CLEARWATER, Fla. — Rhys Hoskins stood in left field and waited. It was early in the morning, more than an hour before he was required to be at the ballpark. The stands were empty. The sound system was muted. It was just Hoskins, the player the Phillies hope can be a franchise cornerstone, with a coach.
That coach, outfield coordinator Andy Abad, stood 20 feet away as Hoskins waited. Abad rolled a baseball and Hoskins charged, scooped it with his glove and mimed a throw to the infield. Abad instructed and rolled another ball. And again. And again.
Hoskins showed last summer that he can hit. He blasted 18 homers in 50 games after reaching the majors, continuing the success he had at every minor-league stop on his way to Philadelphia. New manager Gabe Kapler will place Hoskins somewhere in the middle of his lineup, molding his batting order around Hoskins.
But his defense leaves room for improvement. Hoskins was a first baseman for his entire minor-league career before moving to left field just before he was promoted. That move was thought to be temporary, but it became indefinite in December, when the Phillies added first baseman Carlos Santana in free agency. And that is why Hoskins stood in left field and waited.
"The infield is like the complete opposite of the outfield," Hoskins said. "I'm kind of trying to train the body to do something it has never done. If I can home in on one of those little things a day or a week and master that, then I think it'll all come around at the same time."
Hoskins and every other Phillies player found new red T-shirts in their lockers on the first day of spring training. It was Kapler who had the T-shirts labeled with "Be Bold," the slogan he declared as the theme of camp. And on the sleeve, "VAM," a slogan Kapler embraced during his playing career that means "value at the margins."
He wrote in 2014 on his blog that he learned during his career that "small adjustments can have major impacts." Players might not be able to control when things happen, Kapler wrote, but they can control how they prepare. The theme of camp might be "Be Bold," but "VAM" can be considered the guide.
Kapler said this week that "value at the margins" refers to things people often neglect. A catcher's primary responsibility, Kapler said, for example, is to keep a pitch in the strike zone. But the value at the margins would be the catcher's conditioning or the relationships he develops with pitchers. For Hoskins, his "value at the margins" is in his fielding.
"We're just thinking about where can we find the value at the margins because we may not have the track record of some of the other clubs that we're going to be competing with. So therefore we have to get the extra value," Kapler said. "We have to find the value at the margins, so we can get that extra inch, which turns into an extra game, and at the end of the year we're fighting for an NL East title."
Hoskins worked with Abad last summer once the Phillies decided Hoskins would come to the majors as a leftfielder. The pair had little time. Hoskins played just three triple-A games in left before being promoted. Abad's primary goal was to make sure Hoskins survived. He did. Hoskins might be a first baseman, but he is not a lug. He's athletic, he played some left field in college, and he held his own there with the Phillies.
The seven weeks offered by spring training are paramount, Abad said. It gives the pair the chance to work on the things they were forced to neglect last summer. Abad instructs Hoskins on how to approach a grounder, where to place his feet when he throws, how to keep his momentum when charging a ball, and the art of a crow hop. It is a chance to refine.
"The beauty about Rhys is that you only have to tell him once. His aptitude is off the charts," Abad said. "His knowledge of the game and the feel for his body is very impressive. Just by his demeanor and his work ethic alone, even if I didn't give him any information, he'd still get better out there. He'd figured it out on his own. That's the kind of kid he is."
And there Hoskins waited. Abad rolled him another baseball. He charged, lowered his glove, grabbed the ball, faked another throw to the infield, and tossed it back to Abad. The coach gave more instruction. He told him where to plant his feet and where his shoulder should be on a throw. All things Hoskins said he never thought of when he played first base and watched an outfielder make a throw.
The drill, as monotonous as a drill can be, continued.