ST. LOUIS — Bruce Bochy last strapped on the gear and crouched behind the plate in a major league game 25 years ago, and by now, he has managed 2,600 more games than he appeared in as a catcher. Mike Matheny didn’t finish his career as a catcher until 2006, and this is his first season as a manager at any level. His apprenticeship, though, was the 1,285 games in which he appeared as a big league catcher.
“There’s no part of the game you can’t know something about being a catcher,” Bochy said.
All four managers who remain in baseball’s postseason grew up as catchers. Joe Girardi won two World Series as a catcher for the New York Yankees, the team he now manages. Jim Leyland toiled for seven seasons as a catcher in the minor league system of the Detroit Tigers, the team he now manages. Bochy spent parts of nine seasons as a backup catcher for three teams and was a manager by age 40. Matheny won four Gold Gloves at the position, three with the St. Louis Cardinals, for whom he now manages, and one with the San Francisco Giants, who he manages against Wednesday afternoon in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
All of them say catching prepared them for the jobs they do now, which is nothing new, because going back to the days of Connie Mack, catchers seemed to naturally drift to managing. But in the National League’s case, Bochy and Matheny are also overseeing what might be considered a small renaissance at the position — or at least an opening of minds as to what might be possible for catchers when they take off all that gear.
Hitting fourth for the Giants on Wednesday night will be Buster Posey, a 25-year-old who just completed his second full major league season — he lost most of 2011 to an ankle injury — and won the National League batting title. Hitting fifth for the Cardinals will be his counterpart, Yadier Molina, who finished fourth in the batting race, has four Gold Gloves and four all-star appearances. They are both contenders for the National League MVP award, an honor not bestowed on a catcher since Johnny Bench in 1972.
“I know Buster has to have a lot of consideration as the most valuable player,” Matheny said. “But from where I sit, I don’t know how Yadier Molina couldn’t be in that conversation, as well.”
Matheny and Bochy each hit .239 during their major league careers. Bochy slugged .388, Matheny an even more meager .344. They were, back then, not expected to hit high in the order or be primary run-producers. They were expected to learn the game, to know the game, to think the game.
“I do think catchers have a slight advantage as far as making that transition from player to manager because, in essence, that’s what you’re doing,” Bochy said. “You’re having to handle a staff, 11 or 12 pitchers. Hopefully you have some understanding of pitching. You’re watching the game. You can’t drift mentally during the game at all. You’ve got to keep that focus for nine innings. [If] you’re out in the outfield, you can maybe think about that last at-bat.”
Bochy, 57, is in his 18th season as a major league manager, and he won an NL pennant with the San Diego Padres and the 2010 World Series with the Giants, so his experience on the bench now supersedes that from behind the plate. The same could be said of Leyland, who never reached the majors as a player but first managed there, with the Pittsburgh Pirates, in 1985, and won the 1997 World Series with the Florida Marlins. Girardi is in between; he managed one season with the Marlins and the past five with the Yankees, with whom he won the 2009 World Series, but he still caught 275 more games than he has managed.
Matheny, though, is the man who best represents the transition from behind the plate to running a game. He was, at 41, the youngest manager in the majors in 2012, taking over after Tony LaRussa retired following the Cardinals’ World Series title a year ago. He caught in the majors just six years ago, and had he not suffered a concussion, would have played longer.
When he was hired, Matheny had managed zero games at any level, nor had he served as a major league bench coach, another typical path to the top job. But he said he felt like every decision he would face as a manager he had already considered during his playing days.
“I think that’s one of the advantages to being a catcher, actually, because I felt like I needed to make sure I knew what I was doing every pitch,” Matheny said. “I was second-guessing myself every pitch.”
It is the position in which Posey and Molina find themselves now, studying video not only of how an opposing pitcher might face them when they’re at-bat — as almost all offensive players do — but also studying the entire opposing lineup, searching for tendencies and weaknesses that their own pitching staff might exploit. Matheny tells a story of how, when he was still playing for the Cardinals, he came across Molina as a young minor leaguer and went home to tell his wife, “I saw the kid that’s going to steal my job.”
“The thing that stood out to me was how receptive he was and how open to learn and to improve and to grow,” Matheny said.
Posey is five years younger than Molina, and so gifted offensively — his OPS of .957 trailed only five players in all of baseball — that he has had to deflect talk that he move to first base to better protect his body. (Minnesota’s Joe Mauer, the 2007 AL MVP, has also resisted moving.)
“It’s a grind,” Posey said. “You have to realize you’ll be hurt sometimes, and you have to play that way, still catch and still hit. It’s hard to explain unless you’re back there doing it.”
Now, each catcher left in the postseason can return to his dugout and find someone who knows what they’re going through — even though they may have abilities about which their managers only dreamed.
“There’s not a lot glamorous about the position, and it just makes it that much more rare that we’re talking about some very effective offensive players who grind through that position,” Matheny said. “The rigors of that position, day in and day out, physically and mentally, are really hard to describe. But I see these guys setting kind of the framework for that to change.”
Giants note: Bochy said second baseman Marco Scutaro, who suffered a left hip injury following a hard slide by St. Louis’s Matt Holliday on Monday, could be ready to play in Game 3. “He came out of this pretty good considering how hard he was hit,” Bochy said Tuesday. Scutaro remained in Game 2 after the slide, which appeared to be late, and delivered the two-run single that broke the game open. He was removed in the fifth inning.