Carlos Tocci was in the driver’s seat on a 3-1 count the second time to the plate, and he got the pitch he was looking for.
Tocci turned on an inside, 91-mph fastball, lifting it foul down the left field line on a hard line drive that would have easily cleared the left-field fence at Augusta’s Lake Olmstead Stadium. A couple pitches later, he lined out hard to the left fielder.
The Phillies’ eighth-ranked prospect and Low-A Lakewood center fielder has carried the weight of strength concerns on his thin frame since signing in 2011, is showing early-season signs of quieting those questions. Tocci said he’s up to 171 pounds after gaining 12 over the winter, and he worked throughout the offseason with Phillies strength and conditioning coordinator Jason Meredith to add muscle.
The added strength and weight already show in Tocci’s third season at Lakewood. There’s more bat speed, he’s turning on inside velocity at a higher rate, and he’s producing more at the plate. Through a recent series at Augusta in which he reached his 20th game and 90th plate appearance, he already had eight doubles and one home run while hitting .359. He has only added to those numbers since, with multi-hit games coming on a near-daily basis right now.
“My third year in a row, I know what pitches to expect, and I have more confidence at the plate, and I’m staying confident,” Tocci said. “I feel great right now. I just go out to the ballpark and have fun. I see the pitches and stay in my plan.”
Tocci and Lakewood manager Shawn Williams attributed the 19-year-old’s South Atlantic League experience for the rise in hits and overall more polished game. A year after stealing 10 bases and getting caught 11 times, Tocci started the 2015 season 8-for-8 on the basepaths to better utilize his plus-plus speed. He’s always been known to have a plus-potential defensive profile, but Williams said he’s even seen more polish from him in center field this year.
Williams said perhaps the most important aspect of Tocci’s game so far has been his approach at the plate. Tocci is staying aggressive in the strike zone, but he’s limiting his offerings off the plate and being more selective on the pitches he can drive. The approach has been night and day through the first few weeks of the season, and he entered May with more walks than strikeouts a year after walking 25 times and striking out 96 times.
“He’s playing a lot older than what he is,” Williams said. “It’s been fun to watch his at-bats. He’s pulling good fastballs, he’s running the bases well, and he’s good defensively. He’s gotten off to a great start.”
The Venezuelan said his offseason workouts were to increase his all-around strength using agility exercises and normal weight training plans that don’t involve too many heavy weights. He has continued the workouts this season with Lakewood strength and conditioning coach Ken Matanane, who is also helping oversee Tocci’s eating habits.
Tocci gained the winter weight by adding muscle and eating healthy foods. The goal through a full minor-league season is for him to maintain the weight, which Williams said is a task in itself.
“I know how hard that is to keep the weight on over the course of the year,” Williams said. “For me, that’s probably the most important thing, to hopefully be at that weight by the end of the year. I think that has a lot to do with what you eat.”
If Tocci maintains the weight through the grind of a full season and works to add even more muscle, reaching the goal of keeping his bat speed at a high level can come easier. Tocci said he’s noticed his quickness through the zone, as well as the overall approach that has helped him avoid strikeouts and control the barrel better.
“I think it’s good for me, to keep going and gaining weight,” Tocci said. “It’s allowed more bat speed, more line drives, more contact.”
Through his first three pro seasons, Tocci had the burden of a slim frame that led to some evaluators questioning whether he’d have enough strength to play at a high level every day. The first-division ceiling as a double-plus runner, plus-potential defender, potential for an above-average hit tool, and excellent instincts has been apparent from day one.
Whether he’s able to put it all together has been the question. Plenty developmental steps remain to reach the lofty ceiling, starting with the ability to maintain his increased strength and bat speed in the second half of this season. But Tocci finally took the first step forward by entering the 2015 season stronger and with more polish.
“He definitely has a natural feel for the game,” Williams said. “It’s a real pleasure to get to watch him every day.”
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