Baseball gets battery charge

The Baltimore Sun

We've seen the future of baseball, and it's behind the plate.

The future can run and hit for average and has enough pop in its bat to keep you honest. Most importantly, the future can call a game, settle a pitcher, throw out a runner and, with a polite smile, shove its shinguards down your throat.

The future's name is Russell Martin, Joe Mauer, Brian McCann. Throw in Yadier Molina, the St. Louis Cardinals' injured "veteran," and you have four outstanding catchers all age 24 or younger.

"Catching in the game is real good right now," said Washington Nationals starting backstop Brian Schneider, a comparatively ancient 30. "It's a good young group and I think it's younger than it has been in a while."

Says the humble Martin, who has already become a leader for the Los Angeles Dodgers in his second big league season: "I guess we are the new wave of catchers now."

Based on the overall ability of this quartet, call them the new tsunami of catchers. Martin, a converted third baseman, is hitting above .300 and runs the bases like a middle infielder. Last season, at 23, Minnesota's Mauer, a defensive standout, became the first catcher to win the American League batting crown.

The Braves' McCann, who jokes that 10 years ago he was a fat kid from an Atlanta suburb waiting in line to get his picture taken with John Smoltz, is now the glue that holds together a veteran pitching staff that includes Smoltz. He also hit 24 homers and 34 doubles last season.

Molina, who broke his left wrist last week and is likely out until around the All-Star break, is the weak link here, because his offense (.242 lifetime average) hasn't caught up to his strong defense (51 percent caught-stealing rate). But he has batted .316 in seven postseason series, including .412 in the 2006 World Series.

McCann (second), Martin (fourth) and Molina (fifth) are in the top five in National League All-Star voting for catchers, and Mauer is second in the AL. There are other under-25-year-old catchers who are bubbling around the major league surface, such as 22-year-olds Jarrod Saltalamacchia, McCann's teammate in Atlanta, and Washington's Jesus Flores, a Rule 5 pick whom the Nationals love.

More could be coming.

Since 1999, 14 catchers have been selected in the first round of the June amateur draft; from 1995 to 1998, one catcher was taken among the top 30. In each of the past four drafts, two catchers made it into the first round, including the Orioles' top pick in 2005, Brandon Snyder.

That trend shouldn't end this year. Baseball America ranks eight catchers among its top 100 players eligible for Thursday's draft, including the second overall, Georgia Tech's Matt Wieters.

So what gives? Are we squatting directly in the age of the backstop boom? "It all goes in cycles," said Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, now a Washington Nationals color analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. "The offense is good for a while, so they start drafting more pitchers. Then the pitchers start dominating, so they start drafting more guys who can help in the process.

"There was a time where no catchers were being turned out, so fathers and coaches and everybody start saying, 'Wow, we need more catchers.' It goes in cycles. Right now we are in a cycle of very good, talented, young catchers."

Plus, there's that baseball adage.

"I have always heard that catching is the quickest way to the big leagues," Martin said with a laugh. "I don't know, it might also be one of the quickest ways out. Guys don't always last too long."

The good, durable ones often do, though - some catchers can bounce around the big leagues for more than two decades. Part of that is because the minor leagues haven't consistently produced quality catchers to replace them.

"There's a huge shortage of really top-notch catchers, so a lot of emphasis [recently] has been put on trying to develop them," said Orioles minor league director David Stockstill. "That may be why we have a lot of good catchers coming into the majors now. People are looking for them and some are switching positions, putting [prospects] at catcher if they have a strong arm and are athletic."

Try this statistic on for size: Not since Andy Etchebarren in 1975 have the Orioles started a catcher on Opening Day who they originally signed and developed.

To this day, it remains a problem spot within the farm system. Snyder, 20, is the best hope, but a shoulder injury has pushed him into a designated hitter-first base role and it's uncertain whether his future is behind the plate. No other catcher in the Orioles' system is considered a future major league starter.

"We definitely still have room for top-flight catchers in the organization," Stockstill said.

The Orioles aren't alone, of course. And maybe that's what makes the emergence of this new crop so intriguing.

It's possibly the most important spot in the field, and in some cities it's being filled expertly by guys not old enough to rent a car.

"We are teaching kids that there's another half of the battery. It's pitching and catching, not just pitching," Sutton said. "Now we are rewarding catching as something that defensively makes a difference, and isn't just a place to sit between at-bats."

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