Phegley played with the big league club in Spring Training. (Jennifer Hilderbrand-USA TODAY Sports)
Josh Phegley’s career already has an interesting narrative and he hasn’t reached the majors yet. Phegley absolutely raked in college, and the White Sox drafted him with the 38thoverall pick in the 2009 draft. Questions lurked about his ability to stick behind the plate, and he scuffled out of the gate in the low minors with the bat. A bat-first player out of college should probably OPS higher than .684 in low-A.
Josh Phegley, however, had some adversity to face. Phegley has an illness called Idiopathic Thrombocytophenic Purpura (ITP), which hindered him severely in 2010. ITP is an autoimmune disease that often causes low platelet counts. When the condition is flaring up and one’s platelet accounts are low, any sort of physical impact can become a life threatening incident as the body cannot clot blood as effectively as it needs to. i.e. The body cannot stop itself from bleeding when injured. For any professional athlete – especially one trying to play catcher – this is clearly a serious problem. Even more frightening, Phegley has said that he can’t feel a difference when his platelet counts are high or low – you have to do a blood test to find out how vulnerable you are at a given time.
The story of how Phegley found out he had it was that he took a few foul balls off of his leg, and then the bruise would not stop growing over the course of several days. They took a blood test, and then Phegley got a call telling him to go to the hospital immediately. His platelet count was at about 2,000 per micro liter – in comparison to the 150,000 to 300,000 count which is normal.
Phegley’s condition wasn’t responding to treatment, so in 2010 he underwent surgery to remove his spleen. Apparently the surgery was successful, as afterward, he did not even need medication anymore. Phegley has said that there is “a 90 percent chance it never reoccurs.” The White Sox tried to manage his workload carefully, and he lost a lot of playing time as a result of this condition and surgery, logging only 176PAs in 2010, with limited time behind the plate.
The White Sox, however, also kept aggressively promoting him, moving him up all the way to AA during that 2010 season, and then jumping him to AAA at the end of 2011. In fact, 2012 was the first year that Phegley got a full slate of playing time without aggressive promotions and without having to lose significant time to illness.
Given these circumstances, a 24-year old catcher hitting .270/.310/.378 at AAA wasn’t all that bad. Oddly, Phegley had morphed into a strange type of plus defensive catcher along the way, with the question mark becoming his bat. His glove is strange in the sense that he had an excellent fielding percentage, and threw out 46% of would-be baserunners on him, but allowed a disturbingly high number of passed balls. Phegley has made a habit of both gunning down would-be base thieves and dropping pitches as he has moved up the ranks, and it remains to be seen if he can remove that last wrinkle behind the dish.
So, entering 2013, Phegley was close to the majors, with his health issues largely behind him, and question marks surrounding his passed balls issues and his bat. So far, Phegley’s bat has woken up in AAA, as he has hit .325/.404/.602 in his first 94PAs this year, including 6 home runs already.
Catchers can often take a little longer to develop, and I’m not aware of any other cases of ITP in the minor leagues, so it’s hard to know exactly what to make of what Phegley can be. At this point, he’s ready to be a back-up catcher in the majors. As a very knowledgeable person I asked pointed out, Phegley’s a plus defensive catcher, and they always have a shot at a career. The question becomes just how much he can provide with the bat.
Whether the White Sox call him up before September is a different question. On the one hand, he’s probably better than Hector Gimenez already, because Hector Gimenez is really bad at baseball – I mean, he has allowed 2 passed balls and 3 wild pitches already in only 60 innings of catching this year. He’s 30 and hasn’t ever really shown any ability to hit. On the other hand, Gimenez is a switch-hitter, and the White Sox may think that matters more than the fact that Phegley would probably hit pitching from either side better anyway. Another consideration may be that 2013 is looking more and more like a lost season at the major league level. Maybe the best decision in the long-term is to keep getting Phegley everyday plate appearances in AAA.
Then again, Josh Phegley is already a feel-good story. By all accounts he is a nice, hardworking individual who has persevered through adversity, and is close to achieving his dream of being a big leaguer. In a rather dreary season, it would be nice for White Sox fans to have something to root for that doesn’t have anything to do with wins or losses.