Phillies

Astros' shocking fall from grace continues with firings of AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow

Astros' shocking fall from grace continues with firings of AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow

Astros owner Jim Crane did the right thing. The punishment handed down by MLB in response to Houston's sign-stealing scandal was surprisingly light, but about an hour after the news broke, Crane rectified it.

Manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow — two of the most successful men in baseball over the last five years — were fired. Both had been given one-year suspensions by MLB.

One year? With what enforcement? This would have been really weird. Was MLB going to periodically check the text messages of Hinch, Luhnow and their staffs to ensure Hinch and Luhnow weren't still running things?

Crane circumvented any awkwardness now and in the future by firing both men. He did what he had to do. You need to be able to trust your top decision-makers and the faces of your organization. If you win a championship you want it to mean something, not be marred like the Astros' title is now. There was deceit involved in all of this, from a team that might not have even needed to be deceitful to win it all.

What an incredible fall from grace. Less than three years ago, the Astros were the toast of baseball, the model franchise. But the most successful period in their history will forever have a black mark. 

The Astros were also docked their first- and second-round picks in both 2020 and 2021. And Brandon Taubman, a top candidate for Tool of the Year in 2019, was placed on MLB's ineligible list.

Keep in mind, though, that those first-round picks figure to be low because of how good the Astros are. From 2000 through 2010, less than 35 percent of players drafted 26th through 30th even made the majors. That's probably where the Astros will be. The combination of all four picks? That could be meaningful toward the middle of the decade. 

Hinch played four games as a Phillie in 2004, his final season in the majors. He spent five seasons as Astros manager and won 101, 103 and 107 games in his last three years. He is well-respected around the game and will find another managerial job at some point. There was a stark contrast in the statements released by both men, with Hinch wearing it and Luhnow passing the blame to others, including "lower-level employees."

The Phillies are in Houston to face the Astros July 7-9. 

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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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