It was recently announced by Phillies General Manager Matt Klentak that, barring some kind of unlikely acquisition, Tommy Joseph will be the everyday first basemen going forward.
Joseph, the center piece in the trade that sent Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants, was long thought of to be a bust prior to the start of 2016. A catcher who couldn’t stay on the field because of continuing issues with concussions, Joseph was moved to first, and remarkably his bat came alive with being able to play regularly. So much so that he earned himself a trip to the Show.
Let’s take a deep look at TJ’s rookie season as a batter in the major leagues.
Tommy split time with Ryan Howard, mostly in a platoon situation although he did get a fair share of at bats against righties. Overall Tommy hit .257/.308/.505 for an .813 OPS. Among the 42 first baseman with at least 300 at bats that .813 OPS ranks a very respectable 16th. But it could be much better. For this particular discussion we’ll be using that list of first basemen as our comparison.
Tommy had a problem with plate discipline and among Phillies’ batters he wasn’t alone.
His on-base percentage was a measly .308, which puts him 32nd on that list. He walked a mere 6.3% of the time, which moves him even further down the list to 36th. That’s just not going to cut it if you want to have a future in the big leagues.
Walking is a slump-proof skill that can ensure a players productivity even if his bat goes cold or he runs into a stretch of bad luck. If you can take a walk you can avoid making an out which puts your team in a better situation to score runs. There’s actually a statistic that used to represent how many runs you helped your team create, wRC, and TJ was 31st in that category.
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So how can Tommy improve? It all starts with having a better approach at the plate.
Tommy swung at 50.7% of the pitches he saw and of those 34.7% would have been balls had he not swung. Those numbers alone are not inherently bad per se but it’s the outcome that’s undesirable.
Miguel Cabrera’s swing percentage and inside/outside of the zone rates were very similar to Josephs but his outcome is wildly different. Cabrera hit .318/.393/.563 for a whopping .968 OPS last year, all near tops in the majors. The difference between the two is that Cabrera has a much better idea of what he can handle and the disparity in the outcomes clearly illustrates such. There is no shame however in not being as good a hitter as Miguel Cabrera but it’s useful in our comparison.
So Joseph needs to make adjustments. If he could manage even a five percent change in his out of the zone swings it could result in a full .030 point difference in his OBP.
As an example, Sean Rodriguez had 341 plate appearances last year, compared to Josephs 347. Rodriguez swung at 28.3% of pitches out of the zone compared to Tommy’s 34.7% and he posted an OBP of .349 compared to Joseph’s .308. That’s a massive difference.
Adjusting his approach and swinging at less pitches out of the zone should cut into Joseph’s strike outs as well. As is Joseph struck out at a 21.6% rate, not bad but not great either. That puts him at 22 on our list of qualified first basemen, slightly more than superstar Paul Goldschmidt. A mere three percent drop in K% would put him at about where Adrian Gonzalez was last year.
Another effect of being more selective should be more hits and a higher bating average. As is Joseph carries a batting average on balls put in play (BABIP) of .267, ninth worst on our list.
Some of that can be attributed to luck but a lot of it can firmly be placed on “soft contact” and the propensity to hit in-field pop ups, two categories he was very bad at.
According to Fangraphs.com, Joseph made what’s considered “soft contact” 20.3% of the time, eighth worst on the list, and popped out 13.5% of the time, good for fifth worst among our qualified first basemen. There’s no guarantee that if he cuts down on his swings at balls these numbers will get better, but it’s highly likely they will solely because he’ll be making better contact with pitches that are easier for him to square up.
We can look at Joseph’s count splits as a preview of how things might change for him should he take more balls. When Tommy is ahead in the count his line changes from .257/.308/.505 to .275/.400/.510, an over .100 point difference in OPS. It’s even drastically effected after he’s reached a 2-1 count, where he hits .262/.375/.557. And after he’s able to get to 3-1 his line skyrockets to .313/.593/.750 for a ridiculous 1.343 OPS. And when the pitcher’s ahead? It not surprisingly gets dismal at .217/.227/.396.
If there was ever a reason to take a ball it’s very clearly right there in those numbers.
And that’s what it amounts to: Tommy Joseph needs to swing at less pitches out of the zone. Doing so should increase his all around offensive performance and elevate his game significantly.
A decrease in swinging at balls should translate to a better walk total and a higher OBP and fewer strike outs, more hits and a higher batting average. As a middle of the order hitter this should express itself as more runs for the Phillies.
Hopefully it’s something that Matt Stairs and the rest of the Phillies staff are diligently working on.