Phillies 2017 Season Preview: First Baseman Tommy Joseph

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Jul 28, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Tommy Joseph (19) rounds first on a single against the Atlanta Braves in the fifth inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 28, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Tommy Joseph (19) rounds first on a single against the Atlanta Braves in the fifth inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports /
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Phillies first baseman Tommy Joseph will look to build upon a rookie season that saw him usurp franchise legend Ryan Howard.

After the Phillies acquired Tommy Joseph as part of the Hunter Pence trade in 2012, nothing ever seemed to go right for him. Joseph, a catcher by trade, suffered concussion after concussion in his journey through the minor-leagues. Those concussions limited Joseph to less than 60 games a year from 2013 through 2015.

Philadelphia eventually outrighted Joseph off the 40-man roster after the 2015 season and he spent spring training the following year in the minor-league camp. All appeared lost for Joseph.

However, 2016 turned out to be Joseph’s bounceback year. With catching prospect Andrew Knapp reaching Triple-A and the team trying to avoid any more concussions, Joseph moved to first base in the hopes he could focus on his hitting there. The move worked as Joseph demolished International League pitching on his way to a .981 OPS and 181 wRC+ in 27 games with the IronPigs.

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With Darin Ruf struggling in his platoon with Ryan Howard, Joseph was promoted to the majors May 13. He finished the 2016 season with a .257/.308/.505 line to go along with 21 home runs and 47 RBI. By the end of the season, it was clear Joseph had solidified himself as the team’s first baseman for 2017. He will be the first player who has the opportunity to fill Howard’s shoes, and that’s no small task.

One key hurdle Joseph has to overcome is his plate discipline. Even when he was surging at Triple-A in 2016, Joseph walked just four percent of the time. From when Joseph was promoted to the majors until the All-Star break, Joseph walked just 3.7% of the time while striking out in 24.7% of plate appearances.

Manager Pete Mackanin agreed that Joseph can and should improve his plate discipline, saying, “Tommy’s got some issues he’s got to take care of. It’s like any other hitter — the better you learn the strike zone, the more at-bats you don’t give away.”

Joseph may already be one step ahead of Mackanin as his plate discipline looked much better in the second half of 2016. After the All-Star break, Joseph posted a 8.6% walk rate and 18.9% strikeout rate. This propelled him to a .335 on-base-percentage in the second half, which is great for a player whose main selling point is power.

Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA system projects Joseph to hit 31 home runs in 2017, which would lead the team. In order for that to happen, Joseph has to pick the pitches he can truly smash.

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New hitting coach Matt Stairs said Joseph “knows he’s a very good low ball hitter,” and the stats back up that assertion. According to Brooks Baseball, Joseph hit the most home runs per fly ball on pitches that were down and in, although he also hit a couple that were high and outside.

One area that may cause some concern for Joseph in 2017 are his platoon splits. In 2016, Joseph had a .281/.350/.562 line against lefties but that dropped to .248/.291/.482 against righties. Joseph also had a 22.6% home run per fly ball rate against lefties but a 17.5% rate against righties.

With Joseph expected to be the full-time starter, he will see plenty of right-handed pitchers considering the lack of lefties in the majors, so he will have to find a way to hit against them.

Joseph has to perform well in 2017 because his own usurper is just one level below him. Rhys Hoskins, who hit 38 home runs in Double-A Reading last year, is expected to start the year in Lehigh Valley. If Hoskins is raking and Joseph is struggling, there will be calls for Hoskins to be promoted to the major-leagues and for him to take Joseph’s spot.

Next: Phillies Spring Training: Lidge Impressed by Youth

The Phillies may have their next first baseman in Joseph, but he will have to show he can overcome some of the issues he had in 2016 before he can fully wrap his hands around the job.

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