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.
"Before, I just played catcher and I didn't think anything else" about it, Perez said. "Now I love the position. Every time I catch, I do the best I can to help the pitcher and to win for them."
While controlling the running game is an area of strength for Perez (he has thrown out 38 percent of runners attempting to steal in the majors), he views his relationship with pitchers as his most important role. Those relationships dictate things such as visits to the mound to settle down a pitcher or non-verbal forms of communication.
"I've got to know the pitcher, if the pitcher is a guy [where] I have to go to the mound," Perez said. "Any time I have to go, I do it. Sometimes I don't need to go too much. For me, I just have to know who is pitching, who I can talk to, who I can, like, give a space or give some sign to remind something. That's what I mean. Just knowing the pitcher, that's the key."
Sanchez, 28 and in his ninth season as a professional, prides himself on his ability to call a game, earn the trust of a pitching staff and put his pitchers in the best position on every pitch.
He didn't call pitches in high school or college, "so it wasn't until pro ball until I really started to learn about calling pitches and establishing a game plan, attacking hitters and using pitchers' strengths," he said. "That was the biggest learning process that I had to go through."
The pressure of calling the right pitches fell upon him in the minors. That meant setting aside time before each game to come up with a game plan.
Sanchez would have to recall during the game what each hitter had done in his previous at-bats, how they were able to get him out, what pitches he hit well and what the pitcher can execute.
Catcher largely had been a position Sanchez played to get his bat into the lineup until he turned pro. He admits he initially got stuck catching in youth ball because he was "fat and out of shape" and a "liability" in the outfield.
Sanchez, a guy who once was forced behind the plate by circumstances, now says, "I took a liking to it, ended up loving it and just dedicated my life to it."