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Has the Tommy Joseph breakout passed us by?

With Rhys Hoskins and Carlos Santana in the mix, is there any room for the popular pick for a 2017 breakout?

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MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It may feel like a decade ago by this point, but it wasn’t actually that long ago that we were staring down the barrel of 2017 Opening Day. There were innumerable questions facing the Philadelphia Phillies: Would Odubel Herrera be able to back up solid seasons in 2015 and 2016 with another productive year? Was there going to be a prospect from slightly off the radar to sneak up on everybody and raise the hope for the future? Was Tommy Joseph going to break out and be the next big thing in Philly?

While the first two questions were definitely answered in 2017 with a “yes” and a “Rhys Hoskins,” the answer to the third question was a little murkier. And murkier might be a bit generous. Many would lean toward a hefty “no.”

Before the season, Joseph was a 25-year-old first baseman coming off a season in which he hit .257 with an isolated power of .248. He walloped 21 home runs in just 107 games (a 32-homer pace over a full season), and he was making lists such as FanGraphs’ “2017 Breakout Candidates at First Base.” (Sorry, Brad, I was all over him too, which is kind of the point of this article.)

As we get ready for the 2018 season, Joseph is now seemingly an afterthought, as his downer of a 2017 season — combined with the Phillies’ signing of free agent first baseman Carlos Santana — leaves Joseph’s name in headlines more like: “Who’s on first? Santana signing leaves Phillies’ Joseph as odd man out” and “Phillies likely done with first baseman Tommy Joseph in 2018.”

How did we get here?

Well, a season like Joseph had in 2017 will do the trick. Joseph saw his batting average drop from .257 to .240, but even more noticeably, his ISO also dropped from from .248 to .192. Despite playing 35 more games in 2017, he tallied only one more home run, and when added to his subpar defense, he was the least-valuable Phillie of 2017, per FanGraphs WAR (-1.1), which is obviously saying something on a team that finished with only 66 wins. His wRC+ of 85 easily ranked worst among qualified first basemen in 2017. It’s tough for a defensive-minded middle infielder to post a wRC+ of 85 and still demand a spot in the lineup; if you’re a defensive liability at first base and posting a wRC+ of 85, it’s a borderline crime.

Now, the Phillies had time to be patient in 2017. They weren’t planning on winning last season, and they executed that whole “not winning” thing to perfection. A season sunk into a player who just turned 26, and had shown potential at other times in his career, was likely a smart and calculated move. Prospect growth is far from linear, and giving up on Joseph only to see him pop up as a 35-homer first baseman somewhere else in the league (a la Logan Morrison) would be far more detrimental to the Phillies’ long-term plan than giving Joseph a few extra at-bats as a 26-year-old to try to figure things out in a season where they probably would rather end the game with an L than a W. Again, Joseph posted a wRC+ of 112 in over 100 games as recently as 2016.

That being said, there are now a glut of first basemen in Philadelphia. You don’t need reminding that Rhys Hoskins did his best Barry Bonds impression in 2017, shattering rookie records left and right. Despite playing in just 50 games, Hoskins was the Phillies’ third-most valuable player in 2017 (per fWAR), and in terms of raising Philadelphia spirits (pWAR?), he was easily the most valuable. Hoskins started off mostly in left field after his promotion to the big leagues, but the Phillies gradually slid him into more and more time at first base as the season wound down. This makes sense: Hoskins is a first baseman first and foremost, as he played 105 of his 108 games in Triple-A at first base last season before his call-up.

Of course, Philadelphia’s big offseason move was also to bring in a man who has played almost exclusively first base — or DH, which the NL obviously doesn’t have — over the past three seasons. In fact, outside of seven games in right field last season, Santana has not appeared anywhere other than first base or DH since his 11 games at catcher and 26 games at third base in 2014. It’s hard to imagine the Phillies wanting to plop Santana in the outfield, thus bumping one of their elite young talents they are stockpiling out there, or at third base, where he’d likely look like Pablo Sandoval East Coast.

Let’s circle back for a second, however. What caused Joseph to slip so much in his second season? Was it just a sophomore slump, or was he playing a bit over his head in 2016? The answer to that question could go a ways toward determining if the Phillies decide to hold onto him for depth, trade him for some value, or just cut him entirely.

Plate discipline (The Bad)

While there were certainly positives during Joseph’s 2016 season, there were also a few reasons to pause for concern. Chief among those worries was an absence of free passes. Despite flashing prodigious power, Joseph managed just a 6.3 percent walk rate in 2016. For comparison’s sake, that figure would have ranked second-worst among qualified first baseman that year. Joseph didn’t improve in 2017, either — with a walk rate of 6.2 percent, he ranked fifth-lowest among qualified first basemen.

It’s not just that Joseph can’t take a walk, it’s that he also strikes out a lot on top of the low walk rate. Of the five lowest walk rates just referenced, Joseph had the highest strikeout rate. Not coincidentally, he also had the lowest wRC+ of those bottom five. (Somewhat surprisingly, all of the other four posted a wRC+ of at least 100.)

Pitchers know how to attack Joseph. Being a powerful hitter, he likes to get the ball in on his hands and do work with it. Check out his career slugging percentage broken down by sections of the strike zone.

It’s clear that Joseph struggles with pitches low and away. His .300 slugging percentage on pitches in the bottom right section of the strike zone is the lowest of any section of the strike zone, and he only gets worse when he goes out of the strike zone down and away. His .103 slugging percentage on pitches labeled in the lowest and furthest-right section of the plate is about as poor as you’ll find in baseball. Now take a look at where pitchers attacked Joseph the most last season.

Pitchers nowadays aren’t stupid. They’re going to scout hitters, find their weakness, and attack it. The bottom portion of the zone, especially away from Joseph, is his kryptonite, and pitchers are aware of that. They also realize that Joseph sported the highest swing rate outside of the strike zone of any qualified hitter in baseball in 2017.

Want to know a good way to stop pitchers from attacking your weakest spot of the zone? Stop swinging when the pitch is there. That is obviously far easier said than done, but for Joseph, it’s hard to imagine anything else being more important.

Balls in play (The Good, or at least The Better)

It isn’t all terrible news for Joseph, though. While his plate discipline certainly helped to drag down his overall production in 2017, it wasn’t the only thing. Earlier in the article, I noted that Joseph barely cleared his 2016 home run total, despite having played 35 more games in 2017. That’s slightly deceiving, because his 50 extra-base hits in 2017 far outstripped his 36 extra-base hits in 2016. In fact, his 0.35 extra-base hits per game in 2017 were a tick above his 0.34 extra-base hits per game in 2016.

Similar to BABIP, there can be a fair amount of luck (and thus fluctuation) with season-to-season home run totals. Just a few gusts of wind in the opposite direction in both 2016 and 2017, and we could be looking at 16 home runs in 2016 or all the way up to 26 in 2017 — it’s not that hard to imagine. Joseph saw his home run per fly ball rate drop from 18.9 percent in 2016 (which is right around where his minor league HR/FB rates were) to 15.3 percent in 2017. That, despite his hard-hit rate dropping just 1.6 percent, and his soft hit ball rate staying nearly the same.

The far more interesting portion of Joseph’s batted ball profile in 2017 is his fly ball rate. Despite being a power hitter who gets seemingly all of his (potential) value from providing pop to the Phillies lineup, he saw his fly ball rate go from 45.1 percent in 2016 to 39.0 percent in 2017. This, in an era in which hitters are elevating their swings for fly balls more than ever.

If this is simply a matter of Joseph needing to rework his swing to bring a bit more elevation to the table, that would be fine. If it’s an issue of Joseph getting peppered with pitches low and away in the zone and not being able to elevate those pitches, it’s far more troubling.

And here’s the (somewhat-slight) silver lining. Remember that zone profile from before that showed how frequently pitchers attack Joseph low and away? Here’s the same zone profile from 2016.

Pitchers were doing the exact same thing to Joseph in 2016, and he was able to flip it around into a 112 wRC+. Now, a 1.5-WAR player (his pace from 2016) isn’t going to change the landscape in Philadelphia. In fact, if Hoskins is anything close to what we have seen, and Santana avoids falling off a cliff a la Pablo Sandoval (have I riled up the Philadelphia masses enough by comparing Santana to Sandoval twice in one article?!), there will certainly not be room in the picture for a 1.5-WAR first baseman.

But it’s a little early to give up on Joseph entirely. While his plate discipline undoubtedly needs to improve, that seems like something that could be fixable with a strong hitting coach and a rough 2017 season to motivate Joseph into changing his approach. Plus, as we always say, prospect growth is not linear, and giving up on Joseph could turn out to be a rather short-sighted move for a franchise that has its sights set on the long term for the time being.

Jim Turvey is the author of Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball’s Best Players, a baseball history-stats fusion that is available now on Amazon. He is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and DRays Bay.