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Rays

Frontline catchers can be difficult to find

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 02:39 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

Fans would like to see the Rays use a top pick on an intelligent catcher who could anchor championship teams.

You want to make it to the big leagues, become a catcher. That's the age-old theory.

With the dearth of good catching at the major-league level, anyone who can put on a chest protector without hurting themselves has a chance of climbing the minor-league ladder faster than, say, a shortstop or a pitcher.

"It's the quickest way," Rays catching coach Bobby Ramos said. "It's also the hardest way."

And because it's so hard, it's not often the quickest.

"How many front-line catchers are there in the big leagues? And how many really good backups are there? I think that is the one position that cries for more," manager Joe Maddon said.

Maddon scoffs at the term "tools of ignorance." He said he would begin catching clinics by calling the catching gear "tools of intelligence."

"You can't be a dumb catcher and win a championship," Maddon said.

The Rays own 12 of the first 89 picks in next month's draft, including three in the first round and 10 of the first 60 picks. The fan base, still puzzled over the decision to take shortstop Tim Beckham first overall in 2008 instead of catcher Buster Posey, would like to see the Rays use one or more of those top picks on an intelligent catcher who could anchor championship teams.

The Rays' draft history shows a reluctance to use a high pick on a catcher. Justin O'Conner, whom they took with the 31st overall pick last June, was the first catcher taken in the first round in team history.

One reason is the high washout rate of minor-league catchers. It's tough to commit a sizable signing bonus on someone who history says won't make it.

And the reason most minor-league catchers never see a day of big-league action is because their position is the most challenging of any on the field.

"There's more to learn," Maddon said. "That's the most cerebral of all the positions."

High school and college catchers do not call pitches. That's done by the head coach or pitching coach.

"They look in the dugout, they look for the signs and put them down, but never learn why they are calling that pitch," Ramos said. "Why a slider over a curveball to a certain hitter? You got to explain that. You don't get that in high school or college. You got to sit down and go over video tapes, you got to go over hitters, you got to remember pitch sequences. How do we get this guy out? What did we get this guy out on? That's a lot.

"You really got to know your stuff. If a guy's late on a fastball, don't speed up his bat with an off-speed pitch. If he's chasing curveballs, (throw) lower and lower, wider and wider. And hitters make adjustments. So you got to pick up on that."

Oh yeah, try to be productive with the bat, too.

"At the big-league level it's hard to be a good catcher and hit," Ramos said. "It's hard to put it all together."

Ramos caught more than 500 minor-league games before he played his first game in the majors, and that's not including years of instructional league and winter ball.

Once a catcher gets to the big-league level, Maddon said the position takes on a whole new dimension.

"In the minor leagues, a lot of times it becomes an exercise in becoming better mechanically," he said.

Now catchers have to quickly learn the mental side of the game. Yes, they've been calling games, but have they really learned to call games?

These are things the catcher should be learning in the minor leagues, but often don't because he's concerned with the physical aspects of his job at the expense of the mental.

Now he's in the major leagues and here comes Jose Bautista. Now what?

"It's not easy," Ramos said. "You got to know your stuff."

rmooney@tampatrib.com

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