The connotation of backup catcher in baseball used to be like
that of used car in the automobile industry: cheap and low on
cachet. The epitome of the backup catcher was Bob Uecker, who
wound up having a good career--albeit in comedy, where he
succeeded chiefly by deriding his lack of success in baseball.
So how in the name of Biff Pocoroba has someone like the Toronto
Blue Jays' Charlie O'Brien become a hot property? Despite a .222
lifetime batting average--just 22 points better than Uke's
career mark--O'Brien is the best example of how being a backup
catcher has become respectable. Perceptions change. This guy is
no old clunker, he's a certified preowned vehicle.
Though Toronto coughed up a two-year, $6.5 million deal to land
free-agent catcher Benito Santiago in December, O'Brien, who
will earn $625,000 this season, remains a favorite of Blue Jays
pitchers. Even before he'd thrown a pitch to O'Brien, Roger
Clemens called him the best defensive catcher in baseball and
cited O'Brien as one of the reasons he signed as a free agent
with Toronto rather than with the Cleveland Indians or the New
York Yankees. Blue Jays righthander Pat Hentgen won the Cy Young
Award with O'Brien behind the plate for 26 of his 35 starts last
Once he catches Clemens this season, O'Brien will have caught 10
of the 24 pitchers who have received a Cy Young since 1982. (In
addition to Clemens and Hentgen, the others are Bret Saberhagen,
Frank Viola, David Cone, Dwight Gooden, Steve Bedrosian, Tom
Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz). What's more, despite his
unimposing hitting, O'Brien is beginning his ninth full season
in the majors and will turn 36 in May, an age at which Johnny
Bench was retired. O'Brien's staying power can be attributed to
his extraordinary defensive skills and his ability to coax the
best performances out of pitchers--qualities that in many
pitchers' minds far outweigh having another high-octane bat in
the order. "The biggest thing about Charlie is that he wants to
catch more than anything," the Atlanta Braves' Maddux says.
"Charlie is a rare breed. He really feels bad when he puts down
the sign for a pitch and the hitter, as Charlie likes to say,
just waffles it. A lot of catchers wouldn't care. They're
thinking about their hitting. Charlie has tremendous pride in
his catching. He's the master at making a pitch look closer to
the plate than it actually is."
In Atlanta, Eddie Perez, who spent nine years in the minors, has
replaced O'Brien as Maddux's valet--not Javy Lopez, the Braves'
regular catcher, who hit .282 with 23 home runs and 69 RBIs last
season. On the Boston Red Sox, Bill Haselman, who has appeared
in only 252 major league games over six seasons but was
Clemens's batterymate in late 1995 and for the majority of '96,
will get more playing time this season than the defensively
challenged Mike Stanley, even though Stanley hit .270 with 24
homers and 69 RBIs last season. The Red Sox' staff ERA in '96
was 5.34 with Stanley behind the plate and 4.98 overall, a
differential (0.36) worse than that of every regular catcher in
the majors except Darrin Fletcher of the Montreal Expos (0.38)
and Joe Girardi of the New York Yankees (0.48).
In Philadelphia 11-year veteran backup Mark Parent, a free-agent
signee, offers Phillies pitchers more experience and security
than does 25-year-old Mike Lieberthal, who will be Philly's
regular catcher for the first time. Lenny Webster inherits
Parent's old job as the personal catcher for Baltimore Orioles
righthander Scott Erickson, whom Parent once described as "a
high-maintenance guy with a lot of talent." Webster could see
added playing time if Baltimore manager Davey Johnson places
more of a premium on defense now that the Orioles don't have the
firepower they did last year, when they hit more home runs (257)
than any team in history. Baltimore pitchers fared better in
1996 without defensively weak Chris Hoiles, who hit .258 with 25
homers and 73 RBIs, behind the plate (4.64 ERA) than they did
with him (5.35).
"The working relationship between the catcher and the pitcher is
so important that they make up a team within a team that has its
own name: the battery," says New York Mets manager Bobby
Valentine, who tweaked his All-Star catcher, Todd Hundley, this
spring by saying, "He needs to work on understanding the staff."
Hundley broke the major league record for home runs by a catcher
(41) last year, but his backup in 1997, Alberto Castillo, made
it to the big leagues almost entirely on his defense.
"Often a catcher's worth is what you can't see," says Tim
McCarver, the George Washington of personal catchers, who worked
so regularly with Phillies lefthander Steve Carlton in the late
1970s that he joked that someday they'd be buried 60 feet, six
inches apart. "You can see a catcher hit, you can see him throw,
you can see him block balls and all of that, but you can't see
things like how well he communicates with his pitcher. Pitching
is so vital that why wouldn't you use all the accoutrements
available to help your pitcher, including having a catcher he's
McCarver became Carlton's steady in 1976 after Johnny Oates,
then one half of the Phillies' catching platoon with Bob Boone,
broke his collarbone on Opening Day. McCarver, who had played
with Carlton on the St. Louis Cardinals and in Philadelphia,
helped him to a 20-7 season by calling so many sliders that, he
says, "we kidded for years that I even shook hands with three
O'Brien's reputation soared after he satisfied the demanding
Maddux in 22 starts during Maddux's 1995 Cy Young Award-winning
season. "He's one of those guys who likes you to set up farther
off the plate than most guys you catch," O'Brien says of Maddux.
"Most of the time you put your body in the middle of the corner,
but he wanted it off the corner so if he missed, he missed away
or he missed inside. He was meticulous about how you set up and
how you went about your business back there. You've got to
understand that and work to get him comfortable with what he's
doing. I think that might be one reason that Greg and Javy Lopez
never really got along that well. Javy has a tendency to forget
what he's supposed to be doing back there."
After O'Brien signed as a free agent with Toronto following the
1995 season, Lopez caught Maddux often until Braves manager
Bobby Cox tried Perez midway through last season. "It worked so
well that we stayed with it," Cox says. "I tell my pitchers, 'If
there's a preference, let's do it.'"
Maddux's ERA with Perez behind the plate for 114 innings last
year was 1.89; in the 131 innings Lopez caught, it was 3.44. But
Lopez did catch all but one of Smoltz's 35 starts during his
brilliant 1996 season (24-8, 2.94), and he did catch Maddux's
masterly 4-0 victory in Game 2 of the World Series. Atlanta
coach Ned Yost, a former big league catcher, has worked with
Lopez on improving his awareness of game situations. For
instance, one morning at the Braves' camp in West Palm Beach,
Fla., he quizzed Lopez on what pitches he called for in the
first inning of an exhibition game two days earlier. Lopez
remembered all but one. "He's come a long way," Yost says.
"It doesn't bother me," Lopez says about sitting when Maddux
pitches, "because Eddie is a good friend who came up through the
minors with me. I'm happy to see him get a chance to play."
Says Maddux, "Pitchers don't like different looks. If you get
used to the same catcher for 50 innings, you don't want to see
something else and have to adjust. Bobby understands guys prefer
the same look as often as possible."
Toronto manager Cito Gaston has a different take on
catcher-pitcher combinations. Says Gaston, "I don't believe in a
personal catcher. I think what happens is that the pitcher
depends on the other guy so much that if something happens to
that catcher, what's going to happen to that pitcher?"
Gaston intends to use Santiago five games a week and O'Brien
twice without pairing them consistently with certain pitchers,
despite O'Brien's impressive resume. He has served as personal
catcher for Smoltz and Maddux, Gooden of the Mets, and Chris
Bosio and Teddy Higuera of the Milwaukee Brewers. "You're like a
doctor or something," O'Brien says. "You have to help them over
the hump. I take pride in that, looking for flaws or things
mentally that might get them over the hump."
Even when he was a four-time All-Star with the San Diego Padres
between 1986 and '92, Santiago had a reputation for shirking his
responsibilities behind the plate. Now he has developed into
such an attentive receiver that Philadelphia pitcher Curt
Schilling urged the team to re-sign him after last season.
Phillies pitchers had a 4.21 ERA when throwing to Santiago and a
4.52 mark when pitching to three other catchers. Santiago also
hit a career-high 30 home runs in 1996. "I know when that bat
starts getting hot, it's going to be tough to take me out," he
says. "But I have no problem with Charlie playing."
Says one National League pitcher, "If they're paying Clemens $8
million a year, don't you think they'd want to keep him happy
and let him pitch to O'Brien?"
In this hyperoffensive era of baseball, the catcher, especially
the part-time one, is the last position player without a mandate
to provide offense. Middle infielders and even utility
infielders (the charmed Rafael Belliard of the Braves excluded)
rarely sustain careers on leather alone. The catcher, though,
remains so vital to pitchers that even a regular like the
Florida Marlins' Charles Johnson, who batted .218 last year, is
firmly entrenched because of his work behind the plate.
Specialists such as O'Brien, who was sought by several teams in
trade talks last season, and Parent will always find a club that
wants them. Parent, 35, who is playing for his seventh team in
the 1990s, is squeezing the most mileage possible out of a
Ueckeresque .220 lifetime batting average.
"I don't like to do it myself," Parent says of his role as a
personal catcher, "unless it's the only way I get to play,
because it says something to the other catcher, like maybe he's
not doing something right. And I don't like that. What happens
if the third baseman starts having bad games behind certain
pitchers? Do you bring in another guy? It seems we do so much
nowadays to accommodate pitchers. And I don't know if that's
Today's catching specialists would do well to heed the advice
that Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey once gave to McCarver. Of
a list of catcher's commandments that Dickey, then a Yankees
scout, gave the 15-year-old McCarver at an amateur sports awards
dinner, the one that McCarver remembered best was "Be a
pitcher's friend." He lived by that dictum throughout a playing
career that lasted until he was 38. Of course it helps if you're
catching a future Hall of Famer like Carlton. Says McCarver, "I
know it put three more years on my career."