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 prove no match for AL-best Astros in series opener

Phillies prove no match for AL-best Astros in series opener

BOX SCORE

A lot has changed since the Houston Astros last came to Philadelphia in 2014. Back then the Astros were a rebuilding team on their way to a 92-loss season after reaching triple-digit losses the previous three seasons.

Now, the Astros' rebuild is complete and they have the best record (66-33) in the American League and the second best in the majors after the Los Angeles Dodgers (68-31).

The Astros have a powerhouse offense that ranks first in the majors in runs (594), hits (1,105), doubles (222), homers (165), batting average (.293) and OPS (.863).

Those numbers burned the eyes of Phillies manager Pete Mackanin when he got a look at them before Monday's game.

"When I look at their stat sheet and look at all their numbers, I really don't want to look at it," he said. "But once again, good pitching will stop good hitting, so if we can get good outings from some of our pitchers, we have a chance."

The Phillies did not get a good outing from their starting pitcher, nor did they get good work from the bullpen, as they lost Monday's series opener, 13-4 (see Instant Replay).

The Astros pounded out 18 hits and eight of them were for extra bases.

And they did all that damage without star shortstop Carlos Correa (.320/20/67). He is on the disabled list with a torn ligament in his thumb. Also, All-Star George Springer (.311/27/66) left the game in the third inning with a sore quad muscle.

So it could have been worse if the Astros had played with a full deck.

"We’ve been playing pretty well recently and these kinds of games happen," said Mackanin, whose club is 5-5 after the All-Star break. "Unfortunately, this was one of those games.

"Houston is as good a team as we've seen. They have nine guys with double-digit home runs. They are a real aggressive team, one of the best, if not the best, that we’ve seen. They have aggressive hitters. You can't make mistakes against them. Early in the count, they hack at those mistakes. They don’t strike out a lot.

"It was noticeable that they go up there ready to hit every pitch. They're not taking to get a look at the pitcher. If you make a mistake over the plate, they look to hurt you, to do damage."

The Phillies trailed 12-1 in the seventh inning before rookie Nick Williams tripled home three runs. Williams has three triples and 18 RBIs in 72 at-bats with the big club.

Cesar Hernandez had three hits and Odubel Herrera added a pair to raise his July batting average to .364 (24 for 66).

"Other than that, there weren't a lot of bright spots," Mackanin said.

Phillies starting pitcher Vince Velasquez, pitching against his former team, worked into the fourth inning, but had his outing cut short by a one-hour, 52-minute rain delay. Velasquez might not have pitched deep into the game even in good weather conditions. He struggled with location and did not use his secondary pitches effectively. He gave up a pair of home runs (to Brian McCann and Alex Bregman) in the second inning, both on fastballs.

Mackanin was rather blunt when asked how he thought Velasquez pitched.

"He gave up six hits, two home runs, in three innings," Mackanin said. "His velocity was OK, but if you don't locate against a team like this, you're going to get hurt."

Velasquez walked three. One of those walks turned into a run.

"They were hunting fastballs," Velasquez said. "Maybe if I utilized my secondary pitches more I would have slowed their bats down and protected my fastball better. They hammer mistakes.

"I probably could have done a better job if I executed. Correa was out of the lineup. If he was in there he probably would have done some damage, too. This team is hot. They're in first place for a reason. They're very selective. They are in the zone. They're locked in."

Ricardo Pinto picked up Velasquez when the game resumed in the top of the fourth inning. He was tagged for seven hits and six runs in 1 1/3 inning. Three of the runs were unearned. 

Best of MLB: White Sox beat crosstown rival Cubs to snap 9-game skid

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Best of MLB: White Sox beat crosstown rival Cubs to snap 9-game skid

CHICAGO -- Adam Engel and Matt Davidson homered and the White Sox snapped a nine-game losing streak with a 3-1 victory over the crosstown rival Cubs at Wrigley Field on Monday.

The Cubs lost for just the second time in 10 games following the All-Star break to fall a half-game behind idle first-place Milwaukee in the NL Central.

Engel lined his third homer of the season off reliever Justin Grimm (1-1) into the wind and several rows into the left-center bleachers to snap a 1-1 tie in the sixth. Davidson led off the eighth with his 19th homer, which sailed over the left-field stands and onto Waveland Avenue.

Miguel Gonzalez (5-9) allowed one run and seven hits in 7 1/3 innings to end a four-game losing streak and win for just the second time in 11 decisions.

Jose Abreu had two hits and doubled in a run for the AL-worst White Sox, who ended their longest slide in four years (see full recap).

Royals hit back-to-back HRs in 12th inning for win
DETROIT -- Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas hit consecutive homers in the 12th inning, and the Kansas City Royals won their sixth straight game, 5-3 over the Detroit Tigers on Monday night.

Hours after the Royals helped their pitching staff by acquiring Trevor Cahill and two relievers in a trade with San Diego, Kansas City outlasted the Tigers to stay 1 games behind first-place Cleveland in the AL Central. Jorge Bonifacio also homered for the Royals, who won despite squandering a 3-0 lead in the sixth.

Jakob Junis (3-2), one of seven relievers used by Kansas City, pitched a hitless 11th for the win. Kelvin Herrera finished for his 20th save in 23 chances.

Drew VerHagen (0-1) took the loss, allowing the homers to Perez and Moustakas in his third inning of work (see full recap).

Stanton homers twice as Marlins blank Rangers
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Giancarlo Stanton hit more two home runs and moved into a tie for the major league lead, sending Adam Conley and the Miami Marlins over the Texas Rangers 4-0 on Monday night.

Stanton has 32 homers, including six in his last seven games, and matched Yankees rookie Aaron Judge for most in the majors. Stanton hit a two-run drive in the first inning and a solo shot in the eighth.

Texas star Adrian Beltre went 4 for 4, giving him 2,993 career hits. He moved closer to becoming the 31st player to reach 3,000.

Conley (3-3) pitched seven impressive innings during his second start since getting recalled from Triple-A New Orleans on July 18. He allowed seven hits and struck out five as he pitched past the sixth inning for the first time this season.

Martin Perez (5-8) went seven innings (see full recap).