The Phillies open spring training next week. The team will be counting on four recent staff hires to make a difference long- and short-term. Over the next four days, we will profile all four. Today begins with new hitting coach Joe Dillon.
Though his work as new Phillies hitting coach won’t start in earnest until the long days of spring training begin next week in Clearwater, Joe Dillon has already spent significant time in his laboratory — the batting cage — with one of his new pupils.
Shortly after being hired in November, Dillon reached out to all the hitters on the roster, just to introduce himself and let them know he was available for anything they needed in the offseason. Rhys Hoskins, who struggled through a difficult second half in 2019, put his hand up. The two men have already built a bond through a handful of training sessions over the past two months in Philadelphia.
“We worked below the neck, we worked above the neck,” Dillon said. “Putting him through drills, I really got an idea of just how talented he is.
“He’s in a really good spot, physically and mentally, heading into camp.”
The Phillies did not have to go far for Dillon, just a couple of hours down the road to Washington, where he spent the last two seasons as assistant hitting coach for the Nationals, winners of the 2019 World Series.
The Phillies’ path to Dillon actually stretches two hours up the road, to the Bronx. It was there, in his time as manager of the New York Yankees, that new Phillies skipper Joe Girardi built a close relationship with his hitting coach, Kevin Long. In time, Long moved on, first to the New York Mets and then the Nationals. In Washington, Long hired Dillon and has spoken of him as the best assistant hitting coach in baseball.
Good enough for Long, good enough for Girardi.
That’s the quick and easy version of how the Phillies ended up with their new hitting coach.
“Hitting has always been a passion and interest of mine,” Dillon said. “The foundation of it all was built with Kevin.”
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Dillon, 44, recalled his days as a young minor-league infielder in the Kansas City Royals organization. Long, in those days, was an up-and-coming hitting coach in the Royals’ system.
“I had a leg kick, I dove at the ball and I was striking out 100 times a season, not very effective,” Dillon said with a laugh. “I was Kevin’s project one year in instructional league. From there, I just kind of stayed with him and he became a mentor.”
Dillon eventually played in the majors with Miami, Milwaukee and Tampa Bay, but the bulk of his career was spent in Triple A, where he played until he was 35.
As he approached the end of his playing days, Dillon noticed that young players were coming to him to talk about hitting. He enjoyed the give and take and sharing of ideas. In the twilight of his career, he enjoyed helping younger teammates as they chased their dreams.
Three years later, out of baseball and working in sales, Dillon began to realize how much he missed the game. He recalled the conversations that he had about hitting with young teammates. They had planted a seed deep inside him and now he wanted to coach.
Dillon spent a couple of years as a hitting coach in the Nationals system before joining the Marlins as their minor-league hitting coordinator in 2016 and 2017. A year later, he joined Long on the big-league staff in Washington.
As a hitting coach, Dillon is guided by three commandments that he learned along the way:
Forget all the things that you did as a hitter because everybody is different and what worked for you might not work others.
Always be available to your hitters.
Never forget how hard the game was to play.
Dillon’s style of teaching and training is flexible and progressive, a little old-school, a little new-school. Like everyone in the game, he loves power, but he also knows that good situational hitting, cutting down on strikeouts and getting on base are crucial factors in what he simply calls “playing offense.” He believes in swing mechanics but won’t force techniques on players. His goal is to have guys ready to hit at all times and in all counts so they can capitalize on pitchers’ mistakes. His style is to win trust, make suggestions and let the hitter take what he wants. The goal is efficiency, consistency and, ultimately, that special place called confidence.
“There’s an art to coaching and handling human beings and it’s so intriguing,” Dillon said.
For some hitters, the key is in the swing.
For others, it’s between the ears. (Hitting coaches are part psychologist, you know.)
That brings up the age-old question: Mechanics or confidence?
“There’s no right or wrong answer,” Dillon said. “It’s all individual. Sometimes a guy makes a mechanical tweak that is actually a lot smaller than he thinks it is. He has success with it and his confidence improves. He’s like, ‘Oh, I got it now.’
“Hitting is a hard thing to do because it’s failure-based and the line between success and failure is very thin. Two hits a week can be the difference in a guy feeling like a superman or a nobody. Every guy is different so it’s a real balance as we try to build consistency.”
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Dillon’s resume includes time working as a consultant for S2 Cognition, a company that uses technology, science and progressive methods to enhance cognitive, visual, motor and athletic skills. He uses many of the new-school techniques he learned through his affiliation with the company to build a better hitter.
“Traditionally, guys have hit off a tee or taken batting practice,” Dillon said. “Now, with science and the understanding of how the brain works, we can create realistic training environments that are faster and harder than game environments.”
This is done by stressing a hitter in practice, making him uncomfortable, taking away some of his time and space – it could be as simple as cranking up the velocity on the pitching machine – so that the brain will react more quickly and the body will work more efficiently.
“Now, when you get in a game, 95 (mph) looks 85 (mph),” Dillon said.
Dillon used some of these progressive techniques in working with Hoskins this winter. That was after Hoskins made a couple of slight adjustments in his setup at the plate; he lowered his hands and opened his stance slightly. The goal of these adjustments, Dillon said, is to create more energy through the hips and to the ball, more efficiency and consistency in the swing.
Hoskins hit 29 homers last season and led the National League with 116 walks, second-most in the majors. However, his .180 batting average in the second half was the worst in the majors. Hoskins remains a vital cog in the middle of the Phillies’ batting order and improvement is a must if the team is to make a run at the postseason.
“Rhys is off to a good head start,” Dillon said. “I’m very excited for him.”
Through his time in Washington and before that with Miami, Dillon has a familiarity with two other big guns in the Phillies’ lineup, Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto.
“J.T. is already one of the best in the game and I see him as being ready to pull away even more from the rest of the pack,” Dillon said. “In Miami, he was still diving into learning to catch and working with pitchers, but he’s got that now.
“And Bryce is just great. He’s extremely talented, extremely productive. Nobody expects more out of Bryce than he does. It’s going to be fun watching him continue to evolve. He’s already been an MVP, but in a lot of ways he’s just coming into his prime. It’s nice to have a front-row seat again.
“I know your stars have to carry you. I also know what it’s like to be the 26th man. I’m here for everybody and I can’t wait to get going.”
On Wednesday, a profile of new scouting director Brian Barber.
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