Nick Williams seeks discipline — at the plate and in his head

Nick Williams seeks discipline — at the plate and in his head

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Class started almost two weeks ago with a simple proposition. Matt Stairs wore sneakers. Nick Williams had cleats. The Phillies hitting coach and his pupil met in an indoor batting cage.

“Step on my foot,” Stairs told Williams. “If you don’t like me, step hard. If you want to learn, step soft.”

Stairs, before he went from broadcaster to hitting coach, often employed this tactic during his private hitting lessons. It made Williams think. The 23-year-old outfielder had used the same swing since high school, a swing that made him a second-round pick and a hyped prospect before his uneven 2016 season. But Stairs was not asking Williams to drastically alter that swing. He just wanted Williams to better control his body.

Williams softly stepped on Stairs’ foot.

“I knew,” Williams said, “it would be a little weird at first.”

This spring is a fascinating moment for Williams, a prospect panned for what was a horrendous final month to a confusing season, but one who remains blessed with some of the best tools in the Phillies’ organization. He posted a .774 OPS in his first 96 games at triple-A Lehigh Valley. He was twice benched for a perceived lack of hustle. He was poised for a September call-up until his final 29 games yielded a .512 OPS. He struck out 74 times and walked just twice over a 66-game stretch to end the season.

Joe Jordan, the Phillies’ director of player development, said last September that Williams’ attitude needed to improve. With every failure in Allentown, Williams saw himself further from Philadelphia. “That’s the wrong way to play the game,” Jordan said. And Williams knew.

“When people are hard on me, especially my bosses, I don’t ever take it as hard feelings,” Williams said this week. “It’s just tough love. You have to learn one way or the other. Last year was a huge learning experience for me. This offseason, I decided I would build on that. I thought about all the wrong things I did and all of the right things I did. Getting sent home sucked, but at the same time, it was good for me. Just let it all out.

“Tough love, I like that. I’d rather that than somebody not say anything at all.”

The Phillies have pushed Williams because they believe in his talent. He was a key piece in the Cole Hamels trade, and team officials have pointed to his solid numbers through the end of July — while being young for the International League — as hopeful signs.

“If the season had ended right there, Nick Williams would be all over top 100 prospects lists, all over the internet,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said. “Frankly, he may have already reached the big leagues if that had happened. And that doesn’t mean that August didn’t happen, because it did. He really struggled in August.”

The larger concerns about Williams’ plate discipline and aptitude for adjustments persist. That is what drew Stairs to Williams, who reported well ahead of the mandatory date for position players. Stairs, in his first spring as hitting coach after serving three years as a broadcaster, analyzed video of Williams.

Stairs saw how to begin his quest.

“He attacks the ball so hard that he doesn’t know the strike zone,” Stairs said. “So now you get him to land soft and trust his hands.”

He did not alter Williams’ leg kick. The softer step prevents lunging, keeps the rest of his body more composed, and could quicken Williams’ hands through the zone. It’s a tweak that Williams admitted will require some time to learn. But the idea behind it “clicked right away,” Williams said.

“He used to take pitches in BP and not know if it was a strike or a ball,” Stairs said. “Now he knows. He recognizes the ball coming out of the hand because his head’s not going 16 inches or two feet forward. His head is moving two or three inches like it should be.”

Williams said it bothered him last September when the Phillies told him to go home to Dallas. But he found comfort there, an opportunity to clear his mind. Now, Stairs is asking Williams to be open-minded about altering his approach, and he has so far encountered a willing subject.

“He hits balls now,” Stairs said, “and he goes, ‘I barely swung and that ball jumped.’ “

Stairs’ response?

“Thank you.”

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Published at Thu, 16 Feb 2017 12:27:48 +0000

Categories: Phillies

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