A few thoughts on Henry Blanco’s new role on Nats staff (updated)

Coaches are the unsung heroes in the major leagues, spending long hours before and after games, working with multiple players with different skill sets to reach their full potential. Many a time, I’ve arrived at a ballpark at 2 p.m. to find a hitting coach working with a batter in a session that started an hour or more earlier, or a pitching coach overseeing a bullpen session with a hurler working to perfect a new pitch.

Simply put, most fans don’t see the work that goes into what happens between first pitch and last out.

For many casual observers, the most they think about coaching is when a third base coach windmills a runner around third base only to have him nabbed at the plate. Or that a pitching coach is stalling for time during a mound visit to give a reliever a little more time to warm up and come to the rescue. But that’s really the tip of the iceberg.

Nationals skipper Davey Martinez has spent the early part of the offseason reworking his coaching staff. First, longtime coaches Bob Henley and Randy Knorr were reassigned from their spots in the third base and first base boxes to other organizational positions. Hitting coach Kevin Long left to rejoin Joe Girardi with the Phillies and was replaced by Darnell Coles. Eric Young Jr. was named first base coach and Gary DiSarcina was tabbed as third base coach. Ricky Bones was hired to be the new bullpen coach, pushing incumbent Henry Blanco to the newly created position of catching/strategy coach. The holdovers are pitching coach Jim Hickey, bench coach Tim Bogar and assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler.

Of these changes, the Blanco move should get the most notice. It signifies a shift in thinking - that more good baseball minds on the bench is a good thing - and shows that the Nationals are serious about having a longtime major league catcher working with a position where the key players are trending younger.

Gone are the days when guys like Kurt Suzuki, Yan Gomes, Matt Wieters and Wilson Ramos were stalwarts behind the plate, using their veteran expertise to mesh with a pitching staff and call games, and contributing what they could on offense. Last season’s July sell-off that yielded three promising catchers - Keibert Ruiz, 23, from the Dodgers; Riley Adams, 25, from the Blue Jays; and Drew Millas, 23, from the A’s - fortified a position of dearth in the organization.

Ruiz-Catching-Rochester-Sidebar.jpgWith Ruiz and Adams handling the bulk of the backstop duties for the final eight weeks of the season, Tres Barrera, 27, was optioned to Triple-A Rochester. Millas debuted as the Nats’ No. 20 prospect in MLBPipeline.com’s most recent rankings. Israel Pineda, 21, who had inched into the top 10 or low teens of some rankings before the 2021 season, now sits at No. 27 in the MLBPipeline top 30. Pineda has a bright future and now has time to develop without being rushed.

During his stint as bullpen coach under Martinez, Blanco was still working with the catching corps - but so were Henley and Knorr, also former big league receivers. But the recent staff makeover puts the onus for teaching and developing major league catchers squarely on Blanco’s mask, chest protector and shin guards. The dual role of strategy and catching coach puts Blanco on the bench and gives him more opportunities to be hands-on with the young backstops and a larger voice in the team’s thought process. Instead of talking to someone over a bullpen phone or after a game in the clubhouse, Blanco will be right there in the dugout. It’s a continuation of the shift from late in the season, when Blanco took over as bench coach while Bogar recovered from back surgery.

More major league organizations are seeing the value of former catchers as right-hand men. Catchers see games differently than players at every other position. They are innately involved in every play in every game - calling pitches, setting infield alignments, positioning cutoff men - and they view what’s happening on the field from a unique position. They’re able to see the whole field in front of them, which gives them an opportunity to anticipate things that other fielders might not be able to expect. Because of their role, they are watching a baseball game like a chess master, thinking a few moves ahead and formulating strategies based on multiple possible outcomes.

Blanco, 50, played for 11 clubs for 16 major league seasons. His longest stint was four years with the Cubs from 2006-09; he spent a single season with seven teams and two campaigns with three others. Change was a constant in his tenure, but that much change means he developed a knack for adaptability, and was able to handle new pitching staffs, whether filled with veterans or rife with rookies, with aplomb.

Martinez has a lot of trust in Blanco, gleaned from the three seasons they spent on Joe Maddon’s Cubs staff from 2015-17. Neither was a star player, but both enjoyed lengthy major league careers because they were able to fill significant reserve roles.

Now Martinez will turn to his right or left on the bench and be able to pick the brains of Bogar, his bench coach, and Blanco, his strategy coach, during games. But that’s only one part of Blanco’s value; the other lies in his work with the catching corps.

It’s no longer good enough to be a decent catch-and-throw guy behind the plate (although some are better than others and how a few still suit up in the gear without mastering basic tenets of the craft is beyond confounding). There’s blocking balls in the dirt, correct positioning at the plate to take a throw, pitch framing, working a rookie or experienced pitcher through a rough patch and manipulating fielders like a quarterback running the offense.

Watch closely in spring training how closely Blanco works with Ruiz and Adams - the presumed catching tandem to start the 2022 season - and how quickly the catchers improve. A lot has already happened. Ruiz came to the Nats with a reputation as a good hitter whose defense had to catch up with his bat; Martinez noted at the end of the season how impressed he was with Ruiz’s work ethic when it came to improving his defense. Adams arrived as a bat-first backstop with a burgeoning power stroke; he seemed to throw better and more accurately after working with Blanco. Adams’ bat is still his calling card and the Nats will work him at first base as a way to get him more involved in the lineup.

While Barrera briefly performed well as the primary catcher after Gomes was traded and Alex Avila was on the injured list, his ceiling isn’t as high. At best, he’s a guy the Nats can trust if someone gets hurt; at worst, he’s organizational depth until the next wave of catchers is ready. But it’s clear that Millas and Pineda will soon be pushing him.

All of which means a heavy workload for Blanco - and we’re just talking about his job coaching catchers. But Blanco has always handled whatever is asked of him, and people in the organization think he will be energized by the new challenges his newly created position will afford him.

Update: According to a baseball source, Henley and Knorr have new jobs as part of a reworking of the team’s player development staff. Henley has been named field coordinator, Knorr has been named catching coordinator and Sam Narron will serve as pitching coordinator.

Narron, who has been a minor league pitching coach for the Nationals since 2012, takes over for Brad Holman, who was terminated in mid-September because he refused to comply with the organization’s vaccine mandate for non-playing employees. Narron briefly served as the major league pitching coach this summer during a COVID-19 breakout among the coaching staff, later helping out in the bullpen.

The Washington Post first reported the new assignments.

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