Being a big-league hitting coach is an emotional experience, a non-stop ride on a rollercoaster of euphoric highs and painful lows dictated by the successes and failures of men performing the toughest task in sports — striking a speeding round ball with a round bat.
"I'm in every at-bat with all of them," Joe Dillon said Saturday.
The Phillies' first-year hitting coach currently finds himself sharing in the triumphs of Rhys Hoskins. The slugging first baseman, after months of hard work with Dillon, appears to have righted himself after a poor second half last season and a slow start this season. He enters Saturday night's game in Miami hitting .283 with 10 homers, 21 RBIs and a 1.052 OPS over his last 24 games.
The root of Hoskins' success is actually visible to the eye. The momentum created by his body and swing is behind the baseball at impact and he's spraying it to all parts of the field. When he was going bad at the plate, he was getting around the ball and creating too much pull-side momentum in his swing. He had trouble keeping inside pitches fair and trouble hitting pitches on the outer half of the plate with authority. In other words, he was all messed up. But now he's good and Dillon bursts with private joy for his hard-working pupil as he tries to help another get back on track.
Whether he's going good, bad or somewhere in between, Bryce Harper is always going to draw the most attention on the Phillies team. It's been that way since he was 14, on every team he's ever been on. Harper plays under a never-ceasing spotlight that illuminates his highs and lows with 330 million-watt intensity.
Over the first month of this 60-game season, Harper was on fire, carrying the Phillies' offense along with J.T. Realmuto. He has since cooled, almost over the identical time frame that Hoskins has surged. Over a 22-game span, Harper's batting average has slipped from .367 to .248. In the last 18 games, he is hitting .136 (8 for 59) with two doubles, zero homers and just two RBIs. He does have 18 walks over that span to fuel a .333 on-base percentage. But overall, these are not Bryce Harper numbers and everyone knows it, including Harper, whose bearded chin has appeared to scrape the ground as he has walked back to the dugout lately.
"That's his competitiveness coming out," Dillon said. "He feels like he let the team down when we don't win and he doesn't produce. He's had a string of that recently and everyone goes through it. He just wears it on his sleeve a little more because of how competitive he is and how much he really wants to contribute."
Dillon has a history with Harper dating to his time as Washington's assistant hitting coach. He knows Harper well.
"One of the things that makes Bryce great is he's one of the best competitors I've ever been around," Dillon said.
That competitiveness can be an enemy at times.
"He's so competitive and wants to help out so bad that I think he pushes the issue, tries to do too much and expands the strike zone," Dillon said. "I don't care how talented you are, when you're swinging at balls in this league you're not going to be very successful and I think that's what we've seen from Bryce recently.
"If you're swinging at balls, they're going to continue to throw balls until you don't swing at them and make them get in the strike zone. That's with everybody but even more so with Bryce because of his presence and how deadly he can be when he's right."
Harper's chase rate has been around 30 percent all season. It's actually down a tick during his slump, but there are times when he visibly swings at pitches out of the zone.
There's another factor in Dillon's observation that Harper is trying to do too much and we saw it at times last year, especially when Harper was newly arrived in Philadelphia and trying to immediately live up to his huge, 13-year, $330 million contract. Sometimes his swing just gets too violent and that causes the feet and the head to move and timing issues result.
"It's a little bit of both, for sure," Dillon said. "He's trying to make things happen and when you're trying to make things happen your swing can get a little big at times, and as with anyone, when your swing gets big your barrel accuracy goes down and your decision-making goes down and it spirals on you."
There might be some good news on the horizon.
Harper smoked a line-drive double in his final at-bat Friday night, breaking an 0-for-18 skid. He hit another ball deep to the wall.
Sometimes it only takes one swing. Just look at Hoskins, whose season started to change when he ignited a picture-perfect swing and drove a three-run double to the gap in right-center against lefty Steven Matz of the Mets on August 15.
"With this season, everything is magnified," Dillon said. "Everybody panicked when Rhys got off to a slow start those first few weeks. Now look at him. So things are going to normalize.
"Whether they fully normalize or not because of the shortened season, I don't know, but I think Bryce's last couple of games have been better. He's a couple of feet away from a couple of home runs. Millimeters and milliseconds, that's what this game is about because it's the hardest thing to do in sports, so he's close. He's had some better at-bats and I think he's going to get going again."
With 18 games to go and an eight-year playoff drought to break, the Phillies could sure use that.