CLEARWATER, Fla. — Unlike some of his fellow Phillies prospects, Nick Williams did not play winter ball this year.
The 2016 season was his first in the organization and when it was over …
“I needed to get away, you know, breathe and stop worrying about everything,” the 23-year-old outfielder said in a soul-baring interview Tuesday at Phillies camp.
Williams was one of the big guns, a must-have hitter, in the July 2015 trade that sent Cole Hamels to the Texas Rangers.
The Phillies got four other prospects in the deal, catcher Jorge Alfaro and pitchers Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson.
They all played in the majors with the Phillies last year.
Williams did not.
He did not earn a look in the majors because, well, he could not conquer the opponent in Triple A.
That opponent was himself.
“This is a humbling game,” Williams said. “You need to respect it and go out and have fun.
“Last season I feel like I wasn’t allowing myself to have fun because I was thinking, ‘Big leagues, big leagues, big leagues.’ I was taking a lot of the fun away from it because I was putting too much pressure on myself. My approach was, ‘With this pitch, I can get to the big leagues,’ and that’s totally wrong.”
The pressure that Williams put on himself hampered his performance in the final weeks of the season. Over his final 31 games, he hit just .161 with a .180 on-base percentage. He struck out 45 times over that span and walked just once as his on-base percentage for the season tumbled to .287.
“I think it was all because I was trying too hard,” Williams said. “I felt like all my troubles went into the same thing and I became overaggressive.”
Williams used the offseason as a time to put some physical strength on his 6-3, 200-pound frame, reflect on his 2016 season and contemplate how he can get better in 2017. During his time of reflection, he came to conclusion that his problems in 2016 were self-inflicted. That includes the two times he was benched for not hustling.
“All of the guys that I was traded with ended up in the big leagues except me,” Williams offered. “But I realize that they were ready and I wasn’t.
“Last year was a huge learning experience for me — new organization, going to Triple A — and I did some dumb things, some immature things.
“I got benched for not running out a ball. I look back and I might have thought it was harsh, but it was my fault. I should have run the ball out. That’s what I call not respecting the game. It sucked, but I had to take the punishment. I did it. It was my fault.
“That’s why I think it was good for me to just go home and breathe. I had a lot of time to think about all the things I did right and all the things I did wrong and I know what I need to improve on.”
Despite Williams’ poor finish last year, the Phillies remain high on his potential and still believe he can be an impact bat in the majors. He did hit .303 with a .354 on-base percentage, 17 homers, 55 RBIs and a .845 OPS as a 21-year-old in Double A in 2015. He did hit .258 with 13 homers and 64 RBIs as a 22-year-old first-time Triple A player in 2016.
“On July 29, Nick was hitting about .290 with a .320 on-base and a .460 slugging percentage as a 22-year-old in Triple A,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “If the season had ended right there, Nick Williams would be all over Top 100 prospects lists, all over the Internet and, frankly, he may have already reached the big leagues.
“That doesn’t mean that August didn’t happen, because it did — he really struggled in August. But what this kid did for the first four months of the minor-league season last year was very impressive, particularly given his age and where he was doing it.
“Obviously he needs to prove that what happened in August is not a trend and get back to doing what he did for the first four months, but this is a talented kid on both sides of the ball. He can run, he can throw, he can hit with power, he will need to, hopefully, improve his walk rate and his plate discipline, but we’re still very keen on his future. I think he’s got a bright future.”
Like many others in camp, Williams is a bit of a project for new hitting coach Matt Stairs. One of Stairs’ goals is to improve the team’s on-base percentage by stressing the concept of having a plan at the plate and not giving away at-bats.
“I gave away a ton of at-bats last year by being overaggressive,” Williams said.
A year ago, there was legitimate hope within the organization that Williams might be ready to hold down a corner outfield job by the start of this season. That has not happened and the team has had to plug those spots with veterans Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. Both are on short-term contracts, so a spot might open right back up for Williams in April 2018.
It’s up to him to prove he’s ready by putting together a consistent and productive season at Triple A.
And armed with the lessons he learned about himself last season, he might just do that.
“I want to get to the big leagues as fast as I can,” Williams said. “But I know I need to be a complete player. I believe I can be that consistent player, be a good all-around player and a good teammate, but I know I have to take it one day at a time.
“What can I do today? That’s got to be my approach.”