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Phillies hoping that Joe Dillon’s cognitive approach to hitting brings out best in Rhys Hoskins | Scott Lauber

The Phillies' new hitting coach believes in a cognitive approach to batting instruction, focusing on sharpening a player's decision-making skills as much as physical tools.

Joe Dillon spent two seasons as the Washington Nationals' assistant hitting coach before getting hired by the Phillies as the lead hitting instructor.
Joe Dillon spent two seasons as the Washington Nationals' assistant hitting coach before getting hired by the Phillies as the lead hitting instructor.Read moreAP Photo/Carlos Osorio (custom credit)

Joe Dillon would like to say that he watched most of Rhys Hoskins’ 165 plate appearances against the Nationals over the last two seasons. Alas, his duties as Washington’s assistant hitting coach often pulled him into the batting cage or the video room when the slugging first baseman went to the plate.

But as Dillon takes over as the Phillies’ hitting coach, Hoskins is going to become his first big project.

As a team last season, the Phillies ranked in the bottom half of the National League in most offensive categories, a gross underachievement for a club that was built to mash its way to the playoffs. But Hoskins was among the worst hitters in the majors after the All-Star break, his .361 slugging percentage and .679 OPS in 255 at-bats ranking 123rd and 120th, respectively, among 135 players who qualified for the batting title and well below his career marks of .494 and .858 in 1,298 at-bats.

So, although the Phillies will attempt to add another impact bat, most likely through free agency (Mike Moustakas? Josh Donaldson? Didi Gregorius?), it's likely that the biggest improvement could come from getting Hoskins back on track as a middle-of-the-order power threat.

And that’s where Dillon comes in.

“All of baseball knows that he did struggle a little bit the last half of last year,” Dillon said by phone recently. “I’ve looked at some things, but I haven’t really delved into it yet. We’re still in the process of getting me my team computer and all the information, so I don’t have the resources yet to give you a good, solid, educated answer. It’s definitely on the docket to dive into him.”

Former hitting coach John Mallee was unable to fix Hoskins before getting fired in August. Charlie Manuel, Mallee’s interim replacement and a hitting yoda, narrowed Hoskins’ stance and simplified his leg kick but ultimately wasn’t any more successful at solving the riddle in the final six weeks of the season.

Dillon, 44, comes to the Phillies after two seasons in Washington. For 20 years, as both a player and a coach, he has been a protege of Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long, who previously worked on new Phillies manager Joe Girardi's staff with the New York Yankees. Long gave Dillon a full-throated endorsement, which was all Girardi really needed to hear.

There were other selling points, too, though. Over the last two seasons, the Nationals ranked third in the majors in on-base percentage (.338), sixth in OPS (.775), seventh in runs (1,644), and eighth in hits (2,862) and slugging (.436). It surely helped that they had Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Howie Kendrick, and, in 2018, Bryce Harper in the lineup. But credit must also go to Long and Dillon for keeping the hitters on course.

Dillon, in particular, has adopted a rather innovative approach to hitting instruction.

Four years ago, after taking over as the Miami Marlins’ minor-league hitting coordinator, he met fellow coach Paul Phillips, a former big-league catcher. A few years earlier, Phillips worked with SportsSense, a Nashville-based company that focuses on measuring and enhancing athletes’ cognitive brain skills rather than their physical talent. If an athlete can make better split-second decisions during competition, it follows that performance will improve, too.

To Dillon, that means delving into a hitter’s ability to read and react to pitches. He studies each hitter’s tendencies and individualizes practice drills at game speed. If, for instance, a hitter has difficulty picking up a specific pitch or is vulnerable to a particular location within the strike zone, Dillon might set a machine to different speeds and release points to help train the hitter to make better decisions in real time rather than the controlled environment of traditional batting practice.

"Everybody could see a bad swing and see what happens, but there's so much more that comes into play," Dillon said. "We know you've got to be on time [with a swing] to hit, but it's huge on the decision-making side of it. When you see a guy swing at a slider in the other batter's box, he's late, he's rushing. He thought it was a fastball, and halfway through the swing he goes, 'Uh-oh. That's a slider.' It's about understanding why that happens and the science behind it all.

“It’s just a whole other way to look at hitting and decision-making, why things happen.”

Not every Nationals hitter bought into Dillon’s methods. But Rendon and Kendrick were “big proponents” of drills designed to improve their cognitive skills, according to Dillon, who said he had “probably eight to 10 guys do some form or fashion of the training.”

Perhaps it was coincidental, but the Nationals had the fifth-best slugging percentage on fastballs 95 mph or faster (.462). By comparison, the Phillies were tied for 16th (.412). Rendon slugged .600 and Soto .540 against high heat; Hoskins slugged only .452.

"Guys that have had a lot of success in the past, if they want to keep doing what they're doing and they can stay consistent, great. If there's things we can do to make them more consistent, that's fine, too," Dillon said. "The biggest thing is just having as many tools available as possible for guys to use. Some guys like to do it off [underhand] flips; some guys do it off BP; some guys do it off the machine. You individualize it based on the hitter, what he wants to do."

Harper tends not to alter a routine that has worked for him for years. He often eschews taking batting practice on the field in favor of high-intensity drills in the batting cage. When the Phillies broke out a curveball machine last season, he laughed it off as a slump-busting solution and stuck to his normal approach. Dillon nevertheless describes Harper’s work habits as “tireless.”

But Hoskins enjoyed the analytical approaches of Mallee and former manager Gabe Kapler and figures to be a willing pupil for Dillon, too. Maybe some of Dillon’s drills will be the cure for Hoskins’ miserable second-half swoon. The Phillies are betting on it.

“Ultimately it’s about getting to know the guys, getting to know how they tick, and building trust in the relationships with them,” Dillon said. “That’s going to take time. I’m looking forward to getting to know these guys and getting to work.”