Dunedin, Fla.— Don Wakamatsu is squatting by the batting cage on a sun-drenched practice field. It is the closest he comes to sitting down during the outdoor part of his workday.
But during this full-bore batting practice session, in which pitchers are battling to get batters out and catchers are calling pitches, Wakamatsu is indeed at work, aiming a flip camera at the man behind the plate. Later, he will call the catcher into his office and review the video on his laptop computer, “to help him see what I see.”
When it comes to catchers in the Toronto Blue Jays camp, there is much to see. And when they sit in a circle in the bullpen, as they often have in the early days of spring training, there may be no other place in baseball where so many catching prospects reap the benefit of so much coaching experience.
Wakamatsu, the Jays’ new bench coach, is a former catcher. So are farm director Doug Davis and minor-league manager Sal Fasano. Joining the panel of experts this spring is veteran catcher Jose Molina.
Combined, those four faculty members have caught 4,060 professional games over 58 seasons. They constitute a living library for their 2011 class, which includes eight catchers who have made minor-league all-star teams.
“We all bring up personal experiences,” Wakamatsu says, “and I think it helps the younger catchers expedite their learning curve just from the stories we tell. And Jose’s been phenomenal.”
Molina, 35, is entering his 12th big-league season in his traditional role as a reserve, this time as the presumptive backup to rookie J.P. Arencibia, who just turned 25. Molina often plays a central role in what Wakamatsu calls the “round-table discussions” in the bullpen.
“I’m not a coach but I feel like I am because I’m teaching,” Molina says. “I don’t feel like I have to do it, but I love to do it. I like when I help somebody, so if I can help anybody here, I feel great about myself.”
Talk to a catcher or a catching coach in this camp, and they all say the same thing about their outdoor classroom.
The lessons are not prescriptive. Yes, experience gets respect, but ideas are freely exchanged and each catcher is encouraged to seize the advice that feels right for him.
“It’s giving the kids as much information as possible so they’ll be able to develop their own style,” says Fasano, a career backup whose 16-year professional career included stints with nine big-league teams, including the Jays.
Wakamatsu managed the Seattle Mariners to an 85-77 record in 2009, then was fired last August after the team tanked to 42-70. Long regarded as one of baseball’s most respected coaches, he is also renowned for his work with catchers.
His curriculum includes the obvious — techniques for blocking the plate and balls in the dirt, footwork for throws to the bases, fielding bunts — but also the more nuanced elements of the job, especially the way a catcher can subtly change his stance to cope with the quirks of various pitches.
Those minimalist moves represented Arencibia’s most important lesson so far this spring.
“The biggest thing for me has been working on my setup with Don Wakamatsu, just being able to move with my legs and hips to get in good positions for different pitches,” he says.
“That’s stuff that I’ve never really learned and now I’m starting to see how important it is. That’s the big thing about Molina, how he positions himself with his body so well in front of balls to make a lot of pitches look like strikes.”
That does not mean Arencibia will have mastered the art by opening day. Old habits can die hard, especially when a catcher moves from practice-field drills, where he can focus on technique, to a big-league game, where the action accelerates and multi-tasking becomes paramount.
“The amount of repetition and the amount of time spent to acquire that smoothness doesn’t come overnight,” Wakamatsu says. “There’s no magic pill.”
His syllabus is comprehensive. On Wednesday, there was a lesson on baseball rules that affect catchers. The quiz included the question: If you find two runners on third base, which one do you tag?
Answer: Both of them. Then tell the lead runner he is out (which is a lie) and perhaps he will step off the bag to complete an embarrassing double play.
“There is a lot of dialogue,” Wakamatsu says. “It’s not about just receiving and throwing guys out. It’s the full package, and I try to create a forum where the players feel comfortable asking questions.”
For Brian Jeroloman, slated to catch at Triple-A Las Vegas this season, the round-table atmosphere reflects the pride that both the catchers and their coaches feel about a unique and demanding position.
“I can’t tell you how many places, from high school to college to where we are now, that I’ve come across catchers that don’t take as much pride defensively as they should,” Jeroloman says. “In this group, we all love what we do and we’ll do anything it takes to get better.”
Wakamatsu likes the sound of those words. More than most, he appreciates what it takes for a catcher to build solid defensive credentials: commitment, hard work and a willingness to take educated risks along the way.
“Unlike other positions, where you might get a ball or two a game, we’re involved in every pitch,” he says. “You can’t hide.”
.. we should all use our ISH names so we know who is who.
“I like to get a lot of ground balls and I feel like I pitch to contact. I like to work very quickly and I don’t like to nibble. I don’t try to mess around too much,” Stewart said.
“He’s got such a quick arm,” Walton said.
“It’s explosive. He can sink and slide the ball. He’s very interesting, and he is one determined young man to establish himself not only in the Blue Jay organization but at the major-league level. He just looks like he knows what’s going on.”
The Blue Jays couldn't generate much offense early in the game. Their best opportunity came in the bottom of the fourth. The club had the bases loaded with just one out, but slugger Jose Bautista struck out and first baseman Adam Lind popped up to end the inning.
Up next: The Tigers will start off the home portion of their Spring Training schedule Sunday with a 1:05 p.m. ET matchup against the Blue Jays at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla.
“The first day, I didn’t expect too much. I’m not too bad with my timing, but no issues at all,”
“I’m not batting like it’s a regular at-bat. I’m seeing the ball and working on details.”
“This is the first (spring training) I’m not battling for a spot on the roster,” said Bautista.
“It allows me to focus on details. That’s what will happen this spring.”
“What you see with Jose is not only his physical abilities, but he sets the tone.” Farrell said.
“Even in early stretching drills, he’s the first guy on the line, and after a day players gravitate to him to ask him things. When one of your better players takes charge like that, everyone notices. To me, that’s the definition of a leader.”
There could be as many as seven Dominican players on the Jays’ opening-day roster, and another seven among the organization’s most prized prospects. Bautista appears to be having a positive influence on Yunel Escobar, primarily on the field where he is often seen talking to his shortstop about game situations from his position at third.
“Maybe the fact that it was a B game was okay, we get a little bit of a dry run before this afternoon, but it all felt comfortable. It all felt natural,” Farrell said.
“We’re now in the business of getting guys in shape and getting their timing set both on the mound and at the plate.”
"There were a couple of times where some throws from the outfield could have been cut off in the centre of the diamond,” Farrell said.
“That’s part of spring training, getting the repetition for Adam. It’s communication at this point in time until some of these decisions become instinctual. I thought we turned a couple of double plays that were good. There were a couple of hard-hit balls that handcuffed some infielders. Again, it’s Game 1 and it’s a matter of getting our timing down in all phases.”
Top prospect Gose impressing with his speed
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Blue Jays top prospect Anthony Gose continues to impress during his first Spring Training with the Blue Jays.
The 20-year-old outfielder caught the attention of the Tigers' coaching staff shortly after drawing a walk to lead off the top of the ninth inning in Sunday's game. Detroit's staff marveled at the lead Gose took, and had even more praise once he eventually stole second base.
"3.24 seconds, that's Rickey Henderson territory," one of the coaches was heard saying of the Blue Jays speedster, who was acquired from the Phillies during the 2010 season.
Gose, who went on to steal third base, now has three stolen bases in two Grapefruit League games. Speed has always been a major part of his repertoire, but last season his stolen base numbers dropped from 76 to 45.
"There was one year where he really dropped off, and there are reasons for that," Jays manager John Farrell said of Gose's numbers. "I don't want to get into the development mandates that were put on him in the past, but when you let that ability play itself out, he has some tremendous tools.
"Even to get on base he took some good pitches in that at-bat, he fought off a couple of good pitches," Farrell said of Gose's ninth-inning work Sunday. "It was a quality at-bat to even draw that walk."
... there are seven pitchers in the mix for two rotation spots, but manager John Farrell indicated Sunday that it is, in essence, a four-man battle.
The principal combatants for the fourth and fifth starters are apparently Marc Rzepczynski, Jesse Litsch, Kyle Drabek and Jo-Jo Reyes. That leaves Scott Richmond still in the mix, but on the periphery of the competition and Brad Mills and Zach Stewart headed back to the minors for more seasoning.
Reyes had been scheduled to follow Drabek to the mound, each of them pitching two innings. Now, Drabek is set to pitch a bullpen session on Wednesday and then pitch in next Saturday’s game against the Tigers in Dunedin.
Both Rzepczynski and Litsch pitched two shutout innings against the Tigers. Rzepczynski erased all six men he faced, two via strikeouts. Litsch gave up a single in his first inning but got out of trouble with a good defensive play by shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria.
Farrell said results will be only part of the criteria that will decide who gets a spot and who doesn’t, whether it’s a hitter or a pitcher.
“Sometimes results aren’t the determining factor. If a guy is putting a good swing on the ball but doesn’t have anything to show for it, you take that into consideration. Same for a pitcher, if he’s executing pitches and yet for whatever reason doesn’t get the desired result. How did he manage an inning? Control his emotions?
“Somebody might look at Brett Cecil’s line (two innings, three hits, one run on Saturday) and say, it was only okay. I thought he looked good. He found himself in a first and second, nobody-out situation, still stayed pitch-to-pitch, minimized the damage, traded an out for a run. Those are the kinds of things that go into viewing an individual on a given day.”
“If you just remain patient and let things work through the schedule, answers begin to emerge.”
The schedule for the foreseeable future will have the Rzepczynski/ Litsch pairing and the Drabek/Reyes pairing pitch every five days, on the same day. Farrell says no one has an edge.
“It’s four for two. Even though Kyle is coming off a full season and there is no innings limit on him, I don’t want to say he had a leg up. We still look at those four guys for those two spots.
“We will flip them each time. We want to create an even playing field.”
It may have seemed more likely that Stewart, rather than Reyes, would be one of the four but Reyes does not have any options left. Stewart has not pitched above double-A and still might need some seasoning.
The Blue Jays will return to the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, Fla., on Monday afternoon to host the Phillies at 1:05 p.m. ET.
Former Toronto No. 1 starter Roy Halladay will be on the mound for Philadelphia, while the Blue Jays will counter with left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes.