Pierzynski brings old fire to new role as mentor with Braves
ATLANTA — Over the last 14 years, A.J. Pierzynski has played in no fewer than 102 games, the most of any catcher in that span.
Joining the Braves on a one-year, $2 million deal that was finalized Wednesday, all but cemented that will come to an end. But he knows exactly what he’s getting into.
Atlanta already has its backstop of the present and the future in Christian Bethancourt, the 23-year-old defensive wunderkind. So Pierzynski, 38, will enter a season technically in a backup role for the first time since 2000. But at its core, his new position is that of mentor.
"They (said) ‘Hey, come over and try and get the most out of this kid and teach him how to be a big-league catcher at an every day level,” Pierzynski said Wednesday at Turner Field.
That Pierzynski believes, is where Bethancourt faces the biggest learning curve. He has 29 starts under his belt, including 15 of the last 18 games last season, but Pierzynski says a small sample size can’t automatically prepare someone for the rigors of an entire season.
"I think that’s different than just being a big-league catcher," he said. "To do it every day is a different animal than just showing up and doing it every couple days or being a young kid and not having much thrown on you.
To do it every day at a level and have expectations is something different — and I’ve done it for a long time — and hopefully I can give him some knowledge to make him a better player."
Bethancourt has long been touted for his defensive skill set — which has drawn comparisons to the Gold Glove winner Pierzynski was backing up at the end of last season in the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina. But at this point in his development there have been offensive limitations.
Bethancourt hit .248/.274/.548 last season in 113 at-bats and with three extra-base hits (three doubles) and has yet to hit a major league home run. There is power potential as he hit 12 HRs in 58 at-bats in Double-A Mississippi in 2013 and eight in 343 at-bats last season before his call up.
That’s a far cry from the power supplied by last year’s primary catcher, Evan Gattis, who hit 22 home runs (three off the MLB lead at the position) despite getting just 401 plate appearances.
An expected move to left field following the trade of Justin Upton to the Padres paved the way for Bethancourt’s ascension, but it also left the Braves without another proven option behind the plate.
Last year’s third catcher, Gerald Laird, remains unsigned, and while he was a valuable piece — he hit .238 over his two seasons in Atlanta and helped in the progression of young pitchers like Julio Teheran and Alex Wood — he last played in 100-plus games in 2009. In ’14 the Braves also carried Ryan Doumit, who caught in nine games. He also remains a free agent.
At a maximum, Pierzynski provides insurance that if Bethancourt struggles at the plate, they can fall back on a catcher that has hit no lower than .251 in any of his full seasons — which came in 2014 across two teams and two leagues — and has a career 11.6 strikeout rate (Bethancourt was at 22.2 last season; Gattis at 24.2). At a minimum, he’s an upgrade off the bench as a backup catcher and .258/.329/.395 career pinch hitter.
Pierzynski will also provide some more fire to a clubhouse that lacked it at times last season and had manager Fredi Gonzalez calling upon his young starts to become more vocal.
That won’t be a problem with Pierzynski, who has long had a reputation as an intense competitor that can get under opponents’ skin.
"I’ll do whatever it takes to help my team win," Pierzynski said. "If you need me to fight the guy, I’ll fight the guy. I’ll do whatever it takes because I want to win the game. For three hours, I don’t care who is pitching [against my team]. Mark Buehrle is one of my good friends. But when we’re facing him, I want to kill him. Then afterwards, we’ll go out and get a beer."
That did lead to some problems last season in Boston, with which he signed a one-year, $8.25 million deal. He was released after 72 games and 274 plate appearances.
Per WEEI’s Web site, players approached coaches and the front office about Pierzynski’s personality, which didn’t fit in with the team. He then signed with the Cardinals, hitting .265 over 21 games while Molina was out and finished the season at .251/.288/.337 in a reserve role.
From 2004 to 2014, among players that caught at least 75 percent of the time, Pierzynski leads with 1,435 games. Molina trails by 107 games for second, with the former Brave and current Yankee Brian McCann third (1,245). Switching to a full season as a backup is admittedly a new experience, but he’d at least gotten a taste of it.
"Last year when I went to St. Louis was the first time that I didn’t play every day. It was eye-opening," he said. "I was like, ‘This can still work,’ because you still have to find a way to help people when you’re not contributing on the field, and it was cool to go to St. Louis and be able to do that."
Pierzynski had an up-close view of Mike Minor and Alex Wood last season when the Red Sox came to Turner Field (he went 4 for 13 in the series with two RBI) and worked with Shelby Miller in St. Louis. Teheran he has only seen on television, but Pierzynski is impressed with the young staff, which doesn’t include anyone over 26.
"They have good arms," he said. "It’s one of the things that excites you with this team, not only at the big-league level, but talking to (Braves president of baseball operations) John Hart and some of the other guys, they have other guys coming in the system and it’s exciting to be a veteran and want to help these guys."
That’s the other side of his role as a mentor. While he’ll be a resource for Bethancourt in his transition, Pierzynski also sees part of his responsibility as continuing the development of the Braves staff.
"That’s the No. 1 job as a catcher is to come in here and help these guys be what they’re supposed to be, and that’s a dominant pitching staff," he said. "It’s exciting, especially when you can get with young kids, because you can kind of learn guys when they’re young and hopefully mold them and help them get the most out of their ability."
But joining the Braves was as much about what it symbolized as the opportunity itself. Pierzynski is an Orlando product and ever summer his parents would bring him to Fulton County Stadium, where he would stick around afterward in the parking lot to try and get autographs, some of which he still has.
"It’s just cool to be able to come here and put this hat on and put this jersey on and say at some point ‘I was an Atlanta Brave,’" he said.
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney