The numbers he put up last season make him seem almost superhuman.
But Indiana catcher Josh Phegley is a lot more Clark Kent than he is Superman. Sure, the junior first-team All-American had a breakout season last year, but it hasn’t gone to his head. He still has that “Aw, shucks” Midwest humility.
“The thing that makes the kid so special is how humble and down to earth he is,” Indiana coach Tracy Smith said. “Josh doesn’t even really realize how good he is. He’s one of the best players in the country, but if you’re around him five minutes, you realize he’s not a prima donna. He’s the first guy to practice and he stays the longest. He just loves it.”
Phegley enters a potentially pivotal season for the Big 10 Conference favorite Hoosiers as scouts weigh whether his offensive prowess will translate to wood and wonder if he will stick behind the plate in pro ball.
They are tasks Phegley will gladly tackle. Growing up in Terre Haute, Ind., Phegley said he has loved baseball as long as he can remember. As a youngster, he played shortstop, but when he got to high school at Terre Haute North, coach Shawn Turner recommended a switch to catcher, which gave Phegley the opportunity to start as a freshman. Four years later, he would find himself in a similar situation.
After a successful run with Miami (Ohio), Smith took over for the Hoosiers and decided that he needed to build the program up, which would include giving young players a shot.
Growing up about 70 miles from campus, Phegley liked the idea. He chose Indiana and took over as the everyday catcher as a freshman. The combination of increased competition, a longer schedule and the transition into college showed up in Phegley’s batting line. Over 142 at-bats, the newcomer hit just .232/.293/.289.
“It was a little rough,” he said. “I started the first game as a freshman, but I kind of hit a low spot at the plate. Coming up through Little League and even through high school, I never had to fight any challenges, but I kind of hit a low spot. Freshman year was all about putting too much pressure on myself.”
Despite the difficult transition into college baseball, Phegley packed his bags that summer and joined the Cape Cod League.
“It was a kind of surprising,” Phegley said with a laugh. “My manager must have been thinking, ‘Is this a joke? Why am I getting a freshman catcher that just hit .232?’ “
The move paid off for Smith and the Hoosiers. The change of scenery gave Phegley’s confidence a boost and he hasn’t looked back since.
“It was a really good experience,” he said. “Once I started playing well and realizing I can play with the best players in the country, it was a really good feeling.”
Phegley returned to Bloomington last spring and was a different player. His first collegiate home run came on March 1 as part of the cycle in a 5-for-5 day at the plate against Valparaiso. Circling the bases became commonplace for Phegley, who ended the season with a line of .438/.507/.746 with 20 doubles and 15 home runs. His batting average ranked second in the nation, behind Buster Posey’s .463.
It’s one thing to put up huge numbers in the Big 10, but it’s quite another to hit with authority as a professional, and scouts aren’t yet sure that Phegley’s power is for real. He uses a crouched, slightly open stance that shrinks his strike zone and forces pitchers to come into his wheelhouse. Scouts say he has a good approach at the plate and consistently makes hard contact. However, they worry that success with his stance will be difficult to repeat when he switches to a wood bat.
“I see Josh as being an average major league hitter,” an American League area scout said. “I don’t see Josh being a plus hitter. There are definitely some holes in his swing—the hands and the stance itself doesn’t lend to good quickness with the bat.”
Speaking For The Defense
A bigger concern for scouts, however, is that as Phegley’s bat has emerged, his defense has seemingly regressed.
“Defensively, his arm strength is average, but his catching and receiving skills are well below-average,” a National League area scout said. “When I saw him in high school, I didn’t think he was a draft guy, but I thought he was a D-I guy and I thought the catch-and-throw thing was what he did best. Now, the catch part seems to have gone away.”
Phegley had the most passed balls in the Big 10 last year with 11. He says the mistakes are due to a lack of focus, rather than the result of physical shortcomings, and has been working hard this winter to improve that aspect of his game.
“I laugh because his freshman year we go down to Florida State and that’s the year that Buster Posey made the transition to catcher,” Smith said. “I remember after the series, Mike Martin says, in his Southern drawl, ‘You know what Tracy? That catcher’s going to be good as soon as he learns how to hit.’ And then last year all we heard from the scouts was, ‘That catcher’s going to be good if he gets better defensively.’ So, we laugh about that.”