New Phillies hitting coach Joe Dillon mixes old-school smarts with new-age science

New Phillies hitting coach Joe Dillon mixes old-school smarts with new-age science

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.”

• • •

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.”

• • •

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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An asterisk for the champions? Larry Bowa isn't alone in his opinion

An asterisk for the champions? Larry Bowa isn't alone in his opinion

One of the beautiful things about following sports is that there are certain people that are a part of your life for decades and you never actually know them. Larry Bowa is one of those people for me. I am not old enough to have seen him play. But I remember him vividly as a 3rd base coach for the Phillies, then later as the club’s manager and eventually a coach with the Yankees, Dodgers and Phillies again.

You can always count on Bowa for a passionate and thoughtful response on a baseball issue. That’s why I stood up and took notice when he told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Clark that the champion of this Major League Baseball season will require an asterisk next to their name in the record books because of it being shortened due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Bowa is hardly alone in sharing that view and the logic is understandable. A 60-game slate represents just over 37 percent of the standard 162-game season. As we all know, even the worst teams in baseball typically put together a fair-to-average 60-game stretch during a normal season. So, there is legitimate reason to worry that a mediocre team or two will make their way into postseason. 

But it’s also fair to note that the second wild card, instituted in 2012, has already opened the door to middling teams making the postseason. Furthermore, if we truly want to hold up the value of the regular season, why even have a postseason in the first place? How many times have we seen dynamic teams like the 2011 Phillies or the 2019 Dodgers dominate from April through September only to see their season end in a week’s time because of three losses? 

One could easily argue the path to the truest champion would be for each team to play the other 29 clubs home and away in 3-game series. Best record at the end of the 174 games would be the champion.

Of course, if that happened, the majority of sports fans would question how you could crown a champion without having the finality of the postseason. There would be retired player after retired player saying the true test of a team is the pressure cooker of the October tournament. 

Ultimately, we all tend to assume what we have known is best and the only legitimate path. But it would be in everyone’s interest to wait and see if this season deserves an asterisk. 

Perhaps Bowa will be right and this shortened campaign will not pass the eye or stink test. Then again it might just lead to three months of exhilarating tension as every game matters substantially more than in years past.

Let’s not knock it until we try it.

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American Century Championship 2020: Odds, live stream, TV info, player list, schedule

American Century Championship 2020: Odds, live stream, TV info, player list, schedule

In the 2007 offseason, Jimmy Rollins famously said the Phillies were the “team to beat”. Those comments became the motto that helped catapult the Phillies to five straight postseason appearances, including a 2008 World Series title. Guys like Rollins, Chase Utley and Shane Victorino were a big reason for that success.

Well, the band is back together.

This time they’ll be paired together on the golf course starting Friday at the American Century Championship in Nevada. This is the first time Utley is taking part in the celebrity event. Other first timers include Chiefs quarterback and new $503 million dollar man Patrick Mahomes.

William Hill Sportsbook in Nevada has placed odds on this weekend’s festivities and the trio of former Phillies are not getting much respect. Then again, for most participants this tournament is all fun and games. Utley has odds of 300-1 ($100 wager will pay $30,000) while Victorino is listed at 1500-1 ($100 wager will pay $150,000). Rollins is part of the field at 50-1 ($100 wager will pay $5,000).

American Century Championship TV, live stream and time

Friday: First round coverage -- 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBC Sports app
Saturday: Second round coverage -- 3 p.m. ET on NBC10, NBC Sports app
Sunday: Final round coverage -- 3 p.m. ET on NBC 10, NBC Sports app

Unfortunately, Rollins, Utley and Victorino don’t stand much of a chance against opponents like former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and two-time defending champion of this event Tony Romo. Romo is an excellent NFL broadcaster and highly skilled golfer who has played in four PGA events so it’s no surprise he’s the even money favorite. He also has zero Super Bowl appearances (just stating the facts). Former Cardinals and A’s pitcher and three-time champion of the American Century Championship Mark Mulder is the second choice on the board at 13/5.

Charles Barkley is an annual participant at this weekend’s events. Sir Charles and his awkward golf swing are a long shot with odds of 7500-1. I think it’s safe to say save your money. Nonetheless, this event is always fun seeing all the celebrities having a good time on the links. Who doesn’t like Steph Curry draining 3’s into the boats docked alongside Lake Tahoe?

American Century Championship selected odds (via William Hill Sportsbook)

  • Tony Romo - EVEN
  • Mark Mulder - 13/5
  • Mardy Fish - 15/2
  • John Smoltz - 17/2
  • Stephen Curry - 12/1
  • Derek Lowe - 15/1
  • Aaron Rodgers - 100/1
  • Chase Utley - 300/1
  • Patrick Mahomes - 400/1
  • Roger Clemens - 500/1
  • Oscar De La Hoya - 500/1
  • Shane Victorino - 1500/1
  • Sean Payton - 2000/1
  • James Blake - 3000/1
  • Field - 50/1

American Century Championship first round pairings, tee times

1st tee

  • 1:55 p.m. ET: Oscar De La Hoya, Michael Peña, Kira K. Dixon
  • 2:05 p.m.: Chauncey Billups, Deron Williams, Patrick Peterson
  • 2:15 p.m.: Jerome Bettis, Eddie George, Terrell Davis
  • 2:25 p.m: Mardy Fish, Canelo Álvarez, James Blake
  • 2:35 p.m.: Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Charles Barkley
  • 2:45 p.m.: Steve Young, Anthony Lynn, Mike Vrabel
  • 2:55 p.m.: Cooper Kupp, Adam Thielen, Case Keenum
  • 3:05 p.m.: Stephen Curry, Dell Curry, Aaron Rodgers
  • 3:15 p.m: Tony Romo, Larry Fitzgerald, Jerry Rice
  • 3:25 p.m.: John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens
  • 3:35 p.m.: Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino
  • 3:45 p.m.: Mark Mulder, Jack Wagner, Derek Lowe

10th tee

  • 1:50 p.m. ET: Doug Flutie, Jim McMahon
  • 2:00 p.m.: Joe Don Rooney, Jay DeMarcus, Bret Baier
  • 2:10 p.m.: Kyle WIlliams, AJ Hawk, Brandon McManus
  • 2:20 p.m.: Reggie Bush, Carson Palmer, Marcus Allen
  • 2:30 p.m.: Joe Buck, Jay Bilas, Vinny Del Negro
  • 2:40 p.m.: Tim Brown, Andre Reed, Ozzie Smith
  • 2:50 p.m.: Eric Weddle, Kyle Fuller, Troy Mullins
  • 3:00 p.m: TIm Wakefield, Kevin Millar, Brian McCann
  • 3:10 p.m.: Miles Teller, Chace Crawford, Kathryn Tappen
  • 3:20 p.m.: Charles Woodson, Kyle Rudolph, DeMarcus Ware
  • 3:30 p.m.: Alfonso Ribeiro, Rob Riggle, Ray Romano
  • 3:40 p.m.: Larry the Cable Guy, Brian Baumgartner, John O'Hurley