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.”

MLB Notes: Cubs send Kyle Schwarber to Triple A

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MLB Notes: Cubs send Kyle Schwarber to Triple A

MIAMI -- The Chicago Cubs have demoted struggling slugger Kyle Schwarber to Triple-A Iowa.

Schwarber, the fourth overall pick in the 2014 amateur draft, is batting just .171 with 12 homers and 28 RBIs in 64 games. There was no immediate announcement of a corresponding move.

Schwarber made his major league debut in 2015 and hit .246 with 16 homers and 43 RBIs in 69 games. He missed most of last season with a leg injury after a frightening outfield collision, then returned in October to help the Cubs win the World Series for the first time since 1908.

Chicago is 36-35 heading into Thursday night's game at Miami (see full story).

Angels: Street activated, Morin to Triple A
NEW YORK -- Reliever Huston Street has been activated by the Los Angeles Angels after recovering from a strained latissimus dorsi muscle in his back that had sidelined him since spring training.

The 33-year-old right-hander allowed one hit over 1 1/3 innings for Triple-A Salt Lake in a rehab outing on Monday.

Los Angeles opened a roster spot by optioning right-hander Mike Morin to the Bees on Thursday (see full story).

Athletics: Popular catcher Vogt designated for assignment
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Catcher Stephen Vogt has been designated for assignment by the Oakland Athletics, while rookie infielder Matt Chapman went on the 10-day disabled list with an infection in his left knee that kept him out of three straight games.

Vogt hit .217 with four home runs and 20 RBIs in 54 games this season with 36 starts at catcher and seven as the designated hitter.

A two-time AL All-Star, Vogt entered as a pinch-hitter Wednesday then played left field for the first time since July 2, 2014, at Detroit, and had several balls immediately hit his way. But Oakland lost a third straight game since a four-game sweep of the New York Yankees last weekend.

Also Thursday, the A's recalled catcher Bruce Maxwell and first baseman/outfielder Matt Olson from Triple-A Nashville (see full story).

Instant Replay: Phillies 5, Cardinals 1

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Instant Replay: Phillies 5, Cardinals 1

BOX SCORE

Aaron Nola had everything working Thursday in his most impressive start of the season,  allowing just one run on four hits over 7⅓ innings with a season-high eight strikeouts.

Nola had remarkable, Greg Maddux-like movement and command of his two-seam fastball, especially with two strikes. He fooled the Cardinals all afternoon by starting it outside to hitters from both sides of the plate and having it run back over the outside corner for called third strikes. Of his season-high eight strikeouts, five were looking.

He also had his good, tight curveball working. When Nola pitches like this, he looks like a legitimate No. 2 starter or perhaps even more.

Leaning on Nola, the Phillies beat the Cardinals, 5-1, to avoid a sweep. It was still a series loss, though, their 17th in 24 series this season.

The Phils are 23-48; the Cards are 33-38.

Starting pitching report
Nola consistently worked ahead and stayed ahead of Cardinals hitters, throwing 20 of 27 first-pitch strikes.

Nola improved to 4-5 on the season with a 4.32 ERA. It's been an up-and-down season for him but this was the kind of start that can really get a starting pitcher into a groove.

His most impressive sequences came against Cardinals leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter, who may be the most selective hitter in the majors after Joey Votto. In Carpenter's second at-bat, Nola froze him with a two-seam fastball that darted back over the plate at the last second. The next time up, Nola struck out Carpenter swinging on one of his best, sharpest curveballs of the day.

Nola was on his way to potentially the first complete game of his career before running into some trouble in the eighth inning. He allowed a leadoff homer to second baseman Paul DeJong and walked Carpenter with one out before being lifted for Pat Neshek.

Cardinals ace Carlos Martinez had just an OK afternoon by his standards. He allowed three runs (two earned) over six innings with four strikeouts. Both earned runs came on solo home runs. Martinez was also a victim of poor infield defense in the fifth inning when the Phils scored an unearned run.

Martinez is 6-6 with a 2.87 ERA. He entered Thursday with the fifth-highest strikeout rate among NL starting pitchers.

Bullpen report
Neshek has been money in the bank all season, even if there are frustrating restrictions with his usage. He entered for Nola in the eighth inning and needed just five pitches to induce an inning-ending double play from Tommy Pham. 

In 31 appearances, Neshek has a 0.63 ERA. He's one of only two pitchers in baseball this season to allow two runs or fewer in 20-plus innings. Neshek has allowed two in 28⅔ innings. Dominant Yankees setup man Dellin Betances has allowed two in 22⅔.

Luis Garcia got the final three outs in a non-save situation, but he was set to enter even before the Phillies tacked on their final two runs in the eighth.

Garcia on June 7 in Atlanta allowed five runs in two-thirds of an inning in a 14-1 Phillies loss. Aside from that game, he has a 1.65 ERA in 24 appearances. He might be the Phils' closer for a little while with Hector Neris scuffling.

At the plate
Freddy Galvis (7) and Tommy Joseph (11) each hit solo home runs. 

Galvis' homer was his 21st of the last calendar year. The only National League shortstop with more over that span is MVP candidate Corey Seager (23).

Joseph added a two-run single for insurance with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth. It was the kind of hit he needed — entering that at-bat, Joseph was hitting .204 in 122 chances this season with men on base.

In the field
Cardinals second baseman DeJong had a rough fourth inning. He dropped a throw from Martinez which could have started a double play but instead placed runners on first and second with no outs.

Three batters later, DeJong couldn't handle a flip from shortstop Aledmys Diaz which would have resulted in an inning-ending forceout. Instead, everyone was safe, and the dropped ball allowed a heads-up Andres Blanco to score all the way from second. The error on the play was charged to Diaz.

On the bases
Odubel Herrera committed a baserunning gaffe for the second straight game. He was picked off of third base with one out in the fourth inning, erasing an RBI opportunity for Daniel Nava.

This just 17 hours after Herrera ran through Juan Samuel's stop sign and was thrown out at the plate by about 30 feet in the ninth inning of a tie game.

Up next
The Phillies head out West for four games in Arizona followed by two in Seattle.

They will face left-handers Patrick Corbin and Robbie Ray, and then right-handers Zack Greinke and Taijuan Walker. 

The Phillies haven't yet named a starter for Friday's game.