Phillies officials look to cure walks epidemic

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Phillies officials look to cure walks epidemic

The Phillies had many flaws in 2013.

Not throwing enough strikes was one of them.

And it was an organization-wide problem.

The big-league club, after recording the fewest walks in the majors in 2012 (409) and 2011 (404), saw its walks total balloon to 506, the 12th most in the majors, in 2013. The team’s WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) was 1.37. Only four teams in the majors had a worse WHIP. Two years after having the best ERA in the majors (3.02), the Phils ranked 27th (4.32) in 2013.

The poor quality of pitching -- specifically the inability to throw enough strikes -- extended down to the minor leagues.

Actually, it was a huge problem.

“We did not have a good year overall as far as commanding the baseball,” Joe Jordan, the team’s director of player development, said during an interview last week at the team’s minor-league complex in Clearwater.

Matt Eddy of Baseball America ran the numbers and they are not pretty:

The pitching staffs of the Phillies’ full-season, minor-league clubs (Triple A Lehigh Valley, Double A Reading, Advanced Single A Clearwater and Single A Lakewood) walked 9.8 percent of the batters they faced in 2013. Only the Milwaukee Brewers (10.1) were worse.

The Phillies’ four full-season clubs posted a combined WHIP of 1.48 -- the worst of any system in baseball.

Phillies full-season pitchers struck out just 18.6 percent of batters faced in 2013. Only the Twins, Brewers and Tigers were worse.

Command is sometimes illustrated in strikeouts-to-walks ratio. Three Phillies clubs ranked among the 10 worst full-season clubs in baseball in that category: Reading (third-worst), Clearwater (ninth) and Lehigh Valley (10th).

All of this makes Jordan’s comment about pitchers not commanding the ball an understatement.

Desperate to cure the walks epidemic in their system and bring competent -- and tougher -- pitchers to the majors, Phillies officials have already begun to take remedial action.

Throwing strikes was stressed (over and over and over) to the young pitchers that attended the recently completed Florida Instructional League.

The importance of throwing strikes will be hammered home from Day 1 of spring training 2014 and it will continue into the season.

And it won’t just be hollow talk, Jordan said. Pitchers will have to meet certain requirements for throwing strikes, command their fastballs and pitching aggressively. If they don’t meet those standards, they will not move up the minor-league chain.

“Really, it’s just about putting a mentality on these guys that you’ve got to pitch aggressively,” Jordan said. “You’ve got to be able to command your fastball. We can’t move guys up the ladder if they can’t command their fastball. And so we’re going to put some expectations on them and they’re going to have to meet some requirements before they move.”

Jordan would not give specific thresholds that he and the player development staff will hold pitchers to, but he repeated: No strikes, no promotion.

“If they don’t meet expectations, we don’t move them,” Jordan said. “They’re going to have to reach a certain level of proficiency on commanding the fastball, on being able to throw a secondary pitch 0-0 for a strike, things like that.

“Nothing is black and white in this game, but there will be a criteria so we can hold them accountable to where they know, ‘If I get this, I can go from Clearwater to Reading.’

“You need to prove to us you can do this because if you can’t command your fastball ... it’s been a problem. It’s been a problem when guys go to the big leagues.”

The task of getting pitchers to throw more strikes and to be more aggressive will fall to minor-league pitching coordinator Carlos Arroyo and the pitching coaches from each affiliate, as well as whoever gets hired to be the big-league pitching coach. (Team officials are interviewing candidates for the job.) Arroyo, who has been a pitching instructor in the Phillies’ system since 1983, was recently promoted to pitching coordinator, replacing Gorman Heimueller.

In addition to developing pitchers that throw more strikes, Jordan wants to create a “tougher” pitcher.

“We've got some things we’re going to do and we’ve got some things we’re going to change,” Jordan said. “It’s already started. It’s going to be different for some guys. We’ve got to build a tougher guy. We’ve got to build a more complete pitcher. We’ve got to do some things to get better.”

Jordan mentioned the strides that power-armed relievers Jake Diekman and B.J. Rosenberg, both nice-guy products of the system, made in the majors late in 2013. Both pitched aggressively down the stretch. Both improved their strike-throwing. The improvement may have started in Triple A, where pitching coach Ray Burris was charged with toughening up some guys.

“For me, there are certain things you can do in the minor leagues to prepare a guy to stay and perform at major-league level,” Jordan said. “I also think there are things at the big-league level that you can do to make the young guys comfortable, to show them you believe in them.

“Organizationally, we’ve talked a lot internally about what we need to do. Obviously, there’s stuff going on at the minor-league level and the major-league level, but we’re all going to get on the same page.

“We’ve got a guy in Ray Burris at Triple A. He pitched 15 years in the big leagues. He knows what it takes to get there and stay there.

“One of my challenges to Ray was, ‘Challenge these guys. If you need to get in their face, get in their face.’ We’ve got plenty of guys loving on them.

“Honestly, it’s a tough league up there (in the majors) and you better be hardened and you better be ready because those guys are good. They’ll kick the [crap] out of you.”

Throw more strikes. Pitch more aggressively. Get tough.

Or don’t move up.

It sounds like a good plan. And, as the numbers show, the Phillies need to do something.

“It’s not easy,” Jordan acknowledged, “but we’re going to try to change some things to build a better product, if you will.”

Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

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Yordano Ventura, Andy Marte die in separate Dominican crashes

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura and former major leaguer Andy Marte died in separate traffic accidents early Sunday in their native Dominican Republic.

Highway patrol spokesman Jacobo Mateo said Ventura died on a highway leading to the town of Juan Adrian, about 40 miles (70 kilometers) northwest of Santo Domingo. It was not clear if Ventura was driving.

Metropolitan traffic authorities say Marte died when the Mercedes Benz he was driving hit a house along a road between San Francisco de Macoris and Pimentel, about 95 miles (150 kilometers) north of the capital.

Ventura, 25, burst onto the baseball scene with a 100 mph fastball and an explosive attitude to match. He was a fierce competitor always willing to challenge hitters inside, then deal with the ramifications when they decided to charge the mound.

He went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 2014, his first full season in the big leagues, and the next year he helped the long-downtrodden Royals reach the World Series for the first time since 1985. He proceeded to dominate San Francisco in both of his starts, though the Royals would ultimately lose in seven games.

"Our prayers right now are with Yordano's family as we mourn this young man's passing," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said in a statement. "He was so young and so talented, full of youthful exuberance and always brought a smile to everyone he interacted with. We will get through this as an organization, but right now is a time to mourn and celebrate the life of Yordano."

Born June 3, 1991, in Samana, Dominican Republic, Ventura quit school at 14 and was laboring on a construction crew to support his family when he heard about a tryout, which led to a spot in the Royals' academy on the island.

The right-handed Ventura went 11-12 with a 4.45 ERA last season, and wound up pitching his entire career for the Royals, going 38-31 with a 3.89 ERA.

Fans began arriving at Kauffman Stadium shortly after Ventura's death was announced, leaving flowers, hats and other mementos outside the stadium. Flags outside the ballpark also were lowered to half-staff.

Marte, a 33-year-old infielder, played in the Major Leagues from 2005-2010 with Atlanta and Cleveland and returned in 2014 with Arizona. He hit .218 with 21 home runs and 99 RBIs in the big leagues. He spent the last two seasons in South Korea, where he hit 22 homers last year.

Both Ventura and Marte were part of the Dominican winter league team Aguilas Cibaenas, though neither was playing this season.

"We have awoken this Sunday with this sad news that we have lost a special being," club president Winston Llenas said in a statement about Marte that was issued before Ventura's death became known.

Ventura is the second young star pitcher to die in past four months. Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, 24, was among three men killed in a boating accident in September.

Two other active Dominican baseball players have died on the country's dangerous highways in recent years.

St. Louis Cardinal outfielder Oscar Taveras -- a close friend of Ventura -- died in 2014 when he crashed in his hometown of Puerto Plata. He was 22. Shortstop Andujar Cedeno died at age 31 in a 2000 crash in the city of La Romana.

A 2015 study by the World Health Organization found that the Dominican Republic had the highest traffic accident death rate in the Americas, with a rate of 29.3 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.