Pitchers, catchers begin spring bonding
Roy Halladay was on familiar ground Thursday.
Only the surroundings were new.
For the 15th consecutive year, he was back at spring training, only it was different.
Pitchers and catchers with 12 of the 30 major-league teams held the first official workouts of the spring on Thursday at locations in Florida and Arizona. It is a reunion for most punctuated by the arrival of new faces who changed big-league teams during the offseason.
Halladay, dealt by Toronto to Philadelphia, is among established big-league pitchers looking to establish themselves with new teams this spring. The list ranges from expected aces such as Cliff Lee, dealt by the Phillies to Seattle to make room for Halladay, and free agent John Lackey, who signed with Boston, to those trying to restart careers, including Carlos Silva with the Cubs, Brad Penny in St. Louis and Ben Sheets in Oakland.
Other starting pitchers who changed their baseball addresses during the offseason include Richard Harden, Texas; Max Scherzer, Detroit; Kevin Millwood, Baltimore; Javier Vasquez, Yankees; Joel Pineiro, Angels; Jason Marquis, Washington; Edwin Jackson, Arizona; Jon Garland, San Diego; Brett Myers, Houston, and Randy Wolf and Doug Davis, Milwaukee.
There is only five miles between Dunedin, Fla., the spring home of the Blue Jays, and Clearwater, Fla., the spring home of the Phillies, but for Halladay, the five miles represent a whole new ballgame.
He was Toronto’s first-round draft choice in 1995, and has annually been the foundation of the future for a rebuilding franchise that remains in the early stages of development.
He is Philadelphia’s major offseason addition, a former AL Cy Young winner the Phillies expect to help them win a third consecutive NL pennant and a second world championship in three years.
And the next few weeks are all about Halladay, and other new faces in new places, adjusting to their new surroundings and getting to know their new teammates.
There is nobody who faces a bigger adjustment process than a pitcher, who not only has new friends to make, but has to get to know his new catcher.
"I don’t think you can underplay the importance of developing that comfort level between a pitcher and a catcher,’’ said Hall of Fame right-hander Nolan Ryan, now the president of the Texas Rangers, "but it’s not something that happens in the spring. It is something that evolves over time.’’
Truth be told, this pitcher-catcher stuff can be overrated.
Jim Fregosi, former All-Star shortstop who managed the Angels, White Sox, Phillies and Blue Jays before becoming a special assistant in Atlanta, said it is part of the learning process.
"A young pitcher doesn’t know the league and how to get people out,’’ he said. "The veteran catcher can take the responsibility off the young pitcher’s shoulder. … but with Halladay, going to the National League, it’s not that important.
"Look who was catching him in Toronto. … He knows his own game. Veteran pitchers know what they want to do.’’
Ryan had seven different catchers behind the plate for his record seven no-hitters.
"The sixth one,’’ he recalled, "was the first time John Russell ever caught me.’’
Tim McCarver was the primary receiver in St. Louis for Bob Gibson when Gibson won 20 games in 1965, 21 games in 1966, 22 games in 1968 and 20 games in 1969. So what happened in 1970, when McCarver was developing his relationship with Steve Carlton in Philadelphia? Gibson adjusted to his new catcher, Joe Torre, by winning a career-best 23 games.
Roger Clemens won seven Cy Young awards and had a different primary catcher each season — Rich Gedman in 1986, Marc Sullivan in 1987 and Tony Pena in 1991, all with Boston, Benito Santiago in 1997 and Darrin Fletcher in 1998 with Toronto, Jorge Posada with the Yankees in 2001 and Brad Ausmus with Houston in 2004.
There have been some well-publicized pitcher-catcher tandems over the years, including Greg Maddux teaming up with Eddie Perez in Atlanta.
"Maddux was his own pitcher," Fregosi said. "He could go through a lineup in 95 pitches and three days later he would tell you every pitch he threw and why he threw it. But he liked the idea of having his catcher. The catcher would spend five days thinking how he was going to handle Maddux because it was his only job.’’
And being able to match up the ace of a staff with the backup catcher provides the manager with a method to make sure he gets the backup some at-bats and provides the primary catcher with well-paced rest.
Do as I say, not as I did
Ryan is long removed from putting on a uniform but he admits he has to be careful not to expect the young pitchers in Texas to take the same approach he did.
"That’s a good way to create problems so I try not to push something just because I did it,’’ Ryan said.
Ryan was so focused during his offseason workouts that the first day of spring training he would throw 20 minutes of full-speed batting practice, and he was ready to throw 100 pitches the first exhibition game.
"I just felt it was important for me to work on things during the spring, and to do that I needed to be in shape,’’ said Ryan.
A new perspective
Fregosi admits his post-playing career has changed the former shortstop’s perspective on the game.
"To me, the catcher is the most important position on the field,’’ he said. "I used to think the shortstop was most important, but once I started managing I realized it was not even close.’’
With that in mind, Fregosi said what could prove to the biggest move of the offseason is Tampa Bay, which has quality young arms, picking up catcher Kelly Shoppach.
"That was a great move,’’ said Fregosi. "He brings a whole new dimension to that team behind the plate.’’
A couple of streaks worth watching this year are held by Jason Marquis and Eric Hinske. Marquis, signed by Washington during the offseason, has seen every team on which he has played in his first 10 big-league seasons advance to the postseason — Atlanta (2000-03), St. Louis (2004-06), the Cubs (2007-08) and the Rockies (2009). Washington/Montreal, meanwhile, has been one of the more futile franchises in history. It has advanced to the postseason only once — 1981.
Hinske equaled a record originally set by Don Baylor, appearing in the last three World Series with three different teams — Boston, Tampa Bay and the Yankees. Now he moves to Atlanta, which won a pro sports record 14 consecutive division titles under the guidance of manager Bobby Cox but hasn’t been to the postseason since 2005 and hasn’t been to the World Series since 1999. Those are two streaks Cox would like to snap in what he has announced will be his final year in uniform.
Remembering Jim Bibby
The death of former big-league pitcher Jim Bibby brought back the memory of his May 2, 1984 start for Texas in Toronto. Frank Tanana was the scheduled starter at Exhibition Stadium that night, but the wind was howling, and the slender Tanana was blown off the bullpen mound warming up.
Rangers manager Doug Rader decided to counter the weather by starting the bulky 6-foot-5 Bibby in place of Tanana. Not that it made any difference. The Rangers lost 7-6.
Bibby, in one of the five starts he made in eight appearances for Texas in his final big league season, allowed one of those runs before coming out of the game after a weather delay with one out in the bottom of the second.