ST. PETERSBURG — Besides baseball being hard and — especially for a certain outfielder — fun, what you often hear most around the Rays’ clubhouse is how it is a game of adjustments.
Players, especially hitters, are always searching and willing to look for help from all kinds of sources.
For two Rays who have been on recent hot streaks, Kevin Kiermaier and Brett Phillips, assistance came in different ways.
Kiermaier, the 32-year-old centerfielder who has been to the plate more than 3,200 times over nine seasons, wanted to go back to basics.
“This past week, I just told the hitting coaches, I said, ‘I need to be more boring up at the plate. I need to be more simple. Just go A to B, and go from there,’” Kiermaier said. “So the more boring for me, the better.”
The simplification of his setup and swing produced some exciting results.
Kiermaier had the most productive four-game stretch of his career from Tuesday to Sunday (he didn’t play Wednesday, and the Rays were off Thursday), going 11-for-20 with two homers, tying him for the team lead with five. The span also included his first stretch of three straight three-hit games (only a scorer’s decision on a questionable error kept him from a fourth).
“The more boring for me, the better,” Kiermaier said. “And we’re just going to try to ride it out.”
Kiermaier started hitting the ball more to the left side of the field, which opens up more opportunity and allows him to make better use of his speed.
He also got his own shipment of the bats he had been borrowing from Randy Arozarena, which can be one of those mental/confidence boosts. So, too, was the promotion he got, at least temporarily, to the top of the lineup, where he hadn’t batted consistently since 2018.
“You sit here and not try to get too caught up in results, and for me I can live (with it) when I’m barreling balls and feel like I’m giving myself a chance,” he said. “But to spray hits all over the field, that’s when I’m at my best.”
Phillips arguably was at his worst during an early May stretch when he struck out in nine consecutive at-bats — and was approaching half of his plate appearances — with his average dropping under .150.
The affable outfielder wanted all the help he could get.
Phillips said he spent “countless hours” grinding through drills in the batting cage, working with hitting coach Chad Mottola and assistants Dan DeMent and Brady North.
He spoke with Denard Span, the 11-year big-leaguer who is a special assistant in baseball operations.
Want more than just the box score?
Subscribe to our free Rays Report newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
He also went high tech, consulting for the first time with Jillian Hawkins, the Rays’ specialist in applied biomechanics.
Phillips found video of what he considered his optimal swing — from 2014-15 when he was a .300-plus, home run-hitting prospect in the Astros’ minor-league system — for Hawkins to analyze and compare to the different look and feeling he had now.
“She brings a different perspective,” Phillips said. “We’ve got our hitting coaches, who are mechanical. Then with a biomechanist, it’s more of, like, okay, what’s working in your body that’s worked before that isn’t now?”
Hawkins and Phillips watched the videos together and briefly went into the cage, where she threw to him. Hawkins noted a flaw in Phillips’ swing, specifically the angle of his hands, which left him only able to get the barrel of his bat on pitches that were low and away and vulnerable to the high fastballs that he was striking out on often.
“She passes that information along to the hitting coaches, and then the hitting coaches can come up with the mechanical changes to try and help figure out getting back to that (previous form),” Phillips said.
Phillips did, and his improvement also was impressive. After a 2-for-32 stretch with 16 strikeouts, he hit in six straight games (through Sunday), going 10-for-21 with two homers and four doubles while striking only six times.
Reaching out for help was the right move.
“The willingness came down to hitting .140 and striking out (nine) times in a row,” Phillips said. “You’ve got to make an adjustment, right? What I thought felt like was going to help me continue to have success wasn’t. You have to get to a point in your career, and I think everyone (does), if something is not working — what’s the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over again, and expecting different results? — change something.”
Phillips said he greatly appreciated the Rays letting him go to them with ideas for help, rather than the coaches ordering a specific change.
“They let me do it my way and try and figure it out,” he said. “Now that I’ve come to them, kind of just like on my knees, like, ‘Help me,’ they’re there. And they’re like, ‘Alright, let’s get to work.’ And it’s taken a village.”
And a biomechanist.
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.