Unable to stay healthy and launch a promising career as a pitcher, former first-round pick Matt Hobgood is attempting to take a different route to the majors.
Hobgood, 26, is trying to make a comeback as a hitter. He’s currently working out in Arizona with former Orioles outfielder Larry Harlow, his hitting coach at Norco (Cal.) High School.
It’s going to be a process, of course, but Hobgood isn’t ready to hang up his spikes.
The Orioles made Hobgood the fifth-overall pick in the 2009 draft - critics viewed his signability as the motivation - after he was named Gatorade National Player of the Year. He never rose above Double-A Bowie, where he made six relief appearances and underwent multiple shoulder surgeries, the last in 2015 to remove a bone spur.
Hobgood became a minor league free agent and didn’t pitch this year. He hasn’t been on a mound since June 17, 2015 in New Britain. Now, he’s preparing to step up to the plate.
“I had almost 40 home runs in three years in high school, so I figured why not try to see what’s there as a hitter,” he said. “My arm hasn’t held up the way it needs to as a pitcher and I know I’d have some regret if I didn’t at least give hitting a shot.”
Hobgood’s agent will check with teams to gauge their interest and try to get a signature on a contract. It wouldn’t hurt to remind them that Hobgood led the nation in home runs with 21 before the Orioles drafted him.
“The idea is to keep working on hitting over the next few months and then go to some tryouts at some point,” Hobgood said. “Obviously, independent ball could be an option initially to then get back into minor league ball, but like I said, I’d regret not trying just because there’s a lot of power there. It’s just whether or not I can get it to translate to game situations. Lots of good 5 o’clock hitters out there.”
Hobgood hasn’t lost his sense of humor or his desire to play baseball. He was 17-24 with a 4.98 ERA in 110 minor league games, making only two starts after 2011 due to his shoulder.
Hobgood had shoulder surgery in April 2012, missing the entire season, and moved to the bullpen. He had an impressive spring training in March 2015 and threw 5 1/3 scoreless innings in his first two games with Bowie, but he made two stops on the disabled list and succumbed to another surgery.
Harlow and Hobgood live in Surprise, Ariz., and it seemed natural for them to reunite for more workouts.
“I called him up and asked if he was interested in helping and he said, ‘Of course,’ ” Hobgood said.
There are plenty of scouts and team officials nearby for the Arizona Fall League. You can’t shake a bat without hitting one. Too bad Hobgood isn’t ready for tryouts.
“I wish I could just throw on a uni and go play in front of these guys,” Hobgood quipped, “but I know the opportunities will come in due time and hopefully someone who’s willing to be patient with me - as much as you can with a 26-year-old hitter - gives me a chance to go to spring training with them.”
If this is Plan B, Hobgood also has Plan C lined up.
“I’m also getting my EMT certification so that if hitting doesn’t work out, I can hopefully get on with the Phoenix Fire Department in the future,” Hobgood said. “I love just playing baseball though, so I’m optimistic that something could work out in the hitting realm.”
Harlow, who spent six seasons in the majors beginning in 1975, is getting reacquainted with Hobgood.
“We’ve been working for a little over a month. Maybe two or three times a week,” Harlow said. “Right now, it’s just in the cage, so we’re just going through mechanics and that kind of thing. I think eventually he’ll have to have some type of tryout somewhere. But he’s progressing well. He’s in pretty good shape. The biggest thing is getting him on the field and getting him accustomed to what transpires on the field, and we hope to do that soon.
“He’s got a couple opportunities to work out with a junior college team. I don’t know when the tryouts are. I’ve heard they usually have tryouts in January. It’s just going to be a time thing, you know? But he’s in the hotbed being here in Arizona. I’m guessing that he’d have to show really good in his initial tryout and I’m just concerned that he needs to get out on the field and prove that he can play a position, and I think first base would probably be his best. But he always had power. Even when he was in high school, he had tons of power. But how does that translate now into minor league baseball?”
The odds may not favor Hobgood, “but I think he knows that and he’s preparing himself in case it doesn’t happen,” Harlow said.
“He goes to one of the performance locations in Scottsdale a couple times a week and we work out two or three times a week. He’s diligent in his work. It just depends what happens in a tryout. Mechanics right now are pretty good. Again, he hasn’t faced any live pitching, so that’s what I’m concerned about before he goes into a tryout situation. We’ll see.”
As a high-profile pitcher who didn’t pan out, Hobgood took plenty of hits from fans criticizing his lack of success and his conditioning. Some of it was ugly.
I’ll just say this: Hobgood lost his father to colon cancer when he was only 14. He’s a husband and father of two, his daughter arriving in July. He’s deeply religious and unabashedly polite. He’s got a good heart. And he’s more upset than anyone else that it didn’t work out with the Orioles.
I’ll root for him to succeed in life, in or out of baseball.
* The Orioles are continuing the interview process as they seek to hire a new pitching coach next week, and one candidate from outside the organization is Cardinals minor league pitching coordinator Tim Leveque.
Sources confirmed the Orioles’ interest in Leveque, who’s held his current job with the Cardinals since November 2013. However, he isn’t regarded as a frontrunner to replace Dave Wallace in Baltimore.
He’s just in the mix.
Leveque, who turns 37 next month, served as the Cardinals’ mechanics analyst/minor league rehab coordinator in 2013 before his promotion to his current role. He was pitching coach with the Gulf Coast League Cardinals in 2012, Single-A Quad Cities in 2010-2011, short-season Single-A Batavia in 2009 and rookie-league Johnson City in 2008.
The Tigers selected Leveque in the 29th round of the 1999 draft, but he opted for a scholarship at the University of Michigan.
Double-A Bowie pitching coach Alan Mills interviewed on Thursday. The Orioles also have interest in former Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell.