Former major league slugger Matt Stairs was named as the Phillies’ new hitting coach back in November. For the last three seasons, Stairs had worked with Tom McCarthy, Ben Davis, and Gregg Murphy (and Jamie Moyer) on the commentary for Phillies television broadcasts. Now, he gets to work hands-on with a team that last year ranked last in the majors in runs per game (3.77), second-to-last in batting average (.240), second-to-last in on-base percentage (.301), and last in slugging percentage (.384).
What hitting philosophies will Stairs impart to his pupils? MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki provides the answers:
“It’s more about certain guys hitting too many ground balls, or why isn’t the ball coming off their bat more solidly when they’re so strong?” Stairs said of those conversations with the front office. “We haven’t gotten too deep into the details, but you have to take baby steps. The biggest thing I’m teaching them right now is [hitting from] left-center to right-center and how to use the top hand when you hit. I think when they start realizing less body, more hands, that’s when the exit velocity jumps.”
“You want to drive the ball through a shortstop or second baseman,” Stairs said. “If I tell Roman Quinn, ‘We don’t want you hitting the ball in the air, we want you hitting ground balls.’ … We don’t want you hitting ground balls. What happens is you start guiding the ball through the zone and you top it and kill the ants and worms in front [of the plate], or you carve it and hit fly balls.
“The approach we have this spring is the first two rounds [of batting practice], I want you killing the second baseman and shortstop, up the middle and hard. Don’t think about hitting the ball on the ground. Think about having that good top hand, driving the ball through the infielders on a good line drive. And if you clip it a little bit, now you have gap power.”
Stairs also spoke of the importance of being positive. He said, “My job, at the end of every day, after BP, is give high-fives, give knuckles and walk out of that cage with something positive.”
As the stats show, the Phillies haven’t had much to be proud about in recent years as the club continued its rebuilding effort. And Stairs appears to be onto something about not hitting the ball on the ground. The Phillies tied with the Pirates for the fifth-highest ground ball percentage last season at 46.9 percent. Of the five teams ahead of them, three had bottom-10 offenses (Braves, Marlins, Royals) and two eked above the league average in runs per game (Pirates, Diamondbacks). The Phillies make it four out of six teams with the highest ground ball percentages ranking at or near the bottom offensively.
The Phillies were slow to embrace analytics, having only recently installed a full-fledged analytics department. But Zolecki notes in his article that the team is implementing statistics from Statcast and other sources into their analyses. It’s not apparent from his quotes that Stairs is a stats devotee, but his hitting principles are in line with what stats people have been telling us for years.