Earlier this week, the Philadelphia Phillies activated Rhys Hoskins from the 10-day Injured List. The routine IL activation wasn’t so much notable as the fallout that came of it; Hoskins’ activation came at the expense of young third baseman Alec Bohm, who was optioned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley as a result of the move.
That poor phrasing makes it seem like Hoskins and Bohm themselves are somehow connected. Rather, the demotion of Bohm is really the only element worth discussing here. After a strong rookie showing during the sprint of 2020, a performance that garnered him enough votes to finish as the NL’s Rookie of the Year runner-up, most would characterize Bohm’s sophomore campaign as a disappointment. However, it’s important to consider the downturn that a top-tier prospect would have to experience in August of their second year that would justify such a move. Is that really the case with Alec Bohm?
From an offensive standpoint, Bohm’s rookie season likely could not have gone much better. He slashed .338/.400/.481/.881, posting a wRC+ of 139. and an overall fWAR of 1.2. That last figure was good enough to rank seventh among 26 Major League third basemen with at least 180 plate appearances, while his wRC+ ranked fourth, his on-base second, and his average paced that group. He kept the strikeouts fairly low, especially as a first-year player, at an even 20 percent (middle-of-the-pack), and his 8.9 percent walk rate came in 13th.
The element that was notably absent was the power side of things. Despite his work in Double-A prior to his call-up (.231), his ISO came in at just .144. That was 20th among that same group. With an absence of power, Bohm’s other figures have to do that much work to justify his spot on the roster at this juncture. And it’s that absence of power that isn’t doing him any favors thus far in 2021, especially when you consider the regression he’s experienced elsewhere.
Bohm has experienced a downswing in virtually every statistical category. Prior to his demotion, his slash fell to .245/.302/.342/.645, with a wRC+ of just 76. Everything thus far has culminated in a -0.2 fWAR. What’s worse is that his power numbers, which were already lacking, are reflected in an ISO of just .097. His strikeout rate has jumped up to 26.5 percent, while his walk rate has dipped just slightly. Suffice to say, in as many categories as Bohm found himself in contention with the elite at the position last year, he’s in as many categories at the bottom of 2021. His wRC+ and fWAR both rank 17th out of 19 qualifying third basemen.
In a general sense, not much has changed in terms of his contact trends, either. This is where things get weird. His Contact% is virtually identical to 2020 (75.9 is less than a one percent dip), as is his CSW% (26.6 is a 0.2 percent drop). At the same time, one element of note is that his Z-Contact%, measuring level of contact on pitches inside of the strike zone, has fallen rather dramatically. What was an 87.9 percent rate in 2020 is now at 80.4 percent. However, Bohm’s O-Contact% has risen about 11 percent, up to 68.2. Logic probably says that if he’s making less contact on pitches inside of the strike zone, but increasing contact on those pitches out of the strike zone, his quality of contact is probably diminished, right? Well.
Bohm’s Hard% through August was at 38.6 percent. That’s not only an 11-point jump, that puts him seventh among qualifying third sackers in hard contact. That’s 91st percentile overall. His average exit velocity is 92.4, which is also a slight increase and 92nd percentile material. There’s also the matter of a notable oppo increase, where he’s gone from 27.0 to 31.5 percent. So, he’s, uh, not necessarily making less contact, but he’s certainly making better contact. And getting to the opposite field with more regularity. Yet, with all of this in mind, we’ve got a rising strikeout issue and a tremendous BABIP drop from .410 a season ago to just .323 in 2021.
The formula itself wouldn’t seem like a recipe for such disaster this year for Bohm. When I look for an explanation, I get the same befuddled look that Nicolas Cage features in the cinematic classic National Treasure and ask myself “could it really be that simple?” Because more than anything else that we could look to as a source of Bohm’s woes, it’s likely the groundballs that are proving to be his undoing.
Bohm’s groundball rate on the year is at 52.8 percent, a startling number but not too much of a deviation from last year. It’s the highest among qualifying third basemen, but it’s also deceiving. In April and August—the latter in which he was only playing sparingly before his demotion—Bohm featured a GB% around 46. In the three months sandwiched between, that figure went 60.9, 52.5, and 55.0. His BABIP on groundballs has been just .248. It was at .299 last year. The GB contact has reached all fields, too, so opposing teams may have just been more adept at handling his tendencies since the shift rate is still minimal (floating around three percent).
It’s not entirely clear what the adjustment is for Bohm. Perhaps pitch selection, both in terms of pitch type and his zone coverage. It’s worth noting, though, that Bohm’s lowest Swing% is against breaking pitches, but his highest GB% comes against those very pitches. This, in addition to the fact that Bohm’s heat map has him swinging heavily in exactly the spots you want him to be swinging and don’t present an opportunity for a wealth of grounders off his bat. Regardless, some sort of mechanical adjustment is going to be necessary, as is perhaps getting back to a higher contact rate inside of the strike zone as opposed to outside of it. There are adjustments to be made there, and now Bohm will, at least, have an opportunity to sort those out in Lehigh Valley.
Regardless, fixing Bohm is likely a moot point, right now. With such a short way to go, it’s tough to see dramatic changes that result in Bohm being back on the up and up before 2021 comes to a close. For what it’s worth, Baseball Prospectus has him getting 30 percent of the time before the season ends (subscription required), while FanGraphs has him up at about 45. So there’s some optimism there. The question many asked, though, was whether or not the Phillies were correct in optioning him.
His playing time had indeed dwindled. From a defensive perspective, it isn’t difficult to see why. He’s had shortcomings with the glove going back to his prospect days, while Ronald Torreyes and Brad Miller can fill in admirably in that regard. But does either really bring more upside than Bohm has the chance to bring? Torreyes’ wRC+ is at 85, while Miller’s at a 95. If the answer is that their below-average bats cancel each other out right now, then it’s probably the right call. You likely have to turn to defense in that situation, and therein it would appear that the correct call was made. As much as you’d like to let him sort it out at this level and hope for a return to 2020, the Phillies are still technically, officially in a playoff race, after all. Play to whatever strengths you can, and the only strength they have at the position at present is in the defense of their bench guys.
As far as the question that the headline poses, it’s difficult to say in any kind of clear-cut manner that this is, in fact, an infamous sophomore slump. The groundballs as a majority outcome are problematic. As are the inverse contact rates between inside and outside of the strike zone. But a lot of what he’s doing remains relatively unchanged from last year. It’s not as if he’s fallen off the planet in a number of different ways and just forgotten how to hit. If anything, the harder contact and opposite field increases should be encouraging. There’s just less luck to it, and the outcomes aren’t there for Bohm. Long-term, though, the lack of power is concerning if he’s going to move forward as a regular in the Philadelphia lineup.
The simplest adjustment? Take that increase in hard contact and those generally steady contact rates, and figure out how to make it mean something through launch angle and elevation. It seems like an obvious, and simple, fix. But, of course, we all tend to talk about hitting a baseball at the professional level like it’s an easy thing. There has to be more power there, and if/when Alec Bohm discovers it, this’ll be but a blip on the radar of a wildly successful Major League career.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.