A casual clubhouse conversation over the summer between a past and current Orioles catcher led to an offseason lunch, a lengthy workout and a relationship that could pay dividends on the field.
Rick Dempsey, the former World Series Most Valuable Player and current MASN analyst who played in the majors for 24 seasons and owns two championship rings. Austin Wynns, a rookie at 27 trying to stick around as a backup with perhaps an opportunity to do more in the future.
Too bad it wasn’t caught on camera.
Dempsey stopped by Wynns’ locker before a game and began doling out advice, which prompted their session on the West Coast.
“He wanted to know if there was anything that he could do to be a better defensive catcher and I said, ‘There’s a lot that you can do,’ ” Dempsey recalled. “You have to take it to another level.”
Wynns drove from his San Diego home to meet up with Dempsey in Los Angeles. They ate and headed over to California Lutheran College in Thousand Oaks for some instruction and advice.
“I spent about six hours with him,” said Dempsey, who broke into the majors with the Twins in 1969.
“I basically just told him, ‘Listen, I’ve seen what’s happening, I know the kind of instruction that catchers in the major leagues don’t get anymore. You’ve got a chance to be a pretty decent catcher and a good contact hitter, but if you really want to make an impact on this ballclub, there are some changes that you have to make and some things that you have to do in order to become a real good defensive catcher that can help our pitching staff get better.’ And he said, ‘OK.’
“We went out there and we worked on his setup, we worked on positioning of his glove,” Dempsey said. “We talked about the precision that it takes for a catcher now to be a good defensive catcher. I said the No. 1 thing that is hurting all teams is major league catchers sit way too far back now. They’re at least three feet deeper than they ever were in my era.
“If you can imagine, because it’s just common sense, is that if you sit that far back and you have to catch a ball that’s right on the outside corner, it’s never going to get called a strike by the time it gets to your glove. The umpire’s not only sitting four or five feet now further behind the catcher, but the ball moving across the outside corner is, by the time you catch it, a good maybe two feet off the plate for strikes. And I feel like since all catchers are doing that, it’s got to be one of the biggest reasons why good starting pitchers have 100 pitches by the fifth inning of every game. Every game. I’d say 90 percent of all starters are pretty much out of the ballgame by middle of the sixth inning.”
Dempsey was just getting warmed up as he delivered his sales pitch to Wynns.
“I said, ‘Austin, you need to move up under the swing,’ ” Dempsey recalled. “I sat there for 27 years and rarely, rarely did I ever get hit by a backswing because it was behind me, not in front of me. And I said, ‘Of probably between 180-200 pitches thrown a game, you’re going to make a difference of 15 percent more of those pitches getting called strikes for our ballclub.’ Which is probably eight to 10 more 2-2 counts than 3-1 counts. It’s going to have a huge effect on getting ...
“Any starter pitcher that’s got half-decent stuff will go from the fifth inning to the seventh inning, and now you’re going to be able to save your ballclub a minimum of two more guys to get to your setup guy and your closer. It could have a huge impact on baseball, and the Orioles for sure, if we can just get you to move up, learn how to set up and we’re going to be able to stop missing so many balls in the dirt. They’ll catch those real off-speed pitches where you can afford the time to fall forward.’
“I taught him how to get off his feet, staying on the balls of his feet and being able to be quick and cover a lot more distance. And you know what? He adjusted pretty darn well,” Dempsey said. “It took, really, about four hours of sitting there working with him on receiving a ball and telling him every pitcher’s release point determines where you’re going to give your target, because you want it coming to the center of your chest on the corners and we’re going to get more pitches called strikes.”
Wynns said the plan to meet began to unfold after Dempsey learned that the rookie lived within a reasonable distance of him.
“I got talking to him during the season and we were just talking and he said, ‘Oh, you’re up north? You’re an hour and a half from me. We should get together sometime and have lunch and just talk baseball.’ And then afterward he said, ‘Let’s go on the field, let’s try some things out,’ and we did,” Wynns said.
“It was great. He has a lot of knowledge. I’ve got to keep picking that guy’s brain. He has so much that he can give people, and I took advantage of that. I just wanted to listen and see what he had to offer. His knowledge of the skills of the game, his understanding of different situations. His time, what they taught, and our time.
“Everything is a universal teaching curve. What he broke it down to was, ‘Hey, what do we want to work on? Let’s get better on every single thing, let’s critique everything.’ It was good. We talked it out about things I need to work on this offseason and come back ready to go.”
Moving up also could improve the catchers’ times on throws to second base. Dempsey threw out 54 percent of runners attempting to steal in 1976 after coming to the Orioles in a 10-player trade with the Yankees, and 58 percent the following season. He experienced only slight dips in ensuing years, to 47, 48, 46 and 44 percent, figures that would be celebrated today.
“I think we can get our guys into the 1.7, 1.8 (second) range, which would really cut down the running game against our ballclub,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey also advised Wynns to tweak his workout program and focus more on specific muscles that improve mobility behind the plate.
“These adjustments that our guys can make right now are very simple,” Dempsey said.
“I said, ‘Austin, go home and work on your feet and your calf muscles so you can sit behind home plate comfortably on the balls of your feet, not flat-footed.’ You can’t guard a guy playing basketball on your flat feet. You’ve got to be on the balls of your feet to move quickly right and left. It’s the same theory in catching. To block balls to your right and left you’ve got to be able to move quickly. And if you can move quickly, you can watch the ball a lot longer than the normal guy because you know that you’re going to be able to adjust.”
Wynns said he understood and agreed with Dempsey’s theories.
“The ball of your foot and how you can explode and be agile on the balls of your feet, that’s the way you explode,” said Wynns, who batted .255/.287/.382 with four home runs in 42 games, threw out seven of 22 runners, committed one error and had three passed balls.
“Running, everything is from the ground up, and that is very important. It’s not necessarily a lost art, but people need to be aware that we need to strengthen that area. Especially playing a long season like that. You want to make sure you’re in shape for it.”
The two have stayed in touch through multiple phone calls, with Dempsey asking about the workouts. They discussed the idea of getting together again later this month for a refresher course before pitchers and catchers are due to report to spring training on Feb. 13.
“It isn’t rocket science, by any stretch of the imagination,” Dempsey said. “I said, ‘This is what you need to do if you want to stay in the big leagues and make an impact as a big league guy. You make these adjustments, you’ll be around for a long time if you stay healthy.’ “
The 40-man roster currently holds three catchers, including Chance Sisco and Andrew Susac, the latter vulnerable to cuts that are coming later. The Orioles are expected to sign a veteran, and they’ve maintained contact with Caleb Joseph’s agent, though the sides haven’t been able to reach agreement on a new deal.
Wynns has put himself in a favorable position to break camp with the team, especially if Sisco is viewed as requiring more time at Triple-A.
“There are opportunities everywhere,” Wynns said. “There are opportunities, especially with us, and right now I’m just going to be the same person. Whatever I bring, I bring. I’ve just got to compete and win games. That’s the goal.”
Meanwhile, Dempsey will stay available to Wynns if needed, perhaps feeling more at ease doing so now. But Dempsey is also aware that he can’t step on any toes. That creates footwork challenges for him.
Former bench coach John Russell often was praised by manager Buck Showalter for his abilities as a catching instructor - he was an immense help to Welington Castillo, for example, and aided Caleb Joseph in his transformation to a plus defender - and the club still has Donnie Werner employed as a rover in the minors. Manager Brandon Hyde is a former catcher. Tim Cossins, known in the industry as a “catching guru,” will be joining the coaching staff.
“When a player in the past came to me, I more than tried to help them,” Dempsey said. “I know the position pretty darn well. I played the game forever. And you know what? It was time for me to say something.
“The entire game is between the pitcher and the catcher, and the catcher really becomes the most important person day in and day out on the field because he has to handle 13 pitchers. You’ve got to be able to read those pitchers better than anybody.”
Dempsey’s never been shy about offering an opinion on the state of catching, and his blood boils when he sees lazy targets set, poor pitch selection and repeated errors that go uncorrected. Sit with him during a game or chat afterward and you can get an earful.
“It became an offensive position,” he said. “Whoever could hit a little bit and put the equipment on by themselves, they made them a catcher. But they forget. Look at the playoffs. I’ve never seen such brutal catching in my life. They’re not being expected to do a lot that we were expected to do. And if we didn’t do it, they sent us home.”