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-Marlins 5 things: Let's play two; Nola tries to slow down Stanton

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Phillies-Marlins 5 things: Let's play two; Nola tries to slow down Stanton

Phillies (45-77) vs. Marlins (60-62)
Game 1 - 4:05 p.m., Game 2 - TBD on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

Let's play two!

The Phillies come back from the West Coast to play a doubleheader with the Marlins tonight. The Phils send their ace to the mound in Game 1 and he'll try to keep the best slugger in baseball in the yard.

Here are five things to know for the games.

1. Slugging it out
Giancarlo Stanton hits baseballs very hard and very far. 

The major league leader in home runs (45) has been especially hot since July 5. The numbers are just insane. In a 39-game span, he has 24 homers and 47 RBIs with a slash line of .333/.453/.908. His OPS in that span is a ridiculous 1.361. At his current pace, the 27-year-old outfielder — who just cleared waivers ... wink, wink —  is projected to hit 60 homers.

For the Phillies, their own promising young slugger has emerged. After struggling during his first few MLB games at Citizens Bank Park, left fielder (?) Rhys Hoskins had a torrid road trip in his native California. After hitting his first big league homer in San Diego, Hoskins went off. In 25 at-bats, Hoskins went 8 for 25 (.320) with five homers and eight RBIs. 

He also showed off his impressive plate discipline, walking five times with just three strikeouts. It's a small sample size, but Hoskins' minor league skills are manifesting with the big club. 

2. Ace in the deck
Aaron Nola came back down to earth in his last appearance against the Giants, but he'd been stellar his previous 10 starts. His ERA dipped below three in San Francisco before the Giants tagged him for five runs over five innings. It ended a string of 10 straight starts going six innings and allowing two runs or less for Nola. 

Nola struggled with his command last Thursday, walking three batters. It was just the third time this season Nola has walked three or more hitters in 20 starts. Overall he's 9-8 with a 3.26 ERA, but the most promising thing about Nola is the feel he's getting for his changeup and recent ability he's shown to strike people out. He has 128 strikeouts in 124 1/3 innings.

The Marlins send righty Dan Straily to the mound. The 28-year-old has been Miami's most consistent starter this season. In 25 starts, he's 7-8 with a solid 3.80 ERA in 139 2/3 innings. 

Straily isn't going to wow you with his stuff. He throws a four-seam fastball in the low 90s which he'll throw more than half the time. He'll mostly throw a slider (27.1 percent) off his fastball but will mix in his changeup (15.4) and the occasional curveball (3.4)

3. Welcome back, Nick
Coming off an impressive 11-strikeout performance against the Padres, rookie Nick Pivetta was sent down to the minors. It wasn't a performance issue. The team just needed to create roster flexibility before deciding to put Odubel Herrera on the DL.

Pivetta clearly has big-league stuff, but he's struggled with consistency and hasn't been able to give the Phils length in his starts. Even in his last outing against the Padres, he lasted just five innings, throwing 96 pitches. Pivetta has flashed plenty but he's struggled with the long ball. He's given up 19 home runs in 18 starts. Stanton and Marcell Ozuna will be licking their chops after having to face Nola in Game 1.

Conversely, the Marlins' Game 2 starter has been excellent over his last four starts. Jose Urena is 2-1 with a 1.85 ERA in 24 1/3 innings. Opponents are hitting just .211 off the 25-year-old righty in that span. Urena started the season as the Marlins' long man out of the bullpen, but his last 20 appearances have been starts.

Urena will mostly throw a mid-90s four-seam fastball but isn't a strikeout pitcher (76 punch outs in 109 1/3 innings). He'll throw his slider and changeup at about the same rate. He has a curve in his arsenal but rarely throws it.

4. Player to watch
Phillies: Since it's a doubleheader, let's pick two players. Hoskins and Nola are the obvious choices, so let's go with Nick Williams and Jorge Alfaro

Both rookies have shined at times. Williams has tapered off a tad since a hot start, collecting just one extra-base hit in his last 42 at-bats. Alfaro had a solid road trip, going 5 for 16 with his first big league homer. The free-swinging catcher has yet to walk since his call up.

Marlins: It's Stanton. How could it be anyone else? He has a legitimate chance to be the first non-PED enhanced player to hit 60 home runs since Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961. As mentioned, he's also cleared waivers and could be part of a blockbuster trade by the end of this season or this winter. Could the Phillies be one of the teams bidding for his services? Stay tuned.

5. This and that
• Phillies prospect J.P. Crawford has played the last two games at third base. A shortstop by trade, Crawford has been scorching hot since returning from an injury and could get a look at the hot corner in September.

• The reason for Crawford's possible move to third base? Maikel Franco has been in a horrendous slump. Franco is hitting just .203 in August with just one homer and four RBIs. For the season he's hitting just .224 with a paltry .277 OBP.

• Lost in Stanton's laser show is the phenomenal play of outfielder Marcell Ozuna. Ozuna has a slash line of .306/.368/.539 with 27 homers and 93 RBIs.

• The Phillies and Marlins have split eight games this season. After four games at CBP this week, they'll meet for a four-game set in Miami and a three-game series back in Philly in September.

Rob's Rants: Rhys Hoskins, Vinny Curry, solar eclipse and more

Rob's Rants: Rhys Hoskins, Vinny Curry, solar eclipse and more

Here's the latest edition of Rob's Rants in which CSNPhilly's Rob Ellis does just that about the hottest topics in Philly sports.

Why wait?
“It’s about damn time.” — LeBron James

Watching Rhys Hoskins hit five home runs in seven games on the Phillies’ recent West Coast trip left me torn. 

On one hand, it’s clear he has a very bright future. His power stroke’s looked every bit as good as it did the last two years in the minors, where he hit a combined 67 long balls. Not to mention, he’s also carried over his excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio in his short sampling of major-league pitching.

However, I’m also left asking the question of what took so long? Not only why it took until Aug. 10 for him to reach the big leagues, but also why wasn’t he used in left until his last week with the IronPigs? He’s a 24-year-old college player who had accomplished all he could in the minors. He should have been a Phillie sooner.

Tommy Joseph is in the midst of a freefall. Even before his slump, his numbers were just decent. Far from special. 

Hoskins’ promotion was abetted by Aaron Altherr’s injury. Still, prior to Altherr missing time, you could have gotten Hoskins enough starts between first and the outfield to make it worth having him up in the big leagues. 

Also, now that J.P. Crawford is playing some third at Lehigh Valley, it makes you wonder why he, Hoskins and Scott Kingery for that matter, didn’t get work at other positions much sooner.

Curry up, Vinny
Vinny Curry’s 2017 preseason thus far has mirrored his 2016 regular season. In other words, he’s been a ghost.  

Zero tackles, zero sacks, zero impact. 

The 29-year-old signed a five-year, $47 million deal, $23 million of which was guaranteed prior to the 2016 season. 

Curry had just 2½ sacks and 26 tackles last year. The previous season, he had 3½ sacks and 12 tackles. He played in all 32 games those seasons. 

Curry’s deal could go down as one of the worst — if not the worst — in team history. 

The excuse last year was he played hurt. In 2015, he was playing in a 3-4 scheme that did not fit his skill set as a rushing end. Interestingly, Curry played in the same Billy Davis-led defense in 2014 and totaled nine sacks.

Connor Barwin is now gone. Derek Barnett is a 21-year-old rookie. The job is Curry’s to lose and he’s doing his best to do so. 

Money should not be a factor in terms of playing time. Rookie or not, Barnett has far outplayed Curry and it should reflect in snaps if the veteran does not get his act together in the final two preseason games.         

In totality
If I never hear the word “totality” again, I will depart this Earth a happy man. 

If you watched or listened to any of the coverage leading up to Monday’s solar eclipse, you heard the word, ad nauseam. 

I’m guilty of existing too much in my own sports bubble and not appreciating things outside of those boundaries. So while it didn’t do much for me, I understand and appreciate the solar eclipse was an every 38-year thing.

However, an anchor on The Weather Channel took things to a different orbit when she was brought to tears discussing the eclipse. I wish I could have concealed my eyes and ears the way the moon obscured the sun at 2:44 p.m. when she began to get misty.     

G-O-A-T
Jack Regenye’s catch in the championship game of the Junior League World Series (ages 13-15) may be the greatest catch ever. Regenye, the centerfielder for the Kennett-Unionville squad, pulled off the rare combo of fearlessness, athleticism and timing in spectacular fashion. 

The fact that Kennett lost, 12-1, to Chinese Taipei will go down as simply a footnote. Regenye should never pay for a soda or chicken fingers again in the Kennett-Unionville area.