Matt Stairs loves to teach hitting, and he has plenty of teaching to do. The 49-year-old former slugger is in his first season as Philadelphia’s hitting coach, and given the youthfulness of the Phillies lineup, he’s got his hands full. Raw talent dots the roster, but that’s essentially what it is. Finished products are in short supply.
Stairs isn’t heavy-handed with his approach — he wants his hitters to be themselves — but at the same time, he knows what does and doesn’t work. With 19 big-league seasons as a player under his belt, he understands the nuts and bolts of the craft as well as anyone. So while he’s being entrusted to mold and shape young Phillies, he’s not doing so in a cookie-cutter way. For Stairs, it’s all about doing what you do, but in a more efficient, and more productive, manner.
Stairs on exit velocity and launch angle: “I think it’s mostly just different terminology now. Hitters have always thought about exit velocity, just not in those words. Our thought process was hitting the ball hard and getting the proper angle to the baseball.
“You’re not creating exit velocity by swinging harder. It’s about making solid contact. It’s about being short to the baseball with a quick, compact swing. We have guys like Tommy Joseph, and Cameron Rupp — their swings are so short that, at times, when the ball comes off their bat, it accelerates. You create bat speed and exit velocity by using your top hand and driving your bat through the zone.
“You have guys who work with the flat bat early — they figure they get better launch angle that way — but all in all, it’s the same. When you’re making contact, everyone’s bat is flat going through the zone. Where you are when you’re making contact is the most important thing.
“If you start thinking about your launch angle, the next thing you know, you’re trying to lift the ball a little too much and you end up hitting a weak fly ball. I teach left-center, right-center — driving the ball to both gaps — and that should give you the proper (1) exit velocity, because you hit the ball hard, and (2) that 20- to 23-degree angle to drive the ball.”
On teaching top hand and gap-to-gap: “I preach hitting through the ball. I want guys to think about driving the ball through the shortstop or through the second baseman. That’s more of the direction we want. It allows our hands to stay on top of the baseball. If you think about driving it through the second baseman and you get a little backspin, and that right launch angle, you’re going to end up getting doubles, or driving it out of the ballpark for home runs.
“When you catch a ball out front, and hit the ball to right-center, it creates a little different launch angle — it’s more of a lower launch angle — because you’re throwing the barrel and driving it that way. I’m referring to left-handed pull side there. With left-handed opposite field, a guy with power to left-center has a tendency to have a higher launch angle because there is a little drop of the bat to get to that ball.
“I teach top hand, and I think top hand is especially important for a left-hander hitting the ball to left-center. Right-handers have an advantage because they’re right-hand dominant. They can drive a ball to right field. So, not being lazy with your bat and ending up losing control of your barrel… it’s driving the ball to left-center by using your top hand.
“Again, your top hand helps you get backspin, have the proper angle, and get on top of that baseball. We’re not teaching top hand to drive down to the bottom of the ground. We’re teaching top hand so that the barrel stays flat going through the zone. That goes back to Josh Donaldson, and all those guys, talking about getting the barrel early, flat. They want their barrels as flat as possible when they start.”
On ABC and finishing high: “We try to go to an A position, which is the firing position, or launch position, with our hands. From there we want to go directly down to the baseball, which is the C position. A lot of guys will have an ABC swing. A is the launch position, B is kind of a cast, or a drop of the hands, and C is point of contact. I like A to C. To me, B is bad. That means your hands get away from your body, which creates more of a lift to the baseball, instead of driving the baseball.
“Aaron Altherr’s hands were high in spring training. As the pitch was coming, he would drop his hands down, and then bring them back up. He would go to A, to B, and then try to get to C. Now his hands are lower, so when they come off his shoulder, he’s right at A, which allows him to drive straight to C.
“There’s also the way you finish. I want everyone finishing high, and not cutting your swing off. The higher your swing goes through the zone, the longer your bat stays through the zone, and the better carry you get. And the quicker you can get your bat through the zone, A to C, the higher you can finish, allows your barrel to stay through the zone longer.
“When I played, my swing was two-handed, finish high. I knew if I finished two hands, my point of contact with the ball got a little deeper. I didn’t catch it out front; I caught it a little deeper and finished high, and that gave me the proper angle. I don’t know if I had a great launch angle, but I hit a lot of line-drive home runs and a lot high fly-ball home runs.”
On Brock Stassi and timing mechanisms: “Brock Stassi is a good guy to talk about, because he wants to get his barrel as flat as possible, as early as possible, to create that backspin. He wants to have that flat path. He started to do that last year. Brock wants to hit fly balls. It’s just a matter of him getting started early enough. He gets in trouble sometimes when he doesn’t get his foot down early enough, or he starts moving his hands too late. When that happens, your barrel never catches up and you end up swinging uphill, which will cause you to come under the baseball.
“Everybody is the same in that you’re timing the pitcher with your leg kick. As the leg goes up, the barrel drops down. That’s the timing mechanism. If you’re late with your front foot, your flat barrel never catches up. I’ve studied Brock’s swing for hours. Over the offseason, I studied a lot — Josh Donaldson’s approach, Miguel Cabrera’s approach, J.D. Martinez’s approach.
“Not everybody is the same. One thing about being a hitting coach is that you love to see different stances. Whatever people feel comfortable with is where you work from. Howie Kendrick can repeat his swing over and over. He’s so used to having his hands in a certain area, and he’s able to stay inside the baseball really well.”
On Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, and plate discipline: “Odubel Herrera has a unique stance. He also has amazing hand-eye coordination and good hands. He got in trouble early this season with pitch selection. His chase was almost 50%, which is extremely high. We really worked on slowing him down and on staying through the middle. He was cutting his swing off — he wasn’t finishing high — and now he’s back to finishing high again.
“Maikel Franco… here’s the thing with Maikel: he tends to get himself out. It’s not necessarily the pitcher getting him out. We’ve talked about that. If you don’t have that pull-side pitch, then don’t force it. Stay up the middle, stay right-center. That’s what he did last night [in a four-hit game against Boston], and it was nice to see. Younger players, at times, want to show they belong in the major leagues, and they maybe try to too hard. They try to pull the wrong pitches.
“Some guys have to be very aggressive. I was a patient hitter. I like to call it a ‘stubborn hitter.’ But you are what you are. Some guys like to gear up and let it fly. Look at Vladimir Guerrero. He was a free-swinger and a tremendous player. Then you had a Tony Gwynn, who had a totally different style. It’s whatever works for you.”
On hunting cookies: “Again, I was a stubborn hitter. I was looking for a pitch until I got to two strikes. I was hitting off the fastball, and I was hitting off location on the fastball. If I was sitting fastball inside, and I got a slider inside, into my area, I was ready to hit.
“We’re leading Major League Baseball right now in batting average when putting the first pitch in play. That’s because we’ve become disciplined first-ball hitters. I think we’re a little over .400 on that first pitch, because we’re looking for a certain area, and for a certain pitch in that area.
“I honestly believe in… I learned this from Jason Giambi, back in my A’s days — being a patient hitter and looking for a cookie. Why would you want to swing at a pitcher’s pitch? You hope he makes a mistake, and then if you get to two strikes, you battle.
“But again, as a hitting coach, you can’t take aggressiveness away from your hitters. You want these guys to be ready to hit. That said, you can’t hit both sides of the plate. You have all these guys throwing 97-98 nowadays, so you can’t hit the fastball away and also cover the inside of the plate. You need to pick a side of the plate.”
On working collaboratively with hitters: “By no means am I going to tell a player, ‘We need to make a change.’ I’m in the cage talking to guys, and I’ll give little pointers when they ask. I’ll try to help them improve their swing path or their process. There are a bunch of guys I’m doing that with.
“Andrew Knapp is a guy who’s trying to figure out the game and get into an area where he feels comfortable. Freddy Galvis and I talk every day about hitting, about approach, and staying behind the baseball, balance-wise. Honestly, all of our players have been tremendous about coming into the cage and working their tails off. They’re trying to improve. My job is to help to help them improve.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.