Into the worst Philadelphia Phillies season in 56 years has dropped the most curious and welcome of baseball joys: the out-of-nowhere August phenom. Except Rhys Hoskins is not as out-of-nowhere as you may think. For the last half-dozen or so of his 24 years on Earth, he has been kept from your consciousness by the gatekeepers who think they know what separates the great ones from the rest. Until Hoskins came crashing through those gates.
On Aug. 10, to little fanfare, the Phillies - saddled with the game's worst record and mired in a five-year rebuilding process that appears to have stalled - called up Hoskins, a first baseman, from Class AAA. He went 0 for his first 10 big-league at-bats, and then embarked on a run of power-hitting that is essentially without precedent by a major league debutant.
In a span of 14 games beginning Aug. 14, Hoskins smashed 11 home runs and drove in 24 runs - equaling the best 14-game stretch by home run leader Giancarlo Stanton of Miami, out-homering the Washington Nationals during that span and essentially surpassing in half a month the entire 2017 output of teammate Cesar Hernandez (eight homers, 26 RBI) in 350 fewer plate appearances.
No other player in history had hit 11 home runs in his first 22 big league games; Hoskins had that many in his first 18. It seems only a matter of time before Hoskins surpasses Ted Williams for the most home runs by a player who made his season debut after Aug. 1. (Williams hit 13 in 1953, the year he missed most of the season while fighting in the Korean War.)
And it isn't just Hoskins' shocking power numbers that jump out - it is also his approach at the plate. In a small sample size, Hoskins' plate discipline, in the form of a swing rate of 41.4 percent of all pitches, and contact rate of 86.7 percent of all swings, are both elite-level.
"I don't think I've ever seen a young guy look that profound at home plate," Cubs Manager Joe Maddon told reporters after Hoskins torched his team for home runs in three straight games over the weekend.
Unless you are a hardcore Phillies fan, a deep-dive devotee of MLB prospect websites, a family member or a friend, you had probably not heard of Hoskins until this month. That's not surprising. At almost no time in his life has Hoskins been considered someone who might someday become a household name.
"I think people just missed him along the way," said Joe Potulny, Hoskins' coach at Jesuit High in Carmichael, Calif. "Some people took a pass on him because they didn't see this high-energy, bolt-of-lightning player and questioned whether he played with enough enthusiasm. But if you know him, you know that's not the case. He's just consistent. He's the same guy whether he's 0 for 4, or 4 for 4 with a couple of homers."
Coming out of Jesuit, as a three-sport athlete who turned down chances to play in high school baseball summer showcases to focus on football and basketball, Hoskins went undrafted by MLB and received just one collegiate scholarship offer, from nearby Sacramento State.
"The only recruiting battle we had for him was against ourselves," Sacramento State Coach Reggie Christiansen said. "We made him an offer, then went back and offered him a little more - just because we thought it was more fair."
Despite a stellar collegiate career for the Hornets, whom he led to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the program's history, Hoskins lasted until the fifth round of the 2014 draft, where the Phillies finally took him. And despite bashing at every level of the minor leagues - with 93 homers in four seasons at five levels - he never appeared on a major top-100-prospects list until this summer, when, in the midst of a 29-homer season at Class AAA Lehigh Valley, he finally cracked the Baseball America Top 100, at No. 69.
"People are always quick to tell you what's wrong with you as a person or a baseball player," Hoskins said at his locker in the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday. "I understand that those people who make the prospect lists have a job to do."
With Hoskins, the problem wasn't his hitting ability - it was everything else. He doesn't possess elite speed or defensive skills, and right-handed collegiate first basemen hardly ever become impact major leaguers - Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt being one of the few.
"I'm not an exciting player," Hoskins said. "I don't have tools that jump off the page as far as scouting goes. And I understand that. But the beauty of this game is you don't have to jump out of the gym or run a 4.2[-second] 40[-yard dash]. It helps, of course. But I think there are a lot of people in this game who have made impacts who aren't the greatest athletes. I think that's one thing that sets baseball apart from other sports."
Even in the Phillies' organization, Hoskins may have been underappreciated, moved through the minors at a conservative pace and ultimately blocked at first base, his only real position, by Tommy Joseph. Even as they were floundering with a record that now stands at 49-81 - their .377 winning percentage the franchise's worst since 1961 (47-107, .305) - the Phillies left Hoskins at Lehigh Valley to slash .284/.385/.581 for 115 games this year before finally taking the drastic step of giving him a three-day crash course in how to play left field, a position he had last played in high school, and calling him to the majors to be their left fielder.
Less than three weeks later, Phillies Manager Pete Mackanin leaned back in the chair at his desk at Citizens Bank Park and, with no small measure of wonder, said of Hoskins, "He looks like a finished product."
But he also acknowledged Hoskins had not come across his radar screen in any meaningful way until spring training this year.
"I really didn't know much about him other than the year he had in Reading," Mackanin said, referring to Hoskins' .281/.377/.566 performance at Class AA in 2016. "You see that and obviously it piques your curiosity, but until you see the player you just really don't know who he is or what he's capable of doing. But when I saw him in the spring, the quality of his at-bats jumped out at myself and the coaching staff . . . You don't want to jump to conclusions in spring training about how good or bad a player is. But after two or three games of watching him hit, it looked like he really had a clue as to what he was doing."
Standing at his locker for an interview, Hoskins, with an imposing 6-4, 225-pound frame, appears preternaturally poised and polished, as if he were a 10-year veteran, his tone coming across as somehow both humble and confident. When asked if he plays with a chip on his shoulder after being underestimated for so much of his career, he replies, "If you have to play with a chip on your shoulder, there's probably something wrong with how you're being motivated."
Hoskins' maturity was hard-earned. When he was 16, his mother, Cathy Reynolds, died after a long battle with breast cancer. In the aftermath, Hoskins set aside his own grief in subservience to that of his younger sister, Meloria.
"I had a sister who was not yet 14. A teenage girl losing her mom. Not to say it wasn't tough for me or my dad, but think it might have been a little tougher for her," Hoskins said. "And I knew I had to be someone for her to keep her going. I think it made me grow up a little faster."
Potulny, the baseball coach as Jesuit, has no shortage of memories of Hoskins' exploits there, but when asked to cite one that speaks to the young man's character, he pivoted to basketball.
"His senior year, they were an undersized team," Potulny said, "and he was the guy who played against the opposing post guy every night, banging bodies, doing the dirty work, getting his points on put-backs and at the foul line. He was good enough to be a true scorer, but that was what the team needed."
At Sacramento State, Christiansen recalled Hoskins giving back some of his scholarship money his junior year so the team could sign a promising pitcher, a move that helped produce the best season in the program's history. After Hoskins was drafted by the Phillies that June and signed to a $349,700 bonus, he used a chunk of that bonus money to buy conference championship rings for the Hornets.
"They gave me an opportunity when no one else would," Hoskins said of Sacramento State. "I thought it was the least I could do to pay it back."
For the Phillies, Hoskins represents the purest incarnation of hope for a franchise that might have expected to take a step forward this year following last season's 71-91 campaign, but instead appears to have gone backward, with several of its young standouts - such as first baseman Joseph, third baseman Maikel Franco and pitchers Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff - regressing.
"I'm tired of taking lumps," Mackanin said Tuesday. "It's not fun. It's hard every day. I keep telling people [to] look for positives and look for signs we can improve over next year. But for 162 games, I don't find any solace in the fact . . . we're rebuilding. I'm patient enough to know that we are, but I'm anxious to move forward."
Moving forward in 2018, for the Phillies, certainly seems more promising today than it did on Aug. 9, the day before Hoskins' call-up. He is now, at the very least, the successor to Ryan Howard as the Phillies' cleanup hitter of the future - the team having already tried six other hitters in that spot since Howard's departure last year.
The question isn't what took Hoskins so long to get here. Same as it's been his whole career, it's what took everyone else so long to find him.