Real deal? Phils have high hopes for Hoskins

Past, present insiders compare and contrast rookie slugger with Howard, Ruf

Real deal? Phils have high hopes for Hoskins

PHILADELPHIA -- Ryan Howard. Darin Ruf. Rhys Hoskins.

Three Phillies sluggers who began as a faraway train whistle from the lower reaches of the farm system, a whisper of promise. Who created a buzz of anticipation by putting up huge numbers at Double-A Reading. Who made a quick impact upon arrival in the big leagues.

And that's where their roads diverge ...

Howard went on to have a terrific career. He won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2005. The following season, his first full year in the big leagues, he won the NL MVP Award after hitting 58 homers with 149 RBIs and a 1.084 OPS. But while Howard was one of baseball's most feared sluggers for a half-dozen years, he never again matched that early productivity -- even before a ruptured left Achilles tendon effectively ended his time as an All-Star-caliber player.

Ruf hit a total of 51 homers between Reading, the Phillies and the Venezuelan Winter League in 2012. Three of them came in just 33 at-bats after being called up in September. But he never had 300 plate appearances in a big league season after that, and he played this year for the Samsung Lions of the Korean Baseball Organization.

Hoskins, 24, remains a blank page even though he been a sensation since being called up on Aug. 10. With the regular season ending Sunday, Hoskins has hit 18 homers with 47 RBIs in just 47 games, with a 1.056 OPS. The Phils strongly believe he's the real deal. Still, he has to prove it on the field.

Here's the question, then: What lessons can the Phillies, and Hoskins himself, learn from the cautionary tales that Howard and Ruf represent? Quite a bit, according to seven insiders who had an up-close view of this segment of franchise history. In no particular order, Hoskins should:

1. Just focus on hitting the ball hard and home runs will happen
Everybody understands that consciously trying to muscle the ball out of the park rarely yields the intended result. The best approach is to simply try to barrel the ball up. Do that consistently and a good number will land on the other side of the fence. Sometimes even the best forget.

"I think [Howard] got caught up in one of the biggest things in baseball now. He started thinking more about the homers," said Charlie Manuel, the Phillies' manager from 2005-13. "'Hitting homers. I want to hit more homers. I need to hit more homers,' and things like that. And that got him away from thinking about, 'Hey, look, I'm going to go up and I'm going to hit the ball hard.'"

"I think that probably Ryan wanted to hit home runs," said former Phils general manager and president Pat Gillick. "He really felt when he went up there, he wanted to be a home run hitter every time he went to the plate."

Phillies honor Howard

2. Continue to use the whole field
When Howard arrived, the left-handed hitter would routinely pound tape-measure home runs to left-center field. As time went on, he got away from that.

"Every year, even after I had left the Phillies in 2010, I'd text Ryan and say, 'Remember: left field is your friend,'" former hitting coach Milt Thompson, now a coach in the Astros' system, said. "'It's important not to let the other team dictate what you're trying to do. Stay to your strength regardless of how they play you.'"

Thompson believes Howard changed in large part because teams starting using the exaggerated shift when he came to the plate.

"What happened is they got in his head," Thompson said. "They put the shift on him. And then he thought they were going to continually pound him inside because of the way they were playing him. And he got away from his strength, which was driving the ball the other way."

3. Play every day
This should be the easiest to follow. After all, why wouldn't the Phillies want Hoskins' bat in the lineup regularly?

It's also fair to wonder if things would have worked out differently for Ruf if he had gotten the same chance. But he was blocked at first base by Howard and his glove kept him from being considered an everyday outfielder.

Dusty Wathan, currently the manager of Triple-A Lehigh Valley, had both Ruf and Hoskins while they were coming through the farm system.

Ruf's pinch-hit solo homer

"[Darin] never got a full shake at it," Wathan said. "I guess it just wasn't the right opportunity. You talk about that with a lot of players. There are a lot of guys who get stuck at Triple-A that you always wonder if you had given him 500 plate appearances one year, would he have stuck and been a Major League player? Darin was kind of stuck behind some guys, and it wasn't the right time for him to get the opportunity here.

"And I think we're doing a better job in the Minor Leagues of preparing these guys with more video, with more analytical things at their disposal."

4. Remember that patience is a virtue
Howard walked 108 times in 2006 and 107 the following season. Then that number began to decline: to 81 in '08, 75 in '09 , 59 in '10. And after batting .313 in his MVP season, his average hovered between .251 and .279 the next five years.

Said Manuel: "He was thinking too much about hitting the ball. It was like he had to hit the ball. No. Get a good ball to hit. Have some patience. Don't be afraid to get two strikes on you."

It's important, then, that Hoskins doesn't change the approach that's been successful for him so far, including 35 walks in his short time in the Majors.

"One of the things that stands out to me is that Rhys Hoskins is a run producer," manager Pete Mackanin said. "The guy can drive in runs. He has a knack for driving in runs. He wants to drive runs in. That's his goal. But he will take a walk if the pitch doesn't present itself until he gets to two strikes. And even then he's got a discerning eye."

Hoskins plates two with a double

5. Trust the rest of the lineup
Ruben Amaro Jr. was a Phillies assistant general manager under Ed Wade and Gillick and then GM from 2009-15. He believes Howard felt as though he had to carry the team on his shoulders.

"He got to the point where it seemed like he was feeling more pressure to be the guy to drive in all the runs," Amaro, now the Red Sox's first-base coach, said. "He didn't have as much protection as he had earlier, and I think he was feeling like he had to provide more for the team. He wasn't taking his walks like he was before. He was expanding the strike zone a little bit more. But I think that was just a byproduct of him trying to do too much and carry a little more of the load."

Added bench coach Larry Bowa: "[Howard] had a great career. But a lot of hitters, with a guy on third, they expand the zone. They're not passing the baton. Howie didn't do that a lot, at least when I was here. He said, 'You know what? I'm driving this run in.'"

Look, none of this is rocket science. Right now, Hoskins is doing just about everything right. And the Phils are reasonably confident that won't change.

"One of the biggest things Rhys has got going for him is that he has the demeanor and the personality, kind of like [Hall of Famer Harmon] Killebrew," Manuel said. "He's low key. He listens. He'll think before he gives you an answer. And he's really into playing baseball. If he can keep the same demeanor, he has a chance to be a really good player."

Said Bowa: "[Hoskins] is a real good kid. Very professional. I really don't see anything knocking him off the rails."

But if Hoskins does start to get off track, the Phillies will at least know what to look for. After all, they've seen it all before.

Paul Hagen, a reporter for MLB.com, won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 2013 for a lifetime of excellence in baseball writing. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.