The A’s entered the 2018-19 offseason with a gaping hole at catcher. Jonathan Lucroy, their primary backstop for the 2018 season, was a free agent. The team raved about how he handled the young pitching staff, but he struggled offensively, and ultimately the A’s would not meet his financial demands.
Instead, the A’s turned to the bargain bin. They scooped up Chris Herrmann for just $1 million and planned to platoon the left-handed hitter with incumbent back-up Josh Phegley. A few weeks later, the Los Angeles Angels scooped up Lucroy, but the A’s appeared comfortable with their catching situation.
Their plans were derailed when Herrmann suffered a right knee injury early in Spring Training. Top prospect Sean Murphy was at least a couple months from his major league debut. Phegley and minor league addition Nick Hundley would have to share the load behind the plate in what looked like the weakest catching tandem in the league.
But fast forward a couple months and everything has changed. Phegley has been fantastic. He has seized the starting catching role and even leads the team in RBI. With Hundley still struggling on both sides of the ball, it’s hard to imagine where the A’s would be without Phegley.
But earlier this month, manager Bob Melvin took his support for Phegley a step further. He ruffled some feathers by suggesting the backstop could represent the A’s in Cleveland later this summer.
Melvin on Josh Phegley's offensive production: “If you’re looking at All-Star worthy catchers at this point, I don’t know anyone that is more worthy than he is."— Martín Gallegos (@MartinJGallegos) May 16, 2019
Since that quote, Phegley has continued to produce. So now, after two great months, we have to wonder — does he deserve to be named an All-Star this July?
The traditional stats are where Phegley shines. His 32 RBI are tied with Gary Sanchez as the most among AL catchers, while his seven home runs are tied for fourth. At .282, he has the fifth-highest batting average (minimum 90 plate appearances). Phegley has also thrown out a league-leading 10 baserunners.
Even the advanced statistics show serious improvement in Phegley’s game. His 127 wRC+ is a career high and he has already accumulated 0.7 fWAR. Both figures place him comfortably within the top 10 catchers in the league. His 31.3% hard hit rate and 24.2 degree launch angle are also career highs, while his 86.2 MPH average exit velocity is his highest since 2016.
Durability is also very important, and Phegley has done an excellent job as Oakland’s primary backstop. His 42 games at catcher rank second in the league, while his 325.2 innings behind the dish rank 4th.
While Phegley has improved immensely this season, he still struggles in many facets of the game. He is seemingly allergic to walks, as his 3.8% walk rate ranks second to last among AL catchers. And don’t let his plus arm fool you — Phegley isn’t a great defender. According to both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, he is one of the worst framers in the league, and the latter has him as one of the worst defensive catchers in the game.
His batted ball data is also uninspiring at best. Among his comparable batters, Baseball Savant lists Freddy Galvis, Josh Harrison and Bobby Wilson — three sub-par hitters. Phegley’s exit velocity, hard hit rate and barrel rate rank near the bottom of the game.
Phegley has undeniably produced at a much higher level than anyone expected. But his below average defense and underwhelming peripherals are holding him back.
Historically, each league has usually carried three healthy catchers on their roster. However, each of the last two seasons, only two backstops were selected. In 2018, each league did choose a third catcher as an injury replacement, but only two were available for the game. This makes the position one of the most competitive in the game.
Further complicating matters, AL catchers have been surprisingly great this season. Two months into the season, there are at least eight other deserving candidates. Here’s a look at some of their most important statistics and how they compare to Phegley.
Top AL Catchers
Barring an injury or slump, Sanchez looks like a lock for the roster. He has been an offensive force, and as a New York Yankee, the national crowd will likely vote him in as the starter. Despite his awful defense behind the dish, it is impossible to overlook the rest of his numbers. That leaves one, maaaaybe two spots for the other deserving candidates.
- Mitch Garver of the Minnesota Twins has been phenomenal, albeit in a small sample. He is currently working his way back from a sprained ankle. If he keeps hitting upon his return and the Twins remain one of baseball’s best teams, it’ll be hard to leave him off the roster.
- Christian Vazquez is one of the best defensive catchers in the game, and this season, the former top prospect has figured out how to hit. As a member of the Boston Red Sox, he’ll have plenty of national support as well.
- James McCann (Chicago White Sox) and Pedro Severino (Baltimore Orioles) are a pair of relative unknowns enjoying career seasons. But playing for two of the worst teams in the league, they may earn spots largely because their club is required to have a representative.
- Robinson Chirinos is overshadowed by the other premier talent around him on the Houston Astros, and he doesn’t stand out in any category. But he’s getting on base a ton, and in any other season would easily take the spot.
- Omar Narvaez isn’t a great defender, but he’s making up for it at the plate. He was a great offseason addition by the Seattle Mariners, but the last-place team has a handful of other worthy representatives like Mitch Haniger and Edwin Encarnacion and is unlikely to have more than one All-Star.
Lucroy doesn’t stand out much, but his offensive numbers are surprisingly similar to Phegley’s. Notably, FanGraphs likes his defense a lot more than Baseball Reference. But
god among mensuperstar Mike Trout will undoubtedly represent the Angels, and they might not earn a second.
That leaves Phegley, whose numbers don’t really stand out among the crowd. His power and run production are near the top, but his offensive production as a whole is middle-of-the-pack and his defense is below average. The A’s also have other deserving candidates like Matt Chapman, Frankie Montas and Lou Trivino. Phegley faces tough odds to crack the roster.
None of this analysis serves as a knock on Phegley. He has been phenomenal, and it doesn’t seem like much regression is in his future. He should continue to be a solid option behind the plate.
But a handful of other catchers around the league have been even better, and it doesn’t look like there’s going to be room for Phegley on the American League’s All-Star roster. The game is almost two months away, and plenty could change in that time, but as of now it seems unlikely.