Even ones as highly regarded as Cincinnati’s Devin Mesoraco — rated the 11th-best prospect in baseball the year after he debuted — find the adjustment difficult. At 589 plate appearances into his big-league career, the 26-year-old catcher entered the 2014 season still looking for a regular job and an approach at the plate that worked. In his fourth year, everything has clicked for him, and there he is, a top five catcher in the big leagues.
He’s not bitter, though. He said he understands that those years were important and that they helped him make some important adjustments that have paved the way for this breakout.
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"It’s tough to call a catcher up and throw him right in the fire to be the everyday guy, because there is so much to do," Mesoraco said before a late June game against the Giants. "You have to learn all the pitching staff, you have to learn the league and what those guys are trying to do at the plate. You also have to work on your fundamentals, throwing and blocking."
It’s this kind of work that seems to suggest a later peak for catchers. They’re not only involved in almost every single play in the game, but they’re also helping the pitcher with his game plan and sitting in the most athletically demanding position on the field. But looking at catcher aging curves, it’s unclear if there’s actually a later peak:
Maybe there’s a little daylight between catchers and the general population on the early part of the curve? Look at the average debut age by position found by Ben Lindbergh at Baseball Prospectus, and it seems to agree with what Mesoraco is saying:
This is complicated because of the "backup catcher," isn’t it? While the rest of the infield and outfield positions have to share a few backup players with each other, the catcher always has his own backup. That’s more opportunities for teams to call up late-debut backups for emergency help.
In any case, Mesoraco isn’t saying his way was for everyone.
"I don’t know that there’s any one way to do it — there’s no blueprint," he said. "Some guys will jump up and be ready to go; some guys take a little longer."
But the apprenticeship did allow him the time to refine his defensive game.
When it comes to framing, his mentor was top-class. According to StatCorner’s catching report, Ryan Hanigan added between .99 and 2.25 extra strikes per game with his ability to stick the pitch while he was in Cincinnati. Mesoraco is basically even this year (-.15 strike per game), but he’s improved since last year (-.36/g).
"I’m aware of the metrics," Mesoraco said, but he didn’t think he talked to Hanigan about it much. "I just became aware of it. We talked more about pitch selection and what we were trying to do with different hitters."
In the minor leagues, there wasn’t the same sort of intense catcher training that Jonathan Lucroy underwent in the Milwaukee system.
"We didn’t really have a catching instructor until the last couple of years," Mesoraco said.
Instead, the Reds seemed to rely on former catchers as minor-league managers. In 2008, Pat Kelly (Rookie), Joe Ayrault (High-A), Donnie Scott (A) and Rick Sweet (Triple-A) were all former catchers in charge of Reds farm teams.
"We always had managers that were catchers, so it was kind of about what they wanted to do and what they wanted to work on. With my first manager, we worked almost every day doing different stuff," said Mesoraco of Kelly, who followed the catcher to his next level. "It really helped."
Eventually, Sweet became the Reds’ roving catcher instructor and oversaw Mesoraco’s approach to the big leagues.
But the last tweak came at the plate. Only one catcher has hit more home runs than Mesoraco, despite the fact that he’s more than 70 plate appearances behind the pack due to an early-season injury. It turns out the power has come from more rhythm.
After an offseason talk with hitting coach Don Long, the Reds catcher was left with a couple of changes to his swing.
"In the past, my bat path was not very tight and short. We really tried to get shorter to the ball and more athletic and dynamic," Mesoraco said.
He used to get his front foot down "super early" and then swing — "Now I’m stepping into the ball a lot more."
Now he has a "more rhythmic thing" going, his swing is shorter, and his hands are closer to his body. Maybe it can be seen by putting his 2013 swing (left) up against his 2014 swing (right). There is a more demonstrative step in his current swing. Both were home runs hit at home.
In any case, the time spent on the bench and in the minors wasn’t wasted. He’s found his rhythm in all facets of his game. It’s all wrapped up together.
"Being a catcher, I have an idea of how people are going to pitch me, how this guy is going to attack me," Mesoraco said of his plan at the plate.
That sort of learning goes helps on both sides of the ball, even if it takes a while.