said with a laugh.

Moniak’s buddies came to all the games that week. They heckled him (good-naturedly) from the stands and he went on a tear at the plate. It felt like he was back in high school, playing pressure-free ball.

“Their support helped me realize that it’s still baseball, have fun with it,” Moniak said.

Moniak was in Philadelphia this week to participate in the team’s prospect education seminar. He had been to Citizens Bank Park after the team drafted him in June 2016. Back then, he was 170 pounds. He has added muscle to his frame and is now 6-3, 205 pounds. His left-handed swing has produced just 10 homers in his first two full minor-league seasons, but the added strength could one day lead to more power as he continues to climb the development ladder.

It’s unclear where Moniak will open the 2019 season. It’s possible that he gets some more time in the Florida State League with the idea of playing himself to Double A Reading before the season is over. More immediately, he will be in big-league spring training camp next month, a little reward for his strong finish last summer, and a reminder that he still has huge potential for a bright future.

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2019 a crucial season for Phillies outfielders Roman Quinn, Odubel Herrera

2019 a crucial season for Phillies outfielders Roman Quinn, Odubel Herrera

Earlier in the week, we looked at three Phillies pitchers entering make-or-break seasons, players who will need to push their careers forward in 2019 to maintain the role they want and/or currently have.

On to a couple hitters:

Roman Quinn

Quinn came up at the end of July and had a nice six-week run with the Phillies, hitting .345/.375/.560 with six doubles, three triples, two homers and seven steals. He also added a new dynamic in center field, with better speed, instincts, range and a stronger throwing arm than Odubel Herrera.

He went ice cold to end the season, going 5 for 47 with 21 strikeouts in his final 16 games, but the real make-or-break aspect of Quinn's upcoming season won't be the avoidance of a slump but the avoidance of a long-term injury.

Quinn will be 26 on May 14. The most plate appearances he has had in any season is 382 in 2014. In three of the four seasons since, he hasn't reached 300.

Quinn has dealt with so many injuries throughout his career. He's been through a torn Achilles, a torn left quad, a concussion, a strained ligament in his elbow and torn ligament in his right middle finger. 

It's not as though Quinn would face being released if he can't stay healthy this season. Even at 26, he's still inexpensive and cost-controlled for at least another five seasons. But this is the first real opportunity he's had to start on opening day. The Phillies are relying on him, maybe not to play every day but to play a lot in an outfield that also includes Andrew McCutchen, Herrera, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr. (If the Phils sign Bryce Harper, a trade of an outfielder would be the next logical move.)

If Quinn can play 120-plus games this season, reach 350-400 plate appearances and exhibit his trademark speed and defense with pop sprinkled in like it was last August, he can change the course of his career and what the Phils can realistically expect from him. He can turn himself into an everyday player for the Phils and a top-of-the-order table-setter.

Odubel Herrera

Herrera is already down in Clearwater working out. Smart move. He understands how important Year 5 is for him. 

Herrera is coming off by far his worst season as a major-leaguer. After hitting .288/.344/.430 from 2015-17, he hit .255/.310/.420 in 2018. He did set a career-high with 22 homers, but nearly every other offensive number plummeted. Herrera hit only 19 doubles after hitting 42 the prior year, and he stole only five bases, two years after swiping 25.

Aside from that, Herrera had a series of gaffes on the basepaths and in the field, the kind that can swing games and frustrate teammates. His level of concentration needs to improve, and already being in Clearwater in mid-January as opposed to living it up somewhere else is a good sign. It shows he's focused more on the 2019 season than soaking up every last bit of his offseason.

Herrera's value is lower than it has been the previous three years, but all it would take to reset that conversation for a while is a strong first half. In 2016, he had an excellent first half that led to an All-Star appearance. In 2015 and 2017, he had strong second halves, hitting .329 and .323. When he's going well, Herrera is able to take pitches but also be a bad-ball hitter who uses all fields. When he's not going well, Herrera gives many at-bats away and can be as easy to retire as Ryan Howard used to be during a cold spell.

"Consistency" is an oft-used word in sports that applies to very few athletes. Rare is the player who goes through an entire season without straying too far one way or the other from his baseline. Almost everyone is inconsistent, to a degree. Herrera's inconsistency is more dramatic, and if it remains that way this season in a healthy Phillies outfield, he could very easily lose out on playing time to Quinn, McCutchen and Williams. It's just a different situation in the Phils' outfield than it was the last four seasons with more ready-to-go talent.

We've seen enough of the good Herrera to believe he has the offensive skill set to hit .300 with 30 doubles and 20 homers in a season. For the Phillies to truly contend in a tough NL East, they will need a season like that, regardless of whether they land one of the free-agent superstars.

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