PHILADELPHIA — Rhys Hoskins took a trip to nirvana this winter. He packed up and moved to San Diego, where a temperature reading in the 60s qualifies as sweater weather and only the occasional gust of wind impedes his desire to master the art of tracking fly balls.
Hoskins, who is shifting from first base to left field at the behest of the Philadelphia Phillies, has been working out with a group of 10-15 pro ballplayers at various high schools and colleges depending on which field is available on a given day. The contingent includes pitchers Joe Musgrove and Chris Devenski, both of whom played for the Houston Astros’ World Series championship team and still light up when they relive the experience.
“It’s good to be around those guys,” Hoskins said during a media availability Tuesday in Philadelphia. “They’re just on cloud nine talking about it. It’s a feeling we all chase.”
The Phillies finished last in the National League East with a 66-96 record in 2017 and are six years removed from their last .500 record, so they’re in no position to dream that big. At the moment, they rank third at best in the Philadelphia sports hierarchy behind the Eagles, who are playing for the NFC championship this weekend, and the 76ers, who are long on entertainment value thanks to the combo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
If the Phillies hope to take the next step, it will depend in large part on the progress of Hoskins, Nick Williams, Maikel Franco, J.P. Crawford and several other 25-and-unders who have graduated from the farm system to center stage at Citizens Bank Park. Based on his performance as a rookie, Hoskins carries the highest profile and most onerous expectations of anyone in the lineup.
In August, Hoskins arrived from Triple-A Lehigh Valley and sprung into launch mode. He tied a rookie record with home runs in five straight games and finished the month with a .747 slugging percentage, 11 homers and 25 RBIs. His 18 homers overall broke the previous MLB record of 13 held by Ted Williams for a player who didn’t make his season debut until Aug. 1.
Hoskins’ power binge prompted Nick Williams to half-jokingly refer to him as an “alien” who had been transported to earth to amaze onlookers and demoralize opposing pitchers.
Reality intervened in September when Hoskins hit .227 with 7 homers in 88 at-bats. While NL pitchers were clearly making adjustments, he also had a tougher time getting the bat head through the zone with its usual zip.
“I think there was an aspect of tiredness to it,” Hoskins said. “I had never played past Sept. 10, or whenever the minor league season ends, so my body was in essence screaming at me, ‘What are you doing? You should be at home enjoying the offseason.’ I was just missing more. I was still getting pitches to hit, but as soon as you miss pitches that you should hit, you’re going to get the pitches you don’t want to see.”
When Hoskins reports to Clearwater, Florida, in mid-February, it will be with a recharged body and mind — and a fresh mandate. The Phillies signed free agent Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60 million contract in December, and in a corresponding move, they told Hoskins he would be shifting to left field in 2018. Beyond some outfield time at Sacramento State University and 29 starts in left for the Phillies last season, Hoskins has been exclusively a first baseman.
“With the timing of everything last year, it was just a crash course,” Hoskins said. “This year, we’re going to have a lot more time in the spring and we’ll get to dive into more of the details — like positioning, footwork and everything down to the throwing program. That part is exciting. It’s a new challenge. And as competitors, we like new challenges.”
The Phillies already had three capable young outfielders in Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr and Williams, and barring a trade, new manager Gabe Kapler will have to divvy up the playing time in a way that keeps everyone happy and productive. But the Phillies think Hoskins will acclimate nicely because of his athleticism, work ethic and attention to detail.
Kapler, Phillies front-office man Sam Fuld and minor league outfield coordinator Andy Abad will help ease the transition for Hoskins, whose biggest challenge will be compartmentalizing in a way that ensures his defensive work doesn’t spill over into his at-bats.
“I’ve gotten to know Rhys fairly well in a short period of time,” Kapler said. “He’s really sensible and thoughtful, and obviously he had a monster stretch last year. I think he understands that was a really special time in his career, and it’s not an easy thing to duplicate. And it’s going to take a lot of work to reproduce a stretch like that, and the league is going to adjust to him.
“But I also know he has a tremendous amount of confidence and talent, and he’s working his ass off. He’s earned the respect of his teammates and the coaching staff. He has the capability to be a leader immediately in this clubhouse. That’s evident.”
The marketing people at Major League Baseball have taken notice of Hoskins’ potential and fan appeal. In December, Hoskins visited Philadelphia and filmed a workout as part of baseball’s 2018 #NoOffseason campaign. Noah Syndergaard, Carlos Carrasco and Didi Gregorius are among the other players featured in the campaign, which focuses on big leaguers and their rigorous winter training regimens.
This year, Philadelphia fans will take more notice of Hoskins when he goes out in the city, and opposing teams are likely to pay more attention to him during scouting meetings ahead of matchups against the Phillies. A fast start brings perks and a whole new set of challenges. Hoskins constantly keeps that in mind as he chases the special feeling that allowed him to take Philadelphia and MLB by storm during a memorable stretch in August.