'Engage': Infielders work on pre-pitch setup

February 27th, 2021

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies infield coach Juan Castro believes the three feet before a baseball crosses home plate are the most important for an infielder.

If he is not ready by then, he never will be.

“You engage every pitch,” Castro said this week at BayCare Ballpark, “which is not easy. But if there are 150 pitches in one game, you have to be able to do that.”

The “pre-pitch setup” is a point of emphasis for Phillies infielders this spring, because they need to be better defensively. Phils infielders ranked 18th in baseball last season with minus-1 Outs Above Average, according to Statcast. Even a marginal improvement over a 162-game season could mean the difference between a trip to the postseason and another October at home.

“It gets looked over a little bit,” first baseman said. “You play enough baseball, it’s kind of something that becomes second nature throughout your career. But sometimes we can kind of just go through the motions with that, maybe miss a pitch or two. We’ve learned these last couple years that a pitch or two can mean a game or two, and a game or two is where we fell short last year.”

The Phillies believe they positioned their infielders well in 2020, even in the shift. They shifted only 28.3 percent of the time, less than league average (34.1 percent). But teams fared well when they did. Right-handed hitters had a .357 wOBA against the Phils’ shift, compared to a .335 league average. Left-handed hitters had a .391 wOBA against Philly's shift -- the highest mark in baseball by 22 points -- compared to a .310 league average.

The Phillies think they can improve those numbers with improved setups. What is a pre-pitch setup? Castro explained it is this way: infielders syncing their movements with the pitcher. The pitcher comes out of his windup and delivers the ball. The infielder readies himself to make a play. It might mean shuffling his feet. It might mean a quick hop. It might mean bending a little at the waist. Whatever the movements, the infielder is ready to make a play just before the ball reaches home plate.

“I’m ready to move when they swing,” Castro said.

If a player does not set up properly, he can become flat-footed.

“Moving from a position where you’re already moving,” Hoskins said. “It’s obviously a lot quicker and a lot more athletic. It’s practicing that timing of trying to still be moving while the ball is being hit. It’s a subtle movement, but hopefully we can react a little bit. Range maybe gets a half a step better, which creates more outs.”

Hoskins said infielders have heard plenty about setups this spring, which he likes. Castro said they are not letting up.

“We put it in their minds that we’re going to be on top of this,” Castro said. “Hopefully they can be ready the whole game. Every pitch. You don’t have to be the quickest fielder. You don’t have to be the fastest. But if you’re really engaged with your pre-pitch and do it the right way, you can get better. This is probably one of the hardest things to do as an infielder, like be on time all the time. Because it could be a fastball, it could be a sinker, it could be a changeup, it could be a curveball. So the timing is always a little different. So you have to practice it. You have to be engaged to do it.”

Baseball is back
The Phillies will play their Grapefruit League opener on Sunday afternoon against the Tigers in Lakeland. Iván Nova will start for the Phils. Right-handers David Hale, Bryan Mitchell, Enyel De Los Santos, J.D. Hammer and Tyler Carr also will pitch.

The teams will play seven innings. Also scheduled to start are Alec Bohm, Scott Kingery, Mickey Moniak, Jeff Mathis, Travis Jankowski, Darick Hall and C.J. Chatham.

Center-field competition is under way
Phillies manager Joe Girardi said Adam Haseley will start in center field. He is competing for playing time in center alongside Scott Kingery, Roman Quinn and possibly Odúbel Herrera. Haseley had a .690 OPS in 92 plate appearances last season, but Girardi said he is tossing the 2020 numbers for Haseley, Quinn and Kingery because of the unusual season.

“They’re all on new ground,” Girardi said. “Because I wouldn’t say that there was one who earned it last year, so whatever I hold onto isn’t really in a situation to help them.”

Haseley added some muscle in the offseason, which might help him drive the ball better. He hit no home runs after hitting five in 242 plate appearances in 2019.

“I think there’s more in the bat than he displayed last year,” Girardi said. “I don’t worry so much about home runs with him. It’s more his on-base [percentage] and [if he can] hit his doubles. I’m not asking him to hit home runs, because I don’t think that’s his game right now. So hit your singles and doubles and get on base, work counts, get into some long at-bats, grind out at-bats, do what you do.”

Extra bases
• Didi Gregorius participated in camp for the first time. Visa issues caused him to miss the first five days. He could appear in a Grapefruit League game sometime within the next week.

• Right-hander Aaron Nola will start Monday’s Grapefruit League home opener against the Orioles at BayCare Ballpark.