You cannot predict baseball, it causes wonder and excitement, it can also cause crush heartbreak and sadness. No player exemplifies this like Tommy Joseph. A former 2nd round pick and fringe Top 100 prospect, Joseph was the prize of the the trade that sent Hunter Pence to San Francisco in 2012. He was a big strong catcher who was blocked by Buster Posey. He had his issue behind the plate, but he had talent, mostly in the form of a strong arm and plus power at the plate. The problems would start the next year and he would miss the next two seasons due to concussions and other injuries, playing a grand total of 63 games. Joseph still earned a spot on the 40 man roster and showed up to spring training in 2015, healthier than ever before and with a no helmet to help prevent concussions. A concussion early in the season would leave him with months of recovery before he returned to the field again, no longer a catcher. The Phillies had him play first base (and two bad attempts at third base) and his bat did not look up to the task.
It is a year later, and Joseph hit 21 major league home runs, and put up the first truly positive season by a Phillies first baseman in many years. He may not be cemented as a future cornerstone of the franchise yet, but Joseph has gone from the fringes of affiliated baseball and just his own future health and sanity to playing at the biggest stage of the game and looking like he belonged.
What Was Written Before the Season:
Joseph is the last remaining player from the Hunter Pence trade, now that Seth Rosin has moved on. Concussions ended his career behind the plate and he now will need to make it at first base. He has big raw power, but his hit tool likely never allows him to use it enough to reach the majors.
What Happened in the Minors:
Stat Line: 27 G 100 PA 7 2B 6 HR .347/.370/.611 4.0% BB % 12.0% K%
The rumor out of Florida in camp was that Joseph looked very good on the backfields in minor league games. At the time it seemed like he might have just earned himself a spot in AAA to compete with Brock Stassi for a chance to supplant Ryan Howard or Darin Ruf in Philly. This was further solidified when the Phillies chose Joseph as the DH for the prospect team in their preseason showcase. Joseph would then start the year as the other half of the Lehigh Valley 1B/DH combination. He then just hit. By the end of April he was the best hitter in the International League. He was hitting for both power and average, the only thing he wasn’t doing was walking, and with a .347 batting average and 12% walk rate, no one cared that much. Meanwhile in Philly, Darin Ruf has hit .158/.206/.193 to open the season.
What Happened in the Majors:
Stat Line: 107 G 347 PA 15 2B 21 HR 1 SB .257/.308/.505 6.3% BB% 21.6 K%
Major League Debut: May 13, 2016
The Phillies promoted Joseph in May, they were desperate for offense and they needed to give Ryan Howard a platoon partner. Joseph hit for power from the moment he reached the majors and he filled his side of the platoon bargain. He hit 8 home runs in his first two months in the majors, and hit .333/.389/.576 off lefties. The only problem is that at the end of that time he was hitting .223/.235/.446 overall, with just 3 walks to 35 strikeouts (2.2% and 25.7%). Joseph was encountering the problem that Darin Ruf had had, which is there are just not enough left handed starters to be the right handed side of a platoon, especially when you hit .186/.180/.402 off them in a 100 plate appearance span.
Then July happened. Joseph just mashed his way through the month hitting .328/.408/.657 with a 10.5% walk rate to a 15.8% strikeout rate. It did not stop there, despite a down August, from July 1 until the end of the season Joseph hit .281/.355/.546. His walk rate was 9.0% and his strikeout rate was 19.0% over those 211 plate appearances, and his BABIP a very sustainable .289. What changed was very simple:
May 13-June 30
July 1 – Sept 30
It feels simple to say he started hitting right handed pitching, but it really is that simple. Joseph “underperformed” against lefties in the second half, but it is clear he got better against them too as he made adjustments. Another point in the playing time and adjustments column is that Joseph was horrible as a pinch hitter, hitting .143/.240/.286 in 25 trips to the plate in that role this season. Joseph would end up being one of 4 Phillies to hit 20 home runs, and would lead the team in wRC+ among all players with at least 100 PAs, and his WAR depend on how you view his defense.
It is really hard to predict what Joseph will do over a full year given the lack of track record. If he does what from July 1 to end of season over a full year he is a fringe Top 10 first baseman in baseball. That of course requires you to believe that Joseph can keep up his career high walk rate and low strikeout rate while not being mostly shielded from tough right handed pitchers. He has the raw power to hit 30+ over a full season of plate appearances, and the adjustments he has made so far are impressive. He still has room to grow when not at the plate too, he has the potential to be a pretty good defender for a first baseman and his arm is a weapon over at the position, but his actions still need work fielding.
There is no reason for the Phillies to not give Joseph the full time first base job in 2017. His upside is as high as anyone in the organization at the position and at only 25 years old he is still fairly young. He may not be a superstar like Ryan Howard was when he arrived in Philly, but Joseph has a chance to be an everyday player and lineup anchor for the Phillies going forward. Not bad for a guy who was watching his major league dreams slip away last offseason.