Marcos Bretón

The hottest player in Major League Baseball is from Sacramento. But how he got there is an even better story

Philadelphia Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins is cheered in the dugout after hitting a two-run home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, Aug. 25, 2017, in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins is cheered in the dugout after hitting a two-run home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, Aug. 25, 2017, in Philadelphia. AP

The most exciting player in Major League Baseball is from Sacramento. When was the last time you could say that, if ever?

Sacramento has a rich history of sending players to the big leagues, but there is little precedent for what Rhys Hoskins is doing in the national pastime right now. The 24-year-old graduate of Jesuit High School – and the greatest player ever to hail from Sacramento State – already has hit home runs at a record clip for a brand new player.

This past week, Hoskins became the fastest player in major-league history to reach 17 home runs, a feat he accomplished in just his 33rd game. That’s nine games faster than a long deceased gentleman named Wally Berger, who hit 17 bombs in 42 games for the Boston Braves in 1930.

Hoskins now has 18 home runs for the Philadelphia Phillies since being called up to the big leagues on Aug. 10.

On Tuesday, he became only the second player in major-league history to drive in 40 runs before playing his 40th big-league game. He’s the fastest player ever to reach 45 RBIs. And by late last week, his frequency of getting on base and the number of bases he was recording with each at bat – feats measured within a statistic called OPS by baseball geeks – was at levels achieved only by some guys named Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Barry Bonds.

“It’s been a whirlwind since getting called up,” Hoskins said by telephone from Philadelphia this past week. “I made my debut, which is a dream come true as a baseball player. But all the events that have happened since are nothing that I could have drawn up.”

The Hoskins family is no less amazed back in Sacramento. “It’s been surreal,” said Paul Hoskins, father of the slugger.

Paul said he first realized his boy had something going on when Rhys was only a toddler still shy of his second birthday.

“He had a plastic Wiffle ball bat, and one day he tapped on the ground and assumed a batting stance,” Paul said with a laugh. “What are you going to do? I tossed the ball to him and he whacked it – hard.”

A prodigy? Yes. Rhys is a baseball prodigy. At each level, from youth leagues to Jesuit and then Sac State, Rhys would become the best player on the field in fairly short order. He was also usually the biggest. Rhys currently is listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds.

Rhys Hoskins Jesuit

While Rhys has loomed large both literally and figuratively in the Sacramento region, it has been a delight to watch the rest of the world discover his talents. Every time he breaks a record, the invariable questions follow: Who is this guy? Where did he come from? How did he get here?

The answers are just as good as the athletic feats inspiring the questions.

This prodigy is not like others in world and sports history, from Ludwig van Beethoven to Todd Marinovich. Paul was not a tyrannical father pushing his son like a martinet.

Rhys’ baseball coach at Jesuit, Joe Potulny, said Paul never was an overbearing presence at practice or games. In fact, if anything, the father’s presence wasn’t felt much at all. “If Rhys’ dad came into (my) office, I don’t know if I would recognize him,” Potulny said.

When asked about raising a successful son who doesn’t seem absorbed in his success, Paul deflects any praise. “Rhys is an old soul,” his father said. “He was born at 25 years old.”

Nevertheless, it’s clear where Rhys’ modesty and level-headedness comes from – he’s had some great role models. To wit: Paul declined a request to be photographed for this column and ostensibly take any of the spotlight away from his son. “I like my privacy,” he said.

Meloria Hoskins, Rhys’s younger sister, declined to be interviewed because she said she prefers to read about her brother, with whom she is very close, than talk about him.

And when asked if his coaching or the Jesuit credo of service and community is playing a role in Rhys’ success, Potulny took a pass. “It’s not about us,” Potulny said of himself and the other coaches who worked with the ballplayer. “It’s about (his) journey.”

In the ultra-competitive world of youth sports, fewer and fewer kids are allowed to just be themselves and enjoy the game. Instead, they are pressured into choosing one sport and devoting themselves to it to the exclusion of everything else in life. Paul and his late wife Cathy, both lawyers, didn’t believe in that and didn’t allow it.

Rhys didn’t want that either. So he played multiple sports at Jesuit. He was a 4.0 student. He relished the public service commitments required at the Catholic institution, spending multiple summers working with kids afflicted by muscular dystrophy.

“I told him that high school sports were supposed to be fun. So go have fun,” Paul said.

The young man did, even though playing several different sports meant he wasn’t seen as often by baseball scouts or written about as much by youth-talent bloggers.

Consequently, the major baseball universities took a pass on Rhys. Consequently, there were only parenthetical mentions of Rhys in The Bee while he was in high school and a little more than that when he played at Sacramento State (“He is the most mature and humble kid I’ve ever coached,” his former Hornet coach Reggie Christiansen said recently). Consequently, when the time arrived for the pros to come calling, many other guys got the look before Rhys did. In the 2014 Major League Baseball draft, Rhys was the 142nd player picked.

Ironically, Rhys’ boyhood team, and the team his dad still follows – the Giants – passed up several opportunities to take Rhys in the 2014 draft. In fact, the Giants chose another Sacramento area player – Logan Webb, a pitcher from Rocklin High School – 24 places ahead of Rhys in the fourth round of the draft.

Webb is only 20 and is still in the lower rungs of the minor-league system. Meanwhile, the three other players the Giants chose before Rhys – all 24-year-olds like him – are still in the minor leagues.

One of them is Dylan Davis, a slugging outfielder like Rhys who played at Oregon State, one of several big schools that passed on Rhys. Davis hit a paltry .217 with 10 home runs in Double A, which is two developmental levels removed from the big leagues. The Giants are in dead last in home runs in the major leagues and own baseball’s worst record in a season that more home runs have been hit than any other.

If Rhys hits one more home run, he’ll have more than any Giants player has even though he’s only been in the big leagues for six weeks.

When Rhys played against the Giants at AT&T Park in August, Paul noticed Rhys was chatting up Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval as Sandoval stood on first base, Rhys’ position. (He also plays left field).

“Rhys is a chatty first baseman, and I noticed they were really in a conversation,” Paul said. “A family member asked me what they were talking about and I said, ‘I bet Rhys is telling (Sandoval) that we saw him hit three home runs in the first game of the 2012 World Series. I asked Rhys about it afterward and sure enough ... .”

Joey Davis, the Rocklin-based scout for the Phillies who convinced the team to draft Rhys, couldn’t believe his luck in crossing paths with this young man. “This is what we live for,” he said. “In 18 years of scouting, this is the highlight of my career.”

Davis discovered a star without a star attitude. He discovered a straight-A student in the powerful frame of a big slugger.

Rhys’ ascension in the minor leagues began after he started embracing his sport as a craft, he said. He studied. He listened. He cut down on unbridled aggression that most young players flash as a defensive mechanism against white hot competition.

Early on, the baseball experts tabbed him as someone who struck out too much, so Rhys became more selective. His rap was that he tried to jerk the ball with brawn, so he began hitting the ball to the opposite field. He developed a leg kick that allowed him to react more quickly to pitches.

Now his swing is one of the fastest of any young player in the game. Now he’s breaking records, his name mentioned in the same breath as some of the best in baseball history.

On Thursday, when the Phillies played the Dodgers, he displayed both intellectual strength as well as raw power and physical ability. He was fooled badly on a pitch that darted away from him. Because he is a classic right-handed power hitter, pitchers are increasingly reluctant to throw him anything at high velocity near the plate and instead try to fool him with pitches they hope he’ll chase. The one good pitch he got to hit that day he crushed for a two-run double.

The Phillies radio announcers marveled at how Rhys learned on the fly, and at the patience he showed waiting for a pitch he could hit. That sounds easy, but it’s not. It’s the difference between a star and a guy still playing for the River Cats or some other minor-league team.

“As I’ve dived deeper into the game, the details have become more important,” Rhys said. “We have a lot of information, and once the game starts, you apply what you’ve learned. The beauty of baseball is that you don’t have to be the most athletic person in the world. It’s a thinking man’s game,and I’ve fallen in love with that aspect of baseball.”

During the interview, Rhys didn’t sound like many big-league players in the game today. To begin with, he was eager to talk to his hometown paper. Many players refuse to talk before games, but Rhys invited the call. And when asked about the elements of his success, he didn’t talk baseball.

“I was lucky to have great parents,” he said. “They always kept things in perspective. So I have a life away from the field. Not everything is about baseball.”

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton