Tommy Joseph may well replace Darin Ruf on the Phillies' Major League roster soon, but that is not what I want to speculate on. No, what I want to talk about is a former top prospect who is putting up very good numbers in a small sample size. Joseph has remade himself this season in this, his first year as a full-time first baseman. The numbers look great, but with so little information available, it is hard to see what about those numbers is fact and what is fiction.
The best place to start with is the time of his acquisition through The Hunter Pence Trade in 2012. Here are what I would consider the knowns about Joseph at the time:
- At least plus raw power
- Plus arm strength
- Solid bat speed
- Poor receiver on defense
- Poor approach and feel for contact at the plate
At the time, Joseph's profile was one of a catcher who could hit 20 home runs a year with a low batting average and fringe-average defense. There were some rumblings that he would have to move to first base, but that his bat was not ideal there because of his poor contact abilities.
Fast forward three-and-a-half years, and we can scrap all of the catching questions, as Joseph will never go back behind the plate due to his concussions. He is now 24 years old (25 in July), but is finally fully healthy; his 2014 season ended in August due to wrist surgery - very similar to what has sidelined Aaron Altherr to start the season - and now that about 20 months have passed, it's reasonable to expect his wrist to have rehabbed to the point of allowing power to return. A healthy offseason has allowed Joseph to get fitter and faster, and he is now reportedly 25 pounds lighter than he was last offseason.
What does all this mean? For one, he is more athletic overall. Everything looks smoother and more coordinated. This has also translated to a little more bat speed, and more bat speed and more contact have allowed his raw power to play in games. At first base, the added athleticism helps, but despite playing the position in the past, he is not good there yet. Now, this is not to say Joseph will never be good or that he is a trainwreck right now, but he is far from a finished product at the position.
The things that matters the most here are the briefly aforementioned contact abilities and his approach at the plate. So far, the contact abilities have been very good, with just 10 strikeouts in 84 PA (11.9%); the only time he has struck out more than once was the first game of the season, where he struck out twice. He is still mostly a pull hitter, but he has shown that he can go up the middle, which might keep defenses honest in this era of constant shifting.
Minor league batted ball types are notoriously unreliable, but MLBFarm has him hitting 20% line drives with unconcerning ground ball and fly ball rates, while limiting his infield fly balls. On first glance, Joseph's 4.8% walk rate would raise red flags, but given the small sample size, his low strikeout rate, and hard contact, it is not something to worry about right now.
We also know that catching in the minors is tough. Catchers take longer to develop offensively because they have to spend more time on their defense than other players (as well as catching bullpens and working with pitchers). We have also seen catchers excel on offense when moved off of the position. Joseph has talked about how this has simplified the game for him, but like many parts of this, it is hard to quantify.
This leads to the discussion of what Joseph can be for the Phillies. Clearly he has raw power and the ability to hit Triple-A pitching over a month. That in of itself does not make him special. What makes hitters special is the ability to adjust back when the league adjusts to you. The league has yet to adjust to Tommy Joseph at the Triple-A level, and so we have yet to see how he will react. Will he expand the zone and see his strikeouts rise, or will he work counts for walks? Because Joseph has remade himself in the past year and his lack of playing time the past three seasons due to injury, we have almost no usable historical data to say what Joseph will do in these situations.
This is the big, and rather simple, problem with Tommy Joseph. He looks improved and he looks great at the plate, and there is even a Major League impact tool in his raw power. We just don't know what he is going to look like in a month when teams have started to find his weaknesses and work to exploit them. The easy answer to this would be to leave him in Triple-A until he struggles and overcomes it, or doesn't struggle over a very large sample size. The more Joseph hits, the closer to the latter part he gets and, if he reaches it, the Phillies are going to have to challenge him with the Major Leagues, where the real adjustments can begin.