Joseph digs into numbers to improve hitting

Taking nothing for granted, first baseman looks into stats such as on-base percentage, OPS

Joseph digs into numbers to improve hitting

PHILADELPHIA -- There is no question that Tommy Joseph will enter Spring Training next month as the Phillies' first baseman. The team said exactly that at last month's Winter Meetings.

"Right now, Tommy Joseph is our everyday first baseman," Phils general manager Matt Klentak said. "We're excited to see what he can do in a little more of a regular role this coming year."

But Joseph will take nothing for granted, which is why he is working on everything from his swing to his defense to his knowledge of numbers. After all, he is a little more than a year removed from being outrighted from the 40-man roster. And just last spring, Joseph spent Spring Training at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater, Fla., with the organization's Minor Leaguers.

"The job is not given to me," Joseph said last week. "I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it."

But unless Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia's No. 12 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com, challenges Joseph at some point during the season -- Hoskins is slated to open 2017 with Triple-A Lehigh Valley -- Joseph should be the man this year. He hit .257 with 21 home runs, 47 RBIs and an .813 OPS in 347 plate appearances in '16, sharing time at first base with Ryan Howard. If he'd had enough plate appearances to qualify, it would have been the highest OPS on the team.

Joseph hopes to improve upon those numbers this year, and he might have found the formula to do it. He hit .242 with 17 homers, 34 RBIs, a .286 on-base percentage and a .767 OPS in 283 plate appearances through Sept. 5. He hit .327 with four homers, 13 RBIs, a .406 on-base percentage and a 1.024 OPS in 64 plate appearances the rest of the way.

Joseph walked seven times in those final 64 plate appearances, compared to 15 times in his first 283.

"It was a mindset," Joseph said. "Really, my whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking. I started listening a lot more to what veterans across the league would say about on-base percentage or OPS. Obviously, everybody looks into slugging [percentage] when you play a position on the corner. But there are times when you have to walk. And how important OPS is to a ballclub -- no matter what position you play -- I think it helped me put into perspective that every at-bat is important, no matter what I do."

Joseph, who said he looked up some of the best hitters in baseball to learn what they had to say about on-base percentage and OPS, previously has shown an interest in digging deeper into statistics. He said last August that he looked into some of Major League Baseball's Statcast™ numbers, particularly exit velocity. Joseph had an average exit velocity last season of 90.9 mph, which was behind only Howard (92.5) and Cameron Rupp (91.1) among Phillies with 200 or more at-bats.

"It's a number that I look at for other players around the league, just to see how they're doing it to try to put the swings together," Joseph said. "'OK, what makes him that good of a player?' I think that's how anybody is. Any big left-handed hitter is going to look at other big left-handed hitters. Guys like me, I'm going to look at [other right-handed hitters] Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado."

Obviously, hitting the ball hard consistently is important. But so is the ability to hit the ball in the air. Fifty-three percent of home runs last season left the bat at a 24- to 32-degree angle. Balls hit at 12 degrees -- the ideal line-drive angle -- had better than an .800 batting average. Balls hit at 28 degrees (which is something between a high line drive and a low fly ball) had nearly a .900 ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average).

Some of the game's best hitters know this. Josh Donaldson broke down his swing in August on MLB Network, describing how he works to hit the baseball at the proper angle. Bryant told the Chicago Tribune last spring that he worked in the offseason to flatten his swing because he wanted to hit more line drives and reduce his average launch angle. Mark Trumbo told MASN that he spent the previous offseason honing his swing using exit velocity and launch angle to mark his progress in the batting cage. Daniel Murphy told ESPN that he changed his swing once he learned his exit velocity improved whenever he pulled the ball.

Bryant's average launch angle was 19.8 degrees last season, which ranked third in baseball. Joseph's average of 16.6 degree was 29th out of 246 hitters.

If Joseph can replicate the way he hit the ball last season -- consistently hard contact with the ball getting into the air -- and walk like he did late, he should boost his numbers.

"A lot of the best hitters in the Major Leagues have OPS's over 1.000," Joseph said. "Really, those are the guys I guess you can say I focused on."

Last season, only David Ortiz (1.021) had an OPS 1.000 or better. Only 16 out of 146 qualified hitters had a .900 OPS or better, and only 37 had an .850 OPS or better. If Joseph posts an .850 OPS or better this year, he would be one of the best hitters in baseball. And if he does that, he could be part of the team's future core.

"That fuels the fire," Joseph said. "I would love to be part of that next core that runs through Philadelphia."

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.