It had been nearly 20 years since Gene Mauch oversaw the September slump that scarred a generation of Philadelphians when he displayed a roster ahead of an April game in 1982. The 1964 Phillies manager was then guiding the California Angels , who had signed Mauch a season earlier. with the hope that he could steer their star-studded roster to a World Series.

But it wasn’t where Mauch was hitting Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Don Baylor or Fred Lynn — his four MVPs — that caught the eye in April. Instead, it was Mauch’s way of breaking conventional thinking by slipping a slugger into the top spot.

Mauch’s radical approach has since become conventional, and it’s become fairly normal in recent seasons for teams to reinvigorate their roster with power hitters. Last season, NL leadoff hitters posted a game-high .439 percentage.

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And the Phillies – who received the National League’s fourth-worst production from first place since Jimmy Rollins was traded after the 2014 season and had the fifth-lowest header kicking percentage in the NL last season – now follow the move as they search for someone to start their lineup.

But 40 years ago, the top spot was reserved for a fast hitter. So there were quite a few questions for Mauch when he topped his championship roster with Brian Downing, a 31-year-old former heavy receiver who was slowed by a knee injury.

The sportswriters crushed Mauch and the manager held on. Mauch, who played numbers long before analysis moved beyond baseball, pointed to Downing’s on-base percentage (a metric that didn’t become an official statistic until 1984) and his walk rate.

He was right as Downing only stole two bases but had the third-best OPS among all lead hitters.

“Gene was all about the numbers,” said Lynn, who won AL MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1975 with Boston and hit six spots for Mauch in 1982. “When he was successful in Minnesota, he was big in the pack because he was a big believer that some guys hit right-handers better and some guys hit left-handers better, his roster was changing all the time.

“He was the first guy to have his designated hitter as the point guard. He even pinched for his DH. He did all kinds of crazy things, but he was into his own numbers. He didn’t tell anyone about it, but he was an excellent tactician. Boy, he knew Xs and O’s better than anyone.

Between 2007 and 2014, the Phillies generated the fifth-best WRC+ in the NL since their No. 1 finish as Rollins hit first in 62% of games over his last eight seasons with the team. The Phillies have since gone through 36 first hitters – including stalwarts like Andrew McCutchen and Cesar Hernandez and moonlighters like Emmanuel Burris, Cameron Perkins and David Lough – and have struggled to find a first hitter who has produced much better than the league average for an entire season. .

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So Joe Girardi, making a Mauch-style decision, fills his No. 1 spot this season with power hitters who also have a history of reaching base. And the results of the first 10 games of the season were disappointing. Kyle Schwarber hit his first game at bat on Opening Day en route to a 3-for-32. Girardi traded Schwarber for JT Realmuto, who went 1-for-9 Saturday and Sunday as the new leadoff hitter.

It’s still early days, but the power hitters haven’t provided an immediate answer to the team’s long search for a first hitter. There are questions in April about the construction of Girardi’s lineup. Like Mauch, he sticks to it.

“I kinda like it,” Girardi told reporters ahead of Sunday’s series finale in Miami. “We will see how it goes. But I kinda like the way it comes together.

Joe Maddon was a 28-year-old minor league manager in the Angels system in 1982, which made him notice the way Mauch structured his big league roster. This seemed to sway Maddon years later as he coached the Cubs and decided before the 2017 season that Schwarber — a former catcher who wasn’t known for his speed but reached base and hit for power — would take the lead.

“I’d rather he subscribed to the Brian Downing way to start,” Maddon told Chicago reporters ahead of this season.

Schwarber had spent most of his career batting second or third and he was struggling as a leadoff hitter. He’s hit just .191 this season in 37 games from first place with a .693 OPS. Following Downing’s method proved difficult.

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“He said, ‘Hey, make it your own,'” Schwarber said of Maddon’s instructions. “I mostly blame that I’m not able to do that, that I can’t make it my own. I had conceptions where, ‘I have to get down to basics. I need to see locations. You want to let these guys drive you. It should have been just, ‘Take your at bat. Get on the base? Awesome. Hit a double? Awesome. Hit a single? Awesome.’ You have to be able to not let the label dictate what you are going to do.

Schwarber started just 58 times over the next three seasons before Washington tried him again last summer. It clicked when Schwarber hit .297 with a 1.216 OPS in 27 games as a leading hitter for the Nationals and Red Sox. His .832 hitting percentage last season is the highest ever by a first hitter with at least 25 starts.

All the Phillies had to do was crown him as the leading hitter to start the season after signing him in March for four years and $79 million.

“I think it took the label away from him,” Schwarber said of his success last year. “Things that I do well, it already fits into the mold of a top guy. I’m not afraid to see pitches. I’m not afraid to work guy but I’m not afraid to swing early. I had to remove the label aspect and make it my own. Just do what I do right.

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Downing was hitless in six of his first 10 games as Mauch’s first hitter, perhaps giving some hope that Girardi’s power hitters can regain their form after a slow start. Mauch was 56 in 1982, but still as intimidating as he was in 1964 as the young manager of a young team that used a conventional first hitter – Phillies great Tony Taylor – to build a lead of 6 1/2 games with 12 play.

“He was pretty intense,” Lynn said. “He could flip a table once in a while. If he was upset, you knew it. If he wasn’t happy with the way the team was playing, he would let you know. He wasn’t one to let the team go on without saying anything. His nickname was the “Little General”. He stood on the field with his arms crossed and stood behind the shortstop when they were taking pre-game ground shots just to make the guy nervous. Then the game was a little easier. He walked at his own pace.

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Mauch used an unconventional first hitter with the Angels, but the end of the season was just as crushing as the 10-game losing streak that defeated the Phils in 1964.

The Angels won 93 games, clinched a division title and earned a away World Series victory after winning the first two games in the best-of-five ALCS before losing three straight to Milwaukee.

Mauch had 27 seasons but never won the pennant, no matter who was leading at bat. Forty years later, the Phillies hope the heading style Mauch helped introduce can lead to a less painful finish.

“You don’t want to step on the first batter. You don’t want to walk the first guy in the game,” Lynn said. “So there’s a chance he’ll get a shot to hit. So they can pick cherries sometimes and that’s why you’ll see a lot of top hitters hitting home runs on their first hits. They’ll pick a fastball and boom, you’re up 1-0. I think that’s kind of the theory on this. You can lead 1-0 after a batter.


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