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Caught looking at the plate

Shortage of good young backstops leaves teams searching

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / June 20, 2008

Mark Wagner gets the question when the situation isn't clear, or isn't second nature.

What would Jason do? How would the veteran Red Sox catcher react? What would he call?

It's a long way from Double A to the majors, from Portland's Hadlock Field to Boston's Fenway Park. And for a young catcher, there are stages of development - time to learn the right call for each scenario.

But that doesn't mean Wagner, the Sea Dogs' 24-year-old backstop, hasn't progressed as he attempts to establish himself as the heir to Jason Varitek. He has succeeded at the toughest position in baseball, one in which prowess both offensively and defensively is rare. Wagner is confident he can be as proficient with the bat as he is defensively.

"Make sure you're physically tough enough," he said. "You've just got to accept it; that's the way the job is. You've got to take a lot of pride in it because there aren't too many guys who can do both."

With the 36-year-old Varitek in his 11th major league season, the Red Sox need to look to the future behind the plate. Although Boston struck gold in acquiring Varitek from the Mariners in 1997 (along with Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb), finding a franchise catcher is seemingly more difficult than finding an ace.

"Nobody has an abundance of them," said Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff, baseball's longest-tenured scouting director. "If you get a guy like that every decade, you're probably doing good."

So where are they? And, more important, why is it so hard to find them?

"You have to realize you're two feet in or two feet out," Sox bullpen coach and catching instructor Gary Tuck said. "You can't test the water. You have to sell your heart and soul to the position to be a good one. That's why they're rare. That's why the good ones are rare."

All-around tools and toll

It was usually the fat kid.

With no confidence in his ability to play other positions, he'd head behind the plate, an imposing target, and set up. No matter that he might offer no quickness or soft hands; the best athletes - from Little League to professional baseball - don't usually catch.

"There has been no doubt that most of the real good athletes are shying away from catching because of the wear and tear, and because your success is directly related to your offensive abilities," said Buck Martinez, the former major league catcher and manager. "Those are going to suffer. You play with sore knees and ankles. I think the better athletes are saying, 'This is good, but I don't know if I want to go through it.' "

They could play shortstop or center field instead, glamour positions that aren't so hard on the body. And after taking ground balls or fly balls, they can head to the batting cages, where they really want to be.

The catchers? Although they're not working on game calling in high school - or sometimes even in college - as they move up the ranks, the demands become ever greater.

But, Martinez reminds, the No. 1 purpose for a catcher is getting the best out of a pitcher, the mental aspect, even though that sometimes gets lost amid the ever-increasing demand for offense as teams can't afford a light-hitting player in the lineup.

"There's probably a hundred different things that have to be processed before each pitch," Portland pitching coach Mike Cather said. "That's why catching is so difficult. There's so many facets. Then you've got to catch a 100-mile-an-hour fastball with sink and not get your thumb blown up, then you've got to take a ball off the facemask and then one off the throwing arm and then the guy runs on the next pitch."

Aside from the physical toll, Tuck believes there are infielders and there are outfielders and there are catchers. "When a starting catcher walks in a clubhouse, he has a presence," he said. "So that's where it starts, with a presence."

Added Martinez, "He has to understand psychology in talking to the umpires, physics in talking to the pitcher, defense as he sets up the infield, hitting as a batter. So he understands every aspect of the game."

It takes intelligence and a high pain threshold. Dedication, size, and hand-eye coordination. Athleticism, good hands, instincts, and agility. Strength, quick feet, leadership, and durability. It takes the ability to throw and catch, handle a pitching staff, and call a game.

"Most people just aren't willing to give it a shot," said Pawtucket catcher Dusty Brown. "A foul tip off my forearm isn't going to hurt any less than a foul tip off somebody else's forearm. It's just a matter of I'm willing to let it hit my forearm."

But it's not just those qualities. Great catchers have to be able to put together defensive responsibilities with the ability to hit.

"For younger catchers, the challenge is where is that balance," Sox director of player development Mike Hazen said. "They get so caught up in 'I need to be a good catcher,' they don't spend any time in the cage because they focus all their attention on that. Well, you need to hit, too. I think it takes a couple years to really figure out how to effectively be selfish."

And, to get there, given that many catchers were converted in college or even after reaching the professional ranks, there is a necessary support system. Varitek pointed out that since he was a minor leaguer with Seattle, he hadn't had that kind of coaching with the Red Sox until Tuck joined the staff in 2007.

"One of the reasons there aren't so many good catchers anymore is that the area of catching has been - I can't say ignored - but put on a lower priority than hitting and pitching," Tuck said. "Championship teams have great catchers.

"Most teams, their catchers in spring training, they may block balls twice. They may throw to bases three or four times. That's the norm. That's one of the reasons there's no catching. That's why balls are flying by guys left and right. Balls are being dropped, throws are going into the outfield. That's the reason it's not working."

Premium on the position

The top of the draft is a place to nab the best player available. Because it takes time for young players to reach the majors, it is hardly a place for teams to look for a position of need.

And yet it's not a coincidence top-level catching talent goes early. This year, three blue-chip prospects - Florida State's Buster Posey, California high schooler Kyle Skipworth, and Stanford's Jason Castro - all went in the top 10.

"Head and shoulders above the guys at their position," Radcliff said. "Very defined, very specific tool-wise. There's just less of them. If you don't get them with money in the international world or in the top few rounds [of the draft], the guys left around after that are normally not very good prospects."

Varitek was a first-round pick in 1994 out of Georgia Tech, 14th overall. Minnesota's Joe Mauer went first in 2001. Of the top talents coming up - or in the majors already - the Cubs' Geovany Soto (11th round in 2001) has shown he has potential both ways. Cleveland's Victor Martinez (amateur signee) has greatly improved his game calling. Seattle's Jeff Clement (No. 3, 2005) might profile as a designated hitter. Baltimore's Matt Wieters (No. 5, 2007) shouldn't be far away.

Wagner was drafted in the ninth round in 2005. He didn't start catching until his junior year at the University of California-Irvine, because he was the only one who could handle some of the team's pitchers.

"We're always looking," Sox field coordinator Rob Leary said. "As players come into our system, I'm always going through a checklist. I go right down the list of infielders first, and then the outfielders. We're constantly searching and looking at a possible conversion guy that might be that next catcher."

Like former Sox first baseman Kevin Millar. Back when Leary was with the Marlins, the team brought Millar to the instructional leagues to try to convert him. After a week, that was enough for Millar. It wasn't right, so the team didn't push.

Radcliff remembers speaking to a young infielder, Jose Morales, drafted in the third round in 2001. "Thinks he's Robby Alomar," Radcliff said. But not to the Twins. They had to tell Morales he wasn't in their plans as an infielder. He was, however, as a catcher. Now in Triple A, he's likely to land in the majors.

"Perhaps as an industry we're almost too hard on catchers; the standards we hold amateur catchers to are almost too high," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "When you think about what a big league catcher is, you expect them to have good hands, a strong arm, great body for catching, strong makeup. You expect them to be able to hit. And if you look at the 60 catchers in the big leagues, how many of them hold up to that really high standard?

"If you hold big league catching to that same standard, you might run out of catching."

Maturation process

Two fastballs had just gone past. Wagner, tucked into his crouch, noticed movement in the batter's box. The batter had stepped back, altering his stance.

Wagner trotted to the mound, met by Cather. Alerted that the New Hampshire Fisher Cats hitter had pushed back in the box, Cather asked the question. How do you want to attack him?

"Breaking ball away," Wagner answered.

What's another option?

"Fastball away."

"With this particular hitter, when we get late in the count, we pound him with a fastball inside and he knows that we're coming inside," Cather said. "[Wagner] saw the adjustment, picked it up before the pitch was thrown, made the adjustment, and we got [the out]. And that is what this game is about."

It was a far cry from what Wagner would have observed in his early days in the organization and a sign of his maturing skills. He's the best the Sox have to offer in the upper minors, defensively better than George Kottaras, offensively better than Brown, the two options in Triple A.

In 48 games, Wagner is hitting .267 with six homers and 32 RBIs. He also ranks first in the Eastern League in fielding percentage (.997) and has thrown out 18 of 41 would-be base stealers.

"The progress from '06 to now is drastic," Cather said. "The progress from the first game of the year till now is as extreme as it was from '06 to the beginning of this year."

With catchers seeming to fit into three categories - the defensive (or catch-and-throw) guy, the offensive guy, and those who are both - it remains to be seen how Wagner will be viewed and how much time he needs.

"It's getting increasingly difficult to find guys with the total package in terms of offensive ability and defensive ability," an American League scout said. "I've changed over the course of time. Because of such a shortage of catching, I've changed my opinion. I'm giving a chance more [to catchers on the margins] than I ever would before."

With the Red Sox, though, there are other issues. "How do you transition that guy to the big league level?" Hazen asked. "We're going to have to make that step with somebody at some point here in the near future."

Whether that's Wagner remains to be seen. What is clear is that the search for that player - especially that rare prospect who can do it all - has become discouragingly difficult.

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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