Take it from Phillies legend Larry Bowa: New pitching coach Bryan Price 'knows what he's doing'

Take it from Phillies legend Larry Bowa: New pitching coach Bryan Price 'knows what he's doing'

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. This week, we will profile all four.

The series began Monday with new hitting coach Joe Dillon and continued Tuesday with new scouting director Brian Barber.

Up next: New pitching coach Bryan Price

Many factors will determine whether the Phillies team that begins gearing up for the new season next week in Florida will enjoy success in 2020, and you know them all.

There’s the offense, the defense, the in-game, dugout leadership. There’s health. There’s the division, a tough National League East, how it stacks up and whether teams with superior talent play to expectations or struggle. There’s the farm system — can it graduate a difference-maker to the roster at some point during the season? There’s the front office and ownership — will they fill in-season holes smartly and spend past the luxury-tax threshold if need be?

Ultimately, however, the fate of the 2020 Phillies is probably going to come down to what happens on that 18-foot circle in the middle of the diamond.

That is Bryan Price’s area of focus.

Price was hired as the Phillies' new pitching coach in late October. He’s spent the last three months chatting with his new charges, watching video of them, poring over data and forming a lesson plan that he’ll begin fully implementing when the mitts start popping next week.

The goal is improvement — and that is a necessity with a capital N if the Phillies are going to make a serious bid at snapping an eight-year postseason drought because many of the names that the team will rely on in 2020 have been around for a while.

“I’m an optimist but I’m also a realist,” Price said during a recent visit to Philadelphia. “As I investigated (the organization’s pitching talent) by talking on the phone, talking with the staff here and looking at a lot of video, I was extremely encouraged. 

“I think there’s — I’m not going to speak for the organization — but I think there’s a lot of pitching here that has room to get much better and I’m looking forward to being a part of that any way I can.”

Price comes to the Phillies with rave reviews.

Jamie Moyer and Ben Davis worked with him during his six-year run as pitching coach in Seattle and they swear by him.

Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick hired him in Seattle.

“Your entire coaching staff is so vital to a team,” Gillick said. “I actually think the pitching coach might be the most important on the staff because when all is said and done, you have to have pitching and defense to win.

“Bryan is very good. I think Matt (Klentak, the general manager) made a very good hire.”

Larry Bowa, a Phillies front office adviser, regular presence around the team, and co-worker of Price’s on the Seattle coaching staff in 2000, concurred.

“He’s not a know-it-all, but he knows what he’s doing,” Bowa said.

OK, so who is Bryan Price and how will he approach this most important of jobs?

Well, he’s 58 years old. He's been a big-league pitching coach for 13 seasons with Seattle, Arizona and Cincinnati. He also managed the Reds from 2014 to 2018. He pitched at Cal-Berkeley and in the Angels and Mariners minor-league systems for five seasons but did not advance to the majors.

“I think that’s partly why he’s such a good coach,” Gillick said. “He had to grind it out in the minors himself and find a way to survive. He experienced a lot. He’s a very good listener. 

“A successful coach must gain a player’s trust and get their confidence for them to say, ‘This guy knows what he’s doing, what he’s talking about.’ Bryan is very good mechanically and fundamentally and from a mental standpoint he’s very good at getting close to guys. His approach is not to change a guy but to add on to what he has.

“It seems like whether it’s a hitting coach or a pitching coach, the minute you suggest something to a player they stiffen up and think you’re trying to change them. They call their wife or agent and say, ‘They want to change me.’ That’s not the way Bryan operates. He gains confidence then says, ‘Let’s look at this,’ or ‘Why not try this?’ It’s the old story: The player got there for a reason — because he has ability. Let’s work with that ability.”

Price has worked under managers Dusty Baker, Bob Melvin, Mike Hargrove and Lou Piniella. When he was between jobs in 2006, he worked as a minor-league pitching consultant with the Phillies. He was up for a couple of jobs this winter and jumped at the chance to join Joe Girardi’s staff.

“I played against Joe in Double A and I’ve watched his evolution as a manager,” Price said. “There are just people you admire. He has an aura. He’s had success in two places (Miami and New York), one a huge market. I know people in Philly are thrilled to have him here because of his leadership intangibles and that’s something I like to be connected to. I like to work knowing that the manager has control of the clubhouse, has the respect of the players. That’s a really big thing for me because otherwise — chaos in a clubhouse is a bad environment. We’re all here to win games and have fun in the process. Baseball drama is ugly drama and I don’t want to be part of anything that would suggest that that’s what I’d be involved in.”

In this new baseball world of new school vs. old school, Girardi is a blend, as capable in the ways of running a team with data and technology as he is with the gut and instincts that he developed squatting behind the plate for 15 big-league seasons.

Price has a healthy respect for data, technology and all things that may fall under the heading of analytics, and he will certainly employ them as he tries to groom a pitching staff, but he admits to being more traditional in his approach. He puts a premium on relationship building and earning a pitcher’s trust. His style is not to blow up a pitcher’s methods and force changes. It’s to take what the pitcher has and enhance it. 

Everything starts with getting to know the person. Not a stack of data. The person.

“I do think that we’re losing some connectivity a little and not just in baseball,” Price said. “Human relationships are not what they once were. In baseball, you used to get a bat and a ball and a kid and you went out and worked on baseball. Now you can come in and spend six hours before a game in front of a computer screen or reading through a lot of statistical stuff. It’s part of the job description now, but the relationships are what I love.

“I’m not shunning the analytics or technology at all. I’m for using it as a tool to make something good even better. I still believe fundamentally that pitchers have to command the strike zone, pitch aggressively, control the count, and they have to pitch to their strengths. The game has evolved to where I think, at times, we have all this data but we’ve oversimplified pitching. Let’s get four-pitch starters back out there that command the strike zone. Ninety-five-plus (mph) is great but if you can’t manage the strike zone you’re not going to be effective.”

Last season, several pitchers privately complained about being overloaded with analytics under former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young. Game plans were considered too rigid and data driven for some pitchers. One, Zach Eflin, pushed back against game plans that called for four-seam fastballs up in the zone. He returned to a style of pitching that emphasized his best pitch, a sinking fastball down in the zone, and ended the season with success. He is being counted on to hold down a significant rotation spot along with newcomer Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, a healthy Jake Arrieta and either Vince Velasquez or Nick Pivetta with prospect Spencer Howard pushing his way through the pipeline.

Bowa believes the staff will benefit from Price’s philosophy of pitching to strength.

“In my opinion, that’s why we didn’t have success last year,” Bowa said. “We pitched to how the analytics said we should pitch instead of pitching to our strengths. It was all about game plan. I love game plans, but if you can’t get a pitch over that day, you need to adjust the game plan. There’s no universal way to pitch.”

Other than the addition of Wheeler, who signed a five-year, $118-million contract in November, the Phillies have done little to improve their pitching personnel this winter. They are banking on a healthy return for several relievers, most notably potential difference-maker Seranthony Dominguez, and the improvements of other pitchers, including Velasquez and Pivetta, a pair of right-handers whose accomplishments have not come close to matching their potential. Fans are surely tired of hearing this, but the team desperately needs one of these pitchers to emerge as dependable this season. It would be even better if both do because the one who is edged out of the rotation could be a force in the bullpen.

“It’s great talent,” Price said of the Velasquez-Pivetta tandem. “But we do have to refine that talent and the productivity.”

The refining starts in earnest as spring training begins next week.

And the productivity, not just of Velasquez and Pivetta, but of the entire pitching staff, will have a lot to say about where this team eventually goes.

Bryan Price, optimist, realist, new Phillies pitching coach, is ready to lead the ride.

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Phillies waste Aaron Nola's gem and a chance to sweep Yankees in doubleheader

Phillies waste Aaron Nola's gem and a chance to sweep Yankees in doubleheader

The Phillies split a doubleheader with the New York Yankees on Wednesday night, but it could have been so much better.

The Phils wasted a gem from Aaron Nola and lost the nightcap, 3-1. They didn't hit in that game, and the bullpen imploded once again.

The Yankees (9-2) rallied for two runs against Tommy Hunter in the top of the seventh in Game 2 to break a 1-1 tie.

Hunter faced five batters and retired none.

If you're keeping score at home, the Phillies' bullpen so far has allowed 17 earned runs in 16⅔ innings. That's a 9.18 ERA. Opposing teams are hitting .338 against Phillies relievers. Needless to say, that's awful.

Manager Joe Girardi remains optimistic that the bullpen will improve as this season, shortened to 60 games by the COVID-19 pandemic, continues to unfold.

"We had a quick spring then a seven-day layoff where no one pitched," Girardi said. "It's hard to evaluate what we're going to get moving forward. They haven't had consistent work and it's hard to be sharp when that happens and we're playing teams that have been playing every day. I believe we'll get better, (pitching coach) Bryan (Price) believes we'll get better and we'll get it done."

The Phillies, 2-4 after six games, showed off the strength area of their ballclub in the doubleheader.

We're talking about the 1-2 punch of Zack Wheeler and Nola in their starting rotation.

Wheeler pitched six innings of three-run ball and the Phillies got lots of offense in winning the opener, 11-7. It should not have been that close, however. Girardi lifted Wheeler with an eight-run lead after six innings. The Yankees jumped lefty Austin Davis for four runs in the bottom of the seventh before Hector Neris nailed down a one-pitch save in a game in which he should never have been needed. The appearance prevented him from pitching in Game 2 and that was a killer.

Wheeler is 2-0 in as many starts with his new club and he's loving life throwing to J.T. Realmuto.

Because of COVID-19 protocols, both games of the doubleheader were seven-inning affairs.

The offense was not as robust in the nightcap, but Nola was brilliant and that was a really good development for this club. The right-hander had struggled in his previous eight starts dating to last August. He was 0-5 (and the team was 0-8 in those games) with a 5.44 ERA over that span.

Nola rebounded in a big way Wednesday night. He looked much like the guy who finished third in the National League Cy Young voting in 2018. Nola's fastball had life — he hit 95 mph on the gun — and his breaking ball and changeup were sharp. He held the Yankees to three hits and a run over six innings. He walked none and struck out 12. The only run Nola allowed came on a first-pitch homer by Luke Voit in the second inning. Voit was sitting breaking ball, got one and clubbed it 420 feet to left. Otherwise, Nola was brilliant.

Because Nola was pitching for only the second time this season, and he was doing it on 12 days' rest, Girardi lifted the right-hander at 88 pitches and entrusted a tie game to Hunter in the seventh.

"The long layoff had everything to do with it," Girardi said of his decision to lift Nola. "Hopefully, we'll get him to around 100 (pitches) next time. You're facing that (Yankees) team, they're stressful innings. Even if you're not giving up a lot, they're stressful innings. Long layoff, second start, you can't jeopardize his health. I have a responsibility to the organization and the fans to win games, but I also have a responsibility to the health of our players. This is their living. A lot of times you have to protect players from themselves and I take that very seriously."

Hunter struggled from the outset. He gave up three straight hits — two singles and a double — as the Yankees broke the tie and took a 2-1 lead. Hunter then hit a batter and allowed another hit as the Yankees went up, 3-1.

Obviously, the bullpen hurt the Phillies in Game 2. But so, too, did a lack of offense in a game in which the Yankees employed their bullpen for all seven innings. All of this conspired against Nola.

And one had to wonder what might have been hadn't Neris been needed in Game 1. He, instead of Hunter, would have been used in the top of the seventh. It's customary to use your closer in the top of the final inning in a tie game at home and Girardi confirmed he would have done that.

"Unfortunately, we had to use Hector in the first game," Girardi said. "It's not what I wanted to do but they were one baserunner away from having the tying run at the plate. We know the power they have. It's not what I wanted to do, but when you have a chance to win a game, you have to win the game."

The Phils should have won two games. Nola deserved better.

"Yeah," Girardi said, acknowledging the missed opportunity. "We win the first game then get a brilliant game by Aaron Nola. But we know how good they are on the other side.

"I still think we can take a lot of good from that game even though we didn't win it. You feel good where Aaron Nola is at. You feel good about where Zack Wheeler is at. Jake Arrieta pitched well the other night. We need to continue to build on that. If you get really good starting pitching all the time, you're going to win a lot of games."

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Zack Wheeler pitches a gem, Phillies bats come alive for 11 runs in win over Yankees

Zack Wheeler pitches a gem, Phillies bats come alive for 11 runs in win over Yankees

The Phillies got a strong start from Zack Wheeler and plenty of offense as they beat the New York Yankees, 11-7, in the first game of a doubleheader Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park.

Wheeler pitched six innings in the seven-inning affair. He gave up six hits, walked two and struck out two. He has won both of his starts with the Phillies and allowed just four runs (three earned) in 13 innings.

The Phillies, who were the visiting team in Game 1, erased a three-run deficit with four runs in the top of the third inning. They added six runs on six singles and a New York error in the sixth inning.

The leaky bullpen, of course, struggled, but the Phils built a big enough lead to survive.

Bryce Harper clubbed a two-run homer in the third inning. He left the game in the sixth inning after running down the first base line and being checked by an athletic trainer. It was apparently a precautionary move as Harper was in the Game 2 lineup.

J.T. Realmuto also homered for the Phillies, who are now 2-3. Wheeler has both of the team’s wins. 

The Phils will be the home team in Game 2. Aaron Nola will start the game.

It’s never easy

With his team leading, 11-3, manager Joe Girardi removed Wheeler at 87 pitches and entrusted the final three outs to his very shaky bullpen. Lefty Austin Davis was quickly mugged for four runs, three on Aaron Judge’s seventh homer of the season. 

After Trevor Kelley walked a tight rope and put two men on base, Girardi had to bring in closer Hector Neris to get the final out. That might sound insignificant, but it wasn’t, not with a second game to play. Neris threw just one pitch in earning the save. We’ll see if that affects his availability for Game 2.

Unhappy return

Sixteen years after being selected by the Phillies in the third round of the 2004 draft, lefty J.A. Happ faced his original team. Happ and Cole Hamels are the only two members of the 2008 World Series championship team still active.

It was not a pleasant return to CBP for the 37-year-old Happ. He allowed four runs in the top of the third inning to lose a 3-0 lead. The big hit in the frame was Harper’s two-run homer on an 0-2 pitch. Happ walked six batters, including four in the third inning. One of them came with the bases loaded.

Speaking of ...

... Homers on 0-2 counts. The Phillies gave up a whopping 16 of them last season. That was the most in the National League and second-most in the majors behind the Angels, who gave up 18.

In five games this season, Phillies pitchers have already allowed two 0-2 homers. Nola gave up one on a breaking ball in his first start and Wheeler gave up one (also on a breaking ball) to Brett Gardner in the second inning of this game. Other than that, Wheeler was very good.

Stay hot

Girardi went with a right-handed heavy batting order against the lefty Happ. Phil Gosselin started at third and Jean Segura moved to shortstop. Lefty-hitting Didi Gregorius did not start. He entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the fifth and stayed on at shortstop with Segura moving to third.

Gosselin had two plate appearances. He doubled and pushed home a run with a bases-loaded walk in the third.

For the season, Gosselin is 5 for 8 with two homers and a double. He has reached base safely eight times in his 11 plate appearances.

A kick start?

Rhys Hoskins fell behind 0-2 against reliever Nick Nelson in the sixth inning. He then drove a single to left field for his first RBI of the season. Maybe the hit will help Hoskins get going. He was 2 for 15 before the hit. 

On defense

Segura made an error at shortstop that cost Wheeler and the Phillies a run in the first inning. Segura atoned with a nice play to start a double play in the fourth.

The Phils turned three double plays behind Wheeler. Wheeler benefited from four double plays in his first start. Not a bad trend.

Spencer for hire?

Before Game 1, Girardi announced his pitching rotation for the week. Nola will pitch the second game of the doubleheader. Zach Eflin will pitch Thursday against the Yankees and Vince Velasquez and Jake Arrieta will pitch the first two games of the Atlanta series on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Girardi said Sunday’s starter against the Braves was “to be determined.” It seems reasonable that top pitching prospect Spencer Howard could make his major-league debut that day. Girardi had previously said that he and team officials would discuss the possibility of Howard getting that start. Stay tuned.

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