Strikeouts skyrocketing and 2018 Phillies a prime example why

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Strikeouts skyrocketing and 2018 Phillies a prime example why

You couldn't go a week last season without a new think-piece or video segment questioning why so many more home runs than ever before were being hit at the major-league level.

There were 6,105 home runs hit last season, about 500 more than any year prior.

We've already seen this change in 2018. Last year, teams hit an average of 1.26 homers per game. This season, they've averaged 1.14. Over a full season, that's again a difference of around 500.

Multiple studies have been conducted to figure out what caused last season's home run surge, with scientists finding material changes to the baseball. This video is pretty fascinating.

It was wound tighter and thus became drier and denser. Those qualities made the ball travel farther and faster.

Air resistance was a major factor. Baseball physicist Alan Nathan headed a commission that found decreased air resistance led to balls traveling six feet farther last season than it did just three years prior.

MLB obviously took this all very seriously, enacting new measures to control air resistance and find more uniform policies for the storage of baseballs.

The other major factor in all of this is the modern hitter's obsession with launch angle. Teams want their power hitters to focus on lifting the baseball because what good is a ground ball from a guy who will rarely beat one out?

Rhys Hoskins is a prototypical example of this. Hoskins has hit the ball on the ground in just 29.2 percent of his plate appearances as a Phillie. It's the fifth-lowest figure in the majors and 15 percent lower than the league average.

This is why strikeouts have skyrocketed, too. Yes, it helps that almost everyone throws in the mid-to-high 90s these days, but pitchers have also taken advantage of the way hitters are swinging.

To combat the launch angle/uppercut obsession, teams are having their pitchers throw more high fastballs than ever before. Why? Because it's hard to lift a 96 mph fastball with a slight uppercut when it's up in the zone. The swing path and bat speed just doesn't connect.

This is why, even though home runs have normalized this season, strikeouts are still at a record-breaking pace. Teams are averaging 8.55 strikeouts this season, by far the most in any season in MLB history. Last season, that number was 8.25. In 2016, it was 8.03. Prior to that, it was never higher than 7.7.

The Phillies are one of the game's main culprits. They've struck out in 26.0 percent of their plate appearances to lead the majors. Those non-productive outs don't matter as much when you're still walking and racking up extra-base hits, but lately, the Phillies haven't done that.

Since May 20, the Phillies rank last in baseball in batting average (.207), on-base percentage (.282) and slugging percentage (.332). They've struck out 183 times to lead the National League and are middle of the pack in walks over that span.

Another major reason for all of the Phillies' strikeouts is their offensive philosophy of working counts and seeing pitches. Only the Dodgers have seen more pitches per plate appearance than the Phillies (4.04). Obviously, the more pitches you see, the better the chance of a walk. But the chance of a strikeout also increases. 

For example, the Cardinals (352), Phillies (348) and Angels (346) have worked nearly the same number of full counts this season. But 102 of those full counts have ended in strikeouts for the Phillies, while the Cardinals have had 90 and the Angels 81. Pretty huge differences.

Unless you have the right roster construction, it's not exactly a winning formula, but don't expect it to change all that much because this is baseball in 2018 — fewer teams than ever care about manufacturing runs, and more than ever care about seeing pitches, hitting the ball in the air and utilizing the high heater.

Charlie Manuel back in a Phillies uniform for 'hittin' season'

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Charlie Manuel back in a Phillies uniform for 'hittin' season'

The temperature on the field was well into the 90s as the Phillies took batting practice at Citizens Bank Park before Monday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals.

In other words …

“Hittin’ season,” Charlie Manuel said. “This is my weather. I probably should be here.”

And Manuel was there, standing behind the batting cage — in uniform — taking it all in, talking hitting, offering pointers.

Manuel scouts amateur players leading up to the draft so he has been in town all month and will stay through Thursday’s annual Phillies Phestival, which benefits the Philadelphia Chapter of the ALS Association. Hitting coach John Mallee asked the beloved former skipper to put on a uniform and come down on the field to watch batting practice. The two had previously built a rapport during spring training.

Manuel is still a fixture around the batting cage in spring training, but this was the first time he’d been in uniform around the cage at Citizens Bank Park since he was fired as Phillies skipper on Aug. 16, 2013. Actually, Manuel never changed into his uniform that day. He got the news from then general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., appeared briefly at a news conference then grabbed his Wawa bag and headed home. So Monday was the first time he’d been in uniform at CBP since Aug. 8, 2013. The Phillies beat the Chicago Cubs, 12-1, that day.

Manuel wasn’t the only extra set of eyes around the batting cage on Monday. Andy Tracy, the team’s minor-league hitting coordinator, is also in town. Manager Gabe Kapler brings in members of the player-development staff periodically. Kapler stresses inclusion top to bottom. Longtime Phillies observers will recall that former GM Ed Wade used to employ a similar program.

Manuel loved his time around the batting cage.

“I got a good sweat going,” he said. “I feel good. It’s a good feeling, unreal really. We had some guys in BP really putting on a show. (Nick) Williams, (Jorge) Alfaro, (Aaron) Altherr, (Carlos) Santana — they were launching ‘em. Hopefully it carries over into the game.”

Well, the Phillies scored four runs in the first inning, three on a homer by Odubel Herrera.

Hittin’ season.

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Hector Neris heads to Triple A to clear head, find splitter

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Hector Neris heads to Triple A to clear head, find splitter

The news really was not surprising. For more than a month now, Hector Neris has looked a little shell-shocked and a little gun shy. He wasn’t pitching with the confidence he exhibited in 2016 and 2017 when he was a mainstay in the Phillies bullpen.

Neris' struggles came to an unfortunate head when he was tagged for four runs in the ninth inning of Sunday’s game in Milwaukee. The Phillies survived and escaped with a 10-9 win. But Neris' roster spot did not survive. He reported for work at Citizens Bank Park on Monday and was told that he’d been demoted to Triple A Lehigh Valley.

The Phillies hope that Neris can rebuild his confidence and rediscover the splitter that helped him save 26 games last season.

“We would like Hector to clear his head,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “It feels like the right time for him to work on his command of his split, specifically. And he just, quite frankly, needed a refresher. Sometimes that refresher, sometimes that recharge can change everything and get him right back on track. It is our expectation that Hector will be back with the Phillies this season, helping and contributing to a playoff run and hopefully beyond.”

To fill Neris’ roster spot, the Phillies selected the contract of left-handed reliever Austin Davis. Davis, 25, was selected by the Phillies in the 12th round of the 2014 draft. He had a 2.70 ERA and a 0.982 WHIP in 26 games at Double A Reading and Triple A Lehigh Valley this season.

Neris, 29, was the Phillies’ primary closer last season. He pitched in 74 games. He pitched in 79 games in 2016.

The workhorse right-hander has struggled mightily this season, pitching to a 6.00 ERA in 30 games.

“We don't have a timetable for this,” Kapler said. “It's much more clearing his head, getting a refresher, shot in the arm, an opportunity to make any adjustments he needs to make in a completely pressure-free environment and come back recharged and ready to roll.”

Neris has had trouble getting his splitter down in the zone.

“His ability to throw that pitch where he wants to throw it in the zone and then to move it out of the zone is what makes Hector Neris special and a guy that's been an effective reliever now for a couple years,” Kapler said. “Without the command of that pitch — again, there's subjectivity to it, this is just what I'm seeing — I think it's very hard for him to be as successful as he wants himself to be and as successful as we think he can be.”

Kapler said Neris took the news like a pro.

“I know his ego was bruised," Kapler said. "It has to be. I'm pretty empathetic to that. It's hard to establish yourself at the major-league level and have to say it to your teammates that this is what occurred. It's hard. This is a really tough thing for Hector to deal with, but I'm very confident this is what's best for him long term. I'm very confident this will give him an opportunity to be right back here with his teammates."

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