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September 14, 2017

When aliens attack: Phillies' Rhys Hoskins on verge of rarest of home run feats

When was the last time a player made his season debut after the All-Star break yet still led his team in home runs?

Or, better yet, when was the last time a player led a team in home runs... despite hitting zero home runs for that team before August?

It sounds preposterous, like something that couldn't have happened since the Deadball Era, back in the days of Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Shoeless Joe Jackson.

But it’s become a very real possibility with the 2017 Phillies, as Rhys Hoskins enters the team’s final 17 games with 17 home runs (with his first one coming on August 14) in 33 major league games. Hoskins trails Tommy Joseph (21 home runs) and Maikel Franco (20), and the former isn’t expected to play much in the season’s final two-plus weeks as the coaching staff and front office evaluates Hoskins more at his natural position, first base.

UPDATED: Hoskins homered in his second at-bat Thursday night. So now he's only three behind Joseph for the team lead.

So when was the last time someone pulled that off, leading a team in home runs when his first one with that team didn't come until August?

Inquiring minds (including this one) wanted to know, so we reached out to several places to ask. Unfortunately, this isn’t a statistical feat that’s easy to look up on the otherwise brilliant Baseball Reference Play Index.

It took some digging, but we found this thanks to the best baseball writer on the planet, Jayson Stark, who did research on the subject last summer when Gary Sanchez was wowing folks with his own late-summer home run binge in the Bronx.

According to Elias (through Stark), just two players in the live-ball era have ever led a team in homers (or tied) despite hitting none for that team before August: Mark Whiten, for the 1995 Phillies (11) and Danny Litwhiler, for the 1946 Braves (8).

Hard-hitting Mark Whiten. How did we forget that? He tied for the Phillies team lead in '95 with Charlie Hayes and Greg Jefferies despite the fact that he hadn't played a game for the Phillies before July 25 (he hit his first home run with the Phillies on August 3). Whiten played in just 60 games for the Phillies in 1995, while Jefferies played in 114, Hayes in 141.

Litwhiler, a Pennsylvania native who broke into the big leagues with the Phillies in 1940, played in his first game with the Boston Braves in June of 1946 and didn't hit his first home run with the team until August 5. Litwhiler's eight home runs were two more than anyone else on the '46 Boston Braves

Another update, as Elias got back to the Phillies for me on a related question: when was the last time a player who didn't debut for a team until August ended up leading the team in home runs?

The answer is it's been over 100 years. Back in 1916, Elmer Smith of the Washington Senators joined the team on August 19, hit two home runs, and, yes, led the team with two home runs. As we said earlier, Deadball Era. Only one member of the Philadelphia Athletics hit more than three home runs in 1916: outfielder Wally Schang, with seven.

Gary Sanchez, by the way, hit 20 home runs as a rookie for the Yankees last season, two behind team leader Carlos Beltran. Sanchez made his 2016 debut on May 13, but then didn't appear in another MLB game until August 3. He hit his first of 20 home runs on the season on August 10 – exactly a year before Rhys Hoskins made his MLB debut. Spooky. 

Giancarlo Stanton kind of pulled off the opposite trick of this a couple of years ago, although he still played in more than twice as many games Hoskins has so far this year. Back in 2015, Stanton didn’t have a single at-bat in the season's final three months (his last game came on June 26) but still led the Marlins in home runs with 27 (in 74 games).

Hoskins has heard more than a couple comparisons to Stanton in the last month because up until the last two weeks, no one in baseball was on a bigger home run binge than Stanton and almost a third of Hoskins career games (9 of 33) have come against Stanton’s Miami Marlins.

[Quick note: The Oakland A’s are bringing their own rookie home run hero to Citizens Bank Park this weekend. Matt Olson, a 23-year-old left-handed-hitting former first round pick, has been the American League’s version of Hoskins, with 18 home runs in 49 games, including 14 in his last 28 games.]

But back to Stanton, the 2017 MLB leader with 54 home runs in 143 games this season (and the apple of the eye of some team’s aggressive winter hot stove league).

Stanton offered Hoskins some words of encouragement when he arrived at first base on Tuesday night with a fifth-inning single.

“It was pretty cool,” Hoskins said. “(He told me) just kind of keep going. Obviously, the work is going to need to be there for your whole career. He just kind of reiterated that. … That guy is obviously a star in this game. Especially with the year that he’s having, to be able to share that with him is pretty cool.”

So he didn’t tell you to slow down and stop trying to steal his thunder?

“Not at all,” Hoskins said. “He’s got all the thunder in baseball right now. He’s chasing history.”

Well, so is Hoskins, obviously.

No one in baseball history has reached 17 home runs quicker to begin a big league career. Before Hoskins hit his 17th home runs last night, the previous record for most home runs in a player’s first 33 career games was 12. So he beat that by five home runs. Not bad.

Hoskins not only has a chance to lead the Phillies in home runs this season, but he can overtake both Cody Bellinger and Sanchez as the MLB all-time leader for most home runs in a player’s first 50 big league games. Both hit 19, so Hoskins could take care of that before the end of the weekend at his current pace (which would be before he even reached 40 career games).

With four more home runs, Hoskins will have hit 50 total this season between Triple-A Lehigh Valley (where he hit 29 in 115 games) and the Phillies. No one other than Stanton has hit more home runs than Hoskins already between the major and minor leagues.

A couple of other impressive Hoskins stats from the Phillies media relations folks:

 • Hoskins is only the fourth rookie in the modern era (since 1900) to hit at least 17 home runs over a 33-game span. The others: Rudy York (1937), Mark McGwire (1987), and Gary Sanchez (2016).

 • Hoskins entered play Thursday with a 1.218 OPS. If he can keep that number up for 17 more games, he'd join an elite group of seven players with an OPS of 1.218 or greater with at least 140 plate appearances in a single season: Babe Ruth (seven times!), Barry Bonds (four times), Ted Williams (twice), Mark McGwire (twice), Roger Hornsby (once), Jimmie Foxx (once), Lou Gehrig (once).

Here’s what some others have had to say about Hoskins’ historic run, which has seen him hit 17 home runs in his last 29 games:

Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola:

“I get some texts every now and then like, ‘Hoskins is unbelievable.’ I’m thinking like, yeah, we all know. The guys is awesome. … I mean, it’s pretty amazing. His approach is so good, if he doesn’t hit a home run, he gets a hit. If he doesn’t get a hit he walks. I think he’s definitely sparked this offense.”

Marlins pitcher Dan Staily, who has served up three of Hoskins home runs in eight at-bats:

"That guy is racing to the bat rack when I come up. He just is. I’ve tried everything and it's just not working.”

Marlins manager Don Mattingly, on whether he’s considered implying a defensive shift against Hoskins:

“We can’t put guys in the seats, can we?”

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin:

“He's a smart hitter. He's kind of reminiscent of Chase Utley in a way, in that regard. I'm not comparing him to Chase Utley, but in that regard, I am. It tells you he's a very disciplined hitter. And we've preached plate discipline, and that's how you become a great hitter. Like I said, you look at all the stats and the OPS – and OPS can be misleading because you can have 40 home runs and a low on-base percentage and still have a good OPS – but in his case, he's got an on-base percentage over .400, so when he doesn't hit a home run, he gets on base and gets a hit here or there.

“I've been around to see a lot of different players. Vladimir Guerrero comes to mind where he was just not necessarily the home runs, but you couldn't throw a ball anywhere where he couldn't hit a line drive somewhere. Rhys has probably been the most impressive to me. We've seen guys come up in September and have good spring trainings and for a week really go off and hit home runs and go on a good hitting streak. But this guy looks like the real deal where he's had his moments here or there, but he just rebounds quickly because he has such a good approach at the plate. He knows what to look for. He studies the film. He knows hitting.”

Fellow Phillies rookie Nick Williams:

“He’s an alien. He’s not human. That’s not real.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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