On the second day of Philadelphia Phillies’ spring training, Matt Hockenberry stood to introduce himself as the pitching coach for the Gulf Coast League West Phillies.
He felt at home as he looked out at the room of players. Just a year ago, Hockenberry had been a player just like them. Because he was so comfortable addressing some of his former teammates, Hockenberry forgot to say his name.
“I literally have the best job in the world because I’m working with and for the guys and coaches that I played with,” Hockenberry said. “It could not be a better situation.”
The Phillies selected Hockenberry, a 2014 criminal justice alumnus, in the ninth round of the 2014 MLB draft. The right-hander tied the Temple record with 46 career starts from 2011-14. Then, he pitched for the Phillies’ minor-league affiliates for parts of four seasons before being released on July 29, 2017.
“When I got let go, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, this actually just happened. What am I gonna do with my life right now?’” Hockenberry said. “You never know when it’s coming.”
During his speech on the second day of spring training, Hockenberry told his new players about what the journey to professional baseball looks like. He said it is his favorite moment he has had as coach so far.
Hockenberry twice reached the Double-A level during his minor-league career. He had a 5.79 ERA in three games with the Reading Fightin’ Phils in 2016.
Hockenberry pitched in a major-league spring training game last year against the New York Yankees and started the regular season in Reading. He ended his career with a 6.62 ERA in his final season playing at the Double-A and Class A levels.
After being released in July, Hockenberry returned to his home in Old City and began his normal winter routine of working at All-Star Baseball Academy in Broomall, Pennsylvania.
In late August, Hockenberry received a call from Phillies pitching coordinator Rafael Chaves as he drove to All-Star Baseball Academy asking him if he wanted to be a pitching coach. Hockenberry was in shock. He pulled his Ford Focus off to the the side of the road to collect himself before he ultimately accepted the offer.
Hockenberry’s girlfriend Brianna Greco was relieved that he took the job.
“I don’t have to worry about him saying, ‘Hey, I got released,’ because that day was probably the worst,” Greco said. “He was a lot more confident going into this new year than he’s ever been. Even as a coach, you have to prove yourself, but in a sense, it’s a whole new ballgame.”
Hockenberry said he has had a great experience so far. In his first game as a coach, the Phillies’ rookies shutout Oakton Community College, an Illinois school with two campuses, in an exhibition game.
Early in his coaching career, Hockenberry has worked with players from community colleges, independent league teams and international squads who received invitations to spring training. He said he also has “been hanging out and doing every little thing they ask,” like unwrapping about 300 baseballs for pitchers to use.
Regardless of a player being a rookie or a veteran, Hockenberry expects that every player listens the same way. In his spring training speech, he told the players he understood that veterans might look down on him because he didn’t make it to the majors.
But Hockenberry encouraged them to learn from his perspective because he went through something he hopes they never have to experience.
“I can tell you right now, I’m good at what I do because I know how hard it is to get to the big leagues because I never got there,” he said.
As Hockenberry continues his spring training, he is looking forward to the Gulf Coast League opening competitive play in early June.
“I’m going to get to work with a lot of guys who will one day have the opportunity to play in the big leagues,” Hockenberry said. “People don’t understand what we go through trying to chase a dream that we’ve had since the first time we picked up a ball.”