SARASOTA, FLA. — No one likes showing up for work at 6 a.m. to have their time wasted. So when the Orioles’ seven spring training catchers got stretched out, strapped up and ready for early work in the cage before Wednesday’s sunrise, it was all business.
Then Tim Cossins, the major league field coordinator/catching instructor running the show, reached into a bucket of balls he was feeding into a pitching machine for a blocking drill and found a rubber snake.
So began a day that was typical of a catcher in spring training, but only in how different it was from what everyone else was doing.
The work is hard, but worth it. And at baseball’s most demanding position, catchers with decades of professional experience and major league pedigree worked alongside the Orioles’ 22-year-old top prospect Adley Rutschman, continuing his indoctrination into a demanding lifestyle none of them would trade for anything.
“There’s a natural camaraderie built because it’s such a physically demanding position,” Cossins said. “It’s mentally demanding as well, and a lot of the team success hangs in the balance of whether the catchers are in tune.
“It’s a massively important position. Just being in that environment, where you’re pulling together, that helps solidify the whole thing.”
‘Create a little chaos’
The catchers, from lifers like Bryan Holaday and Taylor Davis, to returners Chance Sisco, Austin Wynns and Pedro Severino, to nonroster minor leaguers Rutschman and Martin Cervenka, were ready Wednesday far before the prescribed 7 a.m. start time.
Wynns boasted that they arrive an hour early to prepare, and after Cossins met with the group, the work came quickly.
First came the blocking drills, with Cossins feeding a pitching machine set to bounce balls in front of the plate, forcing the catcher to corral them. The snake only momentarily broke the focus.
Next came a rapid-fire transfer drill from glove to hand. First, there were 15 single pitches. “Two-ball,” Cossins called out before a shorter set in rapid succession, and on to three, then four, and then five at a time.
After Rutschman did his round, Davis gave him some tips on the side of the cage, demonstrating with his glove quietly as the drill popped along in front of them.
Then, Cossins put them through “the gauntlet": fastball right knee, two changeups, fastball left knee, and a bounced third strike, all in quick succession. It was clean two times through, but this group doesn’t do clean.
“That’s the physical stuff that we’re working on every day,” Cossins told them. “The other day, we talked about the position being both physical and mental. Tons of things working at the same time.”
He gave bullpen catcher Ben Carhart a stack of cards printed with pitch types and had him lay out four at a time. The catchers had to memorize them, run the gauntlet again, then recite them in order.
“Here’s the situation,” Cossins told them. “Runner on third base, less than two outs. We [messed] up, we hit a chopper, we don’t score the run. Guy on deck swings at the first pitch. You guys are pissed off. It’s June. Irritated. But we’ve got to go back to work, and we made a pitching change. Now, we’ve got to go through all those things. That’s the [stuff] that happens that quick out in the season. We’ve got to train that. We’re going to try to create a little chaos.”
It worked. Everyone remembered their cards, but as they tried to replicate a situation that Cossins promised in a game would have them “slamming a Gatorade cup, irritated beyond belief,” the execution suffered.
“Might seem a little touchy-feely and like a joke,” he told them at a break, “but that round sucked compared to the last round.”
The next run improved, and Cossins told them those cards would be coming on the road during spring training games so the catchers could work on sequencing from the dugout. They’d be building on it.
‘The learning curve is massive’
Competition came after that particular challenge. Cossins had the catchers partner up for a 60-second drill in which they’d catch and feed the ball into a ground-level pitching machine, back and forth, as many times as possible, without looking at the transfer. Most transfers win.
Wynns asked for a $100 prize. No one responded.
Sisco and Davis set the bar at 46, and Rutschman and Holaday were smooth and error-free in getting to 50.
Wynns and Cervenka were on pace to beat it, and someone who believes in karma must have noticed. Wynns was announced as the best feeder in camp mere seconds before he missed, clipped his finger and had to chase the ball down. They ended up tied.
Sisco doubled up and went with Severino, who ignored mid-round calls not to peek at the machine while he was feeding. Severino spent most of the drill announcing how smooth he was, and they won the day with 55.
Those 40 minutes of catcher-specific work provide the foundation of not just a day or a season, but a career.
“We have to get in there early and get the work done so that the rest of the day can run smoothly, and then we don’t have to worry about that type of stuff,” Sisco said.
The situational work, specifically, means that the technical aspects of baseball’s toughest job won’t suffer when there are pitch sequences, game situations, and countless other things tugging at them on a hot summer night at Camden Yards.
Wynns says Cossins brings outside-the-box thinking and energy. Sisco thinks back to life before working with him and wonders how they caught before he was hired.
Sisco said: “The stuff that he says is like, ‘Oh my gosh, how did we not know any of this stuff before?’ It’s been awesome to have him, and the drills, the mindsets, the stuff he relays to us — it’s A-plus.”
Holaday, 32, was a 2010 draftee of the Detroit Tigers and, like Rutschman, was invited to major league camp in his first spring as a professional. A decade ago, he was experiencing what he called the same “tremendously valuable” benefits as Rutschman is now.
“There’s a brotherhood that’s shared in this game, but there’s also a special connection between catchers because of the early mornings, the physical toll — the learning curve is massive,” Cossins said. “It’s a demanding position. Guys who do it and have done it for a long time and have gone through the ropes, so to speak, they have experience and that experience is massively important to young players.
“Watching our guys around Adley so far, Adley’s eyes are wide open. His ears are wide open. He’s soaking it up and we have the right people at the right time to be around him to kind of pass that on and instill those work ethics that are so vital.”
Joining ‘gen pop’
The early work finished, the catchers had about a half-hour for breakfast with their teammates before an 8:15 a.m. hitters meeting. Some of them stayed in the cage for extra swings anyway.
A team-wide nutrition meeting Wednesday meant there were no bullpens or live batting practice sessions to catch, so it proved to be one of the more integrated days the catchers have had. Typically, they’ll get off-schedule from the wider group that Cossins referred to as “gen pop,” meaning they’ll be catching bullpens, working on individual skills or taking their own batting practice away from the rest of the group.
But even those days give them plenty more time together. They stretched with their teammates around 10:30 and did some base running, then worked with Cossins during the drill portion of the day.
They worked on tag plays at the plate on throws from right field. Cossins told them it was Day One of those drills, but the skills will win Game 7 — and reiterated that when Sisco adjusted and picked a high-hopper off the grass.
Cervenka got a hands-on lesson about tucking his back leg into his body instead of keeping it straight behind his leg. Rutschman was deep in conversation with Holaday and Davis about where and how to best set up to block the plate. Cossins suggested that they keep their gloves under the ball as it’s coming in from the outfield to cut down on extra movement, and Wynns did it exactly the way he was instructed.
“That’s the feel, right there,” Cossins told him. “You feel that?”
“I feel you,” Wynns said.
‘This is the hook’
The rest of their day — with pop-up drills in the outfield with multiple balls at a time, rundown drills with the rest of the infield and batting practice — went without a hitch. Most of the team was already inside as the catchers were still practicing in the afternoon sun at 1 p.m., sweating through baseline conditioning drills with the team’s strength coaches.
Cossins sat on a golf cart and reflected on the six hours spent shaping what’s essentially three generations of catchers. Like Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, he’s a player-development lifer. For those types, he said, “this is the hook.” And this camp more so than any other, he’s able to not only develop the major league talent at his disposal, but mold a future one.
Rutschman said he knew there would be early mornings, but he appreciated how Cossins and the staff showed him some of the drills they’d be doing at a January minicamp so he wouldn’t be behind.
Though he’s at a different stage in his career than the rest of his teammates, Rutschman believes “catching is a craft,” and appreciates the extra time given to that end. He’s balancing not being too annoying with picking the brains of his more experienced teammates, and finding that the extra time with the catchers is making his first camp much easier.
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“I think the more time we spend with each other and the more, I guess, activity time, work that we do together, really creates that bond just because we have that common goal, that common interest, and because of that when we’re doing work, the communication is easy,” Rutschman said. “It flows into everything else we do. From that standpoint, it’s one of the most important things.”