I've often wondered what people mean when they say a certain player enjoyed his "breakout" season. Is that term reserved for players who endured mediocrity until finally becoming a useful everyday player? A useful everyday player who became a star, perhaps? Is it simply for a player who was a relative unknown and opened the league's eyes? Can a player have more than one "breakout" season?
Not enough has been said about the third player acquired from the White Sox in last winter's Jeff Samardzija trade, but I believe the Oakland Athletics' backup catcher Josh Phegley enjoyed a breakout season, in the less traditional sense.
Being a backup catcher is not a glamorous job and from my vantage point it is a thankless one. A backup catcher must put in the same amount of work with the coaches and pitching staff that the starter does despite playing half as many games. After just 66 games of major league experience and managing a backup's workload for the first time Phegley joined the 2015 Athletics and became one of baseball's best assets.
He showed the potential that made him a first round pick in 2009 and flashed skills on both offense and defense that make me a believer. 37 catchers in baseball received more plate appearances than Phegley in 2015. Only 12 were worth more fWAR than Phegley's 1.8, and most had more than twice as much playing time.
Phegley made the most of his 243 plate appearances. He swatted 9 home runs, drove in 34 RBIs, and scored 27 times -- good for a triple slash line of .249/.300/.449. On the surface the .249 batting average and .300 on-base percentage aren't much to cheer about. Both marks are well below league average for players of any position. However, when compared to other catchers Phegley stands out, especially when looking at his power numbers.
|Josh Phegley, 2015||.200||.449||.749||.323||106|
|League AVG Catcher, 2015||.138||.376||.678||.296||85|
Among catchers between 200 and 300 PAs, the typical range for a backup, Phegley's ranks in those same stats are 6th, 3rd, 7th, 8th, and 6th, respectively. Although those ranks are slightly skewed because they include Robinson Chirinos and Travis d'Arnaud, who were starters when healthy, and Chicago Cubs prospect Kyle Schwarber, who was a mid-season call-up and started just 15 games at catcher.
One could look at those numbers and think that since the A's were one of the worst teams in baseball in 2015 then his offensive contribution didn't mean much. I'd say that would be incorrect.
Win Probability Added measures how each player's individual plate appearances can change a team's win expectancy. Phegley's 0.66 WPA was good for tenth among all catchers making him not only one of the most productive performers at the position, but also one of the most influential.
Examining catchers defensively is very tricky. There are many aspects to the position that cannot be rated statistically. To start let's look at the easily quantified way to judge catchers: runners caught stealing.
In 541 innings behind the plate Phegley threw out 18 runners trying to steal, good for 27th in baseball. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers' backup catcher A.J. Ellis caught fewer innings while throwing out as many runners.
Phegley's 39% caught-stealing percentage was good for 19th in all of baseball. Restrict that to catchers who started at least 60 and he shoots all the way up to 7th.
Advanced statistics rate Phegley just as well. He comes in at 16th in the league in Defensive Runs Saved. Only three catchers ahead of him on the list caught fewer innings than Phegley's 541.
Additionally Phegley places fourth in baseball in rSB, which measures a catcher's ability to throw runners out or prevent them from attempting a stolen base.
However, fewer innings played means fewer chances for a negative outcome on defense. I believe it can safely be determined that despite the low number of chances Phegley was able to impact the game in ways Oakland catchers haven't been able to in the past. In 2013 and 2014 the A's put out one of the worst defensive catching corps in all of baseball. 2011 was the last time the A's had catchers who fared as well as Phegley and Stephen Vogt.
What this Means for the Athletics
Of the 16 different catchers who rated better than Phegley in either DRS or rSB only Toronto's Russell Martin fared better in all five of the offensive categories listed above. Buster Posey bested him in everything but ISO. Vogt and Cleveland's Roberto Perez each bested Phegley OPS, wOBA, and wRC+.
As long as Vogt is healthy and in an Athletics uniform Phegley may not get the chance to play everyday, despite not having a clear platoon split in his minor league numbers. But together they formed one of the top-5 catcher duos in all of baseball last season. They helped the A's put up the third most WAR from catchers with 4.
Phegley will play 2016 at age 27 and just entering his prime years. Should an injury or trade occur forcing Vogt elsewhere, or out of the lineup entirely, Phegley's 2015 performance should inspire confidence that he can handle a starting job and excel in 2016.