GJ Rockies' backstops don't mind sharing the workload
It’s only natural to want to see your name in the lineup every day.
The three catchers for the Grand Junction Rockies all want to play, but they also know that come August, they’re going to be happy they aren’t behind the plate every night.
Troy Stein, drafted out of Texas A&M this June, caught 50 of the Aggies’ 57 games this season. He played first base in another game, and he was behind the plate for 28 of the final 29 games of the season after A&M’s backup catcher was injured.
“It’s gonna be huge,” Stein said of the Rockies rotating three catchers. “It’s a really long season, 76 games plus the playoffs. Having three guys that the pitchers can feel comfortable with anybody going out there and having three guys that are good behind the plate and can swing it is huge for the long run.”
Stein joined the Rockies after the draft, with Hamlet Marte and Dom Nunez coming out of extended spring training, where they played about 45 games.
“It’s different in extended, you only catch half the game, every other day, four or five innings,” Nunez said. “Troy caught a lot more than us, for sure. Us other two guys need the experience of catching a nine-inning game, and I think we’ve handled it pretty well so far.”
Nunez played middle infield last year with the Rockies, with the plan to convert to catching full-time during the offseason and in extended spring training. He started catching during his senior year of high school.
“Being an infielder last year, it’s nice to be eased into it instead of being thrown into it,” Nunez said.
All three have shown good skills behind the plate, and through the first 17 games they were all hitting .297 or better. Entering Thursday night’s game, Marte was second on the team in hitting at .350. Stein is hitting .350 and Nunez .297.
“Catcher is a hard position,” Marte said. “We can play everybody, and everybody has an opportunity to demonstrate his potential. I like that, and we can stay fresh.”
Sanders has the challenge of filling out the lineup card every day to not only give all of the young players their shot, but also put a competitive team on the field.
“Looking at our outfield situation and our catchers, that’s going to be the hardest thing for me to get these guys in,” Sanders said. “I’m going to do my best to keep these guys game-ready, whether that’s DHing or mixing them with a day off here and there. It’s a tough situation they’ve put me in.”
But Sanders isn’t complaining.
“Usually you have a couple of catchers and a backup,” he said. “That’s not the case here. We’ve got three catchers who can all play, and we need to get them their at-bats.”
Having three catchers gives Sanders the luxury of using one as a designated hitter nearly every night. The third catcher works in the bullpen that night, then rotates into the lineup the next night. Stein missed all of the Rockies’ recent road trip after jamming a thumb sliding into a base June 25 against Ogden. That prompted Sanders to use other position players in the DH spot, keeping either Marte or Nunez in the bullpen.
One dicey situation arose last Saturday when Nunez was ejected in the third inning after a called third strike. Marte came in to catch, leaving the Rockies without a backup. First baseman Nate Causey can catch in an emergency situation, but Stein should be back soon.
“You want to play as much as possible, but again, it’s nice not to have to be rushing down to the bullpen if you’re DHing, or you can’t even DH that night because there’s only two catchers and you’re down in the bullpen,” Nunez said.
The catchers were told they’d be sharing the workload before the season began and quickly jumped on board.
“It’s good for the catchers to be able to get at-bats on days you’re not behind the plate, just to keep your timing right and keep your mind right,” Stein said.
After being behind the plate nearly every day his senior year and in 146 of 163 games his final three years at Texas A&M, Stein was good with the plan.
“The Rockies told me right off the bat I wasn’t going to be catching every game, but I’d get in the lineup. It’s a great coaching staff and they’ve been great about it,” he said.
Early in the season, they’re catching pitchers for the first time, so they constantly talk in the dugout to get to know each other and figure out what pitches are working.
“It’s a challenge for sure,” Nunez said. “You can tell when the new guys come in and some are making their first appearance in pro ball and they’re obviously nervous. You handle it the best you can and let them follow you.”
Marte said there’s a balance in handling pitchers.
“The pitchers, we have to be a coach,” he said. “The pitchers sometimes turn their head down, and you have to say, ‘Hey, head up.’ You have to do that, you have to be a cheerleader for them.”
The Rockies have quickly formed trust in each other, Marte said, and keep one another mentally in the game.
“The pitchers, when somebody makes a mistake, they say, ‘Head up, I trust you, you can do it,’ ” he said. “When I was a child and somebody made a mistake, the pitcher was like, ‘What? You suck.’ The pitchers are good here because they know, they trust the infielders and outfielders and catchers. I like that.”
Marte, who grew up in Salcedo, Dominican Republic, has quickly become one of the emotional leaders on the team, and he loves being in the United States.
“Awesome,” he said, a big smile breaking across his face. “It’s different. In the Dominican, people like baseball, but not like here. The fans here are awesome. They make you feel important, like superstars.”