Upping the Down(trodden): Stairs’ Case
Along with their quiet fury of moves this offseason, the Phillies made a lone coaching change, coaxing 2008 NLCS folk hero Matt Stairs down a few flights of, ahem, stairs, out of the broadcast booth and back into those familiar snug red pinstripes.
The goal? Improvement.
It’s no secret the Phillies lacked offensive firepower last season. Last in runs scored and OPS in the majors, they posted a .301 on-base percentage, their worst in four and a half decades. Among 2016 MLB teams, they finished five points off the lowest batting average, two points better than the worst OBP and one point above the worst slugging percentage.
So how will Stairs improve the bats? He spoke with CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury during the Phils beat writer’s Countdown to Clearwater series and outlined his plan.
He focused on a handful of points, almost echoing the sentiments of a buzzed-on-Jim-Beam Crash Davis who, in Bull Durham, spoke of how one dying quail, one ground ball with eyes per week is the difference between a .250 and a .300 hitter. Stairs said: “If every player gave away five at-bats per week that’s 120 at-bats per season. Now, think about it if you can cut that number in half.”
I boiled down his comments to four main concepts, all of which come in the name of not giving away the precious at-bats of which he spoke:
- Implement a game plan: every hitter needs an approach, regardless of their talent level.
- Hit good pitches early in the count: not just any pitches, preferably fastballs and only those the hitter can put a good cut on, ones in their own personal hot zone.
- Extend counts if not given your pitch: if those preferred fastballs don’t materialize, don’t be afraid to stretch the at-bat and raise pitch counts.
- Work gap to gap: instead of selling out to yank balls down the line, keep your hands back and work the middle third of the field.
We know the lineup left much to be desired last season, but where does the offense Stairs has inherited stand in these four skill sets?
Let’s take those points one by one.
First, having a game plan.
“Approach” is a catch-all buzzword slapped on a hitter that is nearly always more in-depth than it’s simple name suggests. In a failure-driven game, approach covers the combination of necessary mental acuity and physical implementation of your plan needed to hit a baseball. But it’s more than just the mental and physical plan, it’s the ability to execute said plan amid slumps and hot streaks alike. And if you don’t have a plan to begin with, if you simply rely on your God-given talent that has propelled you thus far, things often go awry.
Just ask Maikel Franco, a phenomenally talented hitter who slumped below his expected production in 2016, because, as he put it this offseason, “Most of the time I just went to the plate without a plan. I just swung at everything. Now, I think about it like, ‘This year is really important for you. You have to know what you’re doing and have to show everybody more discipline and be more selective at home plate.’ ”
Even the best hitter is just a man. But with a plan, he could hit a ball over a canal. Maybe even into Panama.
Second, hit good pitches early, fastballs in particular.
Regardless of the count, the Phillies were one of, if not the worst fastball hitting team in the majors. (Here I’ll refer to cutters, four- and two-seam fastballs in the general category of “fastball,” omitting the split-finger and sinker which generally have more dip.)
Their .287 batting average on heaters ranked better only than the Padres, and their .484 slugging percentage ranked third lowest. No other team was as bad in those rate stats. Fangraphs’ pitch values firmly plant the Phillies as a bottom-three team against fastballs. That doesn’t leave much more room to drop. But against fastballs early in the count, another focus for Stairs, they did just that.
Let’s call “early in the count” any one of four counts: 0-0, 0-1, 1-0 or 1-1. Anything more (on either side) is ostensibly “ahead” or “behind” in the count.
In this situation, where Stairs is keen on improving the club’s production, the 2016 team ranked last in baseball in batting average (.329, league average of .362) and slugging percentage (.540, league average of .615).
Those who saw the least success attacking early fastballs included Aaron Altherr, .250 batting average (6 for 24), Freddy Galvis, .272 (22 for 81) and Tommy Joseph, .297 (11 for 37). While .272 and .297 don’t sound like poor batting averages at face value, keep in mind the league average in those situations is .362. Fastballs attacked early in the zone are usually attacked for their perceived “hitability.”
Using just in-the-strike-zone fastballs attempts to zoom in on Stairs’ focal point. This doesn’t even account for any harder to hit out-of-the-zone fastballs these players put in play. While the entire strike zone isn’t the wheelhouse for each player that Stairs was speaking of—that is typically a single spot within the strike zone—it’s stands in as a makeshift barrier inside which a player’s primary hitting zone will likely be located. In short, not perfect, but not bad by any means.
Bottom line, there is clearly room for improvement here. The team, as a whole, swung and missed at an above average rate early in the count, a sign of players not attacking the flatter pitches in zones Stairs wants them to focus on.
Third, drawing out long at-bats.
While this was not a particular skill of last year’s team, Stairs knows a thing or two about extending counts to get a choice pitch.
“If you work counts, the pitcher will make a mistake,” he told Salisbury.
If only there was a relevant example of a clutch hit in Phillies history in which a hitter waited for his pitch and forced the pitcher to make a mistake in a hitter’s count…anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
Oh, right. Stairs broke a tie in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS when he ripped a 94 mph Jonathan Broxton belt-high fastball into the night, deep into right. The count? The best let-her-rip hitter’s count of all: 3-1.
Here’s the overlay of where Russell Martin set up vs. where the pitch as last seen before being ending up in the hands of the dejected Chavez Ravine faithful some 400 feet away.
“I’ve never turned down a fastball, and I never will,” Stairs said in 2009, a year after his moonshot off Broxton. “I’ll be swinging at fastballs till I’m 50. They might be slow-pitch fastballs, but I’ll be swinging at them.”
He turns 49 in two weeks and will technically be coaching players swinging at fastballs. Close enough, no?
So, extending counts. Not a strength of the current lineup. At 3.81 pitcher/plate appearance last season, the Phillies had the fourth-shortest plate appearances in the league. Odubel Herrera is the only Phillie who averaged over four pitches/plate appearance at 4.01, 42nd longest in the majors. Cesar Hernandez had the next longest trips to the plate averaging 3.89 pitches, just above league average. It should be stated that new addition Howie Kendrick is actually fairly good at working long at-bats.
Given that the team’s two best hitters last season averaged the longest plate appearances, maybe its no surprise Stairs will stress it to another young lineup in 2017.
Fourth, working the power alleys.
In the homer-obsessed MLB, we saw plenty of hitters forsake years of coaching wisdom about “working the middle of the field” to, instead, pull the living daylights out of the ball. No such directives will be handed down from Stairs.
Again, there is plenty of room for improvement here. While the Phillies hit a higher percentage of the batted balls between the power alleys than any other team in the league, according to Baseball Info Solutions, they weren’t producing offense.
Their batting average on those balls fell in the bottom five in the league to pair with a below average slugging percentage and wRC+. A challenge for Stairs and the rest of the staff will be to induce more productive contact up the middle.
A new Statcast metric “barrels” confirms those numbers. Barrels are batted balls whose exit velocity and launch angle produce, at minimum, a .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. (In 2016, the averaged “barreled” ball registered a .822 batting average and 2.386 slugging percentage.) These are best things you can do with an at-bat: hit the ball hard, not too high so that it’s an easily fieldable pop-up but not so low that it can be gloved by an infielder.
The Phillies ranked 28th in overall barrels last season, and only five teams had fewer barrels on balls hit between left- and right-center field.
And their most prolific barreler, Ryan Howard, both between the power alleys and to all parts of the field, is no longer on the roster. (Among all players with at least 30 barrels, Howard actually ranked sixth overall with a barrel in 2.41 percent of his at-bats.)
To recap: Stairs wants his players to enter each at-bat with a plan, hit fastballs better early in the count, extend the count if they don’t get what they’re looking for and use the middle of the field.
Last year, some struggled to implement a plan (although it’s tough to tell unless a player like Franco comes out and admits it), they weren’t effective in hitting fastballs early in the count, they weren’t great at extending the count and, while they used the middle of the field, didn’t produce much offense doing so.
Salisbury wrote, “Congratulations on your new gig, Matt Stairs. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
The data could not agree more.