July 21, 2011: The catcher: Baseball’s most demanding and least appreciated job

This story first appeared July 21, 2011 in the Toronto Star.



PHILADELPHIA—When John Buck flexes his left thumb you can hear the joints crack. It makes the same sound bubble-wrap does when you squeeze the tiny air pockets until they burst.

And when the Florida Marlins catcher keeps the digit bent, a lump appears on the first knuckle. He invites you to touch it, and when you do it depresses then snaps back into shape like a button on a remote control.

Buck can’t even remember exactly what caused the knot. It could have been a foul ball, an errant bat, or any other of a variety of job hazards you face when you make a living behind the plate.

Sometimes the bumps are small, like the one on Buck’s hand. Other times they’re season-ending, like the broken leg Giants catcher Buster Posey suffered in a late May collision at home plate.

But the dangers combine with a constellation of other factors to make catching the most demanding and least appreciated position in baseball.

More than any other job in the game, the elements of being a catcher have remained unchanged.

Beyond simply receiving the ball and tossing it back to the mound, a good catcher has to scout batters as closely as pitchers do.

He has to be part Dr. Phil, offering pitchers timely advice in tight situations; part sniper, gunning down base-runners; and part middle linebacker, guarding the plate even as runners barrel toward him.

And catchers need to do it for nine innings because there’s no such thing as a relief catcher.

In that sense, a catcher’s job remains constant no matter how the game around him shifts.

What has changed is how much the market values the position.

In 1998, Mike Piazza signed a seven-year, $91 million (U.S.) contract with the Mets that briefly made him the highest paid player in baseball, but a catcher isn’t likely to hold that spot again soon.

Twins catcher Joe Mauer’s $23 million salary for 2011 makes him the fourth-highest paid player in baseball this season, but no other catcher even ranks in the top 20. Toronto’s two catchers, Jose Molina and J.P. Arencibia, make a combined $817,000, or less than a quarter of the $3.5 million the club pays relief pitcher Octavio Dotel.

Buck had the best season of his career backstopping the Blue Jays in 2010, batting .281 with 20 homers and making the all-star team. That performance earned him a raise in free agency — three years, $18 million — but didn’t propel him into baseball’s salary stratosphere.

But he shrugs because he knows that even though catchers work harder for their money than most other players, teams don’t generally pay for the intangibles good catchers provide.

“The money goes to the guys throwing up (offensive) numbers,” says Buck, 31. “You’re not going to throw up those numbers behind the plate. . . . Joe Mauer’s a freak, but his body has taken a beating, too.”

When 40-year-old Washington Nationals catcher Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez decides to end his hall-of-fame career, the idea of the superstar catcher might just retire with him.

Through Tuesday, Rodriguez had hit 311 home runs in his 21-year career, while posting a .297 career batting average. For much of the 1990s and early 2000s, Piazza matched Rodriguez’s play and profile as a big-hitting backstop. When he retired in 2007, Piazza had amassed 427 homers while batting .308.

Standout catchers remain rare, and young players are still taught that if they’re looking for a more direct route to the majors, they should move behind the plate. Arencibia received that advice from a coach when he was 12, prompting a switch from shortstop to catcher.

But increasingly teams feel that players with all-star offensive talent are too valuable to subject to the daily pounding catchers absorb.

Search the name “Bryce Harper” on YouTube.com and you’ll find clips of the top pick in the 2010 draft cutting down base thieves at second, sometimes firing from his knees like former Blue Jay Benito Santiago.

But when the Nationals drafted him first overall last June, they quickly defused any speculation that Harper would form a super-battery with pitching prodigy Stephen Strasburg, whom they selected with the top pick in the 2009 draft.

Instead, the club moved Harper to the outfield, where he figures to play in the majors.

“We believe that he could pull off being a major league catcher . . . but his bat is well ahead of his defence as a catcher,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said to reporters at a news conference after the 2010 draft. “With the rigours of catching, we think it is going to accelerate his career as a major-leaguer.”

That line of thinking receives support as Twins catcher Joe Mauer continues to struggle with injuries and diminished production.

In six full seasons heading into 2011, Mauer had established himself as one of the game’s top offensive players, batting a career .327 while collecting three batting titles. But this season, injuries have limited him to 38 games through Tuesday, and his batting average is down to .291 from .327 last season.

Earlier in the summer, the Twins flirted with the idea of using Mauer as a part-time first baseman, but he hasn’t played there since making a start at first against the White Sox in early July.

But after that game, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire seemed excited about seeing more of Mauer at first base.

“This is a good thing,” he told reporters in Chicago. “It gives me a chance to rest his legs a little bit. Get away from squatting. We’ll see how it all works out.”

That Mauer can move to the busiest position on the infield to take a break from catching tells you just how demanding life is behind the plate.

Like a pitcher, a catcher has to keep extensive notes — mental and otherwise — on opposing batters, learning strengths, weaknesses and tendencies and calling pitches accordingly.

But even doing that well depends on a catcher winning a pitcher’s respect and trust, a process that depends equally on baseball acumen, soft skills and luck.

So while Buck’s catching bona fides are well established, when Brandon Morrow joined the Jays last spring he learned quickly that he pitched measurably better with backup catcher Jose Molina behind the plate.

In seven starts pitching to Buck, Morrow posted an 8.80 ERA, while opponents batted .315 against him. With Molina catching, Morrow’s ERA dipped to 3.30, and opponents’ average dove to .227.

Their bond deepened last April in Tampa, when Morrow walked the leadoff batter in each of the first four innings of a game against the Rays, only to have Molina throw out each of those runners trying to steal second.

“You’ve got to have that relationship where you can trust him,” said Morrow, whose 110 strikeouts heading into Wednesday led the Blue Jays. “There’s times out there it’s like he’s reading my mind, where I’m thinking this is the pitch I want to throw and he puts it down. . . . It really boosts your confidence to know that you guys are thinking on the same page.”

While the right catcher is invaluable to pitchers like Morrow, those skills rarely translate into fat contracts.

Baseball isn’t like soccer, where a top-flight holding midfielder can command the same salary as a high-scoring forward.

In Major League Baseball, flashy stats earn big contracts, and that’s where catchers lag.

As a group, catchers ranked last among American League position players in batting average (.245) and total bases (2,998) in 2010. While offensive numbers are down overall this season, catchers still rank last in batting (.235), on base plus slugging (.683) and total bases (1,741).

Arencibia says those numbers don’t reflect a lack of batting skill as much as they do the consequences of playing banged up.

In a late May game against Chicago, Arencibia took a foul ball off his left hand that didn’t affect his catching, but hampered his ability to hold a bat. He says he’s far from the only catcher trying to remain productive at the plate while fending off injuries unique to the position.

“You get hit and now you have to come to the plate and your hand is hurting,” says Arencibia, who through Monday is batting .211 with 12 homers. “You try not to swing normally so it doesn’t hurt and you wind up getting yourself out.”

Fending off the fatigue that comes with playing nearly all of every game often means putting in longer hours.

Buck often arrives at the ballpark seven hours before the first pitch for strength training and treatment for whatever injuries are nagging him that day.

And for Arencibia, preparing to catch nine innings night after night is a year-round job.

“You have to be ready. That’s what off-season training is for,” he says. “And that’s why we have ice.”

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