TERRE HAUTE — The world now knows what Terre Haute has known all along.
Josh Phegley can hit. Boy, can he ever.
Three home runs – including a go-ahead grand slam against Detroit on Thursday – punctuated a powerful first week for the Chicago White Sox catcher, who once plied his trade with style for Terre Haute North and Indiana University. He was promoted to the parent club from Triple-A Charlotte on July 5.
Phegley has started all but two games at catcher for the White Sox entering Saturday’s doubleheader against at Philadelphia. His bat has done most of the talking.
Hitting alone will keep Phegley at the major league level for what promises to be a solid career, but for Phegley to truly hone his craft and make All-Star strides at the Major League level he will have to become a complete catcher.
He will have to handle a diverse White Sox pitching staff, he will have to learn the American League lineups inside and out to properly call pitches, and he will have to learn the tendencies of AL baserunners as well.
And that’s not something that comes easily in the first week of one’s Major League career.
Phegley and the White Sox realize this of course.
“My main purpose being up here is to handle those guys and get them through the game and get comfortable with them and how they like to pitch. You have to handle the other team’s roster and how they like to bat. It’s a big challenge, but I’m ready for the task,” Phegley said last Monday during his home debut at U.S. Cellular Field.
Phegley will be working closely with White Sox bench coach Mark Parent to navigate his way through the nuances of catching. Parent played for 13 years at the Major League level from 1986-98.
Parent is probably best known for his time in San Diego from 1986-90 when he backed up Benito Santiago. He also played for Texas, Baltimore, the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Philadelphia.
Parent gives off an old school baseball feel and his gruff exterior added appropriate flavor to the blunt advice he has for Phegley and other young catchers like him.
“What it comes down to with a young catcher is you need to learn how to run a particular staff. They don’t conform to you; you have to conform to the personality trait of each pitcher. There’s a lot to learn. Then if he’s hitting? That’s a plus,” Parent said.
It was clear in talking to Parent that he values the defensive side of catching as much or more than he does the offense. Parent spoke glowingly of White Sox incumbent starter Tyler Flowers, who has drawn the wrath of White Sox fans for his .202 batting average.
Parent said that Flowers has still done a lot of good for Chicago and that Phegley has to live up to the good things Flowers does even if the fans and media don’t notice it.
“Tyler Flowers does a really good job of handling the pitchers and when everyone is hitting, no one notices that he’s not hitting as well. Now we’re not hitting as well, so it’ll be nice if the kid [Phegley] can hit,” Parent said. “He showed in Triple-A he can hit. For me, the main thing is showing him how to run a game. He seems willing to learn. It’ll be a lot of work.”
Phegley made it a point to note that he and Flowers have a healthy working relationship.
“We get along great. We immediately had the catchers’ meeting and he told me anything I needed to help to ask him. We’re going to work together to get these pitchers through the game,” Phegley said.
According to Parent, the work Phegley must get done begins with an unselfish attitude, making it about the pitcher first and the catcher second. Then game management comes into play – making sure a pitcher is economical with his pitches.
“You try to get the game going quick, fast and effective,” Parent said.
Phegley was tested in his Major League debut on July 5 at Tampa Bay. He caught White Sox starter Dylan Axelrod, who was off of his game. A five-run second inning by the Rays chased Axelrod from the contest.
It was a tough debut from the standpoint of building a relationship with his pitcher for Phegley. But Parent saw some things he liked.
“He made a couple of trips when he should have to give [Axelrod] a break or to calm him down. He leads you to believe that he cared for that guy. He wasn’t like an older catcher who wanted the game to get over with, he wanted the kid to get out of it and be successful too,” Parent said.
Phegley was glad he gave a good first impression.
“The first game was a pretty big task to get over the nerves and get settled. [The Rays] had a really big inning early on. I overcame that and handled a couple of bullpen guys coming in. I felt more comfortable in the second game [on July 7]. [John] Danks threw a great game and I handled it really well,” Phegley said.
Phegley likely knows it, but Parent said the young catcher needs to be prepared for those types of situations.
“Those games are going to happen a lot, especially with us possibly getting some new players around here. You never know what might happen. He’ll get ample time and if he keeps going, he can work into a No. 1 role,” Parent said.
White Sox manager Robin Ventura has also noted Phegley’s progress since spring training, when he trained with the big league club before being sent down to Triple-A Charlotte.
“He’s not overwhelmed or feeling like he doesn’t belong here. He belongs. From spring training to now, there’s been progress in receiving the ball, throwing it. It’s a credit to him,” Ventura said.
Ventura said that winning the confidence of one’s teammates is never easy no matter what position a new player is playing.
“You have to be strong, you have to go in with a game plan and earn their trust. It’s a tough spot as a catcher. You want rapport with the guys, but you also have to hit. You have to work on two things at once and produce. It’s the toughest position to do well at both,” Ventura said.
Phegley received a positive review from Hector Santiago, the White Sox starter against the Cubs last Monday. Santiago was scheduled to pitch again against the Phillies on Saturday. It helped that Santiago and Phegley’s career have closely aligned as Phegley has caught the third-year hurler in the minor leagues.
“Our relationship is good. I played with him for four years in the minor leagues. We kind of have a thing. He has an idea of what I want to throw and I know what he’s going to call for in a certain situation. He’s probably caught me more than anyone else in the organization,” Santiago said.
As for Phegley himself? He knows his task has just begun.
“The in-depth reports we go through have been the biggest adjustment. We don’t really do that at any other level. They have the resources here to do that kind of thing,” Phegley said.
“Knowing some of these guys through spring training, they’re comfortable with me, but it’s definitely about learning the way they pitch. I need to find out their style, what side of the plate they throw well to, what their best pitches are. I’m trying to use that for our plan against the opposing lineup,” he added.