The Philadelphia Phillies lost their fifth straight game Friday evening, this time dropping the first of a three game weekend series with the lowly Miami Marlins, despite an eight-inning outing from Aaron Nola. After going 17-11 in May, Gabe Kapler’s squad is just 6-12 in June. The Phillies were 11 games over .500 and three-and-a-half games up in the National League East after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals on May 29. They’ll enter Saturday just three games above .500, and four-and-a-half games behind the Atlanta Braves in the division race.
Swoons like this occur just above every season, but even prior to the latest nosedive, there was growing sentiment that the Phillies offense wasn’t hitting up to it’s full potential in 2019. That’s led some to wonder about the future of hitting coach John Mallee.
“I think we have the right personnel in place – we have the right coaches in place,” Kapler said after Friday night’s game when asked specifically about Mallee. “Our processes and our practices need some refinement. There’s no coaching staff in baseball that works harder than our staff does, and we’re going to work to find solutions.”
The Phillies are 17th in runs scored, 18th in OPS, 20th in slugging percentage and 23rd in home runs hit in 2019. They did lose their catalyst, Andrew McCutchen, earlier this month when he tore his ACL. Still, the Phillies employ Rhys Hoskins, Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and Scott Kingery, among others. They were built to be able to withstand such a loss.
Instead, with the exceptions of Kingery and the recently acquired Jay Bruce, the Phillies offense has gone into a tailspin in the last week, averaging just 2.33 runs per game. Neither Bryce Harper or J.T. Realmuto advanced to the second round of All-Star voting, and while each could make a case they deserved to, neither is having the offensive season that the Phillies envisioned. It’s June 22 and Harper has 12 home runs. Realmuto – who many predicted would explode offensively once he left Miami – has had an outstanding defensive season, but has been rather pedestrian offensively, slashing .265/.323/.435 with 10 home runs and 36 RBIs.
It’s often difficult to quantify how much of an impact a hitting coach truly has, but it isn’t difficult to come to the conclusion that this Phillies offense shouldn’t have trouble scoring runs. They shouldn’t even just be an average offensive team – they have the talent to be a top 10 offense certainly, if not better. In 2010, after making the World Series in consecutive seasons, the Phillies offense went stagnant in July, and they slipped to just 49-46. The Phillies chose to part ways with hitting coach Milt Thompson at that point.
How much Thompson had to do with the success of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth, among others, is unclear, but he was a much more accomplished hitting coach than Mallee. If for nothing more than to shake things up, the Phillies fired Thompson on July 22. With just a few weeks until the All-Star Game – a game that may not include a single Phillies position player – it’s fair to wonder if Mallee’s seat has warmed at all.
In addition to Mallee, there has been some criticism leveled in the direction of first-year pitching coach Chris Young. Aaron Nola was strong Friday night, but he did give up his 14th home run of the season and came very close to allowing his 15th in the sixth inning. A year ago, Nola allowed just 17 home runs the entire season. The problem with the theory of Young being what has caused Nola’s struggles in 2019 – he has a 4.55 ERA and 4.38 FIP in 16 starts – is that it wasn’t as though he was an external hire. Last season, he was the Phillies assistant pitching coach under Rick Kranitz. The Phillies moved on from Kranitz, who is now the Braves pitching coach, because they feared they would lose Young to another team.
Regardless of who the pitching coach is, Nola’s issues with the long ball began last September, when both Kranitz and Young were on the staff. Nola allowed nine home runs in September of 2018 after allowing just eight the rest of the entire season. That trend has carried over to this season. As I noted in an edition of Phillies Nuggets earlier this year, hitters have drastically adjusted their average launch angle against Nola. The average launch angle hitters have used against Nola in his career is 7.9 percent. In 2019, that number has increased to 9.8 percent, which isn’t a small bump. It’s directly related to the increase in home runs allowed and something that Young and Nola need to find a solution to.
The rest of the starting rotation has been a mixed bag. It’s hard to blame Young – or anyone on the coaching staff – for the revolving door that is the No. 5 spot in the Phillies rotation. Nick Pivetta, at least until Thursday, had been excellent since returning from Triple-A, but just the fact that he was at Triple-A for over a month is a sign that he hasn’t taken the step forward into being a consistent arm that the Phillies may have hoped for. Is that Young’s fault? It’s hard to tell, especially considering that Zach Eflin has a 2.83 ERA and 4.01 FIP in 14 starts, so one of the Phillies young arms has continued to develop.
Ultimately, whether it’s right or wrong, Kapler will be blamed or praised depending on the outcome of the Phillies season. It’s a black and white world that often lacks nuance. Right now, the second-year manager has his work cut out for him.
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