Tommy The Usurper
For the first time in almost 11 years, Ryan Howard is not the Phillies’ everyday first baseman. What did it take to supplant the former National League Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and World Series champ?
It took a former second round pick drafted out of high school in Scottsdale, Arizona. It took a prospect originally acquired in the 2012 trade that sent Hunter Pence to San Francisco. It took a Triple-A performance from a catcher-turned first baseman that the big league club couldn’t ignore. It took Tommy Joseph.
Even given Howard’s vile 2016 performance—his .150 batting average is worst of any major leaguer with 100 plate appearances—there was reason to not rush Joseph into a starting role. An injury-plagued minor league career saw Joseph appear in just 176 games (671 plate appearances) in the Phillies organization between August 2012 and May 2016, when he was called up to the bigs. His experience in the minors fell far short of what one would normally expect from a 24-year-old career minor leaguer.
Howard’s central role in bringing this city, and the Phils’ franchise, its first championship in 28 years complicated matters as well. Ignoring the awkward circumstance surrounding the man whose job he was looking to swipe, Joseph hit .286 through his first 48 plate appearances in what can only marginally be described as a platoon split, forcing Pete Mackanin to hold Howard out of the starting lineup for an extended weekend series in early June.
“It’s about seeing the younger guy who tore it up in Triple-A and came up here to make a good first impression,” Mackanin told reporters. “We want to get a look at him. As we know, this season is about the future. We’re in the middle of a rebuilding process.”
And a look is exactly what they got. Joseph kept on rolling, going seven-for-16 with two long balls in the next four games after his skipper’s announcement.
That hot streak, combined with Howard’s .101/.160/.261 month of May, the worst in franchise history, forced his manager’s hand. On Friday, Joseph learned he had earned the everyday starting job, appropriately celebrating with two more homers to bring his total to seven on the year.
Through 23 major league games, Joseph has made 77 plate appearances, so his numbers are most definitely subject to sample size disclaimers. But he’s brought power to a punchless offense and done so in emphatic fashion.
Entering the weekend, Joseph led all qualified rookies in wRC+ (163), wOBA (.416) and slugging percentage (.677).
Were Joseph to keep mashing at the pace in which he entered this weekend, his .677 slugging percentage would have ranked as the second-highest in a rookie campaign in the history of the game, behind only Levi Meyerle in 1871, the inaugural season of the country’s first ever professional baseball league. In the interest of transparency, Meyerle, a member of the Philadelphia Athletics, led the National Association in every triple slash category during that 28-game season (.492/.500/.700) in which the A’s scored over 13 runs per game. In the 28 games since Joseph’s call up, the Phillies have averaged 3.1 runs.
Again, Joseph’s 77 plate appearances rank 25th out of 29 qualified rookies. He hasn’t played upwards of 50 games like Corey Seager, Trevor Story or Nomar Mazara, but his hot start is not to be ignored. After all, it has already done the impossible: seizing the throne from Howard, who occupied the position for over a decade.
Since his major league debut, only 16 hitters have launched more homers than Joseph’s seven. All have done so in triple-digit plate appearances, Joseph has just 77. In that span, Joseph’s .616 slugging percentage ranks 17th of 271 hitters.
Again, Joseph needs more than four-and-a-half times his current major league at-bat total before his slugging percentage can be expected to stabilize. But since being called up, he leads the Phillies in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS, while hitting three more homers than any teammate.
It’s clear that Joseph has picked up right where he left off in Triple-A. When plucked from the minors, he led the International League in both batting average, .347, and OPS, .981. It was by far the hottest, most consistent streak of his career.
“I had a really good week once,” he jokingly told reporters, referring to a 15-for-32 stretch in Single-A San Jose in June 2011.
His efforts thus far have catapulted him atop the National League rookie leaderboards.
Two things have stood out most thus far in Joseph’s fiery start: his dominance against lefties and his gap-to-gap power. Among NL hitters with at least 20 plate appearances against southpaws, only one hits at a higher clip than Joseph’s .421.
Now take a look at the spray chart of his hits thus far:
Twenty of his 22 hits have come between the left and right field gaps. On the only two that didn’t, Joseph turned on low fastballs (91 mph from Wei-Yin Chen and 95 mph from Felipe Rivero) and deposited them into the seats down the left field line.
The biggest and likely only concern with Joseph thus far is his miniscule walk rate, a recurring trend throughout his minor league tenure. He’s worked just two walks in 77 plate appearances (2.6%), less that half the rate at which he drew free passes over his first five years in the minors (5.8%).
But despite the shortage of walks, Joseph has shown promise and has proved he’s learning how to attack pitchers. His batting average jumps from .222 to .353 to .467 during his first, second and third time facing an opposing starter.
He gets himself into some trouble when he offers at balls out of the zone, hitting .111 and slugging .222, but excels when putting strikes in play (.413 batting average, .848 slugging). His exit velocity by pitch location tells a similar story.
The major stepping-stone for Joseph will be whether he can limit his swings on balls he can’t effectively square up and, in the process, increase his pitch recognition and walk rate. If that were to happen, the Phils could once again have a powerful Rookie of the Year-caliber slugger manning first base for years to come.