4 factors that will be essential to Phillies' success in 2024

February 23rd, 2024

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies manager Rob Thomson has been asked a few times about the good things he has seen in camp since it opened last week.

He always offers the caveat that he puts little stock into anything that happens early in camp, good or bad. Still, there have been a few things worth discussing before the Phillies play their first Grapefruit League game on Saturday afternoon against the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla.

The 1:07 p.m. ET first pitch will be broadcast live on 94 WIP (Scott Franzke and Kevin Stocker in the booth) and in the Philadelphia market on MLB Network (the Toronto feed).

1. The Chase

The Phillies had the fourth-highest chase rate (31.4 percent) in baseball in the 2023 regular season. It jumped to 36 percent in the final five games of the NLCS.

Swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone has been a point of emphasis since the NLCS. That talk and work will continue throughout the spring and into the season.

“We just got excited and came out of our approaches,” Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long said this week at BayCare Ballpark. “As the series continued with the Diamondbacks, the games became more pressure filled. I feel like we were trying to force getting hits and the action instead of understanding that they weren’t really throwing us strikes. It’s a learning experience. We need to get better at that, and we will.”

It can be tricky, because a big part of everyday work in the batting cage is fine tuning a hitter’s swing. It means throwing hitters pitches they can hit.

“There are strike zone discipline drills,” Long said. “Probably 40 percent [of pitches], even less than that, should be balls. I’m guilty of it. I throw way too many strikes. So we need to do a lot more stuff in the cages, and we will.”

2. Splitters and Sinkers

Not every pitcher comes to camp trying to learn a new pitch, but it is always interesting when they do. Phillies ace Zack Wheeler is trying to throw a changeup. Reliever Orion Kerkering is fine tuning his sinker.

Wheeler threw a career-high 290 changeups in 2019 with the Mets, according to Statcast. Even then, it represented only 9.2 percent of the pitches he threw that season. Wheeler threw only 55 changeups combined the past two years.

“It’s something he really wants,” Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham said.

Cotham and Wheeler talked about different grips in the offseason. Wheeler settled on a splitter more than a traditional changeup.

“It’s all semantics,” Cotham said. “A changeup, split, circle change, the goal is for the pitch to be slow. And there’s a lot of ways to do that. But he’s landed on a grip that he likes. It’s been really good.”

Kerkering threw 60 pitches in the regular season: 51 sliders (85 percent) and nine sinkers (15 percent).

No four-seamers?

“Some of the four-seams would be tagged as sinkers,” Cotham said. “He threw the sinker at times but it’s getting them to be two distinct movement profiles. The four-seam would kind of move like a sinker sometimes. So, it’s cleaning that up so it flies straighter and wants to be up, and the sinker wants to run and be in. It’s just the protection pitch that moves closer to a righty. It’s more of an east-west protecting pitch.”

Thomson raved about Kerkering’s live BP on Friday, including the depth of his sinker.

3. An Edge

The Phillies think they can be better defensively this year. Evidence suggests that. They posted -8 Outs Above Average last April and May, but +12 OAA in the final four months, including +8 OAA in September. In the infield, the Phils think they will be better with a full season of Bryce Harper at first base, plus improvements from Trea Turner and others. Turner struggled defensively last year. Phillies infield coach Bobby Dickerson said Turner has a chip on his shoulder regarding his poor defensive play last year. But then so does Bryson Stott, who was a finalist but did not win a Gold Glove.

“It’s early, but I love what I’ve seen so far,” Dickerson said. “The focus has been great.”

4. Health

Brandon Marsh continues to progress following left knee surgery earlier this month. He is jogging. He remains on the same timeline that has him in the Opening Day lineup. Third baseman Alec Bohm has neck spasms, so he will not play this weekend. Catcher Rafael Marchán has a back issue, so he is being held from action.