Bobby Wilson was wearing a T-shirt that read “Everything Hurts” as he spoke about his job and his baseball career. His words confirmed its accuracy.
“I’ve been playing professional baseball for 16 years, putting on that gear, squatting behind the plate every day, in every kind of weather,” Wilson said. “There’s a reason young guys don’t want this job.”
But Wilson wasn’t complaining — in fact, it’s the exact opposite. In an odd bit of self-contradiction that’s endemic to the position, he’s a proud member of a fraternity that nobody, Wilson included, wants to belong to: backup catchers.
“I never looked at myself as a so-called backup. Nobody goes into baseball to be a backup,” Wilson said. “You prepare to play every day. Whether you do or not is out of your control.”
Being in control, however, is what makes a good backup catcher, and keeps this breed of ballplayer employed for a decade or more in an industry that ruthlessly discards players at other positions the moment they betray a hint of obsolescence. More than half of all major league teams employ, or have at some point this season, a player who fits the profile: over 30 (sometimes well over), has played for multiple MLB teams, and won’t complain if his name is on the lineup card only once a week.
“That’s a special skill that you have to develop. It would be a lot more fun to play every day, but not all of us can, so I just embrace it,” said Drew Butera, who spent three seasons as Joe Mauer’s backup and is now in his fifth season as Salvador Perez’s backup in Kansas City. “Most people don’t see the hard work that goes into keeping ready. It might seem glamorous — they think you get to just sit around and watch baseball games six days a week, but there’s a lot of work going on.”
In a lot of cases, it’s even more work than the starters put in. Wilson, for instance, makes it a point to catch off-day bullpen sessions by the starting pitchers, never going two days without one, just to keep his legs stretched and strong, and to stay familiar with how each pitcher is feeling. He schedules a pregame practice session, working on throwing to each base, on the first day of each series. And he takes part in each day’s pregame meeting with the staring pitcher, to help go over the game plan.
That last part may be what keeps Wilson in the majors despite a batting average of .169 this year, or compels the Royals to retain Butera — he signed a two-year contract after the 2016 season — even though he’s hitting .185, or helps Chris Gimenez find work with six different teams over the past decade, two of them more than once.
“There are 20-year-olds in the minor leagues that have better raw tools, by far, than most of the backups in the big leagues. But there’s such a big gap in the other development — putting together a game plan and putting it into action, earning trust from pitchers, being able to make a smart adjustment if something goes wrong,” Wilson said. Some pitchers become reluctant to throw sliders or curves in the dirt, for instance, with a runner on third if they don’t trust their catcher to block them. “Guys have to know they can make tough pitches, because I’m going to keep it in front of me,” he said. “Or I can reel guys back in when they get rattled by bad calls. That stuff is really appreciated by managers and coaches.”
By Paul Molitor, certainly. “Depth at that position is so sparse right now, all around the league. If you can take care of things behind the plate, if you’re a good clubhouse person, you can get by going 2-for-10 with an occasional homer,” the Twins manager said. “Being able to step in and play solid defense, that’ll get you work for a long time. Drew Butera is still going a decade later, and he’s got a [World Series] ring.”
Even if he still believes, even at 35, that he could be starting somewhere. “If you just say, ‘I’m a backup,’ you become complacent. You always strive to play every day,” Butera said. “At the same time, if your career goes on and 10 years later, you’ve spent a decade in the majors as a backup, it’s a pretty damn good career.”
Position players are being used as mop-up pitchers more frequently than ever before in baseball history, more than 50 times this season already. A brief look at how AL Central teams, owners five of the six worst bullpen ERAs in the league, are adopting the strategy:
Indians: Manager Terry Francona has used a position player only once, and Twins fans may remember it. On June 16, after using six relievers, Francona asked outfielder Brandon Guyer to pitch the ninth inning of Minnesota’s 9-3 victory. He retired Taylor Motter, Ryan LaMarre and Max Kepler in order on just eight pitches.
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Royals: Drew Butera is a catcher who knows his way around the mound, with five career appearances for three different teams before Ned Yost turned to him in July to get the final out of a lopsided loss against Boston. It took a while: Butera gave up two singles, three walks and two runs before retiring Jackie Bradley Jr. on a liner.
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Tigers: Ron Gardenhire hated the idea during his days with the Twins, trying it only three times in 13 seasons, and he hasn’t changed in Detroit. The Tigers are one of three AL teams (along with New York and Boston) not to use a position player, perhaps because Andrew Romine — and his four career outings — is now in Seattle.
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White Sox: Infielder Matt Davidson, a pitcher in high school, has made three one-inning appearances and has yet to allow a run. He even struck out Giancarlo Stanton. But Davidson’s real distinction is historic: Only he and Babe Ruth have ever pitched three times and hit 15 home runs in the same season.
Sending Fernando Rodney to Oakland last week makes 2018 the third year in a row in which the Twins have traded their saves leader (at the time of the trade) during the season.
Most saves when traded in-season by Twins:
28 — Brandon Kintzler, 2017
25 — Fernando Rodney, 2018
12 — Rick Aguilera, 1995
8 — Ken Sanders, 1973
7 — Kevin Jepsen, 2016
Jose Berrios is on pace to finish 2018 with 210 strikeouts, which would make him the eighth Twins pitcher in history, and first since 2010, to eclipse 200 in a season. The other seven Twins to do it:
• Francisco Liriano, 2010 (201)
• Johan Santana, 2004 (265), 2005 (238), 2006 (245), 2007 (235)
• Bert Blyleven, 1971 (224), 1972 (228), 1973 (258), 1974 (249), 1975 (233), 1986 (215)
• Dean Chance, 1967 (220), 1968 (234)
• Dave Boswell, 1967 (204)
• Jim Kaat, 1966 (205), 1967 (211)
• Camilo Pascual, 1961 (221), 1962 (206), 1963 (202), 1964 (213)