Controlling strike zone the key to advancement in Phillies' minor-league system


Minor-league teams recently passed the halfway point of the season and clearly some good things are happening in the Phillies’ system, particularly as it relates to the organization’s rebuild and eye toward the future.
The Double A Reading club is on a rampage, sporting the best record in all of minor-league baseball with a lineup that includes two sluggers, Dylan Cozens and Rhys Hoskins, in a nightly duel for the minors’ home-run lead, and a catcher, Jorge Alfaro, who makes even the crustiest of old baseball men gush over his power arm and thundering power bat.
The Triple A Lehigh Valley club is among the best in baseball with a handful of players — J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Jake Thompson, Ben Lively and others — who could get to the majors later this summer, joining a group — Tommy Joseph, Zach Eflin, Edubray Ramos — that has already made the jump.
There have been successes at the Single A level. For instance, the Clearwater Threshers had the second-best record in the Florida State League in the first half of the season and sent eight players to the league’s All-Star game.
Through Monday, teams in the Phillies’ minor-league system had a winning percentage of .555, third-best in baseball behind the Yankees and Mariners.
The Phillies’ four full-season clubs — Lehigh Valley, Reading, Clearwater and Lakewood — had a .576 winning percentage, trailing only the Yankees and Mariners. Those Phils clubs ranked second in all of baseball in run differential at plus-189, trailing only the Yankees (plus-223).
Just two seasons ago, the Phillies had the worst winning percentage in minor-league baseball at .419.
So there has been improvement. And it has not happened with an abundance of help from veteran minor-leaguers. The Phils have legitimate prospects. Those who rate minor-league systems for a living — such as Baseball America — have confirmed that. In just a year, with the help of improved drafting and a couple of big trades, the Phils’ farm system has vaulted from the bottom-third to the top third in baseball-wide rankings.
“If you look at an overview of the system I don’t think you could have drawn it up much better,” said Joe Jordan, the team’s director of player development. “From a team perspective and a competition perspective, a lot of good things have happened so far. The records are secondary for me. We have good records because we have good players who are getting better.”
Perhaps the biggest theme of this minor-league season, one that has been stressed to players since they reported to Clearwater in early March, has been the concept of “controlling the strike zone,” both from a pitching and a hitting perspective. “Controlling the strike zone” is just a fancy, nouveau-baseball rebranding of an age-old concept, one that can be summed up from a pitching perspective in that old baseball aphorism “walks will kill you” and from a hitters’ perspective in that old Ted Williams line about the key to hitting is selecting a good pitch to hit. Throw strikes. Swing at strikes. Don’t swing at balls. That, in essence, is controlling the strike zone. Always has been.
Pete Mackanin has talked about controlling the strike zone often in recent weeks as he looks for hitters that can give him professional at-bats. On the day Crawford was promoted from Double A to Triple A last month with just a .265 batting average, general manager Matt Klentak described Crawford as being ready for the jump because of his history of controlling the strike zone so well. Indeed, Crawford had walked 30 times and struck out just 21 in 166 plate appearances and had a .398 on-base percentage.
On the pitching side, it’s no coincidence that the most notable pitchers to stand out this season and receive promotions are big-time strike throwers. Ramos, Eflin, Tyler Viza and Thomas Eshelman walked between just 0.9 and 1.7 batters per nine, and Lively, who is 10-1 with a 2.45 ERA between Double A and Triple A, is walking just 2.4 batters per nine. In 2014, the Phillies’ four full-season minor-league clubs walked 3.6 batters per nine innings; this year the mark is 3.0.
“Overall we’ve done a tremendous job controlling the strike zone on the mound,” Jordan said. “We’ve made a big improvement the last couple of years. It’s one of the biggest evaluation tools we use internally in gauging a player’s progress and trying to determine when to promote them.”
Phillies hitting prospects have made modest strides in strike-zone management, but their improvements don’t match those made on the pitching side. The hitters’ walk rate is 7.9 percent, up from 7.3 percent last year, and the on-base percentage of .326 is up from .319. From 2014 to this season, the hitters’ strikeout rate has gone from 20.1 percent to 17.4 percent to 20.1 percent.
Cozens, a rightfielder, and Hoskins, a first baseman, have had magnificent seasons at Reading and might go to the wire for the Eastern League MVP. Both have 20 homers, tied for tops in all of the minors. Cozens is hitting .273 with 60 RBIs, third most in the league. Hoskins, who had 90 RBIs in Single A last season, is hitting .279 with 61 RBIs. These are big, game-breaking numbers and both players could one day look good bashing balls around Citizens Bank Park. But they will need to cut down on their strikeouts to speed their path to the majors.
Through Monday, Cozens had 99 strikeouts, second most in the EL. Hoskins had 78. At Triple A, Nick Williams had 73 strikeouts and just 17 walks. Other top hitting prospects such as highly regarded catcher Andrew Knapp at Triple A and third baseman Mitch Walding at Clearwater have put up relatively high strikeout totals.
“We have a lot of hitters having strong years, but we do have a few more strikeouts than we’d like to see,” Jordan admitted. “This is an area we are continuing to stress.
“It’s a mindset. Strikeouts will come with power to some degree — I get that— but maybe not the degree they are showing up in certain places.”
Cozens is a very exciting prospect. He’s 22 and has mammoth left side power to all fields. He can run. He can throw. But despite his success at Double A this season, Klentak recently said Cozens could “stand to have more time” at Double A. That probably comes down to controlling the strike zone better.
Cozens, a second-round pick in 2012, is a sky’s-the-limit talent in Jordan’s estimation.
“He’s impacting games with his defense, on the bases and in the batter’s box,” Jordan said. “And we think he’s still just scratching the surface. He can cut down on his strikeouts and be a .300 hitter who steals 25 bases. It’s in there.
“He’s got a beautiful swing when he’s just trying to be a hitter. And he’s got every ingredient you need to be a power hitter: strength, bat speed, leverage. But there’s absolutely no reason he should strike out 30 percent of the time. Pitchers are getting him out outside the strike zone. He needs to continue to make improvements and when he does that his walks will go up and his strikeouts will go down.”
And when that happens, he will be a “controller of the strike zone,” and that appears to be the way to move up in the Phillies’ system, whether you’re a pitcher or a hitter.

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