May 13, 2017
WASHINGTON – One of the main job requirements for a major league hitting coach is to provide a second set of eyes for a major league hitter.
No matter how many reps you take in the cage, adjustments you make in the batter’s box during games, or hours spent in the video room, a hitter isn’t always able to diagnose a problem for himself if he’s, as manager Pete Mackanin said of Maikel Franco on Friday, “in a stalemate right now,” or, as Matt Stairs said Saturday, “fighting himself.”
Franco, who is hitting sixth in the Phillies lineup tonight, the lowest he's hit in 50 starts, entered Saturday hitting .207 with a .635 OPS, both numbers the lowest among Phillies’ regulars.
So it was Stairs, the first-year hitting coach and former Phillies pinch hitter extraordinaire, who used those second set of eyes to help the struggling Franco. After looking at video, from this year and last year, Stairs saw that Franco’s hands were too high in the last month.
“He was getting in the habit of, when he gets in his set position, his hands were too high toward his head, which was causing him, when he's bringing his hands back, to have his elbow back behind his head too high, which would cause him to have a loop swing,” Stairs explained. “So the last few days, we’ve concentrated on (that), when he comes set with his hands in front of his body, to lower them. So now when he goes back into his launch position, his hands are going back into a good launch position.”
Stairs took a second outside the indoor batting cage in between the visiting dugout and clubhouse at Nationals Park to show exactly what he was talking about. He mimicked holding a bat and cocked his hands back, raising his elbow as if he was preparing to see a pitch coming toward the plate.
“We lowered the hands,” Stairs said, showing off what looked to be a straighter path from the hands to the ball. “It’s more of a 90-degree angle, level with the shoulders, rather than having the elbow up too high, which causes the loop swing, which causes you to not be able to recognize as many pitches because you have too much movement now with your head.”
Stairs saw the mechanical flaw in Franco’s set-up earlier in the week and began working with the slugging third baseman on Wednesday, when he was out of the starting lineup in a matinee against the Seattle Mariners. They worked in the cage and, in Franco’s only at-bat on Wednesday, a pinch-hitting appearance in the ninth inning, he ripped an 0-1 pitch to deep center for a long out.
“He had a good swing at it,” Stairs said. “He just missed it.”
The two were back at it on Friday, in early, extra batting practice before the game was postponed, and then prior to Saturday’s game, too. Even without a game in the span of over 48 hours, the repetition in batting practice has helped Franco’s mindset.
“(Stairs) just saw that little thing I wasn’t doing, so we started doing it,” Franco said. “It’s what I was doing last year. … It feels good. I’m seeing the pitches pretty good. When my hands were going too deep I was having trouble seeing the pitches and making contact.”
Along with keeping Franco’s mechanics sounds, Stairs (and Mackanin) have tried to keep Franco focused on the positives. A struggling hitter can sometimes be his own worst enemy in the batter’s box, forcing things or trying too hard, which can backfire.
So they’ve tried to remind Franco that he has 25 RBI (seven more than he had through his first 32 games last season), and that his strikeouts are down, his walks are up, and he’s seeing more pitches, too. And all of those points are valid: Franco’s strikeout rate is 16.2 percent (compared to 16.2 last season), his walk rate is 8.8 percent (6.4 last year) and he’s seeing 3.86 pitches per plate appearances (3.565 last year).
It’s also worth pointing out that Franco has been, well, just a little bit unlucky. Franco entered Friday with a .208 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which ranked 177th out of 185 qualifying big league hitters. That .208 BABIP is 61 points lower than his career BABIP of .269.
As the folks at FANGRAPHS explain, the league average for BABIP is usually around .300 and large deviations from a player’s career average BABIP can tell you a little bit about their luck or the opposition’s defense.
Cesar Hernandez, for another example, entered Saturday hitting a team-best .324 on the season … but also with a .404 BABIP, 10th highest in baseball. Hernandez’s career BABIP is .357, so he’s currently 47 points higher.
Hernandez is obviously a more disciplined hitter with better on-base skills than Franco. That’s not the point. The point is, given their respective luck on balls hit into play, their numbers will likely return to the norm in the coming months.
“I just have one month here, less than 50 games,” Franco said Saturday. “We’ve got a long way to go, 4 1/2 months. Everything is going to change. I don’t have to worry about where my average is right now and what I have to do, the only thing I have to do is get my rhythm back, get my confidence back, and if I do all of that, everything is going to be alright.”
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