The Nationals have a plethora of quality catchers in their system and have made a point to stockpile the position.
One of their catchers with a ton of experience is Raudy Read, who played 14 games with the Nationals between 2017 and 2019. The Nats signed the 26-year-old in 2011 out of the Dominican Republic.
Even a catcher who has logged 632 minor league games - from the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League to Triple-A Syracuse and Fresno - looks to improve and refine his game each season. Nationals catching coordinator Michael Barrett, who played in the majors from 1998 to 2009 and has coached Nats prospects since 2013, works with Read to help him improve behind the plate.
“Each year, every catcher, we encourage them to reinvent themselves, try new things to help them get better,” Barrett said. “There’s always something as a catcher to work on. Every aspect of the game, there is so much that goes into catching. There’s always areas you can get better.
“Even though we are proud of our guys we always think of it like, until they get to the big leagues there’s always something we can do. And even at the big league level, it doesn’t stop there.”
Despite an abbreviated spring training, Barrett spent considerable time with the Nats’ tenured Dominican backstop, honing in on his defense.
“I talk to Raudy during spring training every day,” Barrett said. “We work on his game as much as we work on anybody’s game. It might be a little bit different message. We might have a little bit different way of breaking it down for a guy who has been around in the organization for nine years. We still have a lot to offer all the guys, including Raudy.”
Barrett and his staff keep up with the latest nuances and trends on how to play defense as a catcher. With Read’s bigger frame (6 feet, 170 lbs.), the Nats were looking for a way to refine his setup behind the plate, allowing for better sightlines to the pitcher’s delivery and for extra maneuverability.
“This year we were working with Raudy on catching from one knee, maybe trying some things different, just to mix some things up,” Barrett said. “Kind of going down that trail, which is not something that we would do with the younger catchers, but Raudy has been around awhile. We’ve been through the fundamentals from a foundation standpoint and worked through that. We get to a point where ‘We haven’t tried this yet, let’s try this.’ So with Raudy, that was the direction we were going to go.”
Five-time All-Star and World Series champion Tony Peña adopted an unorthodox squat behind the plate when there were no runners on base, extending his left leg straight out while squatting on his right leg. He did this in order to help his pitchers keep their pitches low in the strike zone. This is the idea the Nats have with Read in getting him to drop to one knee when receiving each pitch.
“It’s trending. The belief behind it is that it puts you in a more comfortable position lower to the ground so you are working more from the lower part of the strike zone and working up,” Barrett said. “It gives the umpire a better look. There’s a lot of reasons why they say they are doing it. I think probably more than anything, it just frees the catcher up to be more comfortable behind the plate in a more relaxed position to just receive and be the best receiver that they can be. I think that’s how it kind of started.”
Barrett, who played most of his career with the Expos and the Cubs, said making a major adjustment to the way the catcher receives is not something the Nationals do with all of the catchers in their system. It is based on the individual and his body mechanics.
“I’m not talking about Raudy, but some catchers will struggle receiving because of their body style, body type, flexibility,” Barrett said. “Maybe they have trouble working around the knee. So to be able to drop that knee gives them the opportunity free their elbow up to where they can move around. If you ask any of us in our organization, there’s many ways to get to that point.
“We have guys like Geraldi Diaz at 19 years old (who) can receive the ball from a traditional stance as well as a lot of catchers can from one knee. It’s more individual-based, really.”
Read throws with his right arm. Barrett says the Nationals work on dropping each knee, but typically Read’s left knee would be down as he prepares to catch.
“With Raudy, we just wanted to try something different because he is so big, he’s such a big frame. mMybe giving him a chance to be lower to the ground and hopefully give the umpire a better look,” Barrett said. “We wanted Raudy to try it with nobody on base starting out and see how he liked it, and then we were going to go from there.”
Barrett said the coaches suggested to Read to make the left-knee-down adjustment last season, and worked with Read again this spring to see how comfortable he was getting. But this adjustment is not the only way to get the result they seek.
“There’s a lot of ways to get there. It’s not just catching from one knee,” Barrett said. “Our organization as a whole, we are willing to try and do anything we can to help these guys and put them in the best position for success. We also want to hear from them and hear what their thoughts are. We want to make sure we are all on the same page.”
Barrett said the coaches listen to Read and ask him what position feels best for him, because it is a movement he must make - up and down - hundreds of times each game.
“We don’t want anyone to do something they are not comfortable doing,” Barrett said. “Especially at the Triple-A, major league level, when you are just starting out catching, nothing is going to feel comfortable, right? It just takes time to get used to being in a squat.
“But a guy that’s been around, we need to listen where they are coming from, what their thoughts are, (and we explain) where we are coming from, where our thoughts are. We don’t base one suggestion or one aspect of altering it all without having good reason or having tons of video of other catchers. We put together a lot of information before we make a suggestion.”
When baseball returns, keep a close eye on Read’s setup and see if he puts his left knee down when receiving. It will be interesting to see how much this adjustment benefits Read on defense, and how it opens up the umpire’s view of the strike zone.