The frustration of watching Derek Norris play catcher was palpable. It didn’t matter how many times I yelled from my seat at the Coliseum or how many times I threw something at my television, Norris would still try to backhand balls in front of him. He simply would not, or could not (a sort of Steve Sax Disease?), turn his mitt palm-up when a pitch was in the dirt. I really don’t even think it was laziness, because Norris is a good guy, but he showed that he was absolutely incapable of blocking pitches in the dirt, right in front of him.
The fact that he couldn’t throw anyone out was also a maddening display for A’s fans to behold. Is there anyone slower on the face of the earth than Billy Butler? Well, Country Breakfast himself stole a bag on Norris … in the playoffs, as did lots of other Royals. The final indignity, and Norris’ last act as an Oakland A, was to drop a pitch-out … in the playoffs. He simply had to go. All-Star bat? Great – welcome Jesse Hahn from San Diego in a steal of a trade.
But with Geovany Soto signing with the White Sox, and a farm system devoid of capable catchers, someone new had to be brought in. We found out who that was in December when Billy Beane slogged stud starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija and longtime pitching prospect Michael Ynoa to those same White Sox for SS Marcus Semien, C Josh Phegley, 1B Rangel Ravelo and RHP Chris Bassitt. Phegley was going to back up Stephen Vogt behind the dish, and maybe even be the everyday catcher should Vogt’s injured foot begin barking again. But Phegley came to Oakland with a career big league batting average of just .209 in 76 games. He was a guy who was all about that defense. So, Phegley can’t hit a lick? At least we wouldn’t have to suffer through any more Norris-like displays of pathetic catching, right?
Josh Phegley was no surprise story to the baseball world. He was a star at North Vigo High School in Terre Haute and was named Indiana’s Mr. Baseball in 2006, an award once won by Jarrod Parker. He attended Indiana University and was a first round pick by the White Sox in 2009. He made his MLB debut for the Southsiders in 2013 and established himself as a good backup catcher, but he simply didn’t hit enough to be the everyday guy. And so it was with this label A’s fans welcomed Phegley to the Green & Gold fold. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a potential base-stealer thrown out? It had been years since Oakland fans could hope for such a luxury on a consistent basis.
But then something funny happened. Phegley could hit, and not just a little bit. After crushing his fifth homer of the year last night in the A’s 8-2 shellacking of the Rangers, Phegley now sports a shimmering batting average of .305. All of this in 31 games played and 95 at bats, more than a small sample size. It’s yet another reason why baseball is so unpredictable. Guys who are reliable year in and year out sometimes fade away for no good reason, while every now and then guys like Phegley pop up and surprise the heck out of everyone. If you were someone who predicted robust, offensive prowess from Josh Phegley, then kudos to you, although you had no real basis beyond blind hope to suggest such a thing. His numbers in the minors were never really mind-blowing. But all of that doesn’t matter anymore.
We’ll see if Phegley will continue to be a two-way catcher. If you’ve ever seen Phegley take a foul ball of off his mask, he barely flinches. I asked former Marlins/Padres/Cubs catcher John Baker about that yesterday, and he said that some catchers actually enjoy that kind of pain. Whatever works for you, Josh. Keep up the good work. Keep blocking balls in the dirt, keep throwing out runners, and keep that bat hot.