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The necessary risk of Rhys Hoskins’s approach changes

As detailed in a thorough feature in The Athletic, Hoskins will be adjusting his stance, swing, and approach. He needs to do it, but he’ll be putting a lot on the line.

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Boston Red Sox v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Baseball players slump. It’s just the nature of the game that players at the highest level of the sport will almost always prove to be a challenge to play against (unless you’re the 2015 Phillies). The keys to success come in the form of mitigation, the time-tested mythical art of doing everything you can to ensure your slumps are as short as possible.

Rhys Hoskins slumped for a long time in 2019. It wasn’t for a lack of effort that his struggles persisted as long as they did — he made a late-August stance adjustment that ever so briefly helped him break out of the funk before late September undid all that — and it won’t be for a lack of offseason effort that they carry over into 2020, if they even do.

Earlier this week, The Athletic’s Matt Gelb published an in-depth feature ($) with Hoskins, drilling into the details of what went wrong in 2019 and how he and new hitting coach Joe Dillon plan to turn things around. It is, as always, a really solid read, and puts to paper a bit more evidence that Hoskins has a terrific work ethic and badly wants to recapture the magic that made 2017, most of 2018, and the first half of 2019 so special.

Some sort of change was necessary on the heels of ‘19’s second half. Fans, coaches, and player alike had to figure that whatever was going on last summer just was not part of a recipe for success. Now, after turning to Dillon and the rest of the coaching staff over the winter, Hoskins is teasing some significant adjustments, not just to his stance and swing but the way he’ll approach some PAs mentally, too.

There’s a quote in the story I won’t pull verbatim in service of the original article that you should read (quoting and aggregating subscription sites is a uniquely tweaked moral dilemma of the Internet age), but it amounts to finding a “middle ground” between Hoskins’s calling card (incredible plate discipline that toes the line of passivity) and an Achilles heel (letting too many hittable pitches go by without a swing). It’s a very real problem, but fixing it could jeopardize Hoskins’s most unique skill in the process.

No one tortures pitchers more than Rhys. Even if his outcomes fell short more in 2019, he often made certain his trips to the plate were as much of a grind as he could possibly make them for the opposing pitcher. Two-and-a-half years into his Major League career, we can pretty safely say he always has.

Hoskins led all qualified hitters with 4.59 pitches seen per plate appearance. Only Seattle’s Daniel Vogelbach (4.54) was close: Third-place Max Muncy (4.38) was closer to being in 17th place, between Kyle Schwarber and Cody Bellinger, than he was to surpassing Rhys. Same story in 2018, when Hoskins led baseball with 4.44 pitches per PA, leading a pack that included Jose Ramirez (4.37), Mike Trout (4.34), and Matt Olson (4.33). His chase rates were low, and his ability to spoil competitive pitches often kept him in the hunt to pounce on a mistake later in the AB.

The other side of that coin is that Hoskins would often let tasty pitches go by. Hoskins saw 220 four- and two-seam fastballs go for called strikes against him in 2019, says Statcast, which was ninth-most in the league (and second on his own team behind Cesar Hernandez’s 233). Filter that down to situations with men on base and Hoskins jumps up to fourth-most in the league, with 97. On an even more granular level — one that only added to fans’ frustration — 35 of those 97 takes came with the go-ahead run on base. And that’s just fastballs, not even factoring in off-speed or breaking strikes which, in deference to Hoskins’s power, did tick up a bit in usage in late-game spots.

Long story short: Some sentiment that Hoskins let too many opportunities to do damage pass him by isn’t unfounded. So it’s encouraging to see a player not only acknowledge that but immediately begin working on improving those numbers. And in a vacuum, improving on that is a great step to take toward a more productive 2020.

But a change like this can’t happen in a vacuum. A change in approach requires staking Hoskins’s most valuable asset as a hitter as collateral: His plate discipline.

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

The most remarkable thing about last year is that, even as Rhys’s OPS dropped from .913 on July 31 to .819 by season’s end, he still managed to OBP over .300 during that letdown stretch. That’s not a great benchmark to set, obviously, but considering he hit only .166 in those final 54 games, it’s pretty impressive. He was able to do that in large part due to his 34 unintentional walks in 238 total plate appearances, a 14.3 percent sample BB% that on its own would have been 10th-best in MLB (at 13.2 percent overall for the season, Hoskins finished 20th). Even when the only thing getting hits was his confidence, Rhys was able to find his way on base a relatively respectable amount. I’m not calling him Barry Bonds, but it takes some fortitude to not try and machete-hack your way out of a slump that profound.

To ratchet up aggressiveness is to unearth a stake anchoring Hoskins’s safety net as a hitter. That aspect of his game was what kept him playable as the summer wore on, and is what makes him a valuable piece of a lineup even on the heels of a disappointing season. But a hitter can’t survive for too long on seasons built out of two-month-long, .166/.308/.326 stretches. Those only buy you some time, not a career. And at this career crossroads, Hoskins has decided to put his strongest skill as a hitter on the table. It’s a bold wager, but it’s also a necessary one, and Hoskins and the Phillies stand to reap significant rewards if it pays out.