It’s one thing for Rhys Hoskins to stand tall, puff out his chest, and, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, insist there’s nothing to see here. How else is a 25-year-old who has played fewer than 100 games in the majors and achieved an unprecedented level of success supposed to react to the first significant batting slump of his career?
But it’s a whole other thing when the man who is paid to help Hoskins snap out of it agrees that nothing’s wrong.
“We’ve been through all of it,” Phillies hitting coach John Mallee said. “It’s not a mechanical thing.”
OK, but surely something isn’t right. Cloaked in the Phillies’ 12-7 record this month and their surge to within a half-game of first place in the National League East is this uncomfortable truth: Hoskins’ production has declined by more than 50 percent.
In a continuation of his absurd roll after making his major-league debut last August, Hoskins batted .346 with a .495 on-base percentage, eight doubles, four home runs, 22 walks, 25 strikeouts, and a 1.098 OPS through 25 games this season. Since then, he’s 11 for 81 (.136) with a .245 OBP, four doubles, two home runs, 11 walks, 31 strikeouts, and a .504 OPS.
And it has gone on long enough — 21 games now — to provoke questions.
Hoskins and Mallee aren’t blind to the drop-off, and they certainly aren’t ignoring it. Between them, they have broken down enough video, analyzed Hoskins’ approach so thoroughly, and crunched so many numbers that their eyes might glaze over.
But after all that study, Hoskins has concluded “there’s not a whole lot that’s different” from the beginning of the season. And Mallee concurs.
“It’s the first time he’s had to deal with this at the big-league level,” Mallee said. “These guys, they all go through this moment. A lot of times, when guys start to struggle, they look for a bunch of different reasons why. Instead of making things easier, they make it a lot harder. It’s about trying to simplify.”
Mallee speaks from experience. He has worked with many young hitters over the years, from Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez in Houston to Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber with the Chicago Cubs, and helped them through early-career slumps.
As much as any hitter, Hoskins relies on rhythm. He uses a leg kick as a timing mechanism, and if he raises his front leg even a tick early or late, it could throw off his entire swing, a problem that Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said he dealt with at various points throughout his 12-year playing career.
Mallee agrees with Hoskins’ opinion that the timing of the leg kick isn’t far off. Likewise, Mallee rejects the idea that Hoskins, one of the majors’ most patient hitters, is being too selective. If anything, Mallee said Hoskins might be chasing more bad pitches than usual because he’s pressing for hits.
“Whether he admits it or not, he feels like he’s letting the team down at times,” Mallee said. “Being the face of things and that kind of guy, he’s starting to stress and struggle, and then he’s expanding the zone more than he has in the past. He was accepting his walks, and now his walks have gone down and that’s usually an indication that he’s trying too hard. That’s, at the end of the day, what it comes down to.”
There’s also the matter of Hoskins’ inexperience.
For all his success in becoming the first player since at least 1900 to hit 20 homers and draw 45 walks in his first 250 big-league plate appearances, Hoskins is, for all intents and purposes, still a rookie. He has all of 409 career plate appearances to his credit, which means opponents are continuing to devise ways to get him out.
“Look, this is still a young, developing player making adjustments to the league, and the league is making adjustments to him,” Kapler said. “Sometimes we forget that Rhys has got not quite a year under his belt. We look at him often as a seasoned veteran, because of his composure and because of how good he’s been.”
Hoskins claims he hasn’t detected dramatic changes in the way he has been pitched. But Hoskins is seeing more change-ups (16.2 percent in the last 21 games as opposed to 9.1 percent in the first 25, according to Brooks Baseball). That makes sense considering he’s slugging .238 against change-ups compared with, say, .929 against two-seam fastballs.
Sliders also have given Hoskins trouble this season. He’s slugging only .140 against the pitch compared to .677 last year. As a result, he has seen sliders 22.2 percent of the time this season compared to 18.4 percent last year, a shift that isn’t lost on Mallee.
“Yeah, [pitchers] are trying to do that to him, but at some point, that’s going to turn around,” Mallee said. “Last year, he was really good on strike sliders and strike curveballs, and then this year, for whatever reason, he’s maybe hitting them foul or taking them or whatever. But he can hit strike spin.”
More than anything, Mallee has tried to get Hoskins to relax and maintain his preparation and approach.
“You just try to reinforce that, hey, you’ve done this already at this level,” Mallee said. “You’re reminding him of those things, that he’s really good, so just stay the course. And he’s still talking that way, when he comes back to the dugout and goes, ‘How did he get me out?’ Yeah, it’s going to turn for him.”