The White Sox are kind enough to make people from the organization available for interviews with panels of bloggers from time to time. Yesterday, I was able to participate in a group interview with Josh Phegley and Courtney Hawkins. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Josh Phegley is a former 38th overall pick who has overcome health issues and is having a breakout year at AAA, hitting .313/.376/.604 with good throwing behind the plate (although spotty receiving skills). Given the struggles of Tyler Flowers and the White Sox offense in general, there have been growing rumbles among the fanbase to call Phegley up to the majors. I am torn on the subject.
Courtney Hawkins was the White Sox first round pick last year, and coming into this season was their consensus #1 prospect. Only 19-years old, Hawkins is already in A+ and is having a bit of an odd year. He’s hitting .215/.279/.570 and the year was interrupted briefly with injury. Still, the average has been ticking up ever since he returned from the DL.
The following is a composite of questions that I asked, questions asked by Jim Margulus of South Side Sox, and other White Sox writers. Furthermore, this is not a perfect transcript – I’m paraphrasing as best I can from the notes I took while on the live call. Also note: These questions weren’t asked in this order. I’m trying to group them in the most coherent way possible. This is not a comprehensive list of all of the questions and answers in the conversation.
I asked Josh – other than being healthy and getting a longer look at AAA than he had at some of the other levels – to what he attributed his huge year at the plate so far. His response was roughly:
- Phegley has tweaked little things in his swing – the load, how he gets ready for the pitch. He never believed there was anything wrong with his swing, but the biggest thing was getting himself in a good position to hit, and swinging at the right pitches instead of chasing what the pitcher wants him to swing at.
- “Be patient, relax, play your game – you can’t think about anything else like watching stats or thinking about getting called up.”
I asked if there was anything in particular that he was working on on the defensive side of the ball.
- “Just trying to catch the ball. It’s such a long season, you can get into slumps defensively just like you could on offense. You just need to relax and let the ball come to you and receive it as softly as you can. Working with the staff. We’re having some ups and downs this year, and haven’t won too many games – trying to have our staff battle and get us in a position to win the game.”
This response makes sense, given the book on Phegley. He has thrown out a very high percentage of baserunners at every single level, but the question mark for him has been blocking pitches and receiving them smoothly. I hesitate to try to write it up because I don’t think I took the notes accurately enough, but I believe at one point he compared trying to receive the ball with hitting – letting the ball come to you, not trying to force it, etc.
- “You learn that it’s not really in your hands and you just have to do what you can. If you’re doing what you can you’ll get the call. Managing expectations and playing your game. Keep your mind focused on the day-to-day.”
I believe Jim also asked when Phegley felt 100% health-wise and when he felt up to speed with the competition.
- “In 2010 with the spleen removal I was feeling really good – guys were saying I was swinging the bat well. That was my first full season in pro ball, and then it was cut short. I came back that year late and actually hit pretty well for that short amount of time. The next year starting in AA, not having a season in A+ and seeing those pitchers – like Courtney said it’s a huge jump in terms of how smar the pitchers are and their command and what pitches they can throw for strikes – I had some ups and downs that season, chasing out of the zone.”
- “This is the first real time I’ve had a full year and seeing what they have…it’s a huge confidence boost when you see these guys who’ve been in the majors and you know you can hit them. It definitely shows now that I’ve been in this league before.”
I felt vindicated in hearing this response, as a lot of my optimism for Phegley earlier in the season was predicated on the fact that he hadn’t had a chance to consolidate at any level without a promotion or serious injury. Phegley only had 99 PAs at A+ before being promoted to AA.
I apologize to the asker, but I don’t remember who asked this question: Who’s the toughest pitcher to catch based on the movement of his pitches?
- Phegley thought long and hard, and said he couldn’t quite pinpoint the single toughest pitcher.
- “The all have their pitches that are tough – people with heavy sink, or some guys with a slider with big bite.”
- “I caught Sale in 2010 in a bullpen when he was just drafted and I hadn’t really seen him much this past spring – he’s gotten a ton better since then and he has some pretty nasty stuff. He’s tough to handle. That big slider is a tough pitch to follow.”
I asked Courtney what the difference was like in terms of the level of competition at Winston-Salem as opposed to Bristol or Kannapolis? (i.e. In what way is A+ ball harder than A or Rookie ball?)
- “The pitching was great last year at Winston-Salem. Guys were spotting their stuff, great sinker ball pitchers. You can really tell the difference in pitching. This year, it’s good pitching, but it’s nothing too extreme – it’s more about swinging at the things they want you to swing at rather than the things that I can hit.”
Jim Margulus asked about his low contact rates (Hawkins has struck out a ton this year) as well as his extremely high slugging percentage – i.e. You’ve been killing the ball but not making a ton of contact – and how that has felt for him.
- “I was striking out a lot at the beginning of the year, trying to force it, not waiting for my pitch. Now I’m starting to get real comfortable in the box and my approach is staying the same, it’s just being able to recognize what I can hit and what you can do something with versus something you can just put in play.”
- Hawkins also noted that the strikeouts were difficult to deal with at first, because he wasn’t used to having that much trouble, but he had enough of a support system in the organization that he’s confident and feels fine.
Hawkins commented that while he was injured he learned a lot about the game, and now he’s focusing on working on his approach. This makes a lot of sense, as he has a ton of athleticism, and not a whole lot of experience. He has also raised his average about 40 points since he returned from injury.
A writer asked Courtney how it’s going defensively, working in center field, and whether he thinks he’ll move to a corner.
- Courtney’s response mostly focused on the portion of the question about whether he’d move to a corner.
- “I don’t worry about that. I do my job. I have no problem playing anywhere in the outfield. It’s up to what the White Sox want. As long as I’m playing, I’m going to be happy. I’m going to try to stay in center as long as I possibly can.”
This response is totally unsurprising and makes sense. Hawkins may be able to hang in center for a few years in the majors, and I’m curious to see just how much he fills out as he ages. He’s an excellent athlete and has a very strong throwing arm, so that’s certainly not going to hold him back.
Both Josh and Courtney were very personable and open, and I am very grateful that they and the White Sox made a conversation like this possible.