PHILADELPHIA — The hitting coach probably wasn’t the reason the Philadelphia Phillies’ hitters stopped hitting this summer, any more than the pitching coaches were the reasons for the poor performances by the pitchers in Washington and New York this year. And if the Phillies surge in the final seven weeks of the season, it probably won’t be because of Charlie Manuel, any more than the Nationals’ turnaround was due to Paul Menhart or the Mets’ to Phil Regan.
But when it’s the middle of August and your owner spent almost half a billion dollars on players over the winter and you’re tied for third place and grasping for a wild card and there’s no immediate pathway to fix your roster, sometimes the best and only move left at your disposal is to fire somebody and hope it lights a fire under the clubhouse.
Change for change’s sake.
That’s essentially what the Phillies did Tuesday, dismissing hitting coach John Mallee, a 50-year-old disciple of the new school of analytics-based instruction, and replacing him with Manuel, who is a quarter-century older and might be considered the principal emeritus of the old school of hitting. The Phillies stressed they did not expect Manuel to retain the job beyond this season.
Despite the obvious generational and philosophical differences between Mallee and Manuel — the former a brainy type who cites wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) as his go-to statistic, the latter an easygoing Virginian who is seldom without a dog-eared copy of “Ted Williams: The Science of Hitting” — the Phillies made clear the move was less about new school vs. old school and more about … something else that was never actually specified.
“The reason we did this today,” General Manager Matt Klentak said before Philadelphia beat the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday, “is because we have 44 games remaining and we’re two games out of the playoffs. I know a lot of people are burying us, saying we have no chance and we’re not playing well. Part of that is correct: We have not played well. We have not hit well, especially since the all-star break. But we are not buried, and we are not out. It makes sense to try something different than continuing to do the same thing.”
After touting some of Manuel’s credentials — hitting coach for the mighty Cleveland Indians teams of the mid-to-late 1990s and manager of the Phillies from 2005 to 2013, a period that included five division titles, two National League pennants and a World Series championship in 2008 — Klentak downplayed any change in philosophy.
“The messenger has changed, but the message is the same,” he said. “ … It’s not a drastic change.”
The Phillies can only hope the change in hitting coach brings about the same results the Nationals and Mets saw after making midseason changes at pitching coach. Washington was 12-17 when it fired Derek Lilliquist on May 2 but has gone 52-38 since Menhart took over, pulling itself to the top of the NL wild-card standings. The Mets, likewise, were 35-40 with Dave Eiland as pitching coach and are 26-18 since replacing him with Regan.
“We are still this close in the middle of August, and a good hot streak will put us exactly where we want to be,” Klentak said. “And that’s the message. The message is, we are not going to sit on our hands and do nothing. … If everybody does what they can do, this team can play October baseball.”
There’s no debating the fact the Phillies have underperformed offensively, despite an offseason spending spree by owner John Middleton that brought in right fielder Bryce Harper, left fielder Andrew McCutchen, catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura. Entering Tuesday, they ranked 12th in the National League in on-base-plus-slugging percentage and batting average, 11th in home runs and ninth in runs per game.
More to the point, the Phillies were going in the wrong direction. On May 29, they were 33-22, the second-best record in the NL, and averaging 5.1 runs. Since then, they are 28-36 and averaging just 4.4 runs in that span. Klentak acknowledged the raw, damning data made it clear a change was needed.
“When you have playoff aspirations and you’re not scoring runs,” he said, “results matter.”
Manuel, 75, hasn’t been in uniform full time since the Phillies fired him as manager almost six years ago to the day, and he hasn’t been a full-time major league hitting coach since 1999. But with his syrupy drawl, easygoing manner and deep enthusiasm for the craft of hitting, he engendered loyalty and affection from his players and remained a popular figure in the organization, where he has worked as a special assistant for the past several years.
“I don’t think anybody in baseball or in this world loves hitting more than Charlie,” Harper said Tuesday. “He’s going to be very simple with his messaging of what he wants us to do.”
“This is a fresh voice, and that can be helpful,” Manager Gabe Kapler said. “What Charlie can do is provide a positive influence from a guy who absolutely loves and devours hitting. I think our guys will respond to that.”
The stakes are perilously high . Middleton — who was not present Tuesday but was involved in the decision, according to Phillies officials — clearly expected his offseason spending to net something better than a fourth-place standing this deep into the season.
While playing the midseason-coaching-change card sometimes pays off, as it has in Washington and New York, just as often it fails to spark a surge. And when that happens, what comes next is typically much more tumultuous, with an ax that lands much higher up the organizational chart.