The game starts behind the plate.
Before a ball can be put into play, a pitch must be thrown. Before the pitch is thrown, the catcher needs to call it.
The man behind the dish is often undervalued, as he is the one in control of the game.
The Toronto Blue Jays have arguably more catching depth than any other affiliation, a factor that will play into the future success of the ball club.
"The better catchers you have, the better the organization’s going to do," former Blue Jays catcher and current AA manager Sal Fasano said. "So to me, we value catching here just as much as we value starting pitching.
"And it’s nice to see the depth that we have because at every level you know you’re going to get the best of both worlds. You’re going to get the best offensively and defensively from the guy behind the plate. And if you have a good catcher, there’s always the correlation of winning."
Winning is exactly what Fasano experienced last season with top prospect Travis d’Arnaud behind the plate for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Toronto’s AA farm team won the Eastern League championship, with its 23-year-old catcher earning the league’s MVP award.
Tops in Eastern League
The California native had a slash line of .311/.371/.542 last year, leading the league in slugging percentage along with 21 home runs, 33 doubles and 78 runs batted in. D’Arnaud was also named the best defensive catcher in a 2011 poll of Eastern League managers.
'Travis has a really marvelous grasp of pitchers. ... He learns their stuff, he’s able to communicate the ideas and what we’re trying to develop from each pitcher.'— Sal Fasano, manager of Blue Jays' AA affiliate in New Hampshire
"I feel like I was just there for my team," d’Arnaud said of his contributions last season. "I caught pretty well and hit alright. I was just trying to have a good environment, making sure everyone was loose, laughing with everybody. That was it."
While d’Arnaud remains humble, barely acknowledging his personal accolades, his talent hasn’t gone unnoticed in the organization. Fasano has had the best look at d’Arnaud’s progress over the last year, working with him day in and day out in New Hampshire.
"Travis has a really marvelous grasp of pitchers and he works well with them," Fasano said. "He learns their stuff, he’s able to communicate the ideas and what we’re trying to develop from each pitcher. He makes good in-game adjustments.
"I think there’s always work to do with receiving, blocking, throwing, you’ll never be perfect at that. But I think he’s done a really good job receiving, his blocking has improved tremendously, and his throwing is still on the upswing. He’s got a really plus arm so now it’s just a matter of getting the timing with his exchange."
With the strong work ethic that d’Arnaud embodies and the plethora of catching resources he has available to him this spring, there’s no question he will continue to improve and learn.
"I talk to everybody and try to take as much knowledge as I can," d’Arnaud said. "I talk to [fellow Jays catcher] J.P. [Arencibia], [bench coach Don Wakamatsu], Sal Fasano, [catcher] Jeff Mathis, and even [Brian] Jeroloman was at a higher level than I was last year, so I even ask him questions."
It is likely that d’Arnaud will start the upcoming season at AAA Las Vegas, though he is seemingly not that far away from the big leagues. With Arencibia entering just his sophomore year with the Blue Jays, that makes the spot behind the dish look slightly crowded for the future, though that doesn’t bother Toronto’s current catcher.
"I’m not a guy who’s insecure or looks over my back," the 26-year-old Arencibia said. "I know what I bring to the table. I know I’m a big-league catcher. I know that I’m going to be the guy here for a long time.
"I just want to help the [younger catchers] as much as possible. I’ve told them, and I’ve told Travis, I’ve said, ‘Listen, don’t ever think for one second that I would not want to help you because you’re at my position or whatever. I always want to treat people the way I want to be treated. It’s a good situation for me. Some of these guys, they look up to me, and I want to help them as much as possible."
Though d’Arnaud is younger and not as developed as his major league counterpart, he has an impressive bat and is projected to be better defensively. Arencibia had a slash line of .219/.282/.438 last season, but impressed with 23 home runs and 78 RBIs.
"I think that if I do what I need to do to help the team win, my numbers are going to be there," Arencibia said. "That’s the way I think. Offensively, if I help the team, I’m going to have power numbers. I’m going to have RBIs and all that stuff is going to be there because that’s helping the team win.
"And if, on the defensive side, if I do what I need to do, calling the game and all that stuff, helping my team win means that I need to excel at everything. So that’s pretty much the way I look at it."
With Arencibia entering his second season as Toronto’s opening day starter and d’Arnaud not far behind, the Blue Jays will have to make some interesting decisions in the near future. It also makes an interesting case for having too much of a good thing.
"You can never have enough depth," Fasano said. "San Francisco realized that when [starting catcher] Buster [Posey] went down. We’re trying to create a championship atmosphere here and sometimes you just have to wait your turn until it’s your turn.
"If J.P. keeps having success behind the plate, then Travis is just in a tough spot. And hopefully J.P. doesn’t get hurt, but if he does get hurt, then we have a guy that can fill right in.
"Whether it’s depth or too much depth, it’s a good problem to have. We’re loaded. That’s a good sign."