Knights’ catcher overcomes struggles to build major league future

jfeldman@charlotteobserver.comJuly 3, 2013 

Josh Phegley’s hometown follows his progress with the Charlotte Knights intently.

At first, fans in Terre Haute, Ind., watched the former college star struggle to adjust to professional baseball. He floundered in 2009, his first minor league season, batting only .224 with the Kannapolis Intimidators.

Then, six games into the 2010 season with Winston-Salem, a rare medical diagnosis sent Phegley to the disabled list and threatened his future in baseball.

Now, though, Phegley’s is one of the International League’s hottest hitters. His .317 average leads IL catchers and his .594 slugging percentage ranks second among all players. On July 14th, Phegley, 25, will participate in the MLB All-Stars Futures Game, a showcase for baseball’s top prospects.

White Sox Vice-President of Player Development Buddy Bell is not surprised by Phegley’s turnaround.

“I’ve always thought this guy was going to be a really good player,” Bell said. “We think he’s got a chance to be a really, really good major league player. He’s got all the skills to do that.”

Indiana’s Mr. Baseball

Phegley’s play has people excited in his hometown of Terre Haute, Ind., a town of 60,000 people located about 80 miles southwest of Indianapolis. His father, John Phegley, has even seen people checking his son’s progress on their phone in the movie theater, and he can hardly go to a local high school ballgame without being asked about Josh.

“If you’d come to Terre Haute and hang out with me for a day, you’d think I was Derek Jeter’s dad,” John said.

Phegley starred at Terre Haute North High, where he hit .592 and earned Mr. Baseball honors as Indiana’s top player as a senior in 2006.

“When he was in high school, he was like a god around here,” John said.

As a sophomore at Indiana University, Phegley finished second in the country with a .438 average, behind only Buster Posey, the San Francisco Giant’s reigning NL MVP. As a junior, Phegley was a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the nation’s best amateur.

That summer, the Chicago White Sox selected Phegley 38th overall in the 2009 MLB Draft.

That’s when his following back home increased dramatically, his father says. It’s also when Josh started to struggle.

Baseball future at risk

Phegley was assigned to Class A Kannapolis midway through the 2009 season. He hit only .154 in his first 20 games and never regained the batting touch that season that he had displayed in high school and college.

Phegley was moved to the Class A Advanced Winston-Salem Dash in 2010. Six games into the season, a large bruise developed on his leg and he went in for a blood test. The diagnosis: Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, an autoimmune disorder. Phegley’s body was destroying its own platelets, a blood component crucial in stopping bleeding and repairing ruptured blood vessels.

Though he felt fine, Phegley was told not to swing a bat or even carry out simple matters like brushing his teeth. His low platelet count meant he was at risk of internal bleeding because his blood would not clot properly.

After prescribed medication failed to work as hoped, Phegley began a program of IV treatments. Once a week, he sat in a hospital bed for six to eight hours with an IV, arriving early in the morning and leaving in time to join his team each night the Dash played at home. He said he did what he could to help.

“I was the guy goofing off in the dugout, trying to keep everybody positive and keep it loose,” Phegley said. “I was there trying to pass the time.”

He only played sparingly. After the season, doctors performed a splenectomy, the removal of his spleen. His platelet count returned to normal levels and he was swinging a bat again by December.

Change in swing, attitude

Phegley returned to baseball full-time at Class AA Birmingham in 2011. He again started slow, hitting .203 in April with more strikeouts than hits. He finished the year hitting .242.

But that didn’t bother White Sox management. Bell says he expected Phegley to be set back multiple years by ITP and was impressed by how quickly he returned to catching every day.

Late in 2011, White Sox catcher Ramon Castro was put on the disabled list, triggering a domino of promotions. As a result, Phegley received a valuable month of playing time at Class AAA Charlotte, the highest minor league level.

He returned to the Knights in 2012. In his first complete, healthy season in one place, things began to click. Phegley hit .382 in the first month. He finished the year with a .266 average and a career low strikeout rate. Phegley was named an International League All-Star – which he first heard about from a hometown fan – and earned a minor league Gold Glove Award for his defense.

Now, Phegley is hitting .317 and leads current Knights players in total bases and runs scored. He has 14 home runs, six more than anyone else on the team and eight more than he hit all of last year.

Phegley credits much of his improvement to a slight change to his swing. He also has a new mindset.

“Sitting out, missing some time, taking my lumps in the minors, not playing as well as I can – it kind of changes your attitude toward the game,” Phegley said. “You’ve got to stay even-keeled, you can’t get too emotional.”

Currently, Tyler Flowers is the White Sox starting catcher. Since being traded into the Sox organization in 2008, Flowers, 27, has stayed ahead of Phegley, though the two overlapped briefly in Charlotte late in 2011.

Flowers is only batting .213 and backup catcher Hector Gimenez is hitting .191. Despite their struggles, Bell, vice-president of player development, says a change is not imminent. Chicago is staying patient with Flowers, who is still in his first full year as starter.

Bell hopes Phegley will continue to improve with consistent playing time in Charlotte. Bell says Phegley has “a passion for what he’s doing, and he’s never going to be satisfied.”

“Once you get to AAA you have to try to wait your time,” Bell said. “His day will come.”

Terre Haute is waiting.

“Everyone will drop whatever they are doing and go to Chicago,” said John Phegley, Josh’s dad. “I guarantee you if he gets called up this weekend there’d be at least 5,000 people from our town going.”

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