ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Once upon a time, Tommy Joseph was the top catcher in the Phillies' farm system. Actually, he was one of the organization's top prospects period, that is before injuries derailed an otherwise promising career, over time rendering Joseph an afterthought in the franchise's rebuilding efforts.
Until now. Three injury-plagued seasons and a position change later, Joseph is absolutely destroying Triple A pitching with Lehigh Valley early in 2016, all of a sudden looking like a viable candidate to become the Phillies' first baseman of the future.
Joseph's torrid start continued on Tuesday, when he belted a two-run homer in an eventual 6-4 victory. The 24-year-old is first in the International League with a .705 slugging percentage, second with a .361 batting average and third with five home runs. He also ranks among the league leaders in doubles (6), total bases (43) and on-base percentage (.381).
It's been only one month, but it just happens to be Joseph's most impressive stretch as a professional, which after everything he's gone through must feel especially rewarding.
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"It's definitely still early, but it's a great feeling," Joseph said. "A lot of great people in this organization have given me the opportunity and put me in front of the right therapists, doctors, all those great people. I'm just in a great spot right now and I'm very thankful for it."
Perhaps it should come as no surprise his growth was stunted. Acquired from the San Francisco Giants in the Hunter Pence trade in 2012, Joseph was sidelined for all but 36 games in 2013 because of a series of concussions. His 2014 wasn't any easier, as he went on the shelf just 27 games in with a wrist injury. Yet another concussion struck last year, this time limiting Joseph to 58 games and necessitating the move to first base.
In the meantime, Joseph struggled in Triple A. The second-round pick was hitting .209 one month into the 2013 campaign before being sent back down. He finally returned to Lehigh last year, but finished with a .193 average there after a disastrous start.
"Confidence, it was really a big thing this winter," Joseph admitted. "I worked hard on that knowing that every day there's an opportunity, no matter what I'm doing out here on the field or if I'm playing, if I'm not playing. There's always an opportunity to get better and I'm just trying to make the most of it."
Joseph really began to turn things around last year. He was batting a paltry .123 prior to his most recent concussion. However, he hit .247 upon returning to Lehigh, having undergone vision and vestibular therapy as part of his treatment.
"After last year, going through all the eye stuff, and really trying to figure out if I still had it or not was huge," Joseph said. "This winter, I kind of had to go back to the drawing board a little bit with the swing, and the mental approach has really been big for me this year and it's working out."
It's working out, alright.
Not only is Joseph back, he also might be better than ever. The power surge in particular has been something to behold, an aspect of his game that had long gone missing. The five home runs through 18 games are only one behind Joseph's total for all of last season. He hasn't reached double-digit homers since 2012.
"I've just been able to make a lot more consistent contact and a lot of good contact, which has helped me put the ball over the fence," Joseph said. "I think everybody as a hitter tries to have the best swing they can to create as much solid contact, and I've just been fortunate enough that some of those have gone over the wall."
The timing of Joseph's resurgence is impeccable as well. The Phillies' farm system is suddenly loaded with talent at catcher with Andrew Knapp and Jorge Alfaro, but first base could be wide open next season. Ryan Howard is in the final year of his contract, while Darin Ruf hasn't nailed down a shot as the permanent replacement.
Joseph is still adapting to his new position, although fortunately it's not quite the moon to him - he spent time there in high school and previously in the minors. At the very least, he's staying positive despite committing five errors in 39 games there over the past two seasons.
"It's definitely different at this level than it was in high school, for sure," Joseph said. "I played a little bit of it coming up through the minor leagues with San Francisco, and then obviously last year with the Phillies.
"It's been a learning curve too, because a lot of it is making adjustments during the game, not so much during practice, but it's been a great ride."
Strange how things work out sometimes. Since joining the Phillies' organization, Joseph has found nothing but obstacles standing in his path to the majors. Now he's swinging the bat better than ever and it may be only a matter of time before he's playing in the big leagues.
Yet Joseph isn't looking ahead. He's learned to stay in the moment, an approach that seems to have helped get his career back on track.
"I'm worried about today and today's game," he said. "I think that was the biggest part mentally for me is I've gotta do everything I can to concentrate on today's game and the task I have in front of me.
"That's something that maybe I hadn't been very good at over the last few years that I'm really doing a good job at this season and going to continue to try to focus on that."
Maybe Joseph's patience is a reflection of the tough road he's endured to reach this point. It's also the outlook of a player who is grateful not only to be healthy and living up to his potential, but also to be doing so with an organization that's supported him all along.
"It's definitely been kind of a circus over the last few years with all the injuries and all the rehab that I've had to go through, but it's all gotten me here today," Joseph said.
"I'm very thankful for the opportunity the Phillies have given me throughout that. They could've easily given up on me, but nobody did, nobody in this organization has ever given up on me and that's the best feeling you can have as a player, knowing that they've got your back, so I'm just trying to make the most of the opportunity that they're giving and being able to play here in Lehigh."
Soon enough, long after many had written him off, Joseph may finally get a chance to make the most of an opportunity in the big leagues.