“I’m working on catching balls in the pocket,” Pirates’ minor league catcher Wyatt Mathisen told me as we talked about the nuances of his game outside the Greenville Drive locker room last month. Mathisen’s candor left me speechless. When you’re talking to a professional baseball player, there are some things you just assume. And one of those is the ability to catch a ball properly.
So where does he go from here — this 19-year-old converted shortstop, this catcher under construction? Talk to Mathisen for a few minutes and you see a young man who acknowledges his weaknesses; but there’s also a ballplayer who’s eager to improve.
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Just the day before (April 14th), the second round pick had struggled behind the plate. West Virginia won the game, but Mathisen’s staff allowed seven runs, including two wild pitches and four stolen bases. Mathisen spent the game reacting instead of anticipating — and he appeared to lack confidence behind the plate.
The Pirates organization is aware Mathisen has a long way to go. “We knew there would be some rough stretches both defensively and offensively,” assistant general manager Kyle Stark told me. “A catcher is the hardest thing to develop because of the demands of the position.”
And those demands have forced Mathisen to mature quickly. He’s serving his pitchers and helping them focus by educating them on opponents batting average by count. “I’m working game calling,” Mathisen said. “My knowledge behind the plate is something I’m trying to focus on more than anything this year.”
“Early in the season, our percentage of first pitch strikes was about 15 percent,” Mathisen added. “We use these statistics so pitchers can see the importance of getting ahead.” With a young staff and team earned run average of 4.58, a noticeable improvement will take time. For many of Mathisen’s pitchers, the South Atlantic League is the first time they can’t afford to fall behind in the count.
As Mathisen focuses much of his energy on learning a new position, his hitting has suffered. “I care about my hitting,” he said. “But not as much as I care about how my catching and pitching staff are doing.”
Stark appreciates Mathisen’s line of thinking. “We are trying to have [Mathisen] prioritize because it’s easy to worry about everything in this game,” he told me. “It’s a pitching staff that’s not easy to catch.”
With a .181/.241/.208 triple slash line to date, he has yet to find a rhythm. “I’m trying to get pitches I can hit early in the count,” Mathisen said. “I’m looking 0-0, 1-0.” This has showed up in the stat line as his walk rate is half of what it was in 2012 during a .295/.388/.374 campaign.
When behind in the count, Mathisen says he wants to “grind the at-bat out and make solid contact.” But Mathisen’s swing mechanics are impeding his ability to do that. Mathisen loads to a weak hitting position, drifts forward and swings with his hands. Without incorporating his lower half, Mathisen will continue to push pitches instead of drive them.
As Mathisen struggles, Stark said the Pirates’ goal is to “reaffirm and reassure [Mathisen] of his value to the organization.” And the organization’s confidence in him has helped. “Last year, if I had a bad at-bat, I’d take it into the field and miss three balls,” the catcher said. In 2013, the numbers might point to his doing the same, but this isn’t the case. As a catcher under construction, Mathisen is taking his lumps in stride.
At present, it’s difficult to project him as the Pirates catcher of the future . In years past, I’ve been quick to dismiss catchers with similar skill sets. But the fact Jesus Montero has made the lion’s share of starts in Seattle forces me to give an athlete like Mathisen a fighting chance — especially when he’s so dedicated to his craft.