A veteran baseball scout was a few rows behind home plate at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., in spring training when Red Sox switch-hitter Blake Swihart stepped into the batter’s box from the left side.
“You don’t trade this guy,” he said. “Can you count on one hand how many all-around catchers there are in baseball? Guys who can play defense and hit? That’s why you don’t trade him. And that’s why the Phillies and other teams would love to have him.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Some of the catchers in the Hall of Fame excelled both offensively and defensively. Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench, and Gary Carter to name three. And future Hall of Fame catchers include Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, Yadier Molina, and Buster Posey.
But what happened to the whole package?
Since 2006, the batting averages for major league catchers are: .269, .256, .257, .254, .249, .245, .248, .245, and .245. And entering Friday, catchers were batting .224 this season. And the overall OPS of catchers has dropped almost 100 points, from .745 in 2006 to .647.
When you think about it, Molina, Posey, Matt Wieters, Jonathan Lucroy, Brian McCann, Derek Norris, and Salvador Perez are today’s offensive catchers. Yan Gomes was trending that way after a breakout 2014 for Cleveland, but he’s now injured. The A’s Stephen Vogt may be emerging as an all-around catcher at age 30.
Joe Mauer used to be an all-around threat but he switched positions. Victor Martinez was an offensive catcher and not bad behind the plate, until he got older and lost some quickness.
Mike Napoli used to be a good hitter for a catcher, but some questioned his defense, though he was a better defender than most thought.
“You have to be able to call a game, frame pitches, handle a staff, all of the things necessary to catch,” said Red Sox catching instructor Dana Levangie. “The offense is secondary. If you get that, great.”
That seems to be the mind-set.
“It took me a long time to get the hitting part together,” said Molina. “Hitting is something that comes over time. The catching part is what you spend so much of your time on, and you want to get right because that affects not just you but the pitcher and the whole team.”
Good offensive catchers often become like Napoli, a power-hitting first baseman.
“The only thing I miss about catching is the game-planning against the hitter,” said Napoli. “That whole process of devising how to attack the hitter. The physical part . . . I feel so much better now. People don’t understand how physically demanding the position is. You get really tired, and as a result your offense goes down. There’s only so much you can do. It’s true, the catchers who can do both are rare.”
And so we have this new generation of good receivers who can’t hit. The guys who can do both will be perennial All-Stars and maybe future Hall of Famers.
Swihart may lap Christian Vazquez as he recovers from Tommy John surgery because if Swihart’s offense takes off and he plays average defense, he will play more he than sits. If and when they’re together next season, will Vazquez get more playing time over Swihart or vice versa?
“Time does a number on you,” said Napoli, who had to stop catching because of a degenerative hip condition.
Napoli came from a strict catching background with the Angels, learning from task master Mike Scioscia, who felt Jeff Mathis was a superior defensive catcher to Napoli. Yet when Napoli got to Texas, he caught some of the biggest games during the Rangers’ run to the 2011 World Series.
“I always took pride in my defense,” Napoli said. “I think it helped my offense in Texas because I was able to DH and play some first as well as catch.”
Dave Trembley, a former Orioles manager and now the Braves’ farm director, said he simply doesn’t see much offense with catchers anymore.
“I see it being a defensive position now,” Trembley said. “Everybody needs someone who can catch and throw, handle a staff, control the running game. Where are the Gary Carters and Mike Piazzas? There are a few around baseball, and Bob Melvin did a good job creating offense with platoons like Derek Norris and John Jaso. But otherwise, it’s rare.”
Look at where catchers are in most batting orders. In the NL, they’re usually eighth. In the AL, eighth or ninth.
“I noticed by the end of my career that the pitching had really gotten better and I think that’s affected hitters across the board, including catchers,” said ex-Red Sox Jason Varitek.
A.J. Pierzynski, in his 18th year as a major league catcher, has always been known more for his offense. A .282 career hitter, Pierzynski is hanging on nicely with the Braves, hitting .400 with three home runs to start the season.
Agent Scott Boras, who represents Wieters, believes the lack of all-around catchers is the fault of youth coaches.
“Coaches never use the 9-12-year old player with the strongest arm to catch. They make them pitchers,” said Boras. “To save their arm, they play them at other positions. So youth coaches take the committed athlete who can’t hit and is willing to take his time to learn how to catch. Most high school catchers are catchers because they were never good hitters.”
So, every now and then you come across a Swihart. And even though there’s the temptation to switch his position because he’s athletic, teams shouldn’t do it.
Race a factor in way game is perceived
An HBO Real Sports/Marist poll revealed that one in three Americans considers the decline in African-American players in major league baseball to be a problem. This includes about one in eight who believe the decline to be a major issue.
African-Americans (49 percent) are more likely than whites (34 percent) to consider the composition of MLB players to be troublesome.
Looking at Americans’ perceptions of baseball, only about one in seven think of it as the most popular sport for children to play. Football (35 percent) and soccer (28 percent) were the choices.
The poll found that racial differences exist. White Americans (15 percent) are more than twice as likely as African-Americans (6 percent) to say baseball is the leading sport in which children participate. Still, baseball places third among whites in terms of popularity, and fourth among African-Americans.
The poll found that finances are a factor in why kids aren’t playing baseball. More than six in 10 Americans said the cost of playing in top travel leagues is at least part of the reason. Forty-seven percent said equipment is too expensive.
The poll also found that two-thirds of Americans, including a majority of African-Americans, played baseball as children. And baseball (33 percent) ranked first as the sport Americans would like to play with their son. But while baseball tops the list for white Americans, it comes in fourth among African-Americans.
The poll showed that Americans overall view baseball in a positive way. Most (83 percent) consider it a sport rich in tradition and not too old-fashioned. Nearly three in four Americans called baseball “cool” as opposed to “not cool.”
And 59 percent said the sport is changing with the times and is not stuck in the past.
Despite Americans’ mostly favorable impressions of the sport, baseball isn’t a major topic around the water cooler. Only 31 percent said they talk about or follow the sport a lot during the season. African-Americans are the least likely to keep up with the sport.
The conclusion is that “baseball lags behind other sporting pastimes for American youth, particularly for African-Americans,” according to Keith Strudler, director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication. “What could be most problematic for baseball officials is that changing the nature of the game may not alter this trend, since the larger impediment is cost, something that will be more difficult to drastically change.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Mike Napoli played with Josh Hamilton in Texas and calls him “the best player I ever saw. He could do everything — hit, field, hit for power, run. He just did things on a baseball field that you’d say, ‘How did he do that?’ It’s so sad what he’s gone through. I hope he can come back because I think he still has a lot of baseball left in him and he’s a great guy and teammate.” Hamilton is likely headed back to the Rangers in a deal with the Angels. Texas is where Hamilton felt most comfortable and where he seemed to have a support system in place for his addictions.
2. The Indians are going to have to get a hitter. In their first 14 games, of which they lost nine, they scored 3.14 runs per game, last in the American League. Their team batting average of .220 was third-worst in the league, and 29 points below the league average. Only one Indians regular was hitting above .226 — designated hitter Ryan Raburn, who was hitting .364.
3. On May 1, MLB will begin assessing fines for pace-of-game infractions — mostly batters not remaining in the box. Joe Garagiola Jr., who is in charge of pace of game, said that lately not as many warning letters have been issued to players, a sign that they are getting it. Games have been averaging 2 hours, 54 minutes, about eight minutes faster than last season.
4. There are scouts watching Allen Craig and just waiting for him to do something well so they can provide a positive recommendation to their bosses. They haven’t seen much yet.
5. Tom Zimmer, son of Don Zimmer, is into his 35th season as a scout for the Giants.
6. Reds manager Bryan Price gets a mulligan here. He’s been an astute observer of the game over the years and certainly understands that while there are some reporters who promote the agenda of the team, most offer a fair and balanced approach to coverage, promoting the good and pointing out the bad. Price had a bad day when he said beat reporters should support the team. He knows better.
7. Happy 20th birthday, Coors Field.
8. There were two early concerns with the Pirates: Closer Mark Melancon’s cutter velocity has dipped from low 90s last season to 86-88 this season. He blew a save, but then got one late in the week. And the Pirates struck out 132 times in their first 16 games, an average of 8.3 per game, and struck out in 23.2 percent of their first 570 plate appearances.
Updates on nine
1. Andrew Miller, LHP, Yankees — One regret the Red Sox may have is not re-signing Miller. He’s 6 for 6 in save opportunities since signing a four-year, $36 million deal with the Yankees. The Red Sox offered $32 million, but for an extra $1 million a year, could they have kept him away from the Yankees? Miller has really taken to the closer role, and with Dellin Betances has been a lights-out bullpen combination.
2. Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies — There have been no calls on Hamels regarding a trade since the last week of March, according to a Phillies source. Teams appear to be watching their own staffs to project a need. That likely won’t come until mid-May, after a few turns in the rotation. Hamels got off to a slow start but has started to look like the ace he is.
3. Aaron Harang, RHP, Phillies — Bash Phillies GM Ruben Amaro if you want, but he created another trade opportunity when he acquired the veteran righthander, who has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. Harang, 2-1 with a 1.37 ERA in four starts, may be two weeks from his 37th birthday, but he’s pitching like he’s in his prime, with great location of his fastball. While it’s been tough to move Hamels, a few more good starts may net the Phillies a prospect for Harang.
4. Alexi Ogando, RHP, Red Sox — The Red Sox have received kudos from around baseball for signing Ogando as a free agent. Many teams stayed away because of his extensive arm and elbow issues and are now kicking themselves. “They’ve used him so well at the beginning of the season, biting off as much as he can chew and slowly but surely increasing to high-leverage situations,” said one National League scout. “He’s got some real action on his fastball and electric stuff at times. He’ll occasionally leave a pitch over the plate, but this is like a bonus guy. A lot of teams missed the boat and the Red Sox were one of the few teams willing to offer a major league deal.”
5. Rafael Soriano, RHP, free agent — As we reported last week, Scott Boras indicated the calls on his client has increased as teams such as the Tigers have taken injury hits. The Blue Jays and Brewers could also use some replenishment. Soriano has returned to the Dominican Republic for workouts as he awaits an opportunity.
6. Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers — The Rangers have to be concerned about Andrus, who has not become what they hoped. Each year, he’s declined. Andrus has the worst WAR this season among shortstops (minus-0.5). He has a .479 OPS and has committed three errors in his first 16 games.
7. Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies — What’s unfortunate for the Phillies is that the position players they want to deal are off to bad starts. Utley recently broke an 0-for-21 skid and just doesn’t look good at the plate. Ryan Howard, who struck out 17 times in his first 46 at-bats, looks like a shell of his former self, and the $60 million left on his contract is a killer. Meanwhile, Utley has to approve any deal. Can’t imagine he’d want to stay in an environment that so far has produced the worst hitting, the worst defense, and the worst pitching.
8. Pete Rose — The fact that he’s working for Fox and has received the go-ahead to participate in All-Star events in Cincinnati could mean reinstatement isn’t far behind. Commissioner Rob Manfred probably bought himself some time in responding to Rose’s reinstatement application by saying Rose could participate in All-Star activities, but it sure looks like things are trending in a positive direction for Rose. He’s popular among older Hall of Fame voters, who would love to have the chance to vote on his status.
9. Jason Varitek, special assistant, Red Sox — Varitek spent time last week working with Blake Swihart and is in Baltimore this weekend with the Red Sox. He then will travel to Greenville and then back to Pawtucket. Asked if he would ever want to do it full time, Varitek said, “Maybe someday. Not right now.” Varitek wants to watch his kids grow up and maybe then he’ll be the manager people think he’s going to be.
From the Bill Chuck files — “In 25 April starts for the Red Sox in 2013, Will Middlebrooks had 13 RBIs. In his first 15 starts in April 2015 for the Padres, Middlebrooks had 11 RBIs.” . . . Also, “The Padres hit .226 last season, the worst team batting average in the majors, and are hitting .282 this season, the best average in the NL.” . . . Happy birthday, Ricky Trlicek (46).Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.