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Phillies’ Strategy to Address Chasing Issues Following Devastating NLCS Defeat

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CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies were one win away from a second straight National League pennant. What transpired instead was a stunning collapse that led to arguably the most brutal Phillies playoff series loss since the 1993 World Series. There’s plenty of blame to go around for what happened. Many still wonder if things would be different if Craig Kimbrel was not inserted into Games 3 and 4. Despite the lack of offense in Game 3 and the bullpen’s struggles in Game 4, the Phillies still had a chance to wrap it up at home, and they didn’t.

The powerful Phillies offense, the same one that blasted six home runs and outscored Arizona 15-4 in Games 1 and 2, suddenly went cold. The D-Backs pitchers peppered hitters with offspeed pitches outside of the strike zone and the Phillies couldn’t stop chasing. It’s an issue that was prevalent earlier in the season and came back at the worst time.

Now that the initial sting of the loss is behind them, what happened? “I don’t know. Still don’t know,” Bryson Stott said. “Just got out of our swings. … I think it was more frustration on our end. Trying to go out and make us come to the pitcher instead of the ball come to us. We still had some really good at-bats in there, things like that. Like I said, it’s baseball and you’re going to go through those little bumps. Ours just came at the wrong time.”

“It’s funny because we were right where we needed to be,” hitting coach Kevin Long said. “And I just felt like we got a little anxious and we didn’t stay with our approaches and started swinging at pitches we shouldn’t have swung at. The borderline pitches. Even the ones that were off, but we just expanded. We did. Which was uncharacteristic because we were doing a really good job. And it just kind of tailspinned on us. The at-bats just weren’t as good as they were earlier. And when that happens, you’re gonna go home at some point.”

The collapse led to questions about the free-swinging nature of the Phillies lineup and whether or not a shakeup was needed. The Phillies will instead return all nine starters from Game 7 and implement a plan to improve internally through coaching. A big part of it is learning to avoid expanding the strike zone.

The Phillies were among the five-worst teams in baseball in O-Swing% at 34.1% in 2023, according to Sports Info Solution. In Games 6 and 7, the Phillies swung at 35% of pitches out of the zone. Decision making in the box will be a point of emphasis this year. “We gotta do a lot more decision making stuff in the cages,” Long said. “I gotta throw a lot more balls. Our other instructors are gonna throw more balls. We’re gonna have more strike to ball stuff. Ball to strike. We’re really having our guys pay attention to what they’re swinging at. And then we’ve added a few things that we’re gonna do. We’re gonna be pretty proactive as far as talking to our players.”

The team also hired two new assistant hitting coaches in the offseason, Dustin Lind and Rafael Peña. Lind, a former Giants coach, will be responsible for game planning. Peña, the former Astros minor league coordinator, will set up the cages pregame, throw batting practice, and be a confidant to the Spanish-speaking hitters on the roster. Having an additional hitting coach means Long can spend less time at a computer studying the opposing pitcher and more time in the cages working with his players. One of the bigger changes this year will come the day after games. One of Lind’s responsibilities will be to go over the previous night’s good and bad swing decisions before the next day’s game. If a hitter, for example, swung at three sliders low and away, they’ll be reminded about it in an effort to pinpoint weaknesses and fix them.

“If we just pay better attention and let them know like, ‘Yesterday, you had eight chases,’” Long said. “Some of these guys don’t even realize how many. ‘No, I didn’t have eight.’ ‘Oh yes you did.’ And then they’ll be like, ‘There’s no way.’ We have got to make sure they know what is happening to them.”

It’s easy to be skeptical of any plan that involves getting veteran hitters to improve in areas they have struggled in for years. Most of the Phillies’ lineup consists of veterans who are too late into their careers to dramatically change who they are. Players like Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper will always have an advanced feel for the strike zone while Nick Castellanos will lean on aggression. Long is not asking for every hitter to double their walk rate in one year, something Brandon Marsh did from 2022 to 2023, but small gains across the board on an individual level will hopefully lead to bigger ones for the entire lineup.

“We do have some guys that do a really good job,” Long said. “I mean, Schwarber has had career highs in walks. He’s really controlling the strike zone. And then we have guys that aren’t getting any better with it. Those are the guys that we really need to hone in on.”

Castellanos and Turner are the litmus test for the plan’s viability. Both had their moments in 2023, but are coming off career highs in chase rate and had their worst slump of the season during the final games of the NLCS. After posting OPSs over 1.500 from Game 1 of the NLDS through Game 2 of the CS, both Turner and Castellanos combined to go 2-for-37 in Games 3 through 7 of the NLCS. It was a year of extremes for Turner in particular. A scorching hot August and September saved his season from being a complete wash, but before that, he had a .673 OPS and swung at 39.1% of pitches outside of the strike zone. There’s belief that Turner can improve because he hasn’t been as prone to chasing in the past. His chase rate was below 30% for five years straight from 2017 to 2021.

“[Castellanos] can get a little bit better. [Turner] has done it before,” Long said. “I’ve seen him do it. We need to get him back to the high 20s chase rates. Not the 30s, 35, 40s. Those are unacceptable rates where we just gotta really make sure that our guys are getting better there.”

At the same time, the Phillies don’t want to veer too far away from what makes them one of the best power-hitting lineups in baseball. The Phillies have been a top ten home-run hitting team over the last two seasons because of their ability to send mistake pitches over the wall. Aggressiveness in the strike zone made them the favorites to make it back to the World Series. Aggressiveness outside of it led to their early demise and the Phillies are already working to make sure that last year’s fatal flaw doesn’t hold them back again.

“These guys like to swing,” Long said. “They want to swing. They don’t want to go up there taking. And that’s not it. This is not a discussion about we need to take. It’s a discussion about looking for zones.”

 

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