Shortage Of Quality Catchers In The Major Leagues
Reasons Abound, but "What's The Catch?"
by Chuck Rosciam
Encyclopedia of Baseball Catchers
Here's the job description: Play a game three hours a day, 130 days a year, earn a seven-figure salary, become famous.
You could handle that, right? OK, put on the gear and get behind the plate. What? You don't want to catch? Taking foul tips in the groin is not your idea of fun? No wonder scouts looking for major league catchers can't find them.
What was once a role of honor and responsibility now is shunned by today's American youth, who gravitate to more glamorous positions such as pitcher and shortstop, not to mention more glamorous sports such as basketball.
Scouts now find their catchers where they can. Some of the best are from the Caribbean and Latin America, especially Puerto Rico, where Ivan Rodriguez, Benito Santiago and Sandy Alomar Jr. were discovered. Many Americans now playing the position were blessed with strong arms but couldn't quite cut it at other positions.
Carlton Fisk was a rare natural at the position, but nowadays there is more talk his being the last of the breed. Sure, much has been made about the apparent shortage of major league caliber pitchers and how expansion will further dilute the quality. But that concern applies to catchers, too. If there's another batch of Fisks on the horizon, it's news to the men who are looking for them.
"It's not like there are a lot of Cooperstown candidates at the major league leave," said Gary Huges, scouting director of the Florida Marlins. "There's a lot of what you call journeymen. And there aren't a lot of prime prospects coming up either. We were lucky to find Charles Johnson."
Past expansions have already spread the position thin in the majors.
"If you want to see how good catching is now, go back to before expansion when there were 16 teams, two catchers per team and compare the top 32 catchers now to then and see what happens," said former catcher Ted Simmons, now general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
As Simmons knows, it takes a certain mentality to be a catcher, and if you don't believe that, just try it sometime. Suit up in armor like a warrior prepared for battle, squat for three hours and have Roger Clemens throw 95-mph fastballs at you while a distracting bat is waived in your face. Worse yet, have Tom Candiotti bounce fluttering knuckleballs past you, and when you reach the backstop to retrieve them, be the target of jeers from fans who wonder why you can't catch the darm things. Talk about a thankless job.
Count on broken fingers, arthritic knees and bruises the color of ripe eggplant. In the run-oriented National League, expect to be challenged by speedsters on the bases. With today's impatient management, expect to be platooned, which only prolongs the learning process.
If that wasn't reason enough to find another profession, the image of Michael Jordan soaring rhough the air to slam dunk a billion-dollar annual salary has given young athletes, especially in the inner city, career alternatives a lot more appealing than blocking bouncing curveballs.
Scouts also content the shortage of pitching has convinced strong-armed potential
catchers to take the mound instead. Traditionally, the best baseball athletes become
shortstops, pitchers, or outfielders. Not catchers. As if that's not compelling enough
explanation for the catching shortage, Manager Buck Rogers, a former catcher, presents an
intriguing theory of interference.
"It's the Little League mothers," said Rodgers, who suffered worse injuries in a bus crash in 1992 than he ever did in seven major league seasons behind the plate. "They don't want little Johnny to get hurt. It's dangerous back there, and parents aren't letting their kids do it. That's the reason for the scarcity. Because of what's happening in the States, more and more Latins are becoming catchers. That's the way it's going."
Catching runs in cycles, and there's no doubt the catching business is in a prolonged recession. Between 1931 and '37, there were six future Hall of Famers catching for their teams at the same time. But since 1965, there has been only one catcher elected to the Hall of Fame (Johnny Bench) and since 1957 only two (Bench and Yogi Berra), although Fisk and Gary Carter are likely to join Bench someday.
The shortage in young catchers can be documented through the free-agent draft, which provides a glimpse at baseball's future stars. Only two catchers were chosen in the first round in 1992, none in 1993, one in 1994, two in 1995, none in 1996, and one in 1997. Over the past five seasons, only 4 catchers went in the first round, the fewest for any five-year period since the draft began in 1965. That compares with 10 in the previous five years (1988-1962), 16 in the five years before that (1983-1987and 15 in the five years before that (1978-1982).
Why so few take the roiute is explained by the story of one who did. Charles Johnson Jr., tken in June 1992 as the Marlin's first round pick, began his career 13 years before when he came home from baseball practice one afternoon with the news most Little League parents dread.
"Dad," Charles Jr. said, "I want to be a catcher." Charles Sr., being a Florida high school baseball coach, took it better than most parents. "My wife was concerned about the physical risk. I was too, some, but I also wanted to make sure he really wanted this, to find out how much heart he had. So I set him up in front of a pitching machine and kept moving him closer and closer, until he was only 15 feet away. The ball knocked his mask off a couple times, but he hung in there. That takes guts for a 9-year-old."
A player with talent offensively and defensively, Johnson truly is an exception to the trend that young Americans don't want to be catchers. The catching glory years of the 1930s starred Gabby Hartnett, Ernie Lombardi, Al Lopez, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey and Rick Ferrell. Bench's class -- which included Thurman Munson, Simmons, Fisk, Carter and Bob Boone -- is the next closest real thing, with each possessing in varying degrees a combination of exceptional defensive skills and offensive potency. Now, that combination is rarely found in the same player.
"Some clubs have more or less given up on the position," said Bob Gebhard, senior vice president and general manager of the Colorado Rockies. "They'll either choose an offensive player who's average defensively (ie. Mike Piazza), or a strong defensive player who's weak offensively (ie. Jason Kendall). Basically, they concede one aspect because it's so hard to find the quality catcher who has all of the skills."
And this is nothing new!
"There's a great opportunity for boys who want to catch in pro ball today," an American League manager said when asked about a catching shortage. The manager was Ralph Houk. The comment was made 35 years ago.
So, who's taking his counsel today?
Luis Rosa, a Puerto Rico-based scout who previously signed Rodriguez, Santiago, and Alomar, said such advice is heeded in his country. With those three as role models, said Rosa, Puerto Rican ballplayers know catching can be their ticket off the island.
"Latin kids see that a good catcher gets to the major leagues quicker than other positions, and Latin kids tend to mature physically earlier than American kids, which gives the Latin kids an advantage," Rosa said.
The first Latino to make an impact behind the plate was Manny Sanguillen, whose unique package of skills included running speed. "But I never got a Gold Glove, never started an All-Star Game, because I was Spanish," said Sanguillen, now a player agent. "I'm proud to see guys like Benito, Alomar, Rodriguez and Pena get some respect." Rosa said the American influence in Puerto Rican education has given that area an advantage over other Spanish-speaking areas for developing catchers.
Of the latest generation Americans, naturals such as Darren Daulton and Chris Hoiles share the spotlight with many converted infielders or outfielders who possess a strong arm but are short on offensive skills.
Tom Pagnozzi, the Gold Glove catcher of the St. Louis Cardinals, was a third baseman who tried catching his senior season of college only after a scout told him it would be his only chance to reach the majors.
"I don't know how he could say that without seeing me catch, but I guess he was
right," Pagnozzi said. "I'm surprised I made it the way I did. I had so much to
learn." Pagnozzi's aptitude for the role allowed the Cardinals to move catcher Todd
Zeile to third base as a replacement for Terry Pendleton, who left via free agency.
Manager Joe Torre, who went through a similar transition when he played, moved Zeile in hopes it would help his offense. "You get more out of an offensive player when you don't put him through that torture and mental strain of being a catcher," Torre said "If a guy is catching properly, he doesn't have the luxury to be thinking about hitting."
The Houston Astros similarily moved Craig Biggio to second base, and the Milwaukee Brewers tinkered with making B.J. Surhoff a third baseman. Biggio had too much running speed and not enough arm to remain a catcher, and Surholl is known primarily for his offense. The Astros traded for Ed Taubensee to replace Biggio and the Brewers had another foreigner -- Dave Nilsson of Australia -- ready in the Minors. The Phillies acquired an up-and-coming catching star in Mike Lieberthal, which enabled them to put perennial All-Star Darren Daulton at firstbase, where his offense could be used more effectively.
The shortage of natural catchers has allowed some marginal players to carve out
suprisingly lengthly careers as backups. Dann Bilardello, for example, is with his 8th
franchise over 17 professional seasons. With only 365 games in five years of big league
service time proves jobs are available. "Teams need veteran catchers as backups,
especially with expansion," he said. "I fit perfectly. I work well with
pitchers, and I don't make much money ($167,000)."
The shortage of catchers has driven up their salaries, too. In 1989, the mean salary for catchers was $571,900, lower than any other position. In 1998, it had climbed to $1,965,627 (excluding Piazza's contract), which put them past the mean salary for pitchers, third basemen, shortstops and second basemen.
Of course, if Biggio or Surholl or Zeile or Daulton had the natural catching talent of previous era stars, they never would have moved and one-dimensional players such as Bilardello wouldn't be in the big leagues at all.
The previous era's best catchers had their share of transplants. Bench went 16-0 as a high school pitcher. Munson, a shortstop, caught his first game as a high school senior. By contrast, Simmons began catching at the age of 9 after a revelation. "I looked in the mirror," Simmons said. "I wanted to be a shortstop, but with this body, it was obvious I'd be a catcher."
So, what are the attributes scouts look for?
Obviously, a strong throwing arm to contain the opposition's running game is a prerequisite, as well as the basic toughness to endure the physical and emotional punishment that comes with catching. A catcher can't be so tall that setting a low target is difficult, nor so small that he can't take the pounding. It also can be a position of subtle skills as well.
"Of course, you want a guy with a strong arm, a quick release, quick feet and soft hands," Buck Rodgers said. "But the most important thing is getting the most out of a pitcher. If you've got a fastball pitcher whose fastball isn't worth spit, and you get him through five innings, you've done a hell of a job. ex-Dodgers' Mike Scioscia was about as good as there was at that." For pure ability, though, Rodgers joins the chorus singing the praises of Ivan Rodriguez, "He can do everything."
That means intimidating opposing base-runners with a powerful and accurate arm, blocking pitches in the dirt, bravely standing his ground when a home-plate collision is imminent and being durable enough to keep coming back day after day. "Durability is so important, that's why my heroes are guys like Fisk and Carter, guys who lasted so long," Alomar said. "You have to be tough to be a catcher. maybe that's why a lot of Latinos are catchers. Latinos are tough and have no fear."
Old-timers look at today's premier catchers, however, and wonder whatever happened to fundamentals. Some blame the hinged catcher's mitt, introduced 30 years ago, which aloowed Randy Hundley and Bench to popularize the one-handed style of catching. "Two-handed catchers were in a better position to block and receive pitches," Rodgers said. "Today, even the good catchers cost their pitchers strikes by taking pitches out of the zone as they snatch at the ball."
Another catching controversy is Benito Santiago who has the unconventional habit of throwing to bases from his knees, and even Santiago said he hopes young catchers don't imitate him because of the inherent dangers of career-shortening injuries that come with such maneuvers. But children copying role models is a baseball tradition and many young catchers will, no doubt, be throwing from their knees for years to come -- and baseball will see young talent ending their careers early, which will only add to the scarcity in the future.
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