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.
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.