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June 07, 2016

Pregame Pete: Anatomy of Phillies lineup and defense of a hitting coach

Following a 6-4 defeat on Monday night, a game that ended with a four-run ninth inning rally in which Freddy Galvis’s three-run home run played a starring role, manager Pete Mackanin bemoaned the bad habits of his light-hitting shortstop. He said Galvis’s faults were systemic of the team’s offensive struggles at large.

“Our hitters make the same outs, the same way, over and over,” Mackanin said.

And then, less than 24 hours later, Mackanin had a felt pen in his hand and wrote Galvis’ name into the three-hole of his starting lineup for Tuesday night’s game against the Chicago Cubs.

“It's funny, when I made out the lineup, without (Tommy) Joseph in it, it becomes a little different,” he explained. “That's the best I could come up with.”

Joseph, who is in the midst of supplanting Ryan Howard as the team’s everyday first baseman, sat out of the lineup for the first time in a week. [Insert mocking fan/talk radio host overreaction that Joseph sits in place of Howard for, again, the first time in a week. Horrors.]

But, again, Mackanin’s struggles to fill out a somewhat productive lineup extend beyond first base. His Tuesday night lineup included a trio of hitters in the 2-through-4 spots who are hitting a combined .246.

Only one of those three players – Cesar Hernandez, Galvis, Maikel Franco – had an on-base percentage over .300 (Hernandez, at a whopping .302) and only one had an OPS north of .700 (Franco, at .736).

Sure Mackanin could slide Odubel Herrera down from his leadoff spot for a night, and he would surely look like a better three-hole hitter than Galvis, but it’s hard to blame a manager for keeping his only consistent hitter in the spot he’s thrived in since the end of April. It’d be the equivalent of moving around deck chairs on the Titanic. Sort of.

Not that the Phillies are a sinking ship. Instead, they’re a young, rebuilding team in transition. The Nick Williamses and J.P. Crawfords remain in the minor leagues, likely to get a look at some point later this season; the Ryan Howards and Carlos Ruizes are still around, playing out the final years of their respective contracts but also not blocking anyone from playing time if they’re used as back-up players (as they have been, for a year in Ruiz’s case and a week now in Howard’s).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean Macknanin sits around and waits for help from the farm. He wants to see the young players in his lineup, including the aforementioned hitters in the 2-through-4 spots on Tuesday night, adapt and adjust as hitters.

The manager looked up and down his lineup and struggled to find someone who has exhibited the ability to make adjustments this year (with the obvious exception of Herrera, who hasn’t needed to do so).

“Franco needs to quit pulling off the ball. Howie has been getting himself out all year by chasing balls outside the zone,” Mackanin began. “Same thing with Freddy. Hernandez needs to handle off-speed stuff better."

Mackanin kept going, and at one point, stood up from the chair behind his desk and pulled a Charlie Manuel, showing some hitting mechanics to the press.

“They’re not aggressive,” Mackanin continued. “‘I’m going to hit this pitch – no I’m not.’ You got to learn how to go after the fastball and adjust to the breaking ball. I feel like our hitters wait, they wait to see if it’s a good pitch and then they swing, so they get beat by a fastball, then they get behind in the count and get panicky and then they start to chase out of the zone. To me, if you’re a good enough hitter to spot the pitcher a fastball, you better be a good enough hitter not to swing at a breaking ball in the dirt with two strikes, you know what I mean?

“That’s what (pitching coach Steve Henderson) has been preaching, it’s what we’ve bene preaching. Early in the count look for a mistake over the plate Hunt the fastball. Don’t get to two strikes. You know the old saying, you don’t strike out because of the breaking ball you swung and missed, you struck out because you missed the first two fastballs you could have hit.”

The Phillies entered play Tuesday night with a .288 team on-base percentage, the worst in baseball. Only the Atlanta Braves have fewer extra-base hits, total bases, runs scored, or a lower slugging percentage.

Mackanin was asked about his hitting coach, Henderson, who is in his fourth season in the role.

“It’s funny because I listen to him and I go in the cage and I watch what they’re doing and they are doing exactly what they need to be doing,” Mackanin said. “And in the cage they do it. The hard part is taking it into a game. If my swing is this and I’m upper cutting it, now in the cage I’m doing this, it feels uncomfortable but you get results. … If they’re doing it in the cage, great you got it, that’s it. Then they swing at the first pitch and they’re underneath the ball. No. … Like I said, you can only teach so much. I’ve said this many times but I can’t teach you how to ride a bike. You gotta get on it and feel it. Ice skate. I can’t teach you how to ice skate. I can tell you how to tie your skates and push off but you gotta figure it out.”

So a hitting coach can only have so much influence over a major league hitter?

“If you’re a hitting coach and you’re teaching a guy to do something you want him to do it and he does it in the cage over and over again,” Mackanin said. “And then in the game he doesn’t bring it, all you can do is show him the video and ‘Look it, you’re not doing it. Let’s do it.’ And then they take it out into batting practice and do it and then in a game, it’s uncomfortable. It’s like teaching a guy a split. On the side he says ‘OK, that feels good.’ Is he going to throw it in the game? Is he going to push it? Is he going to let it go? It’s hard to do but if you want to improve you gotta do it. If you don’t do it, you’re not going to improve.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21