CINCINNATI — Devin Mesoraco is 25, going on 35, and that isn’t because he’ll age fast from the beatings and the poundings he takes from being a catcher, The Man Behind the Mask.
It is because he is evolving fast as both a major league catcher and a hitter for the Cincinnati Reds, who took a giant leap in faith in the off-season by trading veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan so that Mesoraco could be the every day catcher.
Even though he turns just 26 in a couple of weeks, the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder is mature far beyond those years. And even though he doesn’t know what it means, he is definitely old-school baseball.
It starts when he appears on television for post-game interviews after another heroic night. As he does the interview his catcher’s mask rests atop his head, worn like a kings crown.
And he is playing like a king right now. He began the season on the disabled list and missed the first week with a strained oblique. Then he missed three weeks in late April and early May with a strained left hamstring.
It hasn’t slowed the surprising offense he is displaying, something he never displayed in th majors before. He hit .180 in 18 games in 2011, he hit .212 in 54 games in 2012 and he hit .238 in 103 games last year with nine homers and 42 RBIs. This year? He is hitting .351 with eight home runs and 25 RBI in 27 games in only 97 at-bats.
In a game recently in Arizona he hit two home runs, one a grand slam, becoming the fourth Reds catcher in history to hit two home runs, one a grand slam, in one game. The last to do it was Johnny Bench.
As for his old-school appearance, Mesoraco shrugged a shoulder and said, "I don’t know because there is so much talk about old school and new school. I just try to play the game that I learned from my dad and from watching other catchers in the big leagues, see how they go about their business. I try to do it all exactly the way I should."
Mesorraco’s father, Doug, was a catcher, too, back in Punxsutawney, Pa., and, yes, Mesoraco has heard all the groundhog jokes and how he came out of the shadows to became a major league catcher.
"It wasn’t because my dad was a catcher, but I think I’m a catcher because I always caught a little bit growing up and once I got into high school we figured that was probably my best position to have an opportunity to go to college. I wasn’t thinking pro ball at all, just college. I wasn’t super fast, wasn’t super athletic. I had a good arm and could hit a little bit. We figured catcher would be the way to go."
And go he did. Actually, Mesoraco had accepted a scholarship to the University of Virginia and was packed and ready to matriculate when the Reds drafted him No. 1 (15th overall) in the 2007 draft. So he signed with the Reds.
After hitting only .219 his first year in the Gulf Coast Rookie League and then struggling early his first year at low Single-A Dayton there were rumblings that the Reds had thrown away a draft pick and one member of the minor-league staff messaged the Reds that Mesoraco couldn’t play and was not a prospect.
There was one day when Dayton pitching coach Doug Bair found Mesoraco hiding in a corner of the bullpen before a game and there were tears in his eyes. He told Bair he didn’t think he could play pro ball and Bair said, "How old are you?" He was 19 at the time. "Where were you about a year ago?" Mesoraco said, "In high school." Bair gave him a pep talk about sticking with it and Mesoraco did.
As he worked to adjust to major league pitching, his mantra always was, "My main objective as a major league catcher is defense — controlling the running game, blocking pitches, handling the pitchers, calling a good game. Any offense I provide is bonus."
To steal a phrase from TV’s Jeopardy, Mesoraco is now in the Double Bonus phase of his career. He is still a mechanically sound catcher with an iron arm and blocks pitches like the Great Wall of China. But, with his short, quick, compact swing, he is an offensive force, too.
But he keeps his priority in line.
"I absolutely think defense is my priority," he said. "If we don’t give up any runs we’re going to win every game. I need to work with our pitchers as much as I can with a full effort into that. If offensively I am able to help the team score, that’s even an added bonus."
At one point, after coming off the DL the first time, Mesoraco was hitting .500 (26 for 52). When he came back the team was run-starved, and he encountered a mini-slump then collected himself over the last week.
"When a team struggles am bit collectively, then guys can get into a damage mode, trying to do more than they should concern themselves with," said manager Bryan Price. "You just hit. Hitters hit. When aprroaches change because a team is struggling that creates some issues.
"I’m just happy that Mez has battled through it and is grinding out some good at-bats again," Price added. He is getting to his power and doing some things that is helping us out offensively."