Toolshed: Hoskins hoping to keep power on
Big season, Dominican Republic trip give Phillies prospect confidence
By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com
CLEARWATER, Florida -- Both the Phillies and Rhys Hoskins want the world to know that his 2016 power surge -- one in which he ranked second in the Minors with 38 homers, only two fewer than teammate Dylan Cozens -- was no fluke. This offseason, the 23-year-old first baseman traveled about 1,500 miles south of Double-A Reading's FirstEnergy Stadium to take what he hopes was a major step toward proving that.
The Phillies' No. 13 prospect followed up his breakout 2016 campaign with a month playing for Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican Winter League for another stop in his player development education, a plan that's also brought him his first non-roster invitation to Major League Spring Training.
The first lesson of the winter: It's going to be tough to go deep.
"No one wants to give up a home run there," Hoskins said. "I don't know what it is, whether it's the culture or just the game. Everyone pitches against that. It was a good experience as far as seeing different pitchers and how they pitch good hitters, middle-of-the-lineup guys. ... Just pitching completely backwards. Just because it was 2-0 or even 3-0 doesn't mean you're getting a fastball for a strike. Made me slow down the whole game and really look for a pitch you're trying to drive. Hopefully, that translates this season."
He wasn't kidding. In the most recent iteration of the Dominican Winter League, the circuit's hitters combined to hit just 92 homers over 150 games. (For comparison, the Braves hit a Major League-low 122 homers as a club over 162 games last season, and they had a much shallower pool of hitters than the winter circuit.)
But even in that environment, Hoskins' power was able to shine. The right-handed slugger clubbed four homers in 21 games, putting him in a four-way tie for the league lead despite playing in just 42 percent of his team's contests. (Cozens, who played for Aguilas Cibaenas, was one of the other three to go deep three times.) Hoskins finished with a .224/.318/.408 line, and by the time it was over, the Phillies seemed pleased with his trip.
"I think with every player going to Latin America for the first time, it's just different," Phillies director of player development Joe Jordan said. "The pitching's different. The cultural challenges. All of that itself is worth going for me. But Rhys is smart. Rhys has a good approach. He probably has as mature an approach as any of our young hitters. I just think winter-ball experience is good experience."
This past offseason was perhaps a perfect time to test Hoskins overseas, given the confidence he developed over the 2016 campaign while playing at Reading, a notorious Eastern League hitters' haven. The proof was in the pudding when it came to Hoskins' home splits as he compiled a slash line of .292/.396/.636 with 25 homers, one triple and nine doubles in 70 home games last season. With an assignment to Triple-A Lehigh Valley -- which is much fairer than its Double-A counterpart -- likely coming before Opening Day, it was good for Hoskins to get one last taste of something different.
"The biggest thing there is the confidence that you have just walking into the ballpark," he said of Reading's FirstEnergy Stadium. "One thing, at least for me, was I thought it was really easy to see there. I've never been to Lehigh, but I hope it's a lot of the same when it comes to what kind of hitter's eye there is. It's a Triple-A league, so I'm assuming it's going to be pretty nice."
But the narrative when it comes to Hoskins and 2016 isn't quite as binary as him being good at home and being, well, not so good away. The 2014 fifth-rounder put up a .270/.357/.496 line with 13 homers and 17 doubles in 65 road contests -- numbers that would be solid under typical circumstances. What's more, his 71 walks (a stat typically not affected by park factors) ranked sixth-most among all Double-A hitters.
It's for these reasons that the Phillies still like what they see when they look at his overall picture.
"We talk all the time about knowing thyself, having a good approach at the plate, battle with two strikes, all the things that are being preached next door with the Major League hitting coach," Jordan said. "Grind out your at-bats. Be selfish with your at-bats. Don't give at-bats away. Rhys is as good as we have with that. He battles most times at the plate. They just need to go hit. Don't worry about what ballpark it's in. Our ballpark in Philly doesn't play that big. Once they get to the big leagues, they're in a good hitters' park. But you still have to learn to hit, develop your approach, develop as a hitter. That's all they need to do."
With that type of preaching coming from the top down, the first baseman isn't expecting to downplay his power when he moves to the International League at the start of the coming season.
"I don't think it necessarily changes," he said. "It can't, especially now that I've had some success. I have some confidence in the plans that I had last year. I hope I can be just as stubborn as I was with them and see where it takes me."
That approach has served the Sacramento State product well so far this spring. As of Thursday, Hoskins was just 3-for-14 in Grapefruit League play but all three hits went for extra bases (two homers, one double). His six walks lead the team and rank tied for fourth among all Grapefruit and Cactus League hitters, looking even better next to three strikeouts in 20 plate appearances. The positive numbers make what's already been an educational first trip to big league camp all the sweeter.
"This is your first taste of being around a big league club," Hoskins said. "It's definitely fun. There are perks of being here. Take that in every day and remember what it's like to get back as quick as I can."
That last bit may prove a little difficult with Phillies first baseman Tommy Joseph coming off a 21-homer, .813 OPS season with the Major League club last season. That, combined with the expected lack of urgency to compete immediately at the top level, should enable the Phils to let Hoskins develop a little longer at Triple-A this summer, which could have Lehigh Valley fans dreaming of another Hoskins-Cozens race to the Minor League home run summit for 2017. For the record, the pair haven't talked about it ... yet.
"If it happens, it's probably a good thing as far as it means we're probably winning a bunch of games like we did last year," Hoskins said. "Fingers crossed, I guess. I don't know, we'll see what happens."