A couple of weeks into his big-league career, Rhys Hoskins is running a 159 wRC+. Steamer thought he was the Phillies’ best hitter before he even made his major-league debut, and thus far, he hasn’t done anything to make that forecast look crazy.
But, of course, we’re talking about 47 plate appearances. Any results over a 47 PA sample approach worthlessness. If we go back to the first couple of weeks of the season and look at the early leaderboards, when everyone had a comparable number of trips to the plate, we see guys like Chase Headley, David Freese, and Robbie Grossman hanging out near the top of the list. Forty-seven PAs into his 2017, Taylor Motter had a 153 wRC+; he’s run a 45 wRC+ over 188 PAs since.
It’s best to not react too strongly to any two-week stretch, no matter how good or poor it is. Our opinion of Rhys Hoskins now shouldn’t be dramatically different than it was before he was called up. But as he does some things in the majors that he also did in the minors, it’s hard not to notice some emerging characteristics that could make him a really good big-league hitter.
There are two numbers Hoskins has produced thus far that stand out, and both align with what he has done in the minors as well: his ground-ball rate (23%) and his contact rate (88%).
In general, these two metrics move in opposite directions. Guys with flat, level swings usually put the bat on the ball more often, while guys whose swings are designed for loft tend to have to accept some swing-and-miss as part of the deal. The qualified hitter with the lowest ground-ball rate this year? Joey Gallo, whom you might have heard strikes out sometimes. Such is the cost of swinging for elevation.
Hoskins isn’t Joey Gallo, but he unquestionably swings upwards. Here’s what Eric Longenhagen wrote about him in his preseason overview:
Hoskins has plus raw pull power and puts the ball in the air regularly, both because his swing is geared for in-air contact and because he works himself into counts where he can seek and destroy fastballs. He has good hitter’s timing and, while he’s sometimes vulnerable on the outer half, he’s shown an ability to poke balls the other way, and he’s strong enough to do some damage to right field as well.
Among the 152 qualified hitters in Triple-A this year, Hoskins ran the 10th-lowest ground-ball rate before his promotion to the majors. Among 148 qualified batters in Double-A last year, Hoskins’ GB% was sixth-lowest. And among the 486 batters with at least 40 major-league plate appearances this year, Hoskins’ GB% ranks second-lowest.
This isn’t an accident. Hoskins is, by design, a guy who is going to hit the ball in the air a lot. But despite that being one of his defining characteristics, his contact rate is kind of amazing.
To this point, Hoskins has made contact on 88% of his swings; for context, league average is 78% for non-pitchers this year. More amazingly, Hoskins has made contact on 98% of his swings in the strike zone, against a league average of 86%. The only batters in the majors with higher in-zone contact rates (or Z-Contact%) this season are Zack Granite and Eric Sogard, both of whom are low-power slap hitters.
The guys who live in the mid- to high-90s in Z-Contact% are almost exclusively slash-and-burn hitters who are in the big leagues for their glove or their legs. Melky Cabrera and Michael Brantley hang out up there, too, so it’s not entirely guys who can’t hit, but even those guys are more about line drives and lots of contact than elevating for power on a regular basis.
The only guy who hits for any serious power with a Z-Contact% over 94% is Daniel Murphy. Like Hoskins, he’s designed his swing to maximize loft despite the fact that he’s not a prototypical power hitter. Right now, Murphy (with the 16th-lowest GB% and the fifth-highest Contact% among qualified hitters) is something like the platonic ideal of a power-and-contact combination. He’s figured out how to pull the ball in the air in order to maximize his batted-ball value without adding much swing-and-miss to his game in order to do so; in turn, he’s made himself into one of the best hitters in baseball.
Murphy’s teammate Anthony Rendon (33% GB%, 87% Contact%) isn’t too far behind, and then there’s Ian Kinsler (32% GB%, 87% Contact%) and Justin Turner (30% GB%, 86% Contact%). Matt Carpenter has developed into a slightly more extreme version of this skill set, running a 27% GB% and an 84% Contact%.
Rendon aside, these are guys who have become very good big-league hitters despite plenty of early-career skepticism. Murphy was a 13th-round pick by the Mets and was never rated higher than their 15th-best prospect by Baseball America. Carpenter was also a 13th-round pick but as a senior sign. He received only a $1,000 bonus, and BA never ranked him better than the Cardinals’ 11th-best prospect. Turner was a seventh-round pick by the Reds and topped out on BA’s list as Baltimore’s 27th-best prospect after he was traded for Ramon Hernandez; the phrase “he’ll never be a star…” was actually used in that write-up.
Kinsler was the highest-rated prospect of that group, getting up to the No. 98 overall spot on BA’s 2004 Top 100, but he too was ignored as a draft prospect, having been taken in the 17th round by the Rangers, and his minor-league breakout was considered a shock after what he did in college. By and large, the guys who are succeeding by hitting the ball in the air and making contact are doing so despite overcoming plenty of skepticism based on the perception of their limited physical skills.
In that sense, Hoskins fits right in. A fifth-round pick, he was drafted higher than the guys he’s hitting like, but even after crushing minor-league pitching all the way up the ladder, Hoskins topped out at sixth on BA’s Phillies list this winter; we had him ninth on our version of that list, by the way, so this isn’t a shot at BA. He didn’t appear on any of the main preseason top-100 lists. Even as he laid waste to minor-league pitching, it wasn’t obvious to most scouts that the skills would translate against major-league pitching.
And they may still be right. It’s not like 47 plate appearances do anything to disprove their skepticism. For all we know, that skepticism was based on some inherent flaw that major-league pitchers just haven’t yet exploited, and he’ll begin to struggle as soon as it gets figured out. The book on Hoskins is still out.
But Hoskins does share a lot of the same characteristics with many of the other really good hitters who fell through the scouting net. In particular, it appears to be tough to identify, in advance, which guys are going to be able to make a high-contact, low-ground-ball skill set work, because these guys aren’t generally the ones who hit the ball exceptionally hard.
Carpenter, Murphy, and Turner all have average exit velocities right around 89 mph, just a tick above the major-league average for a hitter this year. Kinsler’s at 86 mph, although given his age, it’s probably fair to assume that he used to hit the ball a bit harder. Hoskins, who has an average EV of 88 mph thus far, again fits right into this group. These guys are getting production because of the frequency of how often they make in-air contact, not because of how impressive it is when they make that contact. And that naturally has to be harder to evaluate.
But because these guys do make a lot of elevated contact, they are all maxing out their power far and above what anyone expected. That’s even true of Rendon, who was a star in college and a top-10 draft pick mostly because teams saw him as a safe bet to hit for a high average and spray a bunch of doubles all over the field. The .245 ISO he’s running this year is new, and the result of hitting fewer balls on the ground than he used to.
It’s not a coincidence that these guys also all understand the strike zone exceptionally well; this trick doesn’t work if you’re haplessly swinging at everything thrown towards the plate. And again, Hoskins fits the mold, having run double-digit walk rates at each of his last three rungs along the minor-league ladder; he also possess more walks than strikeouts in his first few weeks in the big leagues. The BB and K numbers aren’t as reliable at this point as the contact and ground-ball numbers, but Hoskins has always looked like a guy who had a good eye and didn’t chase too frequently, so you don’t really need the major-league data to suggest Hoskins might fit that criteria, too.
Again, I’m not suggesting we get carried away and anoint Hoskins the next great hitter in MLB. We said a lot of these same things about Eric Thames back in April, and he’s hitting .217/.330/.445 since May 1st. The league will identify Rhys Hoskins’ weaknesses and make him try to fix those issues. That he’s had a good first two weeks in the big leagues doesn’t mean the projections are right just yet.
But there are other guys who have become elite big-league hitters despite plenty of skepticism about their offensive ceilings, and right now, Hoskins is doing a lot of the same things those guys are doing. If he keeps making elite contact while hitting the ball in the air as regularly as he has been, he’s going to be a good big league hitter. And maybe even a great one.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.