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Could DH be the long-term answer for the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins?

A designated-hitter role might have saved Hoskins' season. It could be an option in the future, but it would be a big adjustment for the slugger.

Will Rhys Hoskins hang up his first baseman's mitt next year if the designated hitter comes to the National League? The Phillies slugger would rather not.
Will Rhys Hoskins hang up his first baseman's mitt next year if the designated hitter comes to the National League? The Phillies slugger would rather not.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Rhys Hoskins played for months through a low-grade abdominal strain that he said “progressed exponentially” after he strained his left groin four weeks ago.

It made running arduous. Same for moving laterally for balls at first base. But there was one baseball activity that didn’t cause him much pain.

“It never really hurt to hit,” he said.

And so, upon deciding Thursday to elect for surgery and terminate his season prematurely, Hoskins conceded that if this were last year, when the National League adopted the designated hitter, he may have been able to grit his teeth and stay in the Phillies lineup for another month.

It raises the question of whether the DH is in Hoskins’ future if, as many within the game expect, it becomes universal in the next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires Dec. 1.

“Throughout my career I’ve found it tougher to be a DH than to play the field,” Hoskins said. “I just think being on the field, you’re more in the rhythm of the game. Full-time, I would fight to be in the field as much as I can.”

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Hoskins has long been an offense-first player. Despite his tendency for protracted hot and cold spells, he will finish the season with 29 doubles, 27 homers, a .530 slugging percentage, and an .864 OPS that is consistent with his .862 career mark. But he had the second-fewest defensive runs saved by a first baseman (minus-7), adding to his league-worst total since the start of 2019 (minus-9).

The bat is Hoskins’ moneymaker, and after making $4.8 million this year, the 28-year-old will be eligible again for salary arbitration.

“I think we’re learning how important he is in that lineup,” general manager Sam Fuld said last week before Hoskins made his brief return from the injured list. “He stretches the lineup. Whether it be white-hot Rhys or a different version of Rhys, he grinds at-bats and creates stress for whoever’s on the bump.”

His numbers at DH are a minuscule sample within the scope of his five-year career, but they back Hoskins’ unease with the role. He has slugged .333 with a .297 on-base percentage in 37 plate appearances over eight games as a DH, compared with .502 with a .361 on-base in 1,458 plate appearances as a first baseman.

Like almost everything in baseball, being a DH can be a learned skill. Hoskins could develop a routine to sharpen his focus between at-bats if he isn’t playing first base. He could change his preparation and figure out how to handle the extra downtime.

But if the DH becomes universal, the Phillies would have several candidates. Alec Bohm’s defensive struggles at third base are so pronounced that manager Joe Girardi benched him three weeks ago before the Phillies demoted him to triple A. Didi Gregorius, under contract next season for $14 million, has the third-fewest defensive runs saved among shortstops (minus-19) since 2019.

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First base and DH are traditional power positions, and Hoskins is the Phillies’ top right-handed slugger. Bohm’s bat profiles best at third base, but what if the Phillies finally conclude that he can’t handle the position defensively? It’s unclear if Bohm would be any better than Hoskins at first. The Phillies could consider moving him to left field, but that didn’t work with Hoskins three years ago.

One way or another, the Phillies must improve their infield defense to aid a starting rotation that features several ground-ball pitchers, including Zach Eflin, Kyle Gibson, and Ranger Suárez.

“Obviously both [offense and defense] matter. We know that,” Fuld said. “It’s hard to say which one’s more important. We do have a pitching staff that tends to induce a lot of ground balls. We know how valuable [first base] is around the infield. There’s a lot to consider.”

Hoskins noted the recent trend away from full-time DHs. Rather than using one player in that spot, a la David Ortiz or Edgar Martinez, many American League teams have split the DH at-bats among multiple players to give them a breather from playing defense.

Nelson Cruz (Twins/Rays), J.D. Martinez (Red Sox), Giancarlo Stanton (Yankees), Yordan Álvarez (Astros), and two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani (Angels) are among the few full-time DHs this season. And even Martinez and Stanton are playing the outfield more often recently.

As manager of the Yankees, Joe Girardi preferred to divvy up the DH at-bats. He had one player start more than half the games in the DH spot only four times: Hideki Matsui (119 games in 2009), Jorge Posada (82 games in 2011), Alex Rodriguez (135 games in 2015), and Matt Holliday (89 games in 2017).

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How to utilize the DH would be one more piece in a jigsaw puzzle that hasn’t fit together for many years, especially the last three. Maybe president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and Fuld will be able to figure it out.

Meantime, the thought of being a DH doesn’t do Hoskins any good. He will see Philadelphia-based surgeon William Meyers, who has been treating his injury and could perform the procedure next week. Meyers counts Fuld among his former patients. Then there’s the rehab. Hoskins has been told that the typical recovery time is six to eight weeks.

Chalk it up to another bad beat for the Phillies’ leading home-run hitter. For the second year in a row, Hoskins will miss the stretch run because of an injury that necessitated surgery. He also was on a 16-for-41, six-homer binge, including three homers in nine plate appearances over three games upon his return last Sunday.

“I don’t know — we don’t know — if [the universal DH] is going to happen,” said Hoskins, the Phillies’ player representative. “I don’t know which way the organization would see as best [to utilize it]. But that’s obviously a bridge we can cross when the time comes.”