The hiring of Phillies manager Joe Girardi generated a lot of buzz as the team entered the 2020 season. After two years of widespread dissatisfaction with Gabe Kapler, fans welcomed the new skipper with wide open arms. One standout quality in Girardi’s resume is his tendency to merge analytics with a practical baseball approach. This new-ish old school style is enabling Philadelphia’s successful offense. The Phillies just might hit their way into the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Hitting coach Joe Dillon is also among the changes to the 2020 Phillies coaching staff. The former Washington Nationals assistant is tasked with resurrecting an expensive offense that ranked a pedestrian 14th in runs scored last year. With a batting order that is mostly the same as the 2019 lineup, Dillon can take credit for positives in two key categories.
Phillies Hitting In 2020
A few traditional team numbers are somewhat middling. The squad is eighth in runs scored (183), twelfth in home runs (51), and thirteenth in walks (126).* Nothing special. How are Dillon and his pupils succeeding in 2020? The Phillies rank third in baseball with a .345 team on base percentage, a massive 26-point upswing from last year.
The biggest change to the lineup is not free agent Didi Gregorius, but the addition of the designated hitter to the National League. Not every NL team has been able to adapt to the new normal. In fact, team batting averages have declined in 2020. Somehow, the subtraction of pitchers is also yielding the exact same league-average OBP in both seasons.
How are the Phillies bucking these trends? It never hurts to have Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto playing at MVP levels. Both stars are living up to the high prices that brought them to Citizens Bank Park. Despite their overall impact, a well-oiled offense is more than one or two players. Like football, a baseball lineup is a system that consistently tallies points when several hitters play well over the course of a season.
The team’s steadiest on-base presence is Rhys Hoskins. The first baseman was off to a slow start in terms of batting average, but his ability to get on base usurps hitting slumps and jump-starts the order. He ranks third in baseball with 26 walks, allowing a steady stream of baserunners for Harper, Realmuto, et al. For his part, Harper leads the National League with 28 bases on balls and five intentional walks.
Hoskins is not the cleanup hitter that started the 2019 season. Despite a Ruthian power binge to start his career, his early home run streak is a mirage. The franchise is finally identifying that his best skill is not driving in runs, but creating them by getting on base in front of Harper. The corner infielder has endured polarizing swings in production. The Phillies have to hope that Dillon can mold a more consistent approach so that Hoskins is less of a peak-valley hitter. For now, him getting to first often is an irreplaceable plus.
According to an NBC Sports Philadelphia article, Hoskins worked on lowering his hands and opening his stance over the winter. The changes are paying off now and may keep the first baseman in the organization’s long term plans. The article also includes a key quote from his new hitting coach that is often forgotten by the analytics establishment.
“Forget all the things that you did as a hitter because everybody is different and what worked for you might not work others.”
That awareness is a huge difference between the 2019 Phillies coaching staff and the 2020 team. The former regime often tried to mold pitchers and hitters into using the same approach, a tact that forces players to change whatever tools got them to the Major Leagues. Players often looked lost as they followed a one size fits all approach. The analytics-heavy organization neglected the fact that athletes are humans and not programmable robots.
The Phillies Are Putting The Ball In Play
Aside from OBP, the team is separating itself from the pack by putting the ball in play. The Phillies have the second-fewest strikeouts in baseball (251) and are taking advantage of run scoring opportunities at a frequency that did not exist during the Gabe Kapler Era. The Phillies struck out at the thirteenth and third highest rate in all of baseball in 2019 and 2018.
Overall, they are hitting .269/.370/.497 (avg/obp/slugging) with runners in scoring position. This contact rate is up from .254/.343/.401 last year. “Clutch” may be hard to quantify, but this increase in base runners and contact when it matters most is leading to the team’s jump in runs.
Freed from the maddening tunnel vision of the previous coaching staff, batters are hitting without having launch angle be the most important metric. No Phillie even ranks in the top 50 in MLB average exit velocity. Rookie Alec Bohm leads the team, but is only 60th-overall in baseball (90.7 MPH). In short: the Phillies are mixing in bloops with the blasts.
No hitter exemplifies this team-first approach more than Bryce Harper. The slugger has even dropped bunts down third base lines left vacant during shifts. This new element to his game is yielding the highest wOBA against the shift of his career (.449). wOBA, or weighted on-base average, measures a player’s overall offensive contributions. Coupled with Hoskins getting on base at a higher rate, Harper’s ability to produce against defensive shifts allows the middle of the order to keep rolling.
Their tendency to make quality contact is key to projecting potential playoff success. In an era where GM’s treat strikeouts as the same as contact outs, it is worth noting that the last three World Series champions ranked in the top five of fewest team strikeouts. Over the past decade, only the 2016 Chicago Cubs and 2013 Boston Red Sox were below MLB-average in that category.
While the fate of the 2020 Phillies remains to be seen, the team is seeing significant improvement by getting on base and putting the ball in play. This is not the most mind-blowing philosophy, but teams do not have to reinvent the wheel to push runs across the plate. That alone may be the on-field difference between Girardi and Kapler. The turnaround is allowing Philadelphia to weather a shaky bullpen and stay in the thick of the playoff race.
*All statistics are updated through 9/3. All data cited was generated by Baseball Reference and MLB Statcast.