GOODYEAR, Ariz. — When Devin Mesoraco sorts through a pile of personal DVDs, he’ll throw away any showing him dancing with a lamp shade on his head, any showing him as a toddler in diapers and any showing him batting in a major-league game last season.
For the 24-year-old Cincinnati Reds catchers, it was a most forgettable year — .212 over 54 games and 165 at-bats. And extremely few of those at-bats came in September when he mostly sat in the dugout and watched the baseball world pass by.
“Yes, I watched a lot of video,” said the No. 1 pick out of Punxutawney, Pa. in 2007. “I didn’t watch last year, but past video when I was going good and I watched different guys who have similar swings throughout the league to see what works for them and what I need to do.”
He watched Josh Willingham from the Minnesota Twins and Aaron Hill from the Arizona Diamondbacks, “so that what works for them I might be able to mold into my swing.
“I’m just trying to get back the swing I had in the past,” he said. “Last year was a year of a lot of searching just trying to find the swing that has worked for me in the past.”
Maybe it worked. On his first at-bat this spring, Mesoraco hit a two-run home run to give the Reds a three-run lead in the fifth, a game they eventually lost to the Cleveland Indians, 11-10, when the Tribe scored three in the bottom of the ninth.
Mesoraco believes he was doing OK at the beginning of last season, but the slippery slope hit him in the middle of the year.
“At the All-Star break I felt pretty good and I thought I was going to have a good second half,” he said. “The last three or four games we played out west (San Diego) before the break, I really felt good. And then we went away for the All-Star break and I had a week-and-a-half off where I didn’t play and I couldn’t get in a groove. By the time I got hurt I was struggling quite a bit.”
Part of his time off was for a two-day suspension when he bumped umpire Chad Fairchild in a home plate dispute. And on that same day, he suffered a concussion during a collision at home plate and was on the seven-day concussion disabled list.
He served his suspension on Aug. 21-22 and when he was reinstated he was optioned to Class AAA Louisville. He returned to Cincinnati eight days later, on Sept. 2, but played only two games after that.
“All that time off didn’t help,” he said. “I wouldn’t say the concussion affected my play, it was just those days off. When you are trying to find your swing and some rhythm, it’s hard to do without game repetitions.”
Asked about his no-play stay in September, Mesoraco took the high road.
“It was frustrating because you always want to be out there,” he said. “I want to prove I’m an everyday player. I won’t say anything about, other than it was what it was and I can’t say anything else I want to prove that I can be an All-Star and the best catcher in baseball.”
Ryan Hanigan is the regular catcher and like last year, when they eventually brought in veteran Dioner Navarro as a back-up, this spring the Reds have brought in veteran Miguel Olivo.
So what does Mesoraco have to do for manager Dusty Baker?
“I’m looking to see improvement, looking to see if he regains the confidence he lost last year,” said Baker. “It happens. He is not the first young player I’ve seen that happen to, that they felt like they failed.
“It is difficult for a young catcher because he has so much responsibility to come in and win,” said Baker. “It is easier to come to a second-division losing team because you can wait on them and help them.”
At the beginning of last year, Mesoraco and Ryan Hanigan shared catching duties and in the early going when Hanigan caught the team won and when Mesoraco caught the team lost.
And it played on Mesoraco.
“Sometimes things go downhill and you have to go backwards,” Baker added. “So we’re not really sure what’s going to happen this year. He is a heck of a talent, but he’s very young. Most guys don’t come out of high school and catch right away. Buster Posey (San Francisco Giants) came out of college and that’s four years that Buster had more in experience.”
After three years of low batting averages in the minors, the 24-year-old Mesoraco began hitting in 2010 and 2011, but took some retro steps last season.
“I was apprehensive when we platooned him, when he wasn’t playing every day,” said Baker. “Can you turn your pitching staff over to inexperience that you don’t know in contrast to a Ryan Hanigan who you know can handle them and win?
“Mesoraco took it personally when we lost and he caught,” said Baker. “He takes pride in winning. He is probably one of the most unselfish young players I’ve been around in a long time. You need that to win in the long run, especially in a world where offense means everything. But he is in more of a defensive position than offense. Offensive catchers get all the accolades, but defensive catchers win games. If you get both, then you have a Hall of Fame catcher and there aren’t many of those.”
Baker isn’t tipping his hand when asked about the catching and said, “I don’t know. It’s too early. We’ll see.”
But the lineup for the opening game of exhibition, as expected, Hanigan catching. And because the Reds were the visiting team against the American League Cleveland Indians, the designated hitter was used and Cincinnati’s DH was catcher Olivo.
“Read anything you want into this lineup, but it is the first game and you have to start somewhere,” said Baker.