Countdown to Clearwater: Matt Stairs has a challenge — and a plan

Countdown to Clearwater: Matt Stairs has a challenge — and a plan

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors with 610 runs scored in 2016.

They were also last in OPS (.685).

They ranked second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) and drew the second fewest walks (424) in the majors.

Congratulations on your new gig, Matt Stairs. You’ve got your work cut out for you.

The Phillies made just one personnel change on their coaching staff after last season with Stairs, one of the heroes of the team’s run to the 2008 World Series title, replacing Steve Henderson as hitting coach.

Stairs, who turns 49 later this month, requires no elaborate orientation for his new job. He is a devoted student of hitting and for years has tutored young, amateur players on an individual basis. He’s also extremely familiar with most of the Phillies' hitters after spending the last three seasons as part of the team’s TV broadcast crew.

“I already have a book on every hitter’s strengths and weaknesses,” Stairs said. “I love hitting and teaching it. I’m really excited to get going.”

Stairs has actually been in Clearwater for a couple of weeks working with early arrivers such as Odubel Herrera and Roman Quinn. With each passing day, more and more hitters will arrive, leading up to the first full-squad workout on Feb. 17.

So what can the Phillies' hitters expect from Stairs? What will he stress in camp as he tries to build a better hitter and improve the team’s on-base skills?

“Don’t give away at-bats,” Stairs said. “I’m going to communicate that to them over and over until I almost become a pain in the butt: Don’t give away at-bats. Know your strengths as a hitter. Go up there with a game plan. Be ready to hit.

“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.”

In order to become a tougher out and not give away at-bats, Stairs will stress to his hitters to hit off the fastball early in the count. But he doesn’t want his hitters simply hacking at any fastball. He wants them to look for the pitch in a certain location — their strength area. If they get a fastball in that area, drive it. If they don’t, lay off and let the pitcher run up his pitch count and move closer to his exit.

“Be aggressive early in the count, but make sure the pitch is in your strength location,” Stairs said. “But you don’t have to swing at the first pitch, you don’t have to expand the zone early in the count if it’s not in the location you’re looking.

“If you’re sitting fastball early in the count and you swing at a slider low and away, that’s giving away an at-bat. Work the count to a hitter’s count. Next thing you know you’re improving your selectivity.

“We are driving through the minors to be more selective, cut back on the easy outs. If guys stay on that program, you will notice the on-base percentage climb.”

Phillies hitters saw an average of just 3.81 pitchers per at-bat in 2016, which ranked 27th in the majors. General manager Matt Klentak wants to build a team that “controls the strike zone” — both in the batter’s box and on the pitcher’s mound. The concept — characterized by swinging at strikes and throwing them — is being stressed from the low minors on up and Stairs will do his part at the big-league level. It will start with dugout communication and the reminding of a hitter to have a game plan before each at-bat during a game.

“I want them to realize if you play the first game of a series and give no at-bats away you’ll be in the bullpen early in the first game and you have a good chance to win the series,” Stairs said. “Be patient, get in 'pen early, especially in the first game, win the series. That said, I don’t want them taking a fastball down the middle.”

Stairs will stress a basic hitting approach during batting practice each day.

“We want these guys to think gap to gap, less body and more hands in their swings,” Stairs said. “Drive the ball through the wall in the gap. BP will really have a purpose. It’s not going to be one of those things where you hack and see how far you can hit it. If you hit a home run in BP we want it to be to right-center or left-center, at least until the last round, then you can let it rip. But bad habits carry over into a game. You don’t get into bad habits when you stay gap to gap.”

Maikel Franco is a gifted offensive talent who needs to be reminded to use the middle of the field more. When he gets pull-happy, pitchers can have their way with him with pitches away or off the plate. If he can learn to drive pitches away to the opposite field or lay off them when they are off the plate, he will eventually see more pitches middle-in and ultimately become more dangerous.

Stairs is eager to work with all the Phillies' hitters, in particular Franco, who reminds him of a former Oakland A’s teammate.

“He reminds me of Miguel Tejada,” Stairs said of the former American League MVP. “When Tejada first came up, he swung at everything. He was a free-swinger like Franco. Then he calmed down. He figured it out and became a true professional hitter. He’d spit on the stuff low and away and wait for the pitcher to make a mistake. Franco has good hands and a good swing. He’ll be an MVP candidate once he figures it out.

“If you work counts, the pitcher will make a mistake. I’ll try to make all of our hitters realize they don’t have to be in a hurry to hit and you do that through a lot of communication, film study and work.”

Stairs is ready to put in the work.

And the progress of his pupils is key to this team’s improvement.

Next: Day 5 — A look at how the starting rotation will shape up

Phillies-Diamondbacks 5 things: Nothing but quality from Ben Lively?

Phillies-Diamondbacks 5 things: Nothing but quality from Ben Lively?

Phillies (24-48) at Diamondbacks (46-28)
10:10 p.m. on TCN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies, believe it or not, bring a two-game winning streak into Saturday night. Seriously! Led by six strong innings from Mark Leiter Jr., the Phillies beat the Diamondbacks 6-1 on Friday, picking up their first win over the D-backs this season. Can Ben Lively make it three straight? Or will Robbie Ray turn out the lights on the Phillies offense?

Here are five things to know for late Saturday night:

1. High quality
In tonight's start, Lively has the opportunity to become first Phillie since 1943 to begin his career with five quality starts. His first four starts have made him the most reliable starter in the Phils' rotation despite the team's 1-3 record in those appearances.

Better yet for Lively, he's coming off a strong start against these very same D-backs. It was a rocky beginning for the 25-year-old righty. He gave up two home runs within the first five batters he faced and ceded a 3-0 lead to his opposition. Plenty of pitchers -- see the rest of the staff this season -- would have folded after such a lackluster start. But Lively had some moxie in him. 

He gave up just four hits over his last five innings. He worked his way out of a third-and-first, no-out jam. And he finished his afternoon with a 1-2-3 inning. You never would have guessed watching the first inning that he'd actually leave in line for the win.

Lively also began to actually strike people out. That was his main bugaboo in his first few starts. With just 3.7 strikeouts per nine innings, one would predict he'd sport a higher ERA. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is 4.88, a run and a half higher than his 3.33 ERA. Maybe Chase Field will be his Waterloo, but Citizens Bank Park could have easily played a similar role.

A side-note, but Lively's nickname is Bee-bo. I don't know what we should do with that, but it is worth mentioning. I'm sure that will help explain his results tonight, good or bad.

2. Ray of Ks
While the Phillies offense has looked pedestrian at times this year, they got to the hottest pitcher in baseball on Sunday. 

Ray came into Sunday with some downright filthy numbers over his previous five games: He was 5-0 with a 0.24 ERA, allowing just one run over 37 innings. He struck out 48 batters in that span and allowed just 24 baserunners, including just 14 hits. Batters hit just .115/.182/.164 against him. 

The Phils? Well, they broke out the bats and got to him on a hot afternoon at CBP. They produced 12 baserunners (eight hits, four walks) and four runs, smacking two solo homers against the 25-year-old lefty. He lasted just 5 1/3 innings, his shortest outing since May 14.

For the season, Ray is 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA and 114 Ks in 87 2/3 innings. It's a far cry from his 4.90 ERA last season, although his strikeout rate is about the same. He walks more batters than ever (four per nine innings) but limits hits at a career-best rate, bringing his WHIP down to 1.141. 

As for a repertoire, Ray works off his mid-90s fastball, turning to his mid-80s slider and low-80s curveball for offspeed offerings. All three pitches have been effective this season, but his offspeed stuff has been particularly strong. 

3. Torey Lovullo and a real contender
When the baseball season began back in April, it was tough to see the Diamondbacks as legitimate contenders. At 69-93 in 2016, the team was just one game better than the worst record in the National League and they didn't make many appreciable changes to the roster. 

The main changes came up top: Mike Hazen was hired as the team's new general manager and Torey Lovullo came aboard as manager. Whatever magic they've brought with them has made a big impact as the team is within a game of the Dodgers for the NL West crown. Even better, they lead the NL wild card chase and are nine games clear of a playoff spot. Sure, it's only June 24, but that's a nice place to be. 

The managerial role can be overrated in baseball. The skipper can be handed the blame for a team that isn't performing even when it is mostly due to a roster that can't get it done. But Lovullo seems to have this team working well. He had received rave reviews when he filled in for John Farrell in 2015. His short stint made him a top candidate for the position and Hazen, also a Red Sox alum, was able to pluck him from Boston.

And things have fallen in line in the desert. Zack Greinke has bounced back to form along with the rest of the rotation. The Bullpen has looked pretty good since Fernando Rodney snapped into form after April. And their lineup, as Corey detailed yesterday, is a force with which to be reckoned. Having those three factors working for them -- together with some aggressive baserunning -- and D-backs have a real contending chance this year.

4. Players to watch
Phillies: With his two-run shot in the ninth inning on Friday, Tommy Joseph has hit home runs in back-to-back games for the second time this year (May 9-10 vs. the Mariners)

Diamondbacks: Shortstop Chris Owings has a nine-game hitting streak going after a single in the series opener. He had a home run off Lively on Sunday.

5. This and that
• This year is starting to look like last year, at least in how the Phillies are playing the D-backs. In 2016, they were swept at CBP before returning the favor at Chase Field. This year, a sweep at CBP before taking the first game in the desert. 

• As mentioned above, Arizona makes things happen on the basepaths. Going into this series, the team led baseball with 18.2 base running runs above average according to Fangraphs. The Phillies are 24th with -7.0 runs above average.

• Howie Kendrick, Maikel Franco and Aaron Altherr all have home runs off Ray in their careers. Kendrick is 5 for 22 with two walks against the lefty. Odubel Herrera is 4 for 9. 

• Lively allowed homers to Owings and Paul Goldschmidt on Sunday. Brandon Drury went 2 for 2 with a double.

Best of MLB: Royals storm back in 9th inning for win over Blue Jays

Best of MLB: Royals storm back in 9th inning for win over Blue Jays

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Whit Merrifield hit a two-run, two-out double that capped a four-run rally in the ninth inning, and the Kansas City Royals beat the Toronto Blue Jays 5-4 on Friday night to reach .500 for the first time since April.

With their 10th win in 12 games, the Royals improved to 36-36. They were 6-6 before play on April 20, then went on a nine-game losing streak that night and dropped as low as 10-20, seven games out of first place. They trail AL Central-leading Cleveland by three games.

Toronto took a 2-1 lead into the ninth and extended it when Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak hit RBI singles off Joakim Soria (4-2) (see full recap).

Dodgers cruise past Rockies for 8th straight win
LOS ANGELES -- Yasiel Puig homered and left-hander Alex Wood kept his record perfect as the streaking Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the NL West rival Colorado Rockies 6-1 on Friday night for their eighth consecutive victory.

The Dodgers have won 14 of their last 15 games. They have scored at least six runs in seven consecutive games.

Wood (8-0) allowed one run in six innings. He gave up only three hits and walked two, retiring his last 10 batters.

The Dodgers have homered in 15 consecutive games, tied for fourth-longest streak in club history. The last time they managed it was in 1977. Their record is 24 consecutive games with a home run.

Rookie left-hander Kyle Freeman (8-4) allowed five runs and a career-high 10 hits and three walks in six innings (see full recap).

Torreyes hits walk-off single to lift Yanks over Rangers
NEW YORK -- Ronald Torreyes hit a game-winning single with two outs in the 10th inning after midnight, and the New York Yankees edged the Texas Rangers 2-1 on a rainy Friday night for just their second win in 10 games.

Brett Gardner lined a tying home run with one out in the New York ninth off closer Matt Bush. After Chasen Shreve (2-1) escaped a bases-loaded jam in the top of the 10th, Torreyes kept the Yankees atop the AL East.

Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka kept it scoreless into the late innings in the first major league meeting between the Japanese stars (see full recap).