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Athletics trade analysis: Is Josh Phegley the new Derek Norris?

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Josh Phegley could spend a lot of time behind the plate in 2015. Is he an apt replacement for Derek Norris?

Jack Parkman anyone?
Jack Parkman anyone?
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Catcher Josh Phegley is the "other guy" who came over in the Jeff Samardzija deal. He wasn't the centerpiece by any means -- that was infielder Marcus Semien -- but he may be thrust into a prominent role since the A's sent incumbent starting backstop Derek Norris packing just nine days later.

Perhaps Billy Beane and the front office thought they could pull a fast one on us. Phegley not only dons Norris' No. 36, but their birthdays are just two days apart -- Phegley is a year older -- and they're nearly identically sized human beings. The similarities pretty much end there, though.

- Norris has always been known as a patient hitter; Phegley had a higher batting average than OBP in 2014 (only 38 plate appearances, but still).

- Norris has essentially been Mike Trout against left-handed pitchers while struggling against righties over the last two seasons; Phegley has no platoon split to speak of.

- Norris is below-average at receiving, blocking and throwing; Phegley appears to be above-average, to varying degrees, across the board defensively.

They do share the ability to crush a baseball every now and again, although neither player's raw power has translated at the major league level yet. Stephen Vogt and John Jaso are both best left on the bench against left-handed pitchers, so, barring another acquisition, Phegley could end up serving as the shorter half of a catching platoon in Oakland.

All said, In just nine days, Phegley went from being an afterthought to an intriguing, and potentially integral, part of the A's 2015 roster.

Who is Josh Phegley?

Phegley is a 26-year old catcher who has spent the last two seasons jockeying with system-mate Tyler Flowers for playing time in Chicago. Flowers had a BABIP-fueled breakout season in 2014 that seemingly put Phegley in the rear-view mirror.

Josh was drafted in the first round of 2009 (39th overall, supplemental round) out of Indiana University, and was pushed quickly through the White Sox system despite never dominating at any level. In 2010, he was diagnosed with a rare blood disease called Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura, meaning his body doesn't produce enough platelets, which can lead to dangerously thin blood. The condition nearly threatened his career in 2010, but after responding to an experimental treatment, he's been able to continue playing baseball.

In 2011, he was promoted to Double-A Birmingham after posting a .743 OPS at three different levels. He's spent most of the last four years at Triple-A, culminating in the best season of his career in 2014. He's struggled in limited major league action, batting just .207/.221/.332 with seven home runs in 251 plate appearances over two seasons. After crushing Triple-A in 2014, he was promoted in September, and, as mentioned earlier, he didn't walk once and ended his brief stint with a .216/.211/.514 line.

Which leads me to ask ...

How was Phegley's OBP lower than his batting average?

On Sept. 16, with one out in the top of the 4th inning, Josh Phegley hit a sacrifice fly to score Andy Wilkins from third base. Later in the game, he recorded his first hit of the season, after starting 0-for-12 since being recalled from Triple-A Charlotte. However, the sacrifice fly he recorded lowered his OBP below his newly minted batting average, since it counted as a plate appearance but not an at-bat. Since he never drew a walk, nor was he hit by a pitch, his OBP never caught back up with his batting average.

Phegley has never shown a proclivity for bases on balls, which makes him an atypical acquisition for an organization that made OBP a household statistic. He's extremely aggressive, which makes sense because he struggles against breaking pitches -- which tend to come later in the count -- yet crushes fastballs.

I'd be surprised if his OBP exceeds .300 in 2015.

Is Phegley a power hitter?

The short answer is "Yes."

The past two seasons he's been one of the International League's (AAA) preeminent sluggers. His ISO (isolated slugging percentage) jumped from .107 in 2012, to .281 in 2013, and .256 in 2014. Those marks were the second- and third-best in the entire league. Those are elite power numbers and, unlike the Pacific Coast League, the International League isn't known for inflated run-scoring or power. In fact, the HR factor at his home stadium in Charlotte was 93, or seven percent below the league's average stadium. In essence, Phegley has been the Triple-A version of Edwin Encarnacion the last two seasons.

That last sentence feels odd because, before 2013, Phegley posted OPS marks of .693 and .680 at Charlotte. Suddenly, he went from being a 12-14 home run guy to a 25-30 home run guy. It's often noted by talent evaluators that catchers tend to bloom later than other position players -- just look at Stephen Vogt!

It makes sense. Not only is it the toughest position to play physically, but catching also requires tons of technical skill. Unlike other position players, they spend a tremendous amount of time studying lineups and working with their pitchers -- a legitimate road block to spending that time on your swing and becoming an offensive juggernaut.

He doesn't have a platoon split. Really?

Let's look at the numbers from 2014:

vs. LHP: 148 PA, .267/.311/.511, 7 HR, .822 OPS
vs. RHP: 319 PA, .278/.341/.539, 16 HR, .880 OPS

We've already established that he doesn't walk much, and now we can see he's not a great platoon candidate either. If you're confused, I'm right there with you. One of the "warts" we're accustomed to with players that find themselves in Oakland is a massive platoon split. Phegley looks like an average-ish everyday player, yet it remains to be seen what kind of role that lands him in. Of course, all he needs in order to serve as a worthwhile platoon-mate with Jaso and/or Vogt is to hit lefties better than they do, and considering how low they've set that bar Phegley could still fill the role even without big splits of his own.

It's possible the A's see something in Phegley they think will allow him to be a capable major league catcher. Or, maybe they just think he's passable and he was more or less a throw-in stopgap that allowed them to cash in on Derek Norris' All-Star season without being left short-handed in 2015.

What about his defense?

The easiest thing to look at is his throwing arm. In the minors, 333 runners have attempted to steal against him and he's thrown out a whopping 47 percent of them. In the majors, he's 15-for-51, a caught-stealing rate of 29 percent.

Phegley's glove work also appears to be above-average. Baseball Prospectus, the only site with in-depth leaderboards for framing and blocking, estimates that Phegley's defensive skills have been worth roughly seven runs per 7,000 pitches received. Derek Norris, in contrast, cost the A's at least four runs in 2014, although that was due mostly to his abysmal blocking.

During a 2013 scouting trip, Fangraphs prospect analyst Mark Hulet confirmed Phegley's transition from bat-first catching prospect to solid defender, noting several improvements along with some minor criticism:

He showed soft hands and offered a quiet setup and target. I did think that he offered his target a little late at times and there were certain situations where he tipped location/pitches with the placement of his glove. Phegley moved well behind the plate and was quick to get down to block pitches. He nailed two base runners with accurate throws to second base.

He may not be Jonathan Lucroy or Yadier Molina, but it's safe to say he's a significant defensive upgrade over Derek Norris -- and John Jaso, which goes without saying.

***

Last summer I attended a Q&A with former Assistant GM Farhan Zaidi and asked him a bunch of questions about how the market values catchers. His answers were obvious, yet insightful nonetheless.

To paraphrase what he said, you can't have it all.

With catchers specifically, their ability to save runs with their gloves and create them with their bats is all firmly built into the market. In fact, it may have shifted to the point where teams are overpaying for a catcher's defensive acumen. A few years ago, it may have been that under-the-radar above-average defensive catchers were slipping between the cracks. That's no longer the case.

Just look at the $16.5 AAV contract Russell Martin signed this offseason. Martin is an average hitter with excellent receiving and game-calling skills. The Pirates got two years of him for $15 million total before Mike Fast's groundbreaking research on pitch-framing widely suffused the value of quiet hands throughout front offices across baseball. Unless you want to pay top-dollar for an all-around catcher, they're inevitably going to have warts.

Josh Phegley is not Derek Norris, but he can fill the same vague role as the right-handed catcher with power. He has his strengths (power, defense, arm) and his weaknesses (batting average, OBP, contact), but his upside is undeniable. He probably won't hit as much as Norris did, but maybe Billy Beane and the front office decided they wanted someone behind the plate who could throw out baserunners after watching Norris allow six of the Royals' seven stolen bases during the AL Wild Card game.