Righty hurler Matt Hockenberry made headlines when the Phillies selected him as their 9th round draft pick in 2014 out of Temple University. Since that time, he’s been a contributor out of the Class A bullpen.
Following a 2014 campaign that saw the Dillsburg, PA native tally a 3-0 record with two saves and a 5.12 ERA in 20 outings, Hockenberry bounced back with a great season for the Lakewood BlueClaws this year. In 42 appearances, the 24-year-old posted a 4-4 record with 19 saves and a 2.24 ERA.
Last week I spoke with Matt about his off-season routine, his ties to Temple and the city of Philadelphia, coaching youth players as well as how he tries to knock down boundaries between American and Latino players. Read ahead for that full interview.
-What is the amount of downtime, the time you go without picking up a ball, that you enjoy during the off-season and then what do you do to knock the rust off once action resumes?
That’s actually a, I guess, a difficult question for myself. I’m not what you consider a big money guy. I got drafted in the 9th round and everything, but I didn’t get a a big signing bonus because I was signed as a senior out of Temple, so I actually work as soon as the season is done. My job is coaching kids between the ages of six and 18 in the Media Line area, out in Broomall, PA area, with the All-Star Baseball Academy…so I touch a baseball every day. So, I really don’t have down time like you’re asking. I just pace myself as to when I start throwing again, uh, you know I do all the lists and requirements that the Phillies are having me do, but I’m touching a baseball everyday, so I have to monitor what type of activity I’m doing in order to make sure I’m not going to burn myself out for when I have to start my training portion.
-So, when it is time for you to do your own prep work and start building towards spring training, what is the time frame there and then what do you start doing differently?
This year I am starting just a little bit earlier. But, I’m going to pace myself. Last year was my first spring training and I think one of the reasons I had a little hiccup in my elbow throughout the season, was because I was ready to rock and roll January 1st. It was my first spring training, so I didn’t know what to expect and I wanted to be as ready as possible. But, now that I have that and my first full season under my belt, I kind of know how to pace myself a little better. I probably won’t start throwing bullpens until mid-January and they’re going to be very light at that.
I try to do what (the Phillies assign us) to the best of my ability, so I’m not going to wear myself out. And more importantly, I’m just doing all of the arm care and I’m teaching high school guys how to do this type of arm care, so it forces me to get mine in.
-How do you feel about coaching and doing that sort of thing? Is that helpful for you and did you have access to any pro guys when you were coming up to help your progress?
I actually never had a place like All-Star in the place where I am at. Where I grew up when it was baseball season, it was baseball season. But when it wasn’t, you were playing other sports. Whether it was basketball or indoor soccer, I was a basketball guy.
To me, it is very important. I have a very strong relationship with the All-Star Baseball Academy, based out of Philadelphia. They’re very good to me with the hours they let me work and it’s a very rewarding career. It doesn’t matter if it’s a seven-year-old or an 18-year-old, when they figure something out and how to have success on the baseball field, it’s very rewarding. It keeps my motivation up. I have a chance to make it and when I’m teaching these kids things I am learning things about myself, whether it’s when I throw a baseball or when I read a guy’s swing wrong. Just anticipating how to get guys out.
(Pitching coach) Aaron Fultz during the season was talking about the coaching stuff, because he does it as well. That’s something I really took from Fultz. I’m starting to analyze, I’m starting to learn, I’m starting to see the different types of swings with my high school hitters, but that’s teaching me how to read a guy’s hands, how to read a guy’s back side, how to read a guy’s tendencies, when he’s in the box. So, it’s only going to make me more successful.
But more importantly, I’m giving the nine, 10, 11-year-olds hope, dreams…telling them if they continue to work hard and bust their butt, they can be the underdog just like me and they can get farther than they ever thought they could.
My biggest goal with the high school level guys is to walk them through the college recruiting process, you know, pretty much advise them about the coaches. Just try to be the best asset that I can be for the local talent in the Philadelphia area.
-That all sounds really solid. You touched on having guidelines from the Phillies organization of fitness routines, but was there anything given specifically to you to improve on?
They want me to remain healthy. That’s one of the biggest things that they stressed to me. Last year, I did everything I could to get healthy, but once we got back up to that New Jersey/30 degrees at 7pm weather, you know, my body got a little tired. I know what to expect now and how to battle through that and to basically stay healthy. For myself, and the Phillies have told me this several times, in order for me to have success, in regards to moving through the ranks, not being a big money guy and being a 2014 draftee, they’re doing a lot of trades and they’re doing a lot of scouting of other prospects, so in order for myself to move (upward), like every baseball player you’ve got to be mentally tough, but for me specifically, after having the hiccup, is to stay fully healthy, which I’m fully prepared for. So, I’m just staying on top of my game and trying to not get fat during the holidays.
-What would you think is your best memory or your biggest highlight from last season?
To be honest, Jay, I would have to say I don’t have one highlight. I think it’s, for myself, every time I got the opportunity to pitch, the team kind of looked at me as a closer…we had two other guys, I know (Joey) DeNato and (Alexis) Rivero were both in the closing role as well, but every time my name was brought up it was always as a closer. You know, I thought that was pretty special to have a title behind my name. It wasn’t just relief pitcher. There was a title. There was a role.
But, more importantly, I think the best thing that happened this past season was I kind of learned the in-between boundaries between the Americans and the Latinos. I took a lot of Spanish in high school and college, but I didn’t really start learning it until I became really good friends with some of the Latino guys like Jairo Munoz, Manny Martinez, Alexis Rivero…I really tried to embrace them and put myself in their shoes. What would it be like if I came to the United States and I didn’t know any English and not being able to communicate? So I took time to learn the language, or at least the important stuff. I was that guy who, it didn’t matter who I was hanging out with- we were having a good time. That’s one of the reasons why the BlueClaws did well this year. Because we were a team. We didn’t make it to the postseason, but we were in every game. The bullpen wasn’t divided. Everyone was down there either trying to learn Spanish or teach English and the guys in the dugout, it was the same exact way. It’s definitely a year I’m going to remember.
-You talked about that BlueClaws team being so unified and trying to help each other, but is the opposite something that can happen where guys will stick to their own and not bother with one another?
Well, I mean, it’s- I would assume this is in every minor league organization…it’s a dog-eat-dog world. You have to know when somebody’s being friendly, or when somebody’s trying to get ahead of you sneakily. Obviously, the only way to do that is to put up numbers. Baseball is a numbers game, and guys with the best stats move up. I would have to say, in the Phillies organization, from what I’ve experienced so far, all around we have really good dudes. When it comes to the division, it’s family first. A Latino guy is going to look out for a Latino guy, an American guy is going to look out for an American guy when things are getting stiff, when things are getting competitive.
Like I said, I generally believe the Phillies organization has some weird type of family down in the minor leagues and all around we had a really good year. With Reading and Clearwater both going to the postseason, with Lakewood competing for the postseason, I think the GCL Phillies were in a race, I know Williamsport was in a race. It was an overall good year.
Um, I didn’t get moved up or down from Lakewood this season, but every time a guy came or a guy left, they were always embraced. So, like I said, I don’t know if there’s really any division between anybody in the organization. I just do know that sometimes you have to be selfish and you’ve got to try to work harder than everybody else because the ultimate goal is to make it to the big leagues.
-You mentioned being a Temple guy earlier and that’s sort of a claim to fame for you. What is that connection like right now? Is there still a considerable attachment to Temple for you coming from the last Temple baseball team?
So, I know Phillies Nation did an interview with me after the program got cut and other media sources in the Philly area did so as well. But to be honest with you, I’m so proud of their football team. I have a guy that I went to high school with that plays for them. I know a bunch of the guys that either were on that team or are on that team. Even though baseball got cut, it’s always going to be bitter sweet for me, because I get to keep playing baseball at the professional level. But, I’m proud of the university. I’m proud of the football team.
For myself, it’s a continuing motivator. There are a lot of people that are pulling for me to make it back to Philadelphia. If I did it, it would be a lot of hard work, determination and perseverance. But it would definitely be a dream come true. I think the city would like that.
Temple University, they’re always going to be close to me regardless of whether they have baseball or not.