Selected in the 9th round on this year’s amateur draft, Temple University product Matt Hockenberry was ready for the challenge of pitching in the professional ranks. Never one to back down from a challenge, the 22-year-old has been focused on proving himself worthy of being a day two pick.
Thus far in eight games in the minors, the six-foot-three 220-pound righty has tallied a 1-0 record with a save and a 3.95 ERA with the rookie level Gulf Coast League Phillies and with Class A Lakewood.
I talked with Matt over the weekend. The Hanover, PA native shared his extensive thoughts on his draft experience, adjusting to the professional ranks, the support he’s gotten, learning to throw a change up from Cole Hamels and plenty more.
Read ahead for that full interview.
-The Phils drafted you in the 9th round just about a month ago. What was your draft experience like? How were you tracking it?
I was tracking it on my phone and I was at my girlfriend’s house because I didn’t have cable at my apartment, ’cause everybody had moved out and everything. So, it was pretty nerve-racking because I didn’t really have an idea of what round I was going to go in. I had heard potential for free agent signing if nothing happened in the draft.
After we were down in Clearwater for the AAC Tournament with Temple, when I was down there, I got a private invite from Paul Murphy, I think he’s the scouting director, and he sent it to my head coach and then my coach relayed it to me. It was the Saturday before the draft started, I went to Citizens Bank Park and I unleashed the beast. I tried to show them everything that I had to try to put on a major league uniform.
While the draft was going on, I still had no idea what round I was going in. I watched the entire first round with the giant hopes, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Then day two came around and…I wear number 32 all the time, so when pick number 232 came up for the Phillies, I thought, “Let’s go! Here’s my chance! This is it!” And then it was a high school kid from Tennessee that I met down in Clearwater.
Then the ninth round came up and I almost didn’t watch it, but I was watching it on my phone and the Phillies’ clock was running out, so I refreshed my feed and nothing had still popped up and I’m thinking, “Oh my God. Hurry up!”
The next thing you know, my name pops up- “Matt Hockenberry right-handed pitcher Temple University”. I lost my mind.
-Having those local ties, with college, I know Twitter and whole Phillies fan base went pretty hot for you for a bit. What was that reaction like for you?
I tried my hardest to favorite, retweet, answer everybody that was getting at me through Twitter, through Instagram. Even my phone, I had 17 voice mails, 32 missed calls. At the end of the day, I was texting people so much, telling them, “Thank you so much for supporting me.” At the end of the day, I still had close to 100 messages that I hadn’t read.
I put out on Twitter, “Everybody, hang in there. I’m getting blown up here. I will get back to you.” But, yeah, I mean, I’m a big Twitter guy.
The support that I’m getting, I never thought was there. If you think about it, I’ve got 87 years of Temple baseball history, after they cut the program, that are following me. With Derek Peterson and Ben White, who are also Temple alumni guys, playing for other organizations. And just the entire city of Philadelphia. I didn’t realize how many people in Philly really follow the whole Temple program. And then now that I’m with the neighboring big team, that fan base just kind of carried right over. I don’t think this would be as big a story as it is if I were to go to some other organization. Maybe it would be, because the whole Temple program ending and things like that, but the fact that the Phillies saw something in me, as they’re right down on the other side of Broad Street, gives some spice to the story.
-You mentioned the Temple program. The news of the elimination of baseball at the school was a big story this year. What does it mean to you to come out of that last team ever and go pro?
It’s, honestly, my motivation. When the administration told me, my teammates and my coaches that we couldn’t compete in the American Athletic Conference, I mean, we put together an unbelievable season. We didn’t go out with the style that we wanted to, we won 16 games the entire year, but we won the ones that mattered, which were the ones in conference that they said we couldn’t win. With the program having 87 years of history and that being wiped out from the record books, that’s what’s really motivating me to push myself to the max.
I love Lakewood. This is a phenomenal place with a phenomenal coaching staff with phenomenal players, but my scout told me, “Don’t stay anywhere too long. You want to keep moving up the ranks.” When I do any type of conditioning, lifting, throwing a baseball, I just have that little thing in the back of mind that the administration said that I couldn’t do it and look at me now! I’m not where I (ultimately) want to be, but they didn’t think I could be. And on top of that the 87 years history is just one of those things that keeps me motivated the entire time because those people want to see me go higher and higher and higher and take that Temple baseball the whole way to the top.
-We’ve acknowledged the adult aged ties to Philadelphia. Did you grow up as a Phillies fan?
I grew up as a Pirates fan because my entire family is from western Pennsylvania. And they’re die hard Pirates fans. I’ve never owned anything besides Pirates attire and I actually tweeted on the day I got drafted that it’s time to retire the Pirates cap because now the Phillies are paying me to wear the “P”, not the Pirates.
-So, how does that work with the family? I’ve talked to guys that have come through Lakewood, like Phillies pitcher David Buchanan, who grew up as a Braves fan, about turning his family and friends toward his new side, which can be hard. How are things going with getting friends and family on board with the Phillies?
Well, they’re gonna root for the Phillies no matter, just because I’m a part of that family now, but it’s one of those things where, going to Temple for four years, I lived in Philadelphia. And when you’re in Philadelphia when you turn on any sports channel it’s normally the Phillies. Whereas at my house, I turn on any channel it’s the Pirates. So, I didn’t learn to be a Phillies fan, but my senior year of high school I got the opportunity to work out with Cole Hamels and I mean, that’s my Phillies background and now I’m playing on the same field he used to. I mean, that’s kind of ironic. He taught me my change up.
Besides that, A.J. Burnett has always been one of my favorite pitchers to watch, partly because he used to be a Pirate and now I got the chance to throw off of Citizens Bank Park’s bullpen mound, where he warms up. So, that’s kind of special.
I love the city of Philadelphia. I think they’ve got a great fan base. I think this organization is making the right moves. I’ve gotten a lot of questions, you know, “How is it different from being a starter in college to being a reliever in the bullpen?” My only answer is, “The Phillies are my boss. Whatever they want me to do, I’m gonna go out there and try to do it to the best of my ability.”
They’re giving me the change to throw at the end of ballgames, so I’m going to go out there and do that with as much flair and finesse as I can and, you know, get the job done.
-You mentioned spending time with Cole and learning the change up. Where’d that take place and how did that happen?
My high school coach has this really small indoor facility that he uses for his guys to work out in the winter and we can go in there and throw off a mound. It’s got a batting cage with one of those pitching machines that throws, literally, every pitch. So, the Hamels Foundation was doing one of those camps and you pay a certain amount and all of the money goes to their causes. And I’m pretty sure Heidi Hamels had e-mailed my coach requesting to use the facility for this camp and he had to tell her, “Sorry, it’s not big enough.” And he helped them find the place that was big enough.
So, I’m pretty sure the way the story goes is that Cole Hamels told my head coach to see if he had any prospects for college ball or the draft to send them over for the workout and this is a camp for 10 to 12-year-olds and, you know, I’m sitting there, 18-years-old, kind of in awe of it. He was a really nice guy. I got to meet his wife. I got to meet a lot of other guys who were his teammates. I think some of them were in the minors, some of them were in the majors, but he was the main focus.
But, yeah, he literally just showed me the grip and ever since then, I just played catch with it all throughout college and now it’s one of my better pitches.
-How much time did he spend with you to have such a result or impact on your career?
Because I was older…he played catch with the younger kids, but I’m the one that had questions, because I was trying to take my game to the next level. I had already committed to Temple University at the time. This was in the winter. We probably spent a solid three hours together. And it was like we were having just normal conversations, I was asking him questions like how do you hold your change up and things like that. I mean, he showed me and that stuck.
When you’re a high school kid, taking advice from a major leaguer, you’re going to take that into consideration. I just think it’s ironic that now I’m a part of the Phillies organization and, hopefully, now I’ll use that change up to get up to the major league level.
-You’ve got some good numbers. Do you think your transition to the pro’s has been what you expected?
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, because I had never done this before. When I got down to the GCL, I didn’t know what to expect because there were guys coming in from all over the place. There were free agents. There were international signs. There were draft guys. I was told I was going to Williamsport, so after I didn’t go to Williamsport, I was a little discouraged. I thought I was going there. I was ready to get out of Florida, because it’s so hot down there. Carlos Arroyo pulled me aside, he’s the pitching coordinator, and he said, “Hang tight. We just want to watch you throw more.” Him and I worked on some mechanical things with my lower half and I was working on it really hard and the next thing I know I pitched in one game, I had five (strike outs) in 2 2/3 innings and I’m getting the call to come to Lakewood.
Now, I’m doing the same things I was doing down there and I’m having some success. My first outing was a little bit of a transition. I gave up five runs in one inning in Greensboro, NC, right after I got off the plane. So, one- I didn’t have my legs under me, and two- I was so excited to be playing for Lakewood that I had the jitters. I was on the mound, probably almost balking, because my legs were twitching and what not. But after that inning, that was a big wake up call and I knew I had to keep working really hard and I think the last five outings that I’ve had I kept the ball down in the zone, kept runners from scoring, just trying to do the job that the Phillies assign me to the best of my ability.
-What is the full pitch repertoire for you?
Two-seam and four-seam fastball, change up, slider and a curve ball.
I throw a lot of pitches. I think right now I’m struggling with the off-speed command because, like I said, in college, I was a starter, so I was able to get a feel for all my pitches in the bullpen before the game and now, I’m throwing 12, 13, 14 pitches that are pretty much all fastball to get loose in the bullpen before my eight on the field before we get the game started again.