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May 12, 2017

The Phillies' other hot hitter: How Tommy Joseph emerged from early-season slump

WASHINGTON – Many a modern day baseball fan can be, to be quite honest, fickle.

With more and more exposure to the minor leagues and coverage of every team’s top prospects (guilty!), there’s a never-ending hunger to see your team’s Next Best Thing. But here’s the fun part: when that Next Best Thing struggles, many folks want to kick it to the curb to welcome the Next Next Best Thing.

Look at 24-year-old Maikel Franco, for example. Two years ago people complained about the Phillies holding him down at Triple-A until mid-May. Less than two years later, and just 32 games into a 162-game season, some of the same folks are ready to move on from the inconsistent power-hitting third baseman.

“You understand that that’s part of it,” first baseman Tommy Joseph said. “You realize the way an organization is built is, if you don’t perform, the fans and everyone else are going to want somebody new. They’re always going to want the Next Best Thing, or what they think can be the Next Best Thing. You understand that. But you also understand that you can’t control it.”

The 25-year-old Joseph probably has the best grasp of this because he’s lived on both sides of it in the last 12 months.

Last season, he was destroying the pitching in the International League and worthy for the eventual call-up he received exactly a year ago (his one-year big-league anniversary is tomorrow) when he joined the Phillies and began to cut into the playing time of the 37-year-old Ryan Howard.

Entering this month, Joseph was on the other end of it, struggling to get his bat going throughout the duration of April and well aware that top first base prospect Rhys Hoskins was following the path he paved himself a year ago with a torrid start at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

The 24-year-old, Hoskins, who hit 38 home runs in Double-A last year, entered Friday hitting .348 with an International League-leading eight home runs, 26 RBI, and 1.074 OPS in 33 games. Fun fact: when a 24-year-old Joseph was promoted to the Phillies, he was hitting .347 with six home runs and an International League-best .981 OPS in 27 games.

Joseph's bat remained hot in his first month of the big leagues: he hit .321 with seven home runs and two doubles in his first 21 games. But then he went through a cold stretch (.114 with 19 strikeouts in 70 at-bats from June 11 to July 3).

… and then he finished strong in the season’s final three months. From July 4 to Oct. 2, Joseph slashed .289/.364/.561 with 13 home runs and 10 doubles over 180 at-bats in 67 games.

So when he hit .179 with just three extra-base hits in 67 at-bats in April, it was just one of those cold spells, right? 

Joseph, playing as a full-time starter (read: without Ryan Howard around) for the first time in his career received the benefit of the doubt from his manager and general manager, who both maintained faith in the former top catching prospect.

“(Hoskins) is off to an incredible start … he’s just a really good offensive player,” Klentak said a week ago outside the manager’s office at Citizens Bank Park. “We're pleased with that, but I'm not ready to concede that after 90 plate appearances that Tommy Joseph has forgotten how to hit and we're going to turn to Rhys at this early stage. That's not to minimize what Rhys has done … He’s a month into his AAA career and we're happy to let him continue to get at-bats there.”

The Phils’ patience in Joseph has been rewarded. Since Klentak made those comments last Friday, Joseph has three multi-hit games and two home runs over the span of five games. After his dreadful April, here is what Joseph has done in May: 

.393/.500/.857, four doubles, three home runs, five walks, eight strikeouts.

Klentak mentioned Joseph’s name again on Thursday, when the Phillies announced a new two-year contract for manager Pete Mackanin.

“I think the fact that Pete stuck with Tommy Joseph as much as he did in April, it allowed him the opportunity to break out in May,” the second-year general manager said. “I think there are a lot of managers who may not have been as patient. But Pete was, continued to encourage him, and now we’re all being rewarded for the because Tommy is playing better.”

Joseph’s 1.357 OPS in the month of May (a span of nine games, for the sake of accuracy) ranks 7th best in all of baseball and 4th in the National League among players with at least 25 plate appearances this month. His production would probably stick out a little more if wasn’t for teammate Aaron Altherr’s insanity at the plate: .433/.541/1.067, five home runs and four doubles this month.

“That’s perfectly fine with me,” Joseph said of getting slightly overshadowed. “He deserves all of the credit and limelight.”

And Altherr surely does deserve credit. He kept his head held high after the Phillies signed two veterans over the winter, lowered his hands in his set-up thanks to the guidance of hitting coach Matt Stairs this spring, and has suddenly become one of the hottest hitters in all of baseball.

So how did Joseph flip the page himself when April turned to May?

“I mean I put my bat on my shoulder, but that’s really about it,” Joseph said.

So, no massive mechanic makeovers. Just staying relaxed and confident in his ability, as his bosses were with him.

“When I came to my swing, my movements were off track a little bit,” Joseph said “My movements became bigger movements, which put me in a bad position. When guys are throwing pretty hard you have to be able to track it and be ready to hit, so I just tried to shorten things up and simplify it as much as I can.

“It was just something that came together, trying to make things a little easier in the sense that I was really getting jammed a lot. I’m not afraid to get jammed by any means, but I think I was getting jammed for the wrong reasons, I was showing up late and that can’t happen. So just trying I put myself in a better position at the plate.”

Joseph isn’t the only current Phillies’ lineup cog with a Next Best Thing playing his position at Triple-A who has emerged from an early-season funk. While top catching prospect Jorge Alfaro (.333/.364/.495) continues to post strong numbers at Triple-A, Rupp is slashing .364/.462/.636 in May; his 1.098 OPS ranks 12th in the NL and 24th in baseball this month.

“Everyone does go through hot and cold streaks,” Joseph said, “but I’ve just been trying to simplify things as much as I can at the plate. The game is hard, so I try to simplify it and make it as easy as I can for the mental side of it.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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