Analysis

Early returns on Matt Stairs show some improvement

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Matt Stairs in 2008.

It may be hard to believe for a team that is 33 games under .500, but the Phillies’ offense is the best it’s been in years. (Well, it’s all relative as they say.)

Starting last offseason, members of the Phillies’ front office and coaching staff preached the importance of expanding the strike zone. When Matt Stairs replaced Steve Henderson as the hitting coach, it became his job to get the Phils’ young hitters to be more disciplined at the plate.

Last season, the team ranked last or second-to-last in virtually every offensive category. They batted .240/.301/.385 and walked just 424 times (29th in baseball) and struck out 1,376 times (7th highest in baseball). They finished the year with a 7.1 percent walk rate and 23 percent strikeout rate. The 2015 season was even worse in terms of plate discipline – they walked just 6.4 percent of the time.

While they certainly aren’t threatening Murderers’ Row, the team has improved at the plate this season. The Phillies, who saw 11 players make their major league debut this season, are on pace to surpass last year’s numbers in most – if not all – categories. With 25 games remaining, the Phils are hitting .249/.312/.410 and are walking 7.9 percent of the time. They still strike out a bunch (9th highest in MLB) but are 24th in walks, a marginal improvement.

With players like Odubel Herrera and Tommy Joseph getting off to late starts, and with the addition of young players like Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins, the team’s second-half numbers are even better. Since the all-star break, the Phillies are hitting .269/.328/.438 and have a .766 OPS. They are also walking 8.2 percent of the time.

One aspect where the team has stayed basically the same is strikeout rate. The last three seasons the Phillies have hovered around 23 percent, and one would’ve hoped that Stairs, whose career K-rate was 18.6 percent, would’ve helped lower that number a bit.

Let’s take a quick look at how a few of the younger players have adjusted to big-league hitting under Stairs. One reason it took the Phillies three months to call up Williams was because of his lack of plate discipline. In 2016, Williams walked just 19 times with 136 strikeouts in triple-A, finishing with a line of .258/.287/.427. He upped those numbers through the first three months of this season and has continued to get on base in the majors. His walk rate is 7.1 percent, up from 3.6 percent last season.

Williams is now waiting for his pitches and because of this patient approach, he’s absolutely smashing the ball. In 59 games with the Phils, Williams has 24 extra base hits including eight homers, and is hitting .274/.333/.471.

It’s a small sample size, but there’s no question that Hoskins has had an easy time adjusting to the big leagues. After going 0-for-12 with four strikeouts to start his career, something clicked for Hoskins. Since then, Hoskins has hit 12 homers and has a line of .319/.436/.758. He has walked 17 times and struck out 18.

Although it might seem as if Maikel Franco is having a dreadful year – and in many ways he is – even his approach has improved. His walk rate is up over last year (7.1 percent from 6.4 percent) and his strikeout rate (15.2 percent from 16.8 percent) is down.

Granted, the only place to go from the last few years was up. Still, Stairs has done a nice job with what he was given for most of the season. There is still a long ways to go with this lineup and it will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out with the younger players expected to get more playing time (looking at you, J.P. Crawford).

The Phillies have been preaching patience with not only their players but with their fans as well. It seems as if it’s finally – if slowly – starting to pay off.

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