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The Phillies’ Alec Bohm goes deep on his second-year struggles at the plate

A conversation with the third baseman reveals two things: He's missing more pitches in the strike zone, and he's still learning on the job after an impressive, but short rookie year.

In 21 games this month, Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm is 25-for-75 (.333) with a .746 OPS. But most of his hits have been singles.
In 21 games this month, Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm is 25-for-75 (.333) with a .746 OPS. But most of his hits have been singles.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

In 80 plate appearances spanning 22 games from May 19 to June 15, the runner-up in last year’s National League rookie of the year race didn’t get a single extra-base hit.

“Just out of the law of averages you’d think I would sneak a double in here or there,” Alec Bohm said before the Phillies played a few nights ago in Cincinnati. “You’d think eventually one of those would find a gap.”

You would think so. But they didn’t. And they haven’t, not often enough at least, for going on three months now. After batting .338 with an .881 OPS last season, Bohm went into this weekend’s series against the San Diego Padres at Citizens Bank Park with a .240 average and .613 OPS that ranked 135th among 139 players with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title.

If the fans’ patience is running thin, imagine how the 24-year-old third baseman must feel.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine. Bohm lets everybody know with his helmet slams, bat spikes, and meandering walks around the batter’s box. He admits that he hasn’t handled his struggles well, often taking his frustrations to the field. Insofar as offense is his calling card — he was tied for the second-most errors among third basemen (12) and had the fewest defensive runs saved (minus-13) — he can’t afford lapses in focus.

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But Bohm quietly got two hits on June 15 at Dodger Stadium and broke his extra-base-hit drought the next night with a double off Clayton Kershaw. He notched three hits June 19 in San Francisco and had his first career four-hit game June 23 at home in that dreadful 13-12 loss to the Washington Nationals.

Then, after an 0-for-10 weekend in New York, came Monday night. Bohm lined a five-hopper to the wall in left-center field for an RBI double in the fourth inning, then stayed on a full-count pitch from Reds lefty Wade Miley and stroked a go-ahead RBI single to center field in the fifth.

In 23 games in June, he’s 26-for-79 (.329) with a .763 OPS. And although all but four of his hits were singles and he still hadn’t homered since May 6 (a span of 171 plate appearances), things are at least trending upward.

“There’s been a couple times I’ve gotten a two-strike hit and I’ve been on first and I’ve thought, ‘OK, that’s me. That’s what I’m doing when I’m going good,’” Bohm said. “I never didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t lose my swing or anything like that. It’s just, there’s times you’re like, ‘Man, I don’t miss that pitch.’”

Try diving into Bohm’s numbers and comparing them with last season’s and your eyes may well glaze over.

On average, he actually has hit the ball harder than in 2020. A higher percentage of the balls he has put in play have left his bat at 95 mph or more. Although his ground-ball rate is among the highest in baseball, it’s nearly identical to last year’s. His chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone hasn’t gone up. He has even faced exactly the same pitch mix from one year to the next (63% fastballs, 27% curveballs, 10% everything else).

Here, though, is the difference: Bohm is missing more pitches in the strike zone.

“A bunch more,” he said.

Bohm is still attacking strikes and laying off balls, the signature of a hitter who is hailed for his pitch-recognition skills. But his contact rate on pitches in the zone slipped from 87.9% last year to 81.5% entering the week, while his swing rate was up from 72% to 77.5%. Thus, his strikeout rate climbed from 20% to 26.4%, while his walk rate tumbled from 8.9% to 6.4%.

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“Just swinging and missing a lot more than I’m used to and striking out a lot more than I’m used to. Those are all things that I hate,” Bohm said. “Because I’m a big proponent of ‘good things happen when you put the ball in play.’ My thing coming up always has been that I put the ball in play and usually when I swing I make contact.

“Maybe I’ve been missing a pitch early in the count that I usually hit. Maybe I’m fouling it off. Now you end up striking out in that at-bat where the at-bat should’ve been over at 1-0. So, yeah, it’s definitely been frustrating at times.”

If the Phillies had better depth or a more robust farm system, they might have sent Bohm to triple A for a spell, as Milwaukee did early in the season with struggling young first baseman Keston Hiura. Instead, they have allowed him to keep learning at the major-league level.

Manager Joe Girardi continues to believe that Bohm will hit for more power, even though his swing produces more line drives (26.9%) and grounders (53.3%) than balls in the air (19.8%). But as long as Bohm is a .360 career hitter with runners in scoring position (.306 this season), he probably doesn’t need to win any home-run derbies.

The Phillies have seen dramatic regression from top prospects in recent years. Before Bohm gets preemptively lumped in with Domonic Brown, Maikel Franco, and Scott Kingery, a dose of perspective:

Bohm’s first big-league season consisted of 160 at-bats in 44 games, 73% of a season that was 63% shorter than a normal season. The totality of his major-league career is 120 games, a small sample for drawing conclusions. He qualified as a rookie last year but might as well still be one. And he wouldn’t be the first rookie to experience 40- or 50-game peaks and valleys.

Some degree of struggle was inevitable, then, regardless of the expectations for Bohm coming into the season. Whether or not he’s able to fully emerge from it in the second half will be telling.

“If I look back at those numbers [from 2020], at the end of the day I think there’s not much they can really explain,” Bohm said. “Not that I’m not thinking I belong here. But not everybody comes out as a [Fernando] Tatís or a [Ronald] Acuña and just does it from Day 1. There’s ups and downs.

“I feel like I’m playing well below my capabilities pretty much this whole year. But if this is my bad right now, then my good’s got an opportunity to be pretty good.”