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.”

Phillies' clubhouse reflects on life of Marlins' Jose Fernandez

Phillies' clubhouse reflects on life of Marlins' Jose Fernandez

NEW YORK — The clubhouse mood following the Phillies17-0 loss to the Mets Sunday was somber, in part because of the disastrous game that had just wrapped up, but also because of the tragic news of Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez’s death in a boating accident early Sunday morning.

“It was rough. People are devastated. I didn’t even know him and I was crushed,” Phillies starter Jake Thompson said. “I can only imagine how that clubhouse feels. That’s something that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, to deal with something of that magnitude.”

Both teams paused for a moment of silence before Sunday’s game and the Mets taped a jersey bearing Fernandez’s name and number onto their dugout wall.

“This morning, that was quite a surprise,” manager Pete Mackanin said of the atmosphere of the day. “I don’t think it affected the players once the game started. It was such bad news this morning that everybody was kind of melancholy.”

Fernandez had built a strong track record against the Phillies in his young career, amassing a 2.88 ERA in six starts.

“It’s kind of cliché to say but you look at the start of his career and he could have been a Hall of Famer,” Thompson said.

Asked how he would remember facing Fernandez, Mackanin was succinct.

“He was a helluva pitcher,” he said.

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Phillies suffer worst shutout loss in modern era to Mets

Phillies suffer worst shutout loss in modern era to Mets

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- Jake Thompson faced the issues that a 22-year old starter in his 10th career appearance usually does Sunday against the Mets.
 
Thompson struggled with his command at times, walking the bases loaded in the fourth inning before escaping his self-induced jam with a flyout. He hit a batter and surrendered a home run to Curtis Granderson on a pitch that caught too much of the plate.
 
The righty departed after four innings in what manager Pete Mackanin declared postgame to be Thompson’s last start of the season.
 
But perhaps neither he nor the rest of the Phillies expected the extent to which his struggles would ripple through the bullpen. The Phillies’ relievers surrendered 14 runs, hit three batters and gave up a grand slam in a 17-0 loss, the franchise's worst shutout defeat in the modern era (see Instant Replay).
 
“Obviously the bullpen has scuffled for a while now,” Mackanin said. “That shows you how much the game is about pitching. It keeps you in games, gives you an opportunity to win like it did the first couple of months of the season for us. Now, the last month, it’s not keeping us in games or it’s losing games.”
 
The Phillies’ relievers were charged with 28 runs over the course of their four-game swing in New York. Their collective 4.69 ERA is the fourth-worst in the National League.
 
Sunday, Phil Klein — who hadn’t pitched since he was recalled from Lehigh Valley on Sept. 10 — and little-used Colton Murray and Patrick Schuster — who had combined for three appearances in the past two weeks — took the brunt of the damage.
 
Klein walked two batters, surrendered two singles and hit Mets catcher Rene Rivera in the left hand to force in a run. He left the bases loaded for Murray, who allowed an inherited runner to score on a wild pitch. Murray was pulled in the seventh having gotten into a bases-loaded jam of his own. His replacement, Frank Herrmann, allowed all three runs to score on a walk and a grand slam by Asdrubal Cabrera.
 
Schuster was assigned five runs in the eighth after he was tagged for three hits, walked a batter and hit Gavin Cecchini.
 
Which pitchers — if any — out of the Phillies’ cadre of middle relivers will return next year is an open question and Mackanin made it clear that he will use the remaining six games in the season to evaluate his team’s arms.
 
“It’s another audition.” Mackanin said. “We want to see who might fit in.”
 
Thompson can clearly stake a claim to his role in the Phillies’ rebuilding effort. Despite the hiccup in his final outing, he has come a long way in just two months from being the pitcher that surrendered six runs to the light-hitting Padres in his Aug. 6 debut.

His changeup — a pitch that hitters had connected on for six home runs this year, according to data from Fangraphs — was particularly lively Sunday. Cabrera chased it out of the zone in the first inning for Thompson’s only strikeout.
 
“I think the changeup’s probably been my best pitch up here,” Thompson said. “I’ve given up a lot of homers on it, too. That just shows whenever you don’t execute it, it’s a tough pitch to throw in the zone. As far as the swing-and-misses that I was getting with it, it’s kind of night and day.
 
“At this point last year I pretty much had no changeup, so that’s a big thing for me.”
 
Only 23 on Opening Day next year, Thompson has plenty of room to improve.
 
The Phillies’ bullpen does, too.

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