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Can a Phillies lineup loaded with aggressive vets learn to rein it in?

Over the next two weeks leading up to Phillies Opening Day on March 28, we’re taking a daily look at the biggest questions and storylines surrounding the team in 2024.

Whether you tuned in for the 2023 playoffs or watched all 162 games that preceded them, you were probably able to identify the main reason why the Phillies’ season ended the way it did.

They expanded the strike zone and couldn’t stop expanding. A lineup that was already aggressive became the most chase-happy version of itself, and while players and coaches realized in the moment what was happening, there wasn’t enough time for them to make a meaningful correction.

In the final five games of the 2023 NLCS, of which the Phillies lost four, they swung at 134 pitches outside the strike zone. Of those 134 swings, 64 were swinging strikes. Only eight resulted in hits. And six of those eight hits belonged to Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott, meaning the rest of the team had only two knocks to show for all of its anxiousness.

The main culprits were the right-handed hitters.

Nick Castellanos chased 20 pitches in the final five games, swinging through 13, fouling off three and making four outs.

Trea Turner also chased 20 pitches in the final five games, swinging through 11, fouling off five and going 1-for-4.

J.T. Realmuto chased 15, swung through nine, fouled off three and went 0-for-3.

• And Johan Rojas chased 16, swung through six, fouled off six and went 1-for-3 with a sacrifice bunt.

Altogether, that quartet swung at 71 of the final 141 pitches it saw outside the strike zone and 69 resulted in a swinging strike (39), foul ball (17) or an out (13). Only two were hits, both singles.

It’s why the Phillies’ year ended against the Diamondbacks and it’s why they showed up to Florida in February with a clear emphasis on reducing their teamwide chase rate.

“What we want them to do is hone in on the zones they can handle, the pitches they can handle,” manager Rob Thomson said last week. “And so if they get way away from that, we call that a chase. Some guys like the ball in, some guys like the ball away, some like the ball down. So that’s what we’re really trying to focus on — we’re aware of that and that’s what we’re attacking.”

The issue isn’t the same for each player. Stott, for example, had a tendency to expand just so far off the plate. He took a major step forward offensively and defensively last season, hitting 46 points higher than he did as a rookie, but he also walked only three more times in 174 more plate appearances.

“It’s more of taking the borderline ones,” Stott said. “I know I can hit them and put them in play. (Hitting coach) Kevin Long was like now’s the time to do it, if you go down looking, you go down looking, it’s spring training. Now’s the time to work on it. Some of those borderline pitches I’ve been taking have been called balls and some have been called strikes. It’s focusing on that even more and realizing which one was a strike and which was a ball, obviously I’ll get some balls that are called strikes.

“Just being more selective on the borderline ones that could go either way is a thing I’ve been doing in spring. Obviously if I’m punching out every at-bat, I’m going to scrap that and move on. But I think my chase rate has been good.”

Castellanos has consistently had trouble laying off the low-and-away breaking ball. That hole was exploited for close to six months in 2022 and in his lowest moments of 2023. He blamed his overaggressiveness on trying to do too much to end the series in the Phils’ favor.

“The biggest thing for me is just getting back to a relaxed place in the box. It doesn’t matter how good your swing is, if you’re not getting anything to hit, you’re not going to hit the ball hard,” he said. “Being able to get in good counts, swinging at the pitches I want to swing at and taking first when they give it to me is everything that I’m focused on.”

Turner, too, has always chased but it became more of an issue in 2023 when he did so a career-worst 38% of the time compared to 31% for his career. Despite that career-high chase rate, he made a career-low amount of contact on those pitches. The Phillies aren’t going to turn him into Joey Votto in one offseason or three offseasons. He’s found his success with this approach, and when he’s slumping, he wants to hit his way out of it. But there’s no doubt that there’s a gap between the hitter Turner was for the Phillies and the hitter he’d been the previous seven seasons.

Realmuto, like Castellanos and Turner, has always been aggressive. He, too, had the highest rate in his career of swinging strikes on pitches outside the zone. He doesn’t want to strip away his attack mindset on actual strikes but has gone to work from a film and technological standpoint to try to rectify the problem. The quality of his at-bats this spring has been strong.

And then there’s Rojas, who was exposed in the 2023 postseason after holding his own offensively in the second half. The Phillies are giving him a chance to win the starting center field job but have wanted to see better plate selection and bunting ability from him this spring. He is 8-for-33 (.152) with seven strikeouts and no walks. He does have a bunt single.

“The (spring training plate appearances) are not as intense as the regular season but there’s still some intensity there,” Thomson said. “The entire time, we’ve been talking about plate discipline, talking about cutting down chasing. It’s been a point of emphasis. They get it.”

They’d better. The stakes are pretty high around here if you haven’t noticed. Overaggressiveness is what finally nullified the Phillies’ home-field advantage last October, and while that trait is in their DNA to an extent, these are hitters who have been more selective in the past than they were in 2023. Simply reverting to their career norms would go a long way. The experience of how those final four games went down was a lesson to every hitter involved.