PHOENIX — Don’t miss it.
That’s the deceptively simple mantra of the Philadelphia Phillies sluggers marauding through the playoffs, of Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper and their five October home runs each, of a group now one win away from a second straight World Series berth.
In once again beating Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen with a barrage of long balls to go up 3-2 in the NLCS, the Phillies reasserted the hitting philosophy that has lifted their lineup well above any other in these playoffs, the philosophy that has them on track to rack up one of the best offensive postseasons in recent memory.
Schwarber, the tone-setting, leadoff masher who greeted Gallen with a first-pitch homer in Game 1 and again tag-teamed with Harper for a back-breaking inning with a booming, 461-foot shot in Game 5, has been explaining the method to the Phillies’ homer-happy madness all month.
After NLCS Game 2, he said, “When we get our hitter’s pitch, we don’t want to miss it.”
Before Game 5, Schwarber reiterated the strategy against Gallen: Make him throw his diverse arsenal in the zone. And then, “when we do get that pitch, don’t miss it.”
OK, sure, but what is it? And how do you identify it in time to avoid missing it? Sometimes it seems like it might be first pitches or early counts that the Phillies seek. Other times it might be fastballs. Then you notice that Schwarber’s latest homer came off a curveball, the first breaking ball on which he has gone deep since Sept. 1. In reality, it isn’t any one pitch, location or situation; it’s something approaching a lifestyle.
More than anything else, these Phillies hitters have tuned their brains to a frequency at which aggression drowns out hesitation. After Game 5, Schwarber explained that each hitter goes to the plate with a plan he’s trying to stick to in lieu of attempting to anticipate the pitcher’s next move or play guessing games.
“If your plan is being on a fastball, or if it’s looking here, looking there — whatever it is, staying to your plan,” Schwarber said. “That’s the key to baseball, is when you get a pitch to hit, you don’t want to miss it.”
All of that essentially describes plate discipline, or swing decisions — a crucial area of the game that is more quantified and scrutinized than ever. While basic metrics such as chase rate and swing rate are good indicators in broad strokes, hitters work with far more individualized understandings of their own preferences and swing characteristics, and as public research begins to grade those decisions with more personalized nuance, teams are undoubtedly finding ways to help their sluggers better understand themselves.
So while the Phillies won’t be detailing exactly what cues they’re using to repeatedly bludgeon Cy Young candidates into submission, Harper did say that the attention to maximizing damage against hittable pitches takes on amplified importance against the elevated competition of the postseason.
“I think each guy has a different kind of standard or approach in the box, but we’re all trying to look for the same thing and trying to hunt for the same thing or have that moment of not missing pitches,” Harper said after Game 5, in which he followed Schwarber’s moonshot with a no-doubt blast of his own.
Harper and the Texas Rangers’ Corey Seager are two of the game’s peak examples of a fearsome plate discipline profile: Elite power bats who are game to swing at any strike that crosses their path. They hit that way all the time, but Phillies general manager Sam Fuld said it might be an even more beneficial mode of operation against playoff-caliber pitching staffs.
“Selective aggressiveness is a great approach no matter the environment. Inevitably in the playoffs, you’re likely to be facing better arms, because you’re playing better teams and because bullpens sometimes shrink in the postseason,” Fuld said. “So I think, particularly with high-end relievers with weapons, you can’t miss your opportunity to do damage.”
So far in these playoffs, the Phillies are certainly doing damage. Their team OPS is .873, which leads all playoff teams by a mile (Seager’s second-place Rangers are at .782) and is better than even the Atlanta Braves’ historic regular-season mark. In fact, the Phillies are within striking distance of the best postseason offensive performance of the wild-card era. Of the 130 teams that advanced far enough to take at least 200 playoff plate appearances, the Phillies’ OPS currently ranks fourth behind only those of the 2007 Red Sox, the 1999 Red Sox and the 2002 Angels.
Over and over, Phillies hitters have referenced how simple their collective approach feels this month, an empowering and freeing status quo for brains tasked with decoding spinning white balls traveling toward them at 97 mph. Their comfort — and their eye-popping success — seems to trace to the influence of Kevin Long, the club’s renowned hitting coach.
“Somebody like K-Long has shown an ability to get the most out of guys and take it to another level in the postseason in every organization, every major-league organization that he’s been a part of,” Fuld told Yahoo Sports. “So there’s a lot of trust when you get somebody like that, and there’s a lot of trust in others that are working behind the scenes or providing information, providing insights that are a big part of what we do as well.”
Long has helped guide World Series runs at every stop in his career as a hitting coach, from the New York Yankees (2009) to the New York Mets (2015) to the Washington Nationals (2019) to the Phillies (2022).
“There’s a roomful of information that we get now, and I think the greatest coaches, what they do is they take this roomful of information, [and] they put it in a little thimble to hand to the player,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “And just keep it as simple as possible so they can go up to the plate, they can put their body on autopilot and just hit. That’s what they need to do.”
Trea Turner, the star shortstop batting .415 thus far in the postseason, worked with Long in Washington before reuniting with him in Philadelphia. He said earlier this week that Long’s postseason preparation tactics have always been streamlined.
“He’s done that throughout the times I’ve had him,” Turner said. “Don’t overthink it. Keep it simple. Get a good pitch to hit, and put a good swing on it-type deal.”
So how does it actually work, in the hitters’ minds? Well, Turner said earlier in the series, in no uncertain terms, that the Phillies don’t go up to the plate expecting perfection, and they certainly don’t go up aiming to walk — even though the threat of power and the narrowing of their desirable pitches leads to plenty of those anyway. They start from a square one of wanting to hit.
“I think when you are aggressive in a good way and you’ve got guys that are confident in themselves, you’re going to get swings like that,” Turner said of the Phillies’ prowess against Arizona’s top starters. “You’re going to get homers. You’re going to get doubles.”
Fuld sees carryover from that philosophy to the team’s broader attitude toward what could be stressful games during a second consecutive deep postseason run.
“There’s a steadiness that our coaching staff and the players in the clubhouse provide,” he said. “I think we played with a lot of energy and fearlessness last year. Sometimes that’s easier to do when you’re the 6 seed and you got into the playoffs by a game. It’s a little more difficult when you’ve racked up a few more wins, maybe have a little bit more of a target on your back.
“I think we’ve played with the same energy and fearlessness that we did last year. It’s hard to replicate intentionally, but I think guys have done a good job focusing on staying in the moment and enjoying the moment, particularly at home.”
With the team now one win away from a second straight NL pennant, there’s certainly attention devoted to the Phillies, devoted to figuring out how to stop the locomotive that is their lineup. The best advice for opponents still isn’t all that helpful when inches can lead to runs on the board, but the Phillies themselves are probably dishing it out voluntarily:
Don’t miss. Because they will be ready to swing.