Catching on: Bees players grew into baseball’s most demanding position

First Published      Last Updated May 29 2017 10:44 pm

Bees baseball » Salt Lake’s three catchers are growing into the sport’s most demanding position.

Salt Lake Bees catcher Tony Sanchez still vividly recalls the day four years ago. Before his first start for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he got a lesson from veteran catcher Russell Martin on what it meant to shoulder the responsibility of the position they shared.

"The Pirates put a folder in front of me with all this information — the scouts' information, pitching information, strengths and weaknesses on hitters, percentages, first-pitch swing percentages, counts, hot zones — and Russell closed the book and said trust my eyes," Sanchez said, using his hands to mimic Martin shutting the folder.

Bees catchers Carlos Perez, Francisco Arcia and Sanchez are proof that catchers are made — not born. All three put on the catcher's gear before signing to play professionally, but each attests he didn't truly become a catcher until getting to the minor leagues.

The ideal catcher must have a mind like a computer, able to store, analyze and synthesize data quickly while having a feel for the game. The job includes signaling the pitchers what pitch to throw, framing pitches to get called strikes, controlling base runners and throwing their bodies in front of pitches in the dirt — all in the name of preventing the other team from scoring.

Sanchez, who was picked fourth overall in the 2009 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, first put on the catcher's equipment at age 12. But he said it took five years as a professional before he was confident in his ability to control a game.

Sanchez's first start behind the plate in the majors came in his fifth professional season. He helped a fellow rookie, pitcher Brandon Cumpton, to his first big-league win with seven scoreless innings against the St. Louis Cardinals in a 6-0 Pirates win.

"I didn't throw any pitches, but I called that game," Sanchez said. "I took a lot of pride in that."

Having to grow up quick

While Sanchez played collegiately, four of the five active catchers the Los Angeles Angels had on their major league and Triple-A rosters going into this past weekend were international players either signed or drafted into the professional ranks as teenagers. That includes the now 27-year-old Arcia, who isn't currently on the Bees active roster.

Arcia devoted himself to catching at the age of 14. He moved away from home to attend a baseball academy in Venezuela, where he had morning training sessions, then afternoon classes with a personal teacher to finish high school. That continued for two years until he signed with the New York Yankees.

"I had to grow up quick," Arcia said. "I got out of my home when I was 14 years old. I was by myself, so I had to prepare my body and my mind. I was far from home and alone. I had to learn to work like a man. I was no more the baby at home with mom and dad to take care of you. I was by myself, and I had to figure out what I wanted to do."

One of the reasons Arcia likes catching so much is because his mind is put to work as much as his body. Catchers have a responsibility to an entire team. They serve as the nerve center of the defense. Arcia said throwing himself into his catching duties — working with pitchers, developing game plans and calling games — made it easier to deal with being away from home.

"This is a game," Arcia said. "We have fun when we play, but now it is work for me. I put food on my table at home [by catching]. That's my job, so I have to take care of [business]. I have to do the right things, think the right way."

Building a partnership

Arcia described the relationship between a catcher and pitcher as a "brotherhood," which Perez echoed.

Perez, who is also a native of Venezuela, caught 82 games for the major league club last season and started this season with the Angels before coming to Salt Lake on April 21.

Perez, who never caught until a few months before he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays at age 17 in 2008, never envisioned himself as a catcher. When he started out in the Dominican Summer League, he didn't know anything about the art of receiving — giving a good target for a pitcher and positioning himself and his glove to get the best possible call from an umpire. Now it's his favorite part of the game.

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