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

Best of MLB: Aaron Judge breaks Mark McGwire's HR rookie record, Yankees top Royals

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Best of MLB: Aaron Judge breaks Mark McGwire's HR rookie record, Yankees top Royals

NEW YORK -- Aaron Judge circled the bases for the 50th time this season, breaking Mark McGwire's major league record for home runs by a rookie, and returned to the Yankees dugout to exchange handshakes, hugs and high-fives with excited teammates.

And then, he walked up the steps and back onto the field.

Embarrassed by the attention, he managed four short waves with his right hand before heading back to the bench just three seconds later.

"They kind of told me: `You got to go out there. You got to go out there,'" he would later recall. "First curtain call. I hope it was a good one."

Judge had his second straight two-homer game in an 11-3 rout of Kansas City on Monday. On an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon, the Yankees won for the 16th time in 22 games during a playoff push that earned no worse than a wild card.

The 6-foot-7, 25-year-old slugger tied McGwire's 1987 mark with a two-run drive to right-center off Jakob Junis (8-3) in the third inning that put New York ahead 3-0, driving a 93 mph high fastball 389 feet about a half-dozen rows into the right field seats (see full recap).

Russell makes food run, Cubs beat Cards to near clinch
ST. LOUIS -- Say cheese!

Addison Russell and the Chicago Cubs were all smiles after moving within a victory of another division title Monday night.

Russell hit a three-run double in the first inning, then made a food run for a fan in enemy territory while the Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 10-2. Chicago can wrap up the division with a win Tuesday against the Cardinals or a loss by Milwaukee against Cincinnati.

Russell helped the Cubs get to starter Luke Weaver (7-2) early, then made some friends out of rival fans. After diving into the stands chasing a foul ball down the third-base line and spilling a man's tray of chips, Russell emerged from the dugout a few innings later with a plate of nachos and delivered it to the fan. Russell stopped to take a selfie before heading back to play shortstop.

"That was pretty entertaining," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said (see full recap).

Donaldson, Blue Jays stop Red Sox winning streak at 6
BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox would like to get the AL East wrapped up quickly so they can start resting some banged-up players.

Josh Donaldson homered and drove in three runs, powering the Toronto Blue Jays past the first-place Red Sox 6-4 on Monday night.

Boston's six-game winning streak was snapped and its magic number to clinch a second straight division title remained at three. The Red Sox lead the second-place New York Yankees, who beat Kansas City earlier in the day, by four games with six remaining.

But the most important thing for the Red Sox was the loss of two key players to injuries. For how long? They don't know yet.

Eduardo Nunez and Mookie Betts both left the game early. Nunez aggravated a right knee injury that sidelined him for 13 games, and Betts came out with pain in his left wrist (see full recap).

Rangers fall to Astros, wild-card hopes fading
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Marwin Gonzalez had four hits and three RBIs as the AL West champion Houston Astros beat Texas 11-2 on Monday night, putting the Rangers on the brink of elimination in the wild-card race.

Houston second baseman Jose Altuve, the American League leader with 199 hits and a .348 batting average, left in the eighth inning after he was hit by a 95 mph fastball. The team said X-rays were negative and Altuve had a bruised forearm.

Gonzalez had two hits and scored twice in an eight-run fourth, including a two-run single that chased starter Andrew Cashner (10-11). Gonzalez later hit his 23rd homer, a solo shot in the sixth.

Collin McHugh (4-2) struck out six while throwing 112 pitches in five innings. The right-hander is 15-0 with a 2.94 ERA in 19 starts in September or October during his four seasons with the Astros (see full recap).

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

BOX SCORE

Before beginning a season-ending six-game homestand Monday night, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin singled out Aaron Nola when asked about the positives of what is mostly a dismal 2017 season. 

“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”

Nola then looked the part in what was likely his final start of the year, using a sharp curveball to strike out nine over six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see observations)

“I felt like just the command and getting ahead of hitters helped out this year,” Nola said. 

Returning from elbow surgery that ended his 2016 season in July, Nola (12-11) became the best starter on the team thanks to the development of a changeup in spring training to go with his fastball and dominant curveball. 

“I felt a lot stronger,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked to sum up his season. “I felt like I was using my legs more and that increased my velocity a little bit.” 

Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season. 

“I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher. He doesn’t appear to be a strikeout pitcher,” Mackanin said. “But when you can locate your fastball and get ahead with your fastball down in the strike zone and have that kind of curveball and then you add that kind of changeup, now the hitter has three pitches to worry about.”

He struck out 36 over his final four starts and 25 1/3 innings, using his sweeping curve as an out pitch. All but one of his strikeouts Monday night came on the curve. 

“It’s been good,” Nola said. “I’ve been able to command it on both sides of the plate and down, which has helped me. I felt like my fastball command was better this year than it was last year.” 

In a rotation in which basically nothing else is settled, Nola gives the Phillies an anchor for next season. The 24-year-old LSU product has a 3.54 ERA and the changeup gives him three quality pitches. 

“It’s been kind of the cherry on top, a little bit, being able to throw that right-on-right,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the changeup. “It’s a hard pitch to hit when you’re a left-handed hitter. But when you’re right-handed and coming to that back foot, it’s a really good pitch.” 

Nola retired the first four hitters before Jayson Werth singled and Michael A. Taylor followed by crushing a 3-1 fastball into the left-field seats for his 17th homer. 

It was the 18th home run allowed by Nola. But he got into a groove from there. Facing a lineup without Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, Nola held the NL East champions to two runs and five hits with two walks. 

But it didn’t prevent the Phillies from losing for the fourth time in five games. 

Odubel Herrera’s solo home run on an 0-2 pitch from A.J. Cole (3-5) in the fourth was all the offense the Phillies could muster. They’ve managed seven runs in four games. 

Rhys Hoskins is slumping (0 for 4 and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14) and Nick Williams struck out three times. 

“Our bats have gone silent for a few days now,” Mackanin said. 

They still have to win one more to avoid 100 losses, and many changes are possible in the offseason. Mackanin said before the game that “I still don’t know if I’ll be back here next year," (see story)

It’s a team that still has plenty of holes and lots of questions ahead of 2018. 

Nola, though, appears to be someone they can rely on. 

“The goal is to have five [reliable] guys on every start. But it’s nice,” Mackanin said. “When Nola pitches, we all expect to win. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had the arm issues, but he came back from that better than he was before.”