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-Rockies 5 things: Hellickson good to go; Franco sits again

Phillies-Rockies 5 things: Hellickson good to go; Franco sits again

Phillies (15-28) vs. Rockies (30-17)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies' nightmarish skid continued Tuesday as they dropped a second straight game to a Rockies rookie starting pitcher.

They've been outscored 16-3 in the first two games of this four-game series against a Colorado club that has the best record in the NL and more road wins (17) than the Phillies have total wins.

Let's take a look at Game 3:

1. Hellickson good to go
The Phillies got a scare last Friday night when Jeremy Hellickson hurt his lower back during his seventh-inning at-bat, but they avoided disaster when it was diagnosed as mere stiffness as opposed to something more serious like a strained oblique.

Hellickson said that night and again the next morning that he felt fine and wouldn't miss a start. The Phillies are thankful for that given the inefficiencies of their rotation, which has just 16 quality starts in 43 games, third-fewest in the majors.

Hellickson (5-1, 3.44) was locked in last weekend against a weak Pirates lineup but this is much more of a challenge. Don't expect him to set down 16 of 17 batters the way he did in Pittsburgh.

The Phillies are 8-1 when Hellickson pitches this season and 7-27 when anyone else does. The only loss in a Hellickson start came against the Cubs on May 2, the first of a three-start skid in which Hellickson allowed 12 runs in 13⅔ innings. Of those 12 runs, 11 scored via home runs. He allowed seven homers in those three starts after giving up just two in his first five.

The Rockies present a lot of challenges and one of them is that they've been the second-best team in the majors this season against the changeup, which is Hellickson's go-to pitch. Only the Marlins (.312) have a higher batting average vs. changeups than the Rockies (.286).

(For reference, the Phillies are 28th in baseball against changeups with a .201 batting average.)

Then again, not all changeups are the same, and Hellickson did limit the Marlins to one run on seven hits over six innings when he faced them April 27.

Current Rockies are just 10 for 56 (.179) off Hellickson. Ian Desmond has the only homer (2 for 5, HR, double).

2. Blackmon the Destroyer
Charlie Blackmon, good lord.

The guy has seven home runs in his last five games at Citizens Bank Park. Over that span — Aug. 12, 2016 through last night — Blackmon has more homers at CBP than any Phillie.

Think about how ridiculous that is. Aaron Altherr and Ryan Howard are next with six homers in 15 and 17 games, respectively. Then comes Freddy Galvis with five in 26 games.

3. Fading fast
At 15-28, the Phillies are on pace to finish 57-105. They've dropped 19 of 23 and now have the second-worst record in the majors, ahead of only the 16-31 Padres.

The offense has been completely devoid of life lately. It's not like these guys are going out and playing with zero energy, but when you don't hit, it's always going to seem like that.

Since May 12, the Phillies are 2-9. They've hit .225/.273/.345 as a team for the second-worst OBP and OPS, ahead of only the Mariners.

They've been middle of the pack with runners in scoring position over that span, but they have just 89 plate appearances with RISP, which is seventh-fewest in baseball.

A lot of this can be attributed to the top of the order. Cesar Hernandez is 9 for 54 (.167) with no extra-base hits over his last 14 games. And that vaunted 1-2 in the Phillies' order — a duo which hit close to .350 in April — is down to .282.

4. Scouting Chatwood
The Phillies face 27-year-old right-hander Tyler Chatwood (3-6, 5.09).

He was the Rockies' best starting pitcher last season when he went 12-9 with a 3.87 ERA in 158 innings. He walked 70 and those control issues have continued this season — 27 walks in 53 innings.

He's been especially wild lately, walking 19 in 21⅔ innings this month. 

Chatwood averages 95 mph with his fastball and sinker and 88-90 with his slider and changeup. He also throws a high-70s curveball.

He faced the Phillies twice last year and went 0-2, allowing 10 runs (eight earned) in nine innings. Interestingly, though, no active Phillie has an extra-base hit against him.

Hopefully, the Phils will be able to make Chatwood work tonight and take advantage of their opportunities with men on base. They stranded the bases loaded three times last night.

5. Franco sits again
Maikel Franco and Cameron Rupp are sitting again. Pete Mackanin wants the extremely inconsistent, wild-swinging Franco to sit back and watch for a few days to regroup. He also wants to see some more of Andrew Knapp after a rough defensive week from Cameron Rupp.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Aaron Altherr, LF
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Andres Blanco, 3B
6. Odubel Herrera, CF
7. Andrew Knapp, C
8. Michael Saunders, RF
9. Jeremy Hellickson, P

Are we there yet? Philly Sports Talk examines the state of the Phillies

Are we there yet? Philly Sports Talk examines the state of the Phillies

All week on Philly Sports Talk on CSN, we examine how our teams got to this point and where they are in the rebuilding process. 

Today, we take a look at the Phillies.

How did we get here?
The Phillies pretty clearly got here by holding onto the 2008 championship core several years too long, but they've also arrived at this point because of an inability to develop difference-making talent.

The Phils have some pieces, but they don't have a star or two to expedite the rebuild, nor do they have multiple solid, complete players like the Royals did.

Maikel Franco is a piece. Odubel Herrera is a piece. Aaron Altherr is a piece. But are any of them going to make multiple All-Star teams? Will any of them bat .300 or hit 30 homers in the middle of the order for a playoff team?

That's the big problem right now. Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff are valuable pitchers to have, but you're not going to make the playoffs if they're two of your top five players.

This season, 2017, was supposed to be the year the Phillies inched closer to .500. Pete Mackanin went out on a limb before the season saying he thought they could get there. Right now, they're on pace to win 58 games.

However, the thing to remember here is that teams don't necessarily improve in a straight line, going from 63 wins to 71 to 80 to 85 to 90-plus.

The 2014-15 Cubs jumped from 73 wins to 97.

The 2012-13 Pirates went from 79 to 94.

The 2012-13 Royals increased from 72 to 86.

So it can change in a year with the right mix of development, spending and luck. The Phillies have money to spend. Development and luck just haven't been on their side the last five years.

Are the Phillies on the right path back to prosperity?
It doesn't seem so, but the right things are happening below the major-league level. 

They're happening with first baseman Rhys Hoskins and catcher Jorge Alfaro, who could be batting fourth and fifth next opening day.

They're happening with Dylan Cozens, who looks like he'll provide 30-plus home run power, even if it might come with a .220 batting average and a ton of strikeouts.

And they're happening at the lower levels, where pitchers Sixto Sanchez and Seranthony Dominguez, outfielder Mickey Moniak and second baseman Scott Kingery all have an upside ranging from "very good" to "star."

The question is just: How much more of this waiting can Phillies fans take? That 2018 free-agent class is fun to think about, but it also means waiting out one more season with a team in the bottom 10 in terms of true talent.