ALLENTOWN, Pa. — With how much interest there is in the Phillies' minor-league system these days, every multi-hit game, every scoreless pitching performance, every transgression by a top prospect is exaggerated.
Triple A outfielder Nick Williams was benched again this week, the third time in the last two months Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage sat him down as a disciplinary measure. The last two times have been for a lack of hustle — two weeks ago Williams didn't run out a fly ball that was dropped, and earlier this week he didn't bust it down the line on a grounder back to the pitcher.
It doesn't matter what anyone who covers or watches the Phillies thinks — clearly, Brundage and the organization as a whole feels it's necessary to teach Williams these lessons now so they don't pop up again in the future. Williams said the right things when he was benched in mid-June and said them again this week. On Wednesday, he returned to the IronPigs' lineup and went 2 for 4 with two RBIs, a welcome sight for his teammates because Williams has played a significant role in Lehigh Valley's June surge.
"It's just been a hard learning experience, and it doesn't feel good at all," Williams said Wednesday. "It's frustrating missing games and not helping your teammates win, that's the big thing."
A benefit of being at Triple A is sharing a clubhouse with veterans who have been through some of these issues. There are nearly as many veterans in the IronPigs' clubhouse as there are in the Phillies' clubhouse. Williams has leaned on Emmanuel Burriss in particular during these trying times.
"He's had experience with being benched, and he played with the Giants when they won the World Series," Williams said. "[The veterans] help me to understand, open my eyes a little bit. Sometimes you just push it behind, think something is foolish, but other people, they could see it differently."
Hustle and discipline aside, Williams is performing for the IronPigs. His bat has heated up with the weather, and after a slow start his numbers are aligning with his career averages.
Since May 26, Williams has hit .316 with a .904 OPS in 28 games. He has 11 doubles, two triples, three home runs and 17 RBIs in 127 plate appearances. He was hitting .262/.289/.409 through May 25 but is now up to .285/.329/.460. His 28 extra-base hits are tied with Taylor Featherston for the LHV lead.
"Well obviously I'm not playing in 40- or 30-degree weather," Williams said when asked what changed for him. "(In the Rangers' system) I played in Hickory (North Carolina), Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) and Frisco (Texas). This is my first experience ever with cold weather. I've seen snow one time my whole life and that was when I was seven. Had a couple occasions here during a game where it started coming down a little bit and I just thought, 'I'm a long way from home.'"
That he is. But the Galveston, Texas, native has performed all the same in 89 games in the Phillies' system since coming over in the Cole Hamels trade. He's even improved upon a few weaknesses.
As productive as the left-handed Williams was last season, he hit just .210 against lefties. This season, he's hit .264 and already has one more extra-base hit than he had in all of 2015 against lefties.
And even though his walk rate remains low — Williams has 17 walks and 73 strikeouts in 287 plate appearances this season after walking just three times in 100 PAs last summer at Reading — the numbers don't bear out that improvement as much as the eye test has.
"I've been seeing lefties a lot better lately," Williams said. "A lot of them kind of do the same thing to me and that helps. I just want to master, really figure out what I'm trying to do and what they're trying to do to me. I didn't like when [managers] thought I couldn't hit a lefty, and they would call a guy in from the bullpen just to pitch to me. It bothered me, I didn't like that, them thinking it could just take a lefty to get me out. I worked on it, worked on it, and I got better at it, being more patient.
"Breaking balls away, sometimes they try to come in, but usually if they throw me a breaking ball that's a strike, it's a good pitch to hit. There's a couple times you can tip your hat to them for hitting a certain spot, but really, when lefties throw me a breaking ball for a strike, it's a good pitch to hit. Just staying patient and the one that's an inch off, two inches off, just bite your lip and take."
Both the Rangers and Phillies have discussed with Williams the need to walk more. He thinks the free passes will come with time and better pitch recognition, but interestingly, taking more pitches has at times had an adverse affect.
"I know a lot of my strikeouts this year are from takes," Williams said. "I'm aggressive, but I don't feel like I'm too aggressive. I feel like I get runners over, move them in, do my job. I just feel like walks will come. I've always been an aggressive swinger. I do strike out a lot but I make contact a lot, too. It's not like I just go up there and strike out all the time. I work the count."
If Williams keeps his head down and truly learns from the incidents he's had this season, his bat could carry him to South Philly late this summer or in September. And when he gets there, he'll have a chance to wipe away whatever preconceived notions fans may have of him after hearing about the few times he didn't hustle.
"I love the fans, I'm always smiling, I sign autographs, I do whatever I can to interact with the fans, but I've never been — and this is something my dad taught me — I've never been one for people's opinions because everyone's gonna have them," Williams said. "I feel like you can never say the right or wrong thing because somebody's going to find something negative or misinterpret it. I try not to pay attention to it really. But I've got to learn from it."