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Thomas Boswell

This Nat Is Quite A Catch

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, February 19, 2005; Page D01


Brian Schneider is not the best known of the new Nationals, but he is probably the most coveted. If other big league teams could steal just one Nat for their own, the Washington catcher would probably be the most prized player to capture.

"Every man in this clubhouse knows we have the best catcher in baseball on this team," says reliever Joey Eischen, one of the team's veteran leaders. "He's our ringleader, our field general."

"We have the best catcher in baseball on this team," reliever Joey Eischen said of Brian Schneider, above. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

"Schneider is one of those premier catchers that nobody knows about. He's been hidden up in Montreal. But we know we've got a gem," says Bob Boone, who retired having caught more games than any man in history and won seven Gold Gloves. "He'll get more attention now. He's one of the rarest commodities in baseball -- a great defensive catcher who can also hit 'enough.' "

At 28, Schneider is also one of the central leaders in the Nats' clubhouse as well as the only player on the club with deep Washington area roots and a thorough appreciation of the District. "I love the city of D.C. It's so diverse and has so much history everywhere," says Schneider, who hit .257 with 12 homers last year. "The last time I flew into town I was looking at the monuments and thinking, 'It's such a great site for a ballclub.' I tell the guys, 'Get ready. This is a pretty sweet city.' "

And Washington is getting a pretty sweet catcher, too.

Schneider is the prototypical "young veteran" who appears ready to break out to full stardom in his 11th pro season with the same franchise. "When people think about catchers in the National League, hopefully, they will put me at the top," he says.

The son of a Naval Academy grad and an Annapolis-born mother, Schneider takes naturally to leadership. He is the Nats' union rep and one of the genial, agitating clubhouse influences. But he's also one of the team's most disciplined, self-made players. However, far more important, the 6-foot-1, 196-pound Schneider is the hub of the team's only truly outstanding unit -- its defense. The Nats need more hitting. The Nats need more pitching. But defense -- that, they've got. Schneider is its core.

"This is the best defensive team I have ever managed," Manager Frank Robinson said. No position is weak and almost all are well above average, including the entire infield. Right fielder Jose Guillen has one of the game's most dazzling arms.

But Schneider is the pick of the litter. Last season, he led the majors in throwing out base-stealers (47.8 percent) while making only two errors in 133 games and being involved in 16 double plays. The previous season, Schneider threw out 46.7 percent of those attempting to steal. Even better than that fancy percentage is the fact that many teams have simply given up running against Schneider at all. Many thought that he, not Mike Matheny of the Cardinals (29 percent thrown out), deserved the Gold Glove last season.

Most astonishing was the Expos' team ERA in the 1,114 innings when Schneider was catching: 3.86. That mark was not only lower than Matheny's work with the pennant-winning Cards (3.89) but would have given the Expos the fourth-best ERA in all of baseball if Montreal had been as good in all 162 games as they were when Schneider was behind the plate.

So, why did the Expos end up with the 16th-best ERA in baseball and a reputation as a crummy staff? Because in the 333 innings caught by Einar Diaz, Montreal's ERA was a horrific 5.89 -- far worse than any team's ERA last year.

Can a superb catcher really make that much difference to an entire team? Probably not. Two runs a game is an insane differential. But Diaz is now gone. And a far better defensive backup catcher, Gary Bennett, has been added.

"This whole organization understands the importance of defense," says Boone. "The teams that don't have it aren't standing at the end. Defense makes your pitching so much better. And it starts with the catcher."

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