August 25, 2017
When the actual victories are few and far between in the never-ending grind of a sixth-month baseball season, a manager will take the moral victories when they come and Pete Mackanin may have collected one in the last few weeks.
After months of struggling to find anyone to carry the load in the middle of the lineup, waiting for someone to find some consistency for longer than a game or three, Mackanin has watched Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams arrive from Triple-A Lehigh Valley and fall right into regular roles in the heart of his lineup.
Hoskins and Williams were a combined 4-for-9 with a home run, a double, and five RBI in the Phillies 9-8 loss to Miami on Thursday.
Maikel Franco has been given ample opportunities. Tommy Joseph has run hot and cold (but mostly cold in the season’s second half).
In Williams and Hoskins, Mackanin has a couple of guys he can feel more than comfortable slotting into the top half of his lineup with currently-disabled outfielders Odubel Herrera and Aaron Altherr when he has a healthy collection of players to choose from next month.
“We’re getting close,” Mackanin said. “It’s a better feeling when I can feel in the top half, top five spots and go from there.”
Nick Williams is a lefty. Below is his XBH spray chart this year -- only one was legitimately "pulled." Silly power from RCF gap to LF pole. pic.twitter.com/jAbsVXwxxh— Ben Harris (@byBenHarris) August 23, 2017
Hoskins' historic first two weeks in the big leagues has been well documented.
With his home run on Thursday – his fifth in his last six games and eighth in 15 big league games, period – Hoskins became one of just three players in major league history to collect as many home runs in fewer than 50 MLB at-bats. The others, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: Trey Mancini (eight home runs in first 47 AB) and Carlos Delgado (eight home runs in 48 at-bats). Hoskins hit his eighth in his 49th career at-bats.
But Williams, the Robin to Hoskins’ Batman, has been pretty impressive in his own right at the plate, especially when you zero in on the one, big flaw in his game since arriving in the Phillies organization 25 months ago in the Cole Hamels’ trade.
The biggest knock on Williams, a corner outfielder with quick hands and gap-to-gap, was that his plate approach was lacking. In his first 147 games in the Phillies organization, from the end of 2015 at Double-A Reading the full 2016 season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, Williams struck out 156 times and drew just 22 walks in 627 plate appearances.
That’s a ghastly 3.5 percent walk rate.
To put that number into better perspective, only three qualifying big league hitters have a lower walk rate this year: Houston corner infielder Yuli Gurriel (2.8 percent), Chicago White Sox infielder Tim Anderson (2.6), and Kansas City shortstop Alcides Escobar (2.4). Not surprisingly, two of those players (Anderson and Escobar), have sub-.265 OBPs, too.
But Williams (and his Triple-A manager) talked a bit about that deficiency in his game back in Allentown, and about his maturation in, if not in accumulating walks, in taking pitches within at-bats to get into better hitting counts.
Nick Williams walking 😍😍😍 pic.twitter.com/BMMOnaOgib— chris jones¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (@LONG_DRIVE) March 14, 2017
Now, 2 1/2 months later, Williams is in the big leagues and that continuing maturity is showing. Yes, he’s struck out 50 times in his first 47 major league games, but he also has a 7.7 percent walk rate.
That’s not a number that would put him among the top half of major league hitters (if he had enough plate appearances to qualify), but it is a drastic improvement from where he was a year ago (3.6 percent walk rate) or in his six-year minor league career in total (5.0 percent walk rate; 123 walks over 2,462 plate appearances in 577 games).
Williams has nine walks in 55 plate appearances over his last 13 games (a 16.4 percent walk rate).
“I think I’m very confident at the plate, and I think I’m more comfortable with the strikeouts and the walks,” he said. “I feel a lot more comfortable.”
In the sixth inning of Thursday’s game at Citizens Bank Park, with Freddy Galvis on second and Hoskins on deck in a tie game, Williams collected his 15th walk of the season. That might not sound like a lot, but with 15 walks in 195 plate appearances, Williams is one walk away from matching his total in Triple-A this season (16 walks in 306 plate appearances) and four away from matching his Triple-A total from last year (19 in 527 plate appearances).
He’s hitting with confidence and sticking to his strengths, according to first-year hitting coach Matt Stairs.
“I think he’s learning his strengths early in the count,” Stairs said. “We talk about being a stubborn hitter, and he’s being a stubborn hitter early and being aggressive, but selective. Does that make sense? He’s hitting to his strengths. He’s looking in certain areas (looking for) fastballs. We talk every day about approach and what we should do and to think about it, whether to swing at first pitch or take first pitch.”
Having confidence early in his big league career helps, too. Williams, who made his MLB debut two months ago, is slashing .293/.359/.500 with seven home runs and nine doubles over his first 47 major league games.
“I think it helps knowing the pitchers up here have better command, knowing that he’s been swinging the bat well and they’re trying to stay out of his thunder spot and they’re being careful with him,” Stairs said. “You’re not seeing the four and five straight fastballs. You’re seeing curveballs, which he’s been starting to lay off of. He’ll expand a little bit. But I think all and all I’ve been very happy with his approach.”
Another factor in Williams’ improve plate discipline? Weirdly, it’s the caliber of the pitchers he’s facing regularly in the big leagues.
Pitchers with better command miss their spots left often and are around the plate more. Armed with scouting reports and studying them and video regularly, Williams is going to the plate with intel data and a plan.
“This might sound funny, but big leagues it’s easier to hit because of the scouting reports that you have because the pitchers are around the plate a lot more,” Stairs said. “It sounds funny saying that, but I see it with guys coming up here. And the strike zone is a bit different, (you have) better command of pitches so you don’t get real fooled (as often).”
“The strike zone is a little different here and the pitchers, they’re more accurate around the strike zone,” Williams said. “I don’t know, I just stay with my approach, and if it’s not where I want it, then I’m able to lay off a lot better.”
Williams hasn’t even played a half season in the big league yet, so it’s premature to say he’s a changed hitter. Still, he’s closing in on 200 career plate appearances, so it’s not a small sample size, either.
If he can be a hitter hovering around .300 with an OBP north of .340, with power and the ability to spit on pitches outside the strike zone, Williams can be a vital cog in the Phillies’ 2018 lineup, too.
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