Kelly: Jays' J.P. Arencibia shows how catchers grow as leaders

It's not easy for young catchers to learn how to take charge out there when they get to the Major Leagues. But Blue Jays manager John Gibbons says his catcher is an example of someone who learned well as he went along, writes Malcolm Kelly.

Field leaders have to learn to express themselves

Toronto Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia, right, shakes hands with manager John Gibbons during a game earlier in April (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

A story from Rick Dempsey: His first game catching in the majors came on Sept. 23, 1969 as a 20-year-old Minnesota Twins rookie, and the pitcher was veteran Dave Boswell, going for his 20th win.  

"When I went out to the mound to talk to him [for the first time], I said ‘You know what? I wanted that fastball on the outside corner and you put it on the inside corner.’  

"He said, ‘Why don’t you just shut the [bleep] up and go back to the plate and I’ll take care of it.’ "  

It’s not easy for young catchers to learn how to take charge out there when they get to the Major Leagues.  

Most receivers you talk to today say the days of that kind of reception on your first mound visit are gone because there is more respect for rookies in the modern era, but it still takes some courage to do what has to be done when you’re in awe of your new surroundings.  

John Gibbons, the Toronto Blue Jays manager and himself a former catcher, says he has a young one in J.P. Arencibia who learned well what leadership on the field was as he went along.  

But it doesn’t always work out that way.  

"Coming up in the minor leagues with different organizations there were some guys who were really talented guys but…I don’t know if timid is the word…but they were kind of laid back," he said, outside the batting cage before Wednesday’s game.

Jack Morris' rules for young catchers

Jack Morris pitched for 18 years in the Major Leagues, winning 254 games and four World Series, so he knows a thing about what he wanted out of a catcher.

What he wanted was Detroit star Lance Parrish.  

"Lance was everything. He was Godzilla," said the former long-time Tigers ace, who finished with the Twins, Blue Jays and Indians. "But early in his career…we bumped heads a lot, because we both had to learn how to call a game.  

"That was trouble there, because you had two young kids, two strong-willed kids, but we got great."  

Here’s Morris’s advice to catchers who want to get great.  

1. Remember who you work for.

"Job one is making the pitcher as good as he can be…If I were a manager today, I would tell my catchers that we win with our pitching, and then your home run."  

2. Never take your hitting woes with you to the field.

Hitting is your secondary job. If you are 0-for-2, that’s not the pitcher’s problem. Don’t make it his because you aren’t paying attention.

3. There’s a reason why they call the position "catcher" and not "hitter."

You don’t have to be an offensive hero.  

"But if your pitchers like you and want to pitch to you, then you’ve got at least half the team wanting you," he says. "Trust me, there are guys in the game right now that can’t hit a lick as a catcher, but they are great defensive catchers, and they hang around."  

4. Ask a simple question, you might get a good answer.

"The old stereotypical question is ‘How are you feeling?’ It’s not a bad question. If a pitcher is not telling anybody but he usually trusts his catcher he might say ‘I’m barking a little, or I’m hurting a little, or I just wrenched my back.’"  

5. Remember it’s the pitcher’s name that’s going to be under the wins or losses the next day, not yours.

"Let the pitcher tell you what he wants to do. That way the catcher is getting out of him exactly what he wants."   "Be supportive," he says, "if you disagree and know the pitcher just can't get the pitch he wants to throw where you want him to throw it, [Say to him], if you throw it, make sure you keep it down and I’ll give you a good target low with the glove, and we’ll get him out.

"That’s how you handle your pitcher."

— Malcolm Kelly, CBC Sports 


"You try and push them through it, and push them through it, and it’s a hard thing for them to do."  

Arencibia, in his third full season at 27, has developed differently, not as someone "overbearing" necessarily, but as someone who "when something needs to be done" can get his point across, his manager says.  

When he came to the organization from the University of Tennessee in 2007, however, the youngster was mostly about hitting, Gibbons said.

The catching and leadership side had to be learned.  

"Now, you put him back there and he’s pretty confident doing it."  

Arencibia certainly does not lack in that confidence.  

"There have been times [in talking to pitchers as a young big leaguer] when I didn’t back down," he said, before a recent game. "And I had to express myself and say ‘Hey, this is what I believe and I don’t think you’re right in this situation.’ 

"You still have to be respectful of the pitchers," he says, "and earn their trust and respect back.  

"So when you do have to say something, that’s when they listen."  

A story from David Ross, now a veteran Boston Red Sox backup, who broke in with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002 and, at Montreal, had to catch Kevin Brown, who was a veteran of ferocious reputation.  

Brown was obsessed with a runner on first, throwing over, throwing over, and the count went ball one, ball two.  

"I was debating in my mind, ‘Should I go?’ so I was ‘Time.’ I went out there and I said ‘Look, you don’t know me, but I can really catch and throw. I can really throw. So, don’t worry about the runner at first, get the hitter.’"  

Ross was waiting to have his head torn off.  

"Kevin Brown is a really intimidating person, so I didn’t know how he was going to take it, but he said ‘OK.’"  

That’s it?  

"He said OK, and sure enough he made his next pitch and it was a ground ball double play right there," said Ross. "I was really scared to do that, but you know, it showed him ‘I have confidence in my craft, I know you have confidence in yours, so don’t try to control the whole game, let me control some of it.’"

Calling the game  

Control is a huge part of a catcher’s role, calling the game, setting the defence, keeping everyone on their toes, creating a relationship with the plate umpire — so much so that learning how to do it becomes job one for the youngsters.  

And you do that, Ross says, mostly by working with the pitchers to make them realize you understand them.  

"They need to know that you are invested in their craft, as well as your craft," he says. "You have to take it personal, you have to take giving up runs personally, and when they see that and they know you care, it’s easier to talk to them."  

Dempsey remembers Harry Warner, a coach in the minors with him (and later one of the Blue Jays’ original staff under Roy Hartsfield), working on leadership in Double-A with the Twins.  

"He used to tell me how to take control of the game, that people don’t like to be yelled at, that people don’t like to be forced to do anything, and it’s really hard to take that role behind home plate and control that game," said Dempsey, who added you simply have to do it, there’s no alternative.

"I just did what my coaches [told me] — ‘You gotta get on this guy, you gotta make him get the ball down, you’ve gotta make him throw the ball over the plate,’ blah blah blah. And it’s not easy to do."  

Time helps. Learning everything about your pitcher helps immensely.

Cleveland catcher Lou Marson, who came up with the Philadelphia Phillies, said last week that Jamie Moyer, who pitched an astonishing 25 years, was particularly hard on him as a rookie.  

"He was trying to show me the way, just trying to teach me different things," says Marson. "He was always on me when I wasn’t playing to be keeping a book on the game, on each pitch, on each player."  

He repeated what all the other backstops did. You want to lead? You learn your pitchers. You get in their heads. Get them to trust you.  

As Gibbons says, your moment will come.  

"It can be a little battle for a while, and you’ve got to earn that [respect]. The best way, a lot of the time, is that you make a big call in a certain situation where maybe the pitcher may have done something different.  

"And if it works? Then, you’ve got ‘em."