Phillies’ Patience Allows for Joseph Turnaround
Rhys Hoskins is hitting .327/.407/.617 in AAA. He is putting up one of the best hitting seasons in the minor leagues. On May 1, the Phillies biggest weaknesses were probably catcher and first base. This led to calls for Hoskins (and Jorge Alfaro) to be promoted to the major leagues. Since the beginning of May, Cameron Rupp has been hitting .364/.462/.636, but more importantly, Tommy Joseph is hitting .393/.500/.857. Even with this surge, Joseph has been a below average hitter on the year, but it begins to reopen the debate on who is the first baseman of the future and how should that battle play out.
Last year, Joseph was almost assuredly the biggest surprise for the Phillies. He was on the edge of being released from the organization, and he hadn’t received an invite to major league camp. Despite all of that, he ended up hitting .257/.308/.505 for the Phillies, and was even better from July 1 until the end of the season, when he hit .281/.355/.546 with a 9.0% walk rate and a 19.0% strikeout rate. For that 3 month stretch, he was a Top 15 first baseman in baseball. We also can’t go into why Joseph has been good of late without addressing how bad he was to start the year.
Sometimes it is hard to find the underlying statistical difference that drives results, sometimes it is really easy. From 2016 to 2017, Tommy Joseph swung at roughly the same number of pitches in and out of the zone. The problem is that he is only making contact on 70.7% of those swings, down from 78.1% last season (league average is 77.6%). When he did make contact, he made poor contact, with his ground ball and fly ball rates experiencing a 10 point swing. Additionally, he started hitting infield fly balls at a greatly increased rate. In other words, Joseph looked bad in person, and his stats looked bad on the sheet.
So why is Joseph suddenly good now? Part of it is small sample size and pitcher mix. In April, Joseph had 52 plate appearances vs RHPS and 20 plate appearances vs LHPs. In May, that mix is 23 to 11. Joseph also didn’t hit LHPs well in April, and in 11 PAs in May he has 3 walks, 3 strikeouts, 3 home runs, and a double. But it isn’t just facing LHPs, because Joseph’s OPS vs RHPS is up over 300 points. He is striking out less, and he is walking more. Fangraph’s monthly splits also have him at a 40% line drive rate in May, up from 8.3% in April, and his ground ball rate has dropped 24 points.
Those are all small samples, and in reality this is a hot streak for Joseph. It just happens to be one that is offsetting a terrible start. Joseph is still striking out too much, especially if his ISO is below .200 (only .189 right now). However, what we are seeing in May is why the Phillies have been hesitant to commit to pushing Hoskins to the majors and casting Joseph aside. Hoskins may well be the better option down the line for the Phillies, but the change from Joseph to Hoskins may not be a big improvement for the 2017 Phillies, and they (and other teams) still have more to learn about Tommy Joseph.
As the Phillies look to integrate in prospects over the coming year, this situation is likely to play out at other positions as well. It is easy to say that a player is done after a few weeks, but front offices are thinking in the long term, and they are not going to give up on players quickly. For now, Joseph is the Phillies’ first baseman, whether he keeps that role going forward or not. By being patient, the Phillies gave him the time to turn things around and put the organization in a better situation.