The 2019 Philadelphia Phillies were a disappointment by every definition of the word.
After an objectively great off-season following the franchise’s first 80-win season since 2012, the team was seemingly poised to end their seven-season playoff drought. They raced out to a 33-22 start and held a three-and-a-half game lead in the National League East near the end of May. Then, the team cratered down the stretch while suffering a rash of injuries and limped to a .500 finish, 16 games behind the division-winning Atlanta Braves and eight games out of a Wild Card spot.
Perhaps no player encapsulated the nature of the disappointment more so than Rhys Hoskins. After a strong first half in which he hit .263/.401/.530 for a robust .931 OPS, he collapsed in the second half, managing just a .180 batting average, .318 on-base percentage and .361 slugging percentage, all good for a .679 OPS. His run production in the second half – nine home runs and 26 RBIs – was nowhere near good enough for a cleanup hitter, and he occasionally found himself batting leadoff since he seemed capable of only drawing walks during this extended slump.
A crucial question for the 2020 Phillies, then, is what happened to Rhys in the second half of the season, and can it be fixed? Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and new addition Didi Gregorius are all solid-to-great hitters, but for this team to reach its offensive ceiling it needs Hoskins to hit his. Why did the slugger simply stop hitting the ball with authority?
Hoskins wasn’t especially effective for most of the second half, but his problems can really be isolated to a six-week stretch from the end of July until the middle of September, a period that can be seen by his hard hit percentage in this chart courtesy of Baseball Savant:
During that period of roughly 100 batted balls, from July 31 to Sept. 11, he was making hard contact at a rate well below league average. His productivity plummeted and he seemed lost at the plate. Hoskins only managed a 70 wRC+ in this time, a number which would have ranked 134th of 135 qualified hitters over the course of the full season.
Before going any further, it’s important to consider the very real possibility that this was just a particularly drastic case of the natural ebbs and flows of the season and that overreacting to this 173-plate appearance sample is not a good idea. Hoskins is a streaky hitter, but from what he’s shown over the last three seasons, his true talent seems to be as a 30 plus home runs, .850-.900 OPS hitter in most seasons. Six weeks of poor performances should not supersede the two seasons’ worth of borderline All-Star caliber hitting that came before it.
However, there were some patterns to Hoskins’ slump.
A popular sentiment among Phillies fans is that Hoskins became pull-happy, obsessed with yanking the ball into left field where he hits for the most power, and this made him easier to handle for opposing pitchers. The numbers last season tell a different story, however:
Hoskins’ pull percentage in his productive first half: 54.0
Hoskins’ pull percentage during his six-week swoon: 36.0
In heatmap form from Baseball Savant, this is what that change looked like on the field:
On the left, in the first half of the season, Hoskins was pulling the ball constantly and more consistently generating power, while on the right – that span of play from July 31 to Sept. 11 – there appears to be no clear pattern to his contact at all, and the distance of his balls in play drops off.
Pitchers had altered their approach very slightly, throwing more fastballs off the plate than they did earlier in the season along with marginally more sliders four-seamers in general, but the difference was not so great as to explain the drastic change in the direction of Hoskins’ contact. Instead, this has the makings of a conscious effort from Hoskins to go the opposite way more and use the entire field, and this change sapped Rhys of most of his power. Whether this philosophy was instructed to him from the coaching staff or self-imposed, the clear fix is for Hoskins to return to pulling the ball as much as he can, and he should look to get back to that pull-first mindset in 2020. This should be a natural adjustment for him, given that his pull percentages were 49.2 percent in 2017 and an even 50 percent in 2018. Returning to those norms would be an enormous step in the right direction.
Another commonly cited explanation for Hoskins’ dips in production is that his swing became a more pronounced uppercut, leading him to miss pitches high in the zone and hit more pop-ups. This is at least partially true, as his average launch angle has increased each year and his production has progressively worsened each season to match. Per Statcast, each year he’s getting under more balls, barreling up fewer pitches, and just generally making worse contact:
|Avg Launch Angle||Pop-up %||Under %||Barrel %||Hard Hit %|
The percentage of balls he got under was the highest in MLB; his pop-up percentage was second only to Edwin Encarnacion. His launch angle has gone from the 24th in 2017, fourth in 2018 and all the way to the highest in MLB in 2019.
But looking to lift the ball on its own isn’t a problem; most home runs come from hitters elevating the ball 20-40 degrees. And the numbers for Hoskins bear this out: his average launch angle was higher in the first half, at 24.8 degrees, than it was when he was struggling at the plate, when it was 22.4 degrees. Instead, the problem came from not having a consistent swing plane. In simpler terms: his swing was broken.
There is some evidence linking irregular launch angle consistency to pop-ups and poor performance, and this appears to have been what happened to Hoskins from the first half to the second. The standard deviation – a measure of how widely varied something is – of the launch angles he was producing with his swing increased dramatically within the season. In the first half it was 26.2 degrees. During his six-week swoon, it was just a tick under 28 degrees. What this tells us is that his swing was less consistent than before, potentially a result of a mechanical change or pressing from poor performance.
This leads to the third problem Rhys had: he didn’t attack the pitches he could do damage on early in counts. He’s been accused of being too passive at the plate, and while Hoskins will never be Javier Baez at the dish, he could benefit from being slightly more aggressive. Hoskins tied for fourth in MLB with a 16.5 percent walk percentage in 2019. While taking a free base is typically a good thing, this isn’t always Hoskins’ role for the Phillies as the cleanup hitter and he may have gone too far towards the extreme end of the patience spectrum. For example, with men in scoring position, he had a .374 on-base percentage but only slugged .331 for the entire season – the league average was .443. Hoskins turned into Andrew Knapp when the team needed him to be Ryan Howard.
This passive approach only worsened during the second half: Hoskins swung at fewer pitches in the zone while pitchers threw more pitches in the zone overall. This combination led to him falling behind in counts, from which pitchers were able to finish him off with fastballs that he struggled to handle – perhaps because of that broken swing – slugging .550 against heaters in the first half and falling to .291 in the second half.
Again, his struggle may well be just like any other slump and not mean much long-term, but examining why it came about can be important if or when it happens again. The numbers suggest that it was a combination of three factors that led to his poor second half: him attempting to go the other way and away from his power; his swing being off mechanically; and him being too passive at the plate and not attacking hittable pitches. These three could even build off each other to create a negative feedback loop, and the constant poor returns at the plate couldn’t have been good for Hoskins mentally.
The good news is that there were signs in September that he had begun to turn it around: his exit velocity and hard-hit percentage in the last few weeks of the season climbed back to respectable territory, so he was making better contact. Unfortunately, he hadn’t figured everything out as he was hitting more ground balls and infield flies. He also hadn’t returned to pulling the ball at his previous rate in those final two to three weeks, which may be the most significant part of the problem. Making more solid contact was a good first step, though, and the rest can be addressed by new hitting coach Joe Dillon in Spring Training.
The Phillies have made external improvements, adding Zack Wheeler to the rotation and Didi Gregorius to the infield, along with a makeover in the coaching staff. The ceiling, at least to some degree, of the 2020 Phillies is still largely in the hands of Hoskins, though. In his two-and-a-half seasons in the majors, the Phillies have mostly gone as he has gone; when Hoskins is hitting for power, the team looks like a playoff contender. When he disappears for stretches – which he has done each year – the team struggles to put together wins. If the team’s homegrown slugger can’t recapture the form he displayed in 2017 and 2018 and resembles the player that struggled for most of the second half in 2019, then the team’s burgeoning playoff hopes may not get off the ground.
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