One of the positions that the New York Yankees addressed in the MLB Draft and international free agency is at the catcher position. While the Yankees do have Gary Sanchez as their catcher for the foreseeable part of the future, a lot of their depth is now at the lower levels of the organization.
To get some insight on the catchers in the system, we got to talk to New York Yankees catching coordinator JD Closser, who is in his third year in the organization. It has been a major key to the organization since Ryan Lidge has had to catch for four different affiliates this season:
“If we didn’t have him [Lidge], we would be up a creek without a paddle this year.”, said Closser. It’s important to have depth and to have guys that can play at different levels this year. We are kind of bottom heavy right now. We have a lot of guys playing. It’s going to be a fun couple of years trying to sift through all this and figure out where everybody ends up.”
The Yankees added catchers with their first two picks in this year’s MLB Draft. One of them was Second Round pick Josh Breaux, who made his debut with the Staten Island Yankees on Sunday against Noah Syndergaard. Closser mentioned how Breaux’s strength could help him as he goes forward:
“His physicalness, he’s a big strong guy. I think that’s going to allow him to take the rigors of being an everyday guy. He’s in great shape. His hands are really good. He’s a big guy and you don’t usually see that. He has some flexibility. I think it’s a good combination of things.”
As the Yankees were going through the process of adding catchers into the system, they have certain criteria that they look for to try to find that backstop: One of the things they look for, according to Closser, is finding leaders:
“Leadership skills and how they go about their business every day. The physical tools, we want to see some athleticism behind the plate with some hands to receive the ball. The athleticism leads into blocking. Throwing is important, but when we are developing catchers, it’s more of a team defense. It’s important, but not a main component.”
Once a catcher joins an organization, one of the things the Yankees like to do is to let them play and then make the corrections that are necessary because of all of the things that are on their plate right from the get-go such as calling a game:
“Getting out there and getting into a good routine and playing every day and going through the whole process is a huge step in developing players as soon as they start professional baseball. We welcome them in and just say you are here for a reason, we are not going to change a lot of things on you right away. Have fun and enjoy it., replied Closser.”
One of the things that catchers have to learn on the fly is how to game plan with that day’s starting pitcher. It is a difficult challenge, but one that is necessary to becoming successful behind the plate. Closser mentioned how with as many as 16 pitchers in Short-Season, learning different personalities is crucial to being successful:
“It’s tough, but that’s part of being a catcher is learning how to deal with a bunch of different personalities. It comes with the territory and it is part of the business and hopefully they pick it up quick and store it in their minds.
Last season, Closser was the bullpen coach for the Double-A Trenton Thunder. This season, he has gone around the organization taking a look at all of the catchers within the organization. So, what is a daily schedule like for him?
“I come in and watch the guys work and play in the games and see where they are. It’s not much different than a regular coach, but I am not with the team all the time. I am with different affiliates every four-five days.”
While analytics have been sweeping the baseball landscape, it is not something that is depended upon in the organization. Closser explained how analytics are used when it comes to the catching position:
“We use analytics, but it is not the end all, be all for us. We use it in how we evaluate their receiving and head-to-head with opposing catchers. We don’t typically look a lot of the other stuff that the other departments do.”
One notable name in the Yankees organization that has returned recently is High-A Tampa Tarpons catcher Donny Sands. After breaking his arm in extended spring training, Sands was out until June 18. In 12 games with the Tarpons, he’s hitting .341 at the plate with an RBI:
“He’s done a nice job. He’s progressing in the right direction. Hopefully, he can make up some lost time and continue to improve and show the improvements he made over the last year and keep that going,” said Closser.
A name that doesn’t get a lot of attention for the way he has played in Low-A Charleston this year is Jason Lopez. The 20-year-old is hitting .272 with seven home runs and 23 RBIs in 50 games. He is currently tied for the team lead in home runs and he’s thrown out about 32 percent of runners trying to steal on him. Closser talked about how he’s coming into his own this year.
“His personality is coming out. He’s taken a leadership role. He’s making some adjustments behind the plate receiving. He’s got a good arm and has swung the ball very nicely.”
The catcher position may not be one of the strengths in the Yankees organization as of right now. However, the depth at the lower levels may turn it into one in the not too distant future.