CHERRY HILL, N.J. — Tossing batting practice to Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and the rest of the Philadelphia Phillies has turned into a busy, post-retirement career for Rob Potts.
The 55-year-old former postmaster starts his seventh season as a batting practice pitcher for the Phillies in April. His first year in 2008 ended with a World Series title.
“I’m very blessed to be able to do what I do,” Potts said. “It’s been an unbelievable run. It’s a fun thing to throw batting practice to some of the greatest players in baseball.”
It’s nerve-racking, too.
“I still get nervous every day because you want to be perfect for these guys,” Potts said. “They’re depending on you to be perfect because they need as many swings as they can get. It’s not an easy job. You have to know what they’re trying to do and put the ball in spots where they like it.”
Potts tosses BP before every home game to the reserves. He takes throws in the infield, shags flies in the outfield and then spends the rest of the game helping players in the cages. Starters come in to hit off a tee or machine, take soft-tosses or overhand throws. Potts also works closely with bench guys during games as they prepare for pinch-hitting appearances.
“It’s really neat to see how they work together,” he said.
Potts soaks in all the information he can about hitting and takes it to his day job. When he’s not working with All-Stars at Citizens Bank Park, Potts helps little leaguers to minor leaguers try to achieve their dream of reaching the majors.
Potts, who retired from the post office in 2012, is director of baseball operations at AFC Baseball, one of the area’s top training centers. It’s an attractive place for young kids, high school athletes, college players and even guys already in the pros.
“Steve Henderson, Wally Joyner, Greg Gross, Milt Thompson, they were all great about helping,” Potts said about past and present Phillies hitting coaches. “I’m the teacher here but the student at the stadium. I just listen and learn from all those guys. They know so much. I bring it here and apply it to whatever the kids need.”
Potts had three clients when he started giving hitting lessons a few years ago. The list has grown to over 190 players, ages 6 to 25, including Jamie Jarmon, a second-round pick by Texas in 2012.
“My hitting philosophy is you have to be comfortable,” Potts said. “Everybody stands differently, holds the bat differently. I teach them to stay inside the baseball with their hands. The only thing the same is their swing paths.”
Minnesota Twins right-hander Vance Worley, Atlanta Braves lefty Ryan Buchter, Texas Rangers righty Jason Knapp, Kansas City Royals minor leaguer Johnny Walter and Jarmon worked out at AFC Baseball during the winter. Some of the pitchers also worked there as instructors.
“The key to Rob’s system is being personable to not only the kids but their parents,” said Buchter, who is competing for a spot in Atlanta’s bullpen after posting a 2.51 ERA in 51 games at Triple-A Gwinnett last year. “We do one-on-one training. Parents sit next to Rob. I bring the mother and father over as I go through the session because as the season goes on, if the kid doesn’t remember something, the parents will.”
Teaching younger pitchers various mechanics, arm motions and angles and different techniques helps the pros improve at their craft.
“Having to describe to younger kids what I want them to do makes me a better pitcher because it helps me understand it easier,” said Walter, who had a 1.01 ERA in 18 games at Class A Lexington in 2013.
Knapp, one of the key players traded to Cleveland in the deal that brought Cliff Lee to the Phillies in 2009, credits Potts with helping him get another chance in the big leagues. The hard-throwing 23-year-old hasn’t pitched since 2010, and is returning from three surgeries on his shoulder. He was working toward a degree in Economics at the University of Pennsylvania when he found AFC Baseball.
“I spent two months looking for a place to throw and couldn’t find anything but turf,” Knapp said. “After I started throwing there, scouts came in to watch and I signed with the Rangers. Pottsy was the one who facilitated the whole process. He has the best facility for a pitcher, the only indoor clay mound, and he was helpful and supportive throughout.”
Worley, an 11-game winner for the NL East champion Phillies in 2011, is also working his way back following an injury-plagued season. He stayed in shape by throwing at AFC Baseball.
“It makes it more realistic,” Worley said of throwing off a clay mound. “Throwing off something plastic, fiberglass, or turf, it doesn’t feel the same. It’s hard to judge if your foot is going to slip, if you stride out too far. You want to get a feel for what you have to throw off.”
So much for retirement. Between running AFC Baseball and working for the Phillies, Potts puts in plenty of long hours.
“When you can wake up every day and do what you want, it’s not a bad problem to have,” he said.