Wait until you see Rhys Hoskins' new look.
No, not that new look.
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It hasn’t even been a week since the Phillies opened training camp at Citizens Bank Park, but photos of Hoskins’ mustache and quarantine-length hair are already all over social media. He looks like a cross between vintage Mike Schmidt and Talladega Nights sidekick Cal Naughton Jr., which figures to be amusing to fans only until his first 0-for-12 spell.
And that's where Hoskins' other, less obvious change comes in.
For as long as he can remember, Hoskins batted with his hands raised above his right shoulder and shifted back behind his head. It worked for him in high school, at Sacramento State, coming up through the minors, and especially during his power-packed first two years in the big leagues.
But after enduring the worst slump of his life last season, the 27-year-old first baseman hinted over the winter about a big change. Then he got to spring training in February and unveiled an overhauled stance in which his hands were lower, his posture more upright.
It didn't start to feel like second nature until after Hoskins played in a dozen exhibition games in the Florida sunshine. That was the middle of March, and, well, everyone knows what happened next.
But considering Hoskins’ role as the right-handed-hitting counterweight to lefty-swinging Bryce Harper in the middle of the Phillies order, it’s worth wondering if he can simply pick right back up during a three-week ramp-up to a coronavirus-shortened 60-game season where he left off nearly four months ago.
“We’re kind of having to restart with the comfort-level thing, right? Just seeing live pitching again,” Hoskins said Wednesday after a three-inning intrasquad scrimmage. “Just like every spring training, though, what we need is reps. The more reps we get, we’ll be fine.”
Hoskins didn't see much live pitching during a quarantine spent mostly in Philadelphia. But he said he kept a bat "on every floor of my house," enabling him to go from room to room mimicking where to put his hands and how to step to the ball in an attempt to turn those new motions into muscle memory.
“I was really able to hone in on some of the details within the setup,” he said. “In that sense it was nice to have because that wasn’t necessarily time I was going to have during the season.”
But what compels a major-league hitter -- the ultimate creature of habit -- to make changes that Hoskins said in spring training “feel huge to me”?
In an interview March 10 -- two days before COVID-19 brought everything to a stop -- Hoskins outlined the thought process behind it.
The idea dawned on Hoskins in November.
He got married in Lake Tahoe, honeymooned in the South Pacific, and was finally ready to dive back into video of his at-bats from a nightmarish second half of last season, which had to be a more difficult rewatch than old episodes of The Jerry Springer Show.
Of the 145 players who made at least 225 plate appearances after the All-Star break, Hoskins ranked 133rd in OPS (.679) and dead last in batting average (.180). He shortened his stride and widened his stance. He listened to advice from hitting coach John Mallee and, after Mallee got fired, Charlie Manuel.
“There were times last year where I had to be perfect to hit the ball the way I would like to hit it,” Hoskins said. “It was really just about trying to find something to keep [the bat] in the zone as long as possible.”
What Hoskins came up with was an idea that he had long resisted: dropping his hands below his shoulder and moving them slightly forward.
“It’s just giving myself more room for error, and as a hitter, you’re always looking for that,” Hoskins said. “I believe with this that it’s going to allow me not to have to be perfect every single time.”
Hoskins uses a leg kick to generate torque. Given the amount of movement in his lower half, he feared that fiddling with his hands would be disorienting, causing him to lose a feel for the barrel of the bat before it moves through the hitting zone.
Besides, a drastic change can be difficult in the thick of a season. Hoskins began experimenting in the batting cage in November and consulted new hitting coach Joe Dillon shortly after he got hired. Dillon convinced Hoskins that moving his hands closer to where they ultimately needed to be would help.
“Inches are like feet when you’re a hitter, whether you’re moving your hands down or whatever it is,” Dillon said in March. “Ultimately for him, it’s just about getting in a better spot to be more consistent. Now I think he doesn’t even think about it.”
That might have been true by the time spring training stopped. When it began, though, he kept wanting to raise his hands back up. To fight that urge, he dropped them almost to his midsection in early rounds of live batting practice.
Over time, Hoskins allowed his hands to drift upward toward the lettering on the front of the Phillies’ red Grapefruit League jerseys before ultimately finding a spot where they feel most comfortable.
“I pick up a bat and I immediately want to go up there,” Hoskins said. “I think, especially to start, it was really about exaggerating to get the feel.”
And what about now?
“What I see is he looks comfortable and he seems to do it more naturally than before,” manager Joe Girardi said Wednesday.
“In the beginning of this adjustment, he had to think about how he stood and where his hands were and all of that. I think the layoff can be good in that you have more time to practice it. But it could be bad because I thought he was building something in spring training. He was just starting to get going and we stopped.”
Spring-training statistics mean little, but they’re also all that Hoskins had. His results were mixed: 7-for-29 (.241), four doubles, one homer, five walks, .854 OPS, 14 strikeouts.
“Probably just about as I expected,” he said then. “I knew there was going to be some sort of adjustment period.”
Hoskins has rethought other aspects of his plate approach, too. He’s proficient in seeing pitches and working deep counts, but critics believe he isn’t aggressive enough. Last season, he got to two strikes in 428 plate appearances, most in the majors. His numbers in those situations: .163 average, 11 homers, 173 strikeouts, .584 OPS.
A keen eye and knowledge of the strike zone has been Hoskins’ trademark. He won’t suddenly become a free swinger, but his willingness to give in on moving his hands might signal that he won’t be so stubborn about other adjustments either.
“I think I’ve come to the realization,” he said, “that not all change is necessarily bad.”