Amid tough season, Mallee confident in philosophy

Phillies' hitting coach trusts experience will benefit young hitters next season

September 14th, 2018

PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies are not mathematically eliminated from the postseason, but at this point, they need a late-season miracle.

A more productive, more dangerous offense would have helped and perhaps stemmed a remarkable late-season swoon. The Phillies entered Friday ranked 18th in baseball in on-base percentage (.315), 22nd in runs (614), 23rd in slugging percentage (.396) and 28th in batting average (.237). The Phillies do not put as much stock into traditional numbers as more modern metrics, but even then they are 21st in wOBA (.309) and 22nd in wRC+ (92). Still, they take pride in being second in baseball in pitches per plate appearance (4.02) and fifth in walk rate (9.4 percent). They believe it is a recipe for success.

The offense's struggles have put the spotlight on Phillies hitting coach John Mallee, who has enjoyed previous success working with young hitters, most notably and most recently the Cubs. He spoke with Friday about the team's offensive struggles, the organization's hitting philosophy and why the offense will improve next season. A look at the numbers shows many hitters, if not most, are performing below their career averages or performances from last year. What do you think about the year?

Mallee: I think we were doing pretty good until the last six weeks. There is some tough luck involved there. We haven't been getting the big hit. With guys coming from other leagues like Carlos [Santana], he was one of the unluckiest hitters in baseball in April. His numbers are pretty respectable now. Remember, he's coming from a new league. He doesn't know the opposing pitchers. The batter-pitcher matchup history is a big deal. Now that he's faced these guys, he's feeling a lot better because he knows how they're trying to get him out.

Then you've got the kids like [Scott] Kingery. He's just a kid, first time up in the big leagues. He's learning when to be aggressive and when to be selective and how to have an actual approach in the big leagues. I think part of it is youth, lack of experience in the big leagues. I had the Cubs in '15. They were a bunch of young kids that came through that were very talented in numbers. The strikeout rate got better every year just from experience and playing. That has a lot to do with learning. A lot of these guys are still developing in the big leagues, right? Some folks think your hitters are looking to take pitches, work a count and walk, rather than hit a hittable pitch. Numbers show that you are one of the most patient teams in baseball, but some of the more patient teams are teams like the Dodgers, Astros, D-backs and Cardinals. Are you too passive?

Mallee: We can clarify: Our offensive approach, our philosophy, is aggressive, selective hitting. What that means is you figure out your strengths as a hitter and you're going to attack those strengths early in the count and you're patient enough to wait for them. So if you get a first-pitch strike that's in the area of one of my guys' strengths, he's going to swing or he's going to try to swing. So nobody takes to take. They take because they didn't get a pitch to drive early in the count. That's what selective aggressive hitting is. That's how good teams slug. That's how good teams walk. That's how good hitters hit. So no one here is told to go up there and take a strike. So you don't buy the paralysis-by-analysis thing?

Mallee: No, I don't see that. Not at all. If you handle the ball middle-away and you don't handle the ball in, if the pitcher throws you a first-pitch fastball inside and you take it for a strike, well, you don't hit that pitch. But if it's middle-away, you should swing at it. They're geared towards hitting to their strengths until the count says they have to play the game a different way. And that's how you work counts and do these things without taking the bat out of the hitter's hands. And that's our philosophy. I'm not sure if this stat means anything to you, but the Phillies rank amongst the bottom five teams in swing rate on "meatball" pitches, or pitches down the middle of the plate. What does that mean to you?

Mallee: There's something that can be said for that. We have to use these things and be aware of it to help us check if we're following our offensive plan. So I believe in stats like that, but there are certain situations in the game when you're required to take that meatball pitch because we need baserunners. If you're a high-walk guy like Cesar [Hernandez], they get to 3-1 counts, they're going to get a strike on 3-2, and that's why they walk, because they're willing to do that to try to get on base because they know the role. Whereas you've got a big guy that puts the ball in the seats, he's never doing that. He's looking for something he can hit. If it shows up, he's swinging. Is it a bigger issue that you just swing and miss too much? You're second in baseball in whiff percentage.

Mallee: If you swing and miss on a pitch we should hit, or we foul off a pitch, then we may not get that pitch again. That's guys still learning and developing some swing patterns. There are still some mechanical things some players are working on that don't allow them to get to certain parts of the zone. Let's say it's elevated and it's in the strike zone. We have some guys that don't handle the ball up. They handle the ball belt-line down, so if they swing at that, they're going to swing and miss because they usually don't hit it.

It's real touchy in the sense that we're not creating or saying we should have these big, long swings and just try to hit homers. We're trying to hit line drives to the middle of the field. We're trying to get a pitch to hit hard. So we use different metrics other than the traditional batting average. We talk about wOBA. We talk about hard-hit ball percentage. We talk about all those things. They're a better measure of your offense. The hard-hit percentage is down from last year. What is that attributed to?

Mallee: It's guys learning their swings, learning their approaches. The guy on the mound is trying not to allow hard contact. Until these guys get some experience and learn how these guys pitch and when to look in certain spots, that all comes over time. You have to expect that in a young group. The front office just let go four hitting coaches on the Minor League staff, including Minor League hitting coordinator Andy Tracy. Do you believe the organization's offensive philosophy wasn't being delivered throughout the system?

Mallee: We have an organizational philosophy and it starts from Rookie ball all the way to the big leagues. It's a selective aggressive approach. It's not teaching people to be passive, but learning how to attack their pitch early in the count and being patient enough to wait for it. I coached Andy Tracy in the Minor Leagues. I think Andy is great. The organization will have a new farm director. Usually when you bring in a new farm director, he wants to bring in guys that he knows are going to instill his philosophy, not just on the hitting end of it. So when you bring in a new guy like that, a lot of times, there are turnovers that happen. I don't think it was so much that Andy wasn't on the same page as us, because all the times I spoke with him, all the players that have come up to the big leagues have really tried to employ that philosophy. So I know Andy was trying to implement it there. I don't think it was that he wasn't teaching what we wanted. It's like when a new GM wants his own manager?

Mallee: Yeah, then all of a sudden the manager is gone, the hitting coach is gone. What do you think about the attention turning to you? Hitting and pitching coaches can be scapegoats when the offense or pitching struggles.

Malee: It doesn't frustrate me. I was in Chicago when we led the league in runs scored and on-base percentage. We won the World Series in '16, and the next year, we came back and by two runs we didn't lead the league in runs. Sometimes they feel like, well, we didn't hit good pitching well enough or this and that.

At the end of the day the philosophy is what matters. Is our philosophy correct for our personnel? Because the philosophy has to change according to the personnel. If you have some guys that when they get to two strikes are out, then they're going to have to swing earlier. At the end of the day, I'm responsible for the offense. Period. Now, everybody knows the message. The message is right. The message coming from the next guy is going to be the same message as this. Because that's the proper message. The selective aggressive hitting -- we work deep counts by being ready to hit our pitch from the first pitch on and being patient enough to wait for it. That's why we walk and we slug. Or we should slug. When that doesn't happen, people want to check what they're teaching down there, what are they doing, why are they talking so many pitches, when they don't know the whole picture. You hear a lot of derisive comments these days about things like launch angle.

Mallee: Launch angle for us, we're not talking about homers. We're talking about hitting line drives, which is a 70 percent chance of getting a hit. If you hit it between seven and 15 degrees at 95 mph or better, you've got a 70 percent chance of getting a hit. All we try to do is hit line drives through the middle of the field and get a pitch that we can do that with and hit it hard. I don't talk about hitting fly balls. We don't like the ball on the ground because there's no slug on the ground. There's two outs on the ground. A lot of bad things happen when the ball goes on the ground. The pitcher is trying to get you to put the ball on the ground or he's trying to get you to swing and miss. You mentioned the personnel. Do you think the personnel is here?

Mallee: Well, there is no way Kingery is going to hit what he hit this year. His at-bats lately have been so good, but now he's not getting any luck. He's learning. He's learning an approach. He's made some adjustments with his swing and now his swing is where it needs to be. This was his first time in the big leagues as kid. He had never faced anything like this. But as the season progressed and the more reps he gets, the more you say, "There it is." You have to be patient with a young group. Fortunately, we've exceeded the expectations of people and now we have all these high expectations. But we didn't exceed our own expectations because we expected to be good coming out of Spring Training. Because we knew we had the talent, we knew we had the right plan and philosophy, we knew we had the right manager to implement all of this. He's been amazing and he's been patient, but at the end of the day we have to perform better offensively and it's a process, and I'm responsible for it and I'll wear it. And next year will be better?

Mallee: Next year will be better.