MILWAUKEE — Alec Bohm pouted the day after he committed a three-run error on a routine groundball. It was natural. But, a year ago, this would have prompted concern — maybe meetings about how to support Bohm, or maybe a day or two on the bench to reset. But, on Saturday afternoon during batting practice at American Family Field, Bobby Dickerson walked to third base and put his arm around Bohm. The veteran infield coach challenged Bohm to remember who he is now.
There was no whispering behind Bohm’s back, wondering how he would handle adversity. The Phillies are past that with their 27-year-old third baseman.
“Definitely, in the past, that could have affected the next couple of games,” Bohm said Sunday after the Phillies won 4-2 to salvage the series with the Brewers. “Just standing out there, not wanting the ball hit to you. Things like that. But, years later, you understand it’s going to happen. You can’t do anything about it. The only thing you can do about it is play tomorrow.”
Bohm played on Saturday. He doubled. He made all of the plays at third base. On Sunday he moved across the diamond, played a strong first base, and slugged a solo homer in the seventh inning to tie the game. J.T. Realmuto followed with another home run to push the Phillies ahead. They never relinquished that lead.
“As good as we feel as an offense right now, it just takes one spark to get us going,” Realmuto said. “Alec, that was a big swing from him.”
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) September 3, 2023
It was one thing for Bohm to go from borderline unplayable at third base to starting there in the World Series last season. It’s another for him to take meaningful steps forward as he plays two positions in 2023 — all while progressing as a run-producing hitter. Bohm is not without flaws. But he is improving, and that is all the Phillies have ever wanted.
“When you make a mistake and you know that you’re not going to get hammered by the manager, by your infield coach, by your teammates — there’s more support,” Dickerson said. “There’s more understanding that there’s a lot of failure in this game. I’m the first to try to portray that to my players. I don’t want them to feel uptight. I want them to feel like I’m in it with them and not evaluating them. A lot of times, guys I’ve had felt like they were being evaluated by former coaches all the time. And it put unnecessary pressure (on them) that shouldn’t be there. There’s enough pressure. You know?”
Bohm knows better than anyone.
“It’s just amazing to watch,” Dickerson said. “He’s doing things that, honestly, I dreamed of him doing in a few years. But he’s doing them rather quickly.”
There was a play, two weekends ago, that epitomized Bohm’s improvement. Nolan Arenado, the sport’s standard-bearer at third base, dribbled a ball toward shortstop. Trea Turner charged the ball.
“You always want the third baseman to get as much as they can,” Turner said. “But I remember not knowing if he was going to be able to get to it. So I was ready for it. And, at the last second, he snatched it.”
Bohm beat Turner to the spot. He scooped the ball. He spun and fired to first base. His hat flew off his head. Arenado was out by four steps. Bohm made a play he would not have even attempted to make last year.
“I’m super-impressed with him,” Turner said. “I don’t know what the numbers say, but I think he’s a really good defensive third baseman. He’s made a lot of great plays. I just keep hearing how much better he’s gotten. But he looks great to me.”
The numbers say Bohm remains a below-average defender, especially at first base. But he’s closer to average at third than ever. “He’s really put together a good year on both sides of the ball,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “He’s a good player.” Bohm, as measured by MLB’s Statcast defensive metrics, has made huge strides in his lateral movements at third base.
That matches Bohm’s assessment of where he’s improved most.
“Initial reactions,” Bohm said. “The ball being hit at me — and it’s not necessarily panic and just move to move. It’s more seeing the ball and doing what the ball tells me to do. That sort of thing.”
This is something the Phillies were never sure Bohm could correct. There are few third basemen like him in baseball history. Bohm is 6-foot-5. Among players that tall, only Troy Glaus and Kris Bryant have made more starts at third base than Bohm. The Phillies drafted him because of his advanced approach at the plate and power upside. There was always a debate about where he fit on the field.
Those debates grew louder a season ago. Even as Bohm found his footing in the months following that nightmare three-error game in April 2022, there were always caveats. He’d have to move at some point.
And that is probably still true. But the Phillies are convinced they have more time with Bohm at third base. In Dickerson’s mind, it’s not a debate now.
“A hundred percent,” Dickerson said. “He can play third base in the major leagues on a contending team. He showed it last year. Arguably, down the stretch and in some of those playoff games, he might have been the best third baseman on the field on particular days. And look at the people he was playing against. Say what you want, but he outplayed Arenado in that series (last October).
“His confidence is awesome. And it gives everybody confidence. A ball goes in his direction, you feel if he does make a mistake, you’re more surprised than the other way. Right?”
Bohm crouched on the dirt near third base Friday night. He was alone with his thoughts for about 30 seconds while Brewers fans roared. Then, Turner and Bryson Stott sauntered over to console him.
“There’s not much you can say,” Turner said.
But he had something to say.
“He’s played so well over there,” Turner said. “He’s won us so many games this year. It’s just a quick low point and then you get back after it. And, I told him, ‘He’s going to make that play to win us the World Series later this year. So, don’t worry about it.’”
Maybe, a year ago, that would have sounded insane. But Bohm has been there. He’s been to hell and back. He was a top prospect. He was demoted to the minors less than a year after finishing as the runner-up in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. He was benched and humiliated.
He’s equipped to make a mistake that costs the Phillies a game, then take a swing two days later that helps them win another. Bohm learned to separate his offense from his defense and vice versa. It was a critical moment for his development.
It freed him.
“He’s got a little more self-confidence,” Dickerson said. “He’s done some things and I’m starting to see him challenge himself a little more even. Like, he’ll go get a ball that he might have shied away from a little bit last year. Not wanting to screw it up.
“But, more than anything, it’s his work. All the stuff he did. And then some success. Then, that breeds confidence. Now he’s confident as s—.”
Bohm’s homer Sunday was his 16th of the season. He has 83 RBIs and 26 doubles. All of those are career highs. He’s cut down his strikeouts and upped his walk rate. He has tapped into his power despite a career-low pull rate. The Phillies once tried to have Bohm focus on pull-side power, and it wasn’t for him. He has done it his way.
“I love watching Bohmer play,” Bryce Harper said. “He’s getting more and more comfortable.”
Harper has better recall than most. He studies swings and, when he watches Bohm, he cannot help but think about Jayson Werth. Harper has made this comparison before. But he sees even more similarities now.
“It’s such a J-Dub swing,” Harper said recently. “And the more he grows into his body, it’s going to be sick. He’s going to make Citizens Bank Park look like a bandbox. Because he’s going to end up going 35, 40 homers because he’s going to go right-center and left-center. He’s going to understand when to pull the baseball and what he can do going to right field. That’s going to be nasty. It’s exciting. I’m really excited about that.”
Bohm shrugged Sunday when asked about the low-effort swing on an 83 mph changeup that produced a laser home run. “Weather’s warm,” Bohm said. “Day game. Roof’s open. Ball’s flying a little bit. It’s good to run into one on days like that.” Sure, but maybe he could have tried to do too much two days after his mistake.
Dickerson admitted that, as this season started, he worried about Bohm’s progress being derailed by having to split time between third and first base. “Bouncing around is not easy, for sure,” Bohm said. But he thinks getting better at third has helped him at first.
At his lowest moment Friday night, his teammates came to stand beside him. That was all Bohm needed.
“You try to say something to make him feel a little better,” Turner said. “But, also, I think we just believe. He’s played great. Everybody makes mistakes every once in a while.”
Young Phillies hitters’ swings have swung the season: ‘Those are dudes’
(Top photo of Alec Bohm hitting his game-tying home run Sunday: Aaron Gash / MLB Photos via Getty Images)