Phillies could use new hitting coach or coaches

Greg Gross has spent the last two years as the Phillies' hitting coach. (Steven M. Falk/Staff file photo)
Greg Gross has spent the last two years as the Phillies' hitting coach. (Steven M. Falk/Staff file photo)
Posted: November 17, 2011

THE GREAT THING about great pitching is that it hides a lot of faults.

The bad thing about it, as the Giants found out even before the Phillies did this season, is that it can't hide them forever.

Which makes the words coming out of this offseason a little confusing to me. A couple of days after losing to St. Louis in the Division Series, Ruben Amaro Jr. said his lineup needed more plate discipline. But his strategy, at least as it has laid out so far, really doesn't reflect that philosophy.

He signed Jim Thome for some pop off the bench. He has apparently met with 32-year-old Michael Cuddyer already and would sign him for the right price.

I love Thome as a guy and there is no doubt he is a professional hitter who might just debug Ryan Howard the way manager Charlie Manuel did back in 2005 and 2006, when Howard won the rookie of the year award, then the league MVP a year later. But Big Jim can chase with the best of them. And I love what I hear about Cuddyer's energy and spunk, but the simple truth is that he has struck out almost twice as much as he has walked over his 11-year career.

These guys will do nothing to alter the overriding free-swinging tendencies of this team.

If anything, they might even reinforce it.

I suspect that Ruben had a rethink on his posthaste postseason ruse, especially when he perused the final stats from the Division Series. The Cardinals struck out almost three times more than they walked in that series, and 16 times more than the Phillies did. But they had four more extra-base hits, which is probably why the Phillies added Thome and may add someone like the all-purpose Cuddyer - who has accumulated more than 50 extra-base hits over each of his last three seasons and his last five full seasons.

Just those two would give the Phillies a little more of the lineup flexibility Tony La Russa enjoyed this postseason. Think about it: When Matt Holliday could not go in Game 7, Allen Craig stepped in, pulled a home run back into the park, then hit one himself.

Order me two of those guys.

There is something else though that you can copy from the Cardinals, but, well, I double-dare you to. LaRussa pulled Mark McGwire from baseball purgatory a couple of years ago to be their hitting coach, and his results were undeniably and starkly successful. Preaching a "pole to pole" approach to sluggers and singles hitters alike, McGwire and assistant hitting coach Mike Aldrete were repeatedly credited as the postseason wore on by hitters such as Series MVP David Freese and Craig. Both players hit huge home runs the other way, shot a few balls in the opposite gaps that way, too. They had two-strike singles up the middle. They worked counts.

Under new coach Mike Matheny, McGwire is returning to St. Louis, a forgiving market that has suited him well. So here's the question: Would you dust off Barry Bonds if you could? If he was available, and not too expensive, would you hire him to work with your hitters about working the count? Because steroids or no steroids, those two were probably the two best of their time at getting their pitch to hit.

This is no indictment of Greg Gross by the way, or even of Manuel, who signed on with the Phillies as a roving hitting instructor back in 2002. But this veteran team, most of it anyway, probably could fill in the words of his sentences by now. And Gross simply doesn't have that same kind of "do as I once did" currency that McGwire or someone like Bonds would.

Don't like Bonds? Me neither. So let's find someone else. I'm sure the Phillies could build themselves a Bonds-free list of fresh-voiced gurus. McGwire had an assistant coach in Aldrete, something La Russa said that all teams really should employ in this day.

"Every day you have 13 to 14 players that hit, every day, and their routine now is they can do tee, soft toss, underhand, overhand," La Russa said. "Very often they're hitting on the field and other guys are prepping in the cage."

During the regular season, Aldrete even takes on the responsibility of reviewing the upcoming series, concocting game plans with McGwire for each of their hitters.

"It works really well as long as there's mutual respect, preaching the same message," said La Russa. "Nobody takes their personal hitting coach and ignores the other guy. We don't allow it, it just doesn't happen. These guys are tied together. I think you almost can't get along without it."

Well the Phillies have up to this point. And despite the best pitching staff money can buy, they keep finishing their season a little earlier than the year before. There's got to be another McGwire-like guy out there, one not named Bonds, who could provide a fresh voice as GG and Charlie try to teach old dogs news tricks.

Given the kind of money this team spends in other places, he might even come relatively cheap.

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