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3 Phillies who could be breakout performers in 2020

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Scott Kingery came close to a breakout season last year. Could next year be it?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Phillies will enter the 2020 season with a payroll north of $200 million. That’s a lot of money and yet, as the New Year approaches, most believe the Phils have no better than the 3rd best team in the NL East, and some think they might even be 4th-best.

After all, last year the Braves won the division for the second year in a row, piling up 96 wins in 2019. The Nationals won the wild card with 93 wins, beat the Phillies 14 out of 19 times, outscored them by 34 runs in their meetings and won the World Series. Even the Mets, who did not have a solid year, won 86 games, five more than the Phils’ total of 81.

So you can see why some aren’t even talking about the Phillies with regard to being the team to beat in the National League East this season.

Of course, most assume Josh Donaldson will sign with the Mets or Braves at some point this off-season, which would make one of their division rivals stronger. Despite all this, the Phils appear to be done spending on big acquisitions because they do not want to cross the luxury tax.

Getting Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius should help, but it’s clear the Phils are leaning on some of their incumbent players to improve in 2020. So who might be the best candidates to take the next step and become breakout stars next season?

Scott Kingery

Kingery showed some great flashes for long stretches of last season. In the first half he was one of the best young players in the game, manning a number of different positions adequately while putting up a .292/.344/.545 slash line with a wRC+ of 127, 11 home runs and 16 doubles. But he ran into trouble in the second half, hitting just .230/.307/.421 with eight homers, 18 doubles and a wRC+ of only 80.

So what happened? For starters, Kingery’s strikeout rate went up a little, from 28.0% to 30.5%, a number far too high for someone who doesn’t hit 35 homers a year. His walk rate also went up, from 5.5% to 7.8%, which is fine. His batted ball numbers all remained about the same, but one thing that changed dramatically was his pull rate, which plummeted from 53.9% to 41.6%.

The problem with Kingery was that he didn’t put the ball in play enough, because when he did, he usually did pretty well.

Kingery has speed and surprising pop for a player his size, but the strikeouts continue to get in the way. Perhaps some of his issues were due to a blurry vision condition that seemed to be troubling him for some portion of the end of the 2019 season, but as Paul Boye noted back in September, pitchers started pitching him down and away with breaking balls and with fastballs above the zone, pitches he had a hard time handling.

The hope is that Kingery can become a player who consistently puts up an OPS north of .800, especially if he’s going to be the team’s everyday third baseman. In his third full season, there’s enough hope that Kingery can find some consistency and be the team’s breakout performer next year.

Rhys Hoskins

Like Kingery, Hoskins was especially good in the first half. In 71 games through June 19, Hoskins hit .273/.400/.522 for an OPS of .922, with 15 home runs and 49 RBIs. He was a borderline All Star and heading toward the 30+ homer season that we all assumed he’d have hitting behind Bryce Harper in a stacked Phillies lineup.

Then, the bottom fell out.

In his final 89 games, Hoskins batted .189/.336/.401 for a .737 OPS and hit 14 homers, 19 doubles and just 36 RBIs the rest of the way. He finished the season with a ridiculously low .226 batting average, although his outstanding walk rate gave him a .364 OBP. But his wRC+ of 112 was 9th among National League first basemen with at least 100 games played at the position, and his 2.2 fWAR was tied for 8th-best.

His season wasn’t a late-stage Ryan Howard-level disaster, but he was an automatic out when he put the ball in play in the second half of the season, and no one is quite sure why. Charlie Manuel wasn’t able to do much to help in his one month with the team, and obviously the No. 1 job of new hitting coach Joe Dillon will be to find something to fix.

One thing that offers hope is that, despite his struggles, Hoskins continued to understand the strike zone. Among 273 MLB players with at least 300 plate appearances last season, Hoskins swung at just 24.0% of pitches outside the strike zone, 25th-best, and his 16.5% walk rate was tied for 3rd-highest. Only 43 players had a lower BABIP than Hoskins’ .267 and among 287 players with at least 200 batted ball events, Hoskins’ 89.7 mph average exit velocity was tied for 92nd.

Not awesome, but also not terrible. There’s enough of a track record with Hoskins that, if he can avoid the crippling slumps and simply slump like a normal human being, he’ll be able to keep his OPS over .900 and hit the 35 homer plateau we were all expecting last season.

Nick Pivetta

Yeah, I’m going back to the Nick Pivetta well. Perhaps I’m a sucker, but the issue with Pivetta wasn’t a lack of talent in 2019. It was an inability to execute and a pitching coach and manager who seemingly made the process more difficult than it had to be.

Now look, I’m not going to make excuses for Pivetta. He was terribly disappointing last year, with a 5.38 ERA in 13 starts and 30 appearances total. His 1.516 WHIP was awful, his 8.6 K/9 was far below expectations and he was worth -0.6 bWAR last season, an abysmal total for a guy who was projected as the team’s No. 2 starter. Much was expected, little was delivered, but it seems as though he’s going to get yet another chance to make the starting rotation in 2020.

And if you’re looking at pure stuff, Pivetta has a chance to break out if he can put it all together. His fastball averaged 94.6 mph, right about where it was the year before, but the team asked him to elevate his fastball, reduce his slider usage and throw his curveball more. As a result, he threw his curve a career-high 35.3% of the time, way up from 21.8% the year before. His slider usage dropped from 17.0% to 12.4% and his fastball usage also fell, from 59.0% in 2018 to 51.2% last year. Essentially, they wanted him to throw curveballs that dropped out of the zone and fastballs above the zone.

The only problem was too often his curveball caught too much of the plate and he couldn’t elevate his fastball consistently, leaving way too many hittable pitches in the zone. For Pivetta to “break out,” he needs to command his curve and fastball better. I don’t have much confidence that he can do it, but perhaps the addition of Bryan Price as pitching coach will help Pivetta put it together. If he does, he has the potential to be an All-Star caliber pitcher.

On Episode 348 of Hittin’ Season, I talked more about these three players, and was joined by Meghan Montemurro of The Athletic to chat about her 10 bold predictions for the 2020 season!