Schmidt's frank critique: Maikel Franco didn't live up to expectations in 2016

Schmidt's frank critique: Maikel Franco didn't live up to expectations in 2016

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Mike Schmidt arrived in Phillies camp on Friday and was pretty frank when the subject of Maikel Franco came up.

"I was disappointed," the Hall of Fame third baseman said of the current third baseman's 2016 season. "I had a lot higher expectations for Maikel. I may have had the highest expectations, as a matter of fact."

Indeed, it was a year ago at this time when Schmidt said Franco had MVP potential.

Franco, who turned 24 in August, drove in a team-high 88 runs in 2016 and shared the team lead in homers (25) with Ryan Howard. However, he hit just .255 with a .733 OPS. In 80 games in 2015, he hit .280 with a .840 OPS. Those numbers helped fuel Schmidt's high expectations for Franco last season.

"He didn't live up to my expectations last year, but maybe that's part of the plan for him in a stepping stone year," Schmidt said. "I think he should definitely go to the 30-100 category this year. Definitely, barring any injuries.

"If I was mentoring Maikel Franco right now, I would say, 'Son, we're going to be the MVP. And nothing is going to stop us but an injury. And we're going to stretch like hell before every game.' That's what I would be thinking. If I had that talent, I wouldn't be thinking about 25 and 88. I would be thinking about the MVP."

Franco's shortcomings have been well publicized. He is not a selective hitter and everyone from the front office, which wants to build around players who "control the strike zone," to hitting coach Matt Stairs would like to see him improve in that area. Simple experience could help Franco in that area this season. So could the addition of an experienced bat (Michael Saunders) behind him. Franco was a marked man in the Phillies' lineup and often expanded his strike zone as he tried to carry too big a load. The addition of Saunders and Howie Kendrick could help take some pressure off him.

"The area that he has to develop better is game-planning at home plate and understanding there is a guy in the batter's box behind him and that a walk with men on second and third is a possibility," Schmidt said. "His desire to drive in those two runs or getting three with a home run swing leads to those at-bats where you give an at-bat away because you don't have the right game plan.

"It's not mechanics and it's not physical -- it's more up here," Schmidt said, pointing to his head.

Franco could benefit from the hiring of Stairs, who replaced Steve Henderson.

"In Matt's case, there will be more time spent on the mental side of hitting and more in-game coaching," Schmidt said. "I think that is a big addition to our hitters. No disrespect to the former guy -- he's a wonderful guy. But I think that Matt will be more into a different message, something new and more on the game plan and mental, managing yourself in the batter's box, making adjustments.

"It's not that Steve wasn't the same way, but it will be a better communication channel as far as looking for a fastball middle-in 1-0. Let's not be hitting it over the opposite dugout. Let's be looking for a ball to pull. We have a lot of young kids who go into the batter's box and say, 'Here I am,' see the ball and hit it. And you'll see a 2-0 pitch fouled over the first base dugout. At 2-0, they are hitting more defensively and they should be hitting offensively."

Schmidt saw some of Franco's selectivity issues up close as a part of the CSN Philly broadcast team last year.

He also saw something else that he believes Franco needs to improve on.

"Sometimes, Maikel looks like, 'Where's his mind?'" Schmidt said. "He kind of sometimes lets moments in games go based upon the score or based upon attitude. I'm not saying this disrespectfully -- it's normal. Not everyone is like Pete Rose. He knows what's happened in every at-bat for every player on the team during the game. He's sitting on the top step of the dugout screaming at the other team. Not everyone is like that. Your mind can wander and I think sometimes his does a little bit."

Schmidt still believes Franco has MVP potential and he intends on telling him that during his time in camp as a guest instructor.

"That's what I would say to him right now -- 'There's no reason you can't be the best player in the league,'" Schmidt said.

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

In final start of 2017, Aaron Nola establishes himself as Phillies' best pitcher in loss

BOX SCORE

Before beginning their season-ending six-game homestand Monday night, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin singled out Aaron Nola when asked about the positives of what is mostly a dismal 2017 season. 

“Nola has really established himself,” Mackanin said pregame. “To me, he’s a solid No. 3 starter.”

Nola then looked the part in what was likely his final start of the year, using a sharp curveball to strike out nine over six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see observations)

“I felt like just the command and getting ahead of hitters helped out this year,” Nola said. 

Returning from elbow surgery that ended his 2016 season in July, Nola (12-11) became the best starter on the team thanks to the development of a changeup in spring training to go with his fastball and dominant curveball. 

“I felt a lot stronger,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked to sum up his season. “I felt like I was using my legs more and that increased my velocity a little bit.” 

Nola allowed two runs or fewer in 18 of his 27 starts. His 184 strikeouts are the most by a Phillies pitcher who made fewer than 30 starts in a season. 

“I wouldn’t call him a power pitcher. He doesn’t appear to be a strikeout pitcher,” Mackanin said. “But when you can locate your fastball and get ahead with your fastball down in the strike zone and have that kind of curveball and then you add that kind of changeup, now the hitter has three pitches to worry about.”

He struck out 36 over his final four starts and 25 1/3 innings, using his sweeping curve as an out pitch. All but one of his strikeout Monday night came on the curve. 

“It’s been good,” Nola said. “I’ve been able to command it on both sides of the plate and down, which has helped me. I felt like my fastball command was better this year than it was last year.” 

In a rotation in which basically nothing else is settled, Nola gives the Phillies an anchor for next season. The 24-year-old LSU product has a 3.54 ERA and the changeup gives him three quality pitches. 

“It’s been kind of the cherry on top, a little bit, being able to throw that right-on-right,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the changeup. “It’s a hard pitch to hit when you’re left-handed hitter. But when you’re right-handed and coming to that back foot, it’s a really good pitch.” 

Nola retired the first four hitters before Jayson Werth singled and Michael A. Taylor followed by crushing a 3-1 fastball into the left-field seats for his 17th homer. 

It was the 18th home run allowed by Nola. But he got into a groove from there. Facing a lineup without Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, Nola held the NL East champions to two runs and five hits with two walks. 

But it didn’t prevent the Phillies from losing for the fourth time in five games. 

Odubel Herrera’s solo home run on an 0-2 pitch from A.J. Cole (3-5) in the fourth was all the offense the Phillies could muster. They’ve managed seven runs in four games. 

Rhys Hoskins is slumping (0 for 4 and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14) and Nick Williams struck out three times. 

“Our bats have gone silent for a few days now,” Mackanin said. 

They still have to win one more to avoid 100 losses, and many changes are possible in the offseason. Mackanin said before the game that “I still don’t know if I’ll be back here next year (see story)”. 

It’s a team that still has plenty of holes and lots of questions ahead of 2018. 

Nola, though, appears to be someone they can rely on. 

“The goal is to have five (reliable) guys on every start. But it’s nice,” Mackanin said. “When Nola pitches, we all expect to win. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s had the arm issues, but he came back from that better than he was before.”

Phillies-Nationals observations: Not enough offense to support Aaron Nola in loss

Phillies-Nationals observations: Not enough offense to support Aaron Nola in loss

BOX SCORE

Aaron Nola’s likely final appearance of 2017 was another good one, but also his 11th loss. 

The right-hander allowed two runs and five hits and struck out nine in six innings in the Phillies’ 3-1 loss to the NL East champion Washington Nationals on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park. 

With the Phillies using a six-man rotation and an off day Thursday, manager Pete Mackanin said Nola was “most likely” making his last start. He gave up a two-run home run on a 3-1 fastball to Michael A. Taylor in the second inning before getting into a groove with his curveball. 

Nola (12-11) retired eight of the final 10 batters he faced and left with a 3.54 ERA as the Phillies kicked off a season-ending six-game homestand with their fourth loss in five games. 

Odubel Herrera hit an 0-2 mistake fastball for a solo shot to right in the fourth for the Phillies’ lone run. They struggled against A.J. Cole (3-5), who allowed six hits over 5 2/3 innings and collected his first major-league hit.

• It marked the 18th time in 27 starts that Nola allowed two earned runs or fewer. He gave up only eight earned runs in four starts against Washington. 

• The Phillies have scored seven runs in the past four games. 

• Rhys Hoskins hit a nubber toward first in the fourth inning that Ryan Zimmerman fielded facing the mound and blindly flipped backward to Cole covering first for the out. Hoskins flied deep to center to end the fifth and finished 0 for 4. He’s 2 for 21 in the past four games and hasn’t homered since Sept. 14. 

• Nick Williams went 1 for 4 with a single and three strikeouts. 

• Maikel Franco popped out on the 11th pitch of his at-bat to lead off the ninth against Sean Doolittle (24th save). 

• Hoskins made two fine plays at first base. He made a nice scoop of Freddy Galvis’ low throw in the first and made a leaping grab of Cesar Hernandez’s high and wide throw and tagged Matt Weiters going by for the out in the fourth. 

• Nationals slugger Bryce Harper’s return from a left knee injury was delayed by illness. Manager Dusty Baker said Harper, out since Aug. 12, woke up feeling sick. He was at the park early to get treatment and could play Tuesday. “He probably doesn’t like to hit here,” Mackanin joked. Harper’s 12 home runs at Citizens Bank Park are the most he’s hit in any road stadium. 

• Nola twice came up with runners at first and second and two outs. He grounded to first in the second and fanned in the fourth. 

• Mackanin planned to give his team a pep talk. “If they think they’re tired and ready to go home — it’s been a long season — I’m going to remind them, ‘If you want to go to the World Series, you’re going to play another entire month,’” he said. 

• With Nola likely finished for the season, it’s lining up for Henderson Alvarez to start Saturday and Nick Pivetta to go in the season finale Sunday. 

• All players from both teams on the field before the game stood for the national anthem. Baker, who is black, said he opposes kneeling, but understands the frustrations of those athletes who do it. “We’ve been talking about the same problems I had when I was 18 or 19 years old, so have we made progress or have we regressed?” Baker said. “It’s up to us to try to figure out how to come up with a solution.” 

• The Phillies dropped to 33 1/2 games behind the Nationals. They must win one of their final five games to avoid 100 losses. The Nationals must finish 5-1 to win 100 games. 

• Right-hander Jake Thompson (2-2, 4.14 ERA) will make his fourth start against the Nationals this season when he faces lefty Gio Gonzalez (15-7, 2.68) on Tuesday night.