Going into spring training, the Oakland A’s have plenty of questions about the composition of their 2015 everyday line-up. With several new faces in camp and a few position battles set to take place, the A’s 25-man roster isn’t likely to be finalized until the final days of spring training. One thing the A’s do know for certain is that they will enter the 2015 season with a completely different catching tandem than they started with in 2014 and 2013.
For the past two seasons, John Jaso and Derek Norris have been the A’s primary catchers. Injuries opened up opportunities for Stephen Vogt at various points over the past two years, but Norris and Jaso got the majority of the starts behind the plate in 2013 and 2014. That is guaranteed to change in 2015, as both Jaso and Norris were traded by Oakland during the off-season. Vogt is expected to be the A’s everyday catcher, but a new face is the leading candidate to takeover as the back-up catcher and starter versus left-handed pitching: Josh Phegley.
The A’s got an up-close look at Phegley last September when he caught a September 10 game against the A’s. Phegley went 0-for-3 at the plate that night, but he caught all nine innings in a game the White Sox would win, 2-1. Chris Bassitt, who came over to the A’s in the same deal this off-season that netted Oakland Phegley, was the starting pitcher for Chicago that night.
Phegley has been known for most of his career as a bat-first, glove-second catcher, but he has worked hard over the past few seasons to change that perception. The 38th overall pick by the White Sox in 2009 out of Indiana University, Phegley advanced quickly through the White Sox system based on the strength of his bat. He reached Triple-A by 2011 and made his major-league debut in 2013.
There were big expectations for Phegley when he arrived in Chicago midway through the 2013 season. The Terre Haute, IN, native had a 966 OPS in Triple-A at the time of his call-up and Phegley was anointed “catcher of the future” for Chicago before he had even caught his first big league pitch. Phegley struggled in his first taste of the major leagues, hitting only .206/.223/.299 in 204 at-bats.
Phegley admits that the pressure that comes with high expectations impacted his performance.
“In 2013, when I got up there, I’m a guy who puts a lot of pressure on myself,” Phegley said during a post-FanFest media session on Monday. “I just tried to do too much. We were already in last place by a ton and coming up, I just wanted to make a difference. It just didn’t help my performance at all.”
At the end of the season, the White Sox told Phegley to focus on improving his handling of the pitching staff. He worked that off-season to improve his defense and game-calling and vowed to come into camp focused more on the day-to-day and not on outside expectations. Phegley hit .261 with a .565 SLG during big league camp with the White Sox, but he was sent back to Triple-A to start the year.
“I was pretty disappointed [not to make the team out of camp], but I just wanted to play hard through the minors,” Phegley said.
Phegley took his frustrations out on International League pitching. He posted a .274/.331/.530 line with 23 homers, 30 doubles and 75 RBI in 419 at-bats. Phegley also made life difficult on opposing teams looking to take an extra base. He threw out 44% of would-be base-stealers. Phegley did end up earning a September call-up with the White Sox, but it was clear to him that he wasn’t in their long-term plans.
“Thankfully, I’m over here now, but they kept telling me that you are playing for every team [while in the minors],” Phegley said. “Everybody is watching you. The White Sox, it didn’t look like they wanted me up there last year, so I was just looking for another opportunity.”
The A’s were happy to get Phegley in the deal that sent Jeff Samardzija and Michael Ynoa to the South Side. Oakland believes that Phegley will be able to take over the role played by Norris the past few years as a regular starter versus left-handed pitching and back-up to Vogt versus right-handers. The A’s like Phegley’s power potential, especially versus southpaws. He has a .474 SLG versus lefties over the past three seasons in Triple-A.
Oakland also likes the work Phegley has done to improve his defense. Phegley takes great pride in no longer being ‘just’ an offensive catcher.
“I have been working on receiving. I was a little rough coming out of college in that area,” Phegley said. “I think I have improved a lot. One thing they wanted me to do was handle the pitching staff and be a vocal leader on the field. I think I have done pretty well in that area, as well. I’m pretty proud of my defensive skills and I think that will continue.”
Phegley admits that he doesn’t know a lot about the A’s as an organization, having grown up in St. Louis Cardinals country. He’s looking forward to learning about the AL West up-close. Phegley is also looking forward to working with Vogt, who he spent a lot of time with during the FanFest weekend.
“We played against each other for parts of three different years,” Phegley said of Vogt. “We seemed to get along from the moment we saw each other. I enjoy being around him. I even enjoyed playing against him. This year should be fun.”