Pedro Severino. (Gary Dize/Courtesy of the Potomac Nationals) Pedro Severino. (Gary Dize/Courtesy of the Potomac Nationals)

Pedro Severino was about 15 years old when he first crouched behind home plate in a baseball game in his native Dominican Republic. He was a pitcher, third baseman and outfielder, and he liked those positions, especially third base. But because his Little League-equivalent team needed a catcher one day because the regular one didn’t show up, Severino was catching at his coach’s request. An opposing baserunner tried to steal second and Severino threw him out.

The coach asked Severino to keep catching from then on. Severino balked.

“Why?” Severino recalled telling his coach. “I’m skinny.”

“Yeah, but you have the potential,” the coach answered. “You’re not scared.” Severino even considered quitting baseball if it meant catching.

Four months later in 2010, following a tryout he said he didn’t do well at, Severino was signed for $55,000 by the Nationals as a 16-year-old catcher. The Nationals saw potential in the skinny but athletic frame. And now, at 20 and generously listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, Severino is considered the best defensive catching prospect in the Nationals system, according to Baseball America’s ratings. He is known as a defensive whiz who is still learning how to hit.

“He’s not a 20-year-old when the staff talks to him about hitters,” said Class A Potomac Manager Tripp Keister, who has managed Severino for the past three seasons. “He doesn’t forget anything, whether it be a hitter from last year and how we pitched him, or whether it be a hitter in a big spot and how we pitched this guy and what we want to do.”

The Nationals put Severino at Potomac this year after an all-star season at Class A Hagerstown in 2013. He hit .241/.274/.333 with one home run and 54 strikeouts in 84 games last season.  His bat is still developing, but the Nationals wanted to challenge him this season. In the Carolina League, Severino is three years younger than the average player.

Through 36 games at Potomac, Severino is hitting .203/.248/.322 with two home runs and 24 strikeouts. Coaches are unconcerned; Severino is young, still growing and developing. Keister likened Severino’s development path to that of another defensive-minded catcher, Cardinals’ Yadier Molina, whose offense improved dramatically in the majors with age.

Severino is “doing a much better job in making his adjustments offensively,” Keister said. “His approach at the plate is getting better. Young players have a tendency to let their offensive numbers affect the whole part of their game. … He’s got a good swing, mechanically and technically. He just needs to continue to repeat it and continue to not get too big and keep his good approach. Sometimes he’ll get ahead in the count and wants to get too big and drive the ball and his swing is a little long and won’t make the kind of contact he wants.”

Severino knows he needs to improve offensively and keep his front shoulder closed when he swings, his worst habit. The Carolina League hasn’t been easy but he finds solace in the words of Bobby Henley, the Nationals’ third base coach and former catcher who spent the previous four years as the minor league field coordinator. Henley once told Severino to focus on defense and the bat will come.

In his first season, Severino carried his offensive struggles to his defense. He has learned to leave the disappointment of an at-bat in the batter’s box.

“Sometimes you forgot about hitting because you’re working so much on defense and working with the pitchers and for the team,” Severino said in Spanish. “If you don’t get a hit, you can’t worry. I have to focus on my defense and win this game with the pitcher, block the ball and catch well.”

Severino’s defense is what has gotten him this far. Keister said he timed Severino’s pop time, his jump and throw to second after a pitch, on a stolen base attempt during last year’s playoffs at 1.77 seconds, an elite time. This year, Severino’s pop time has been around 1.85 seconds, Keister said. Severino attributes his defensive skills to natural ability and practice.

“He’s very strong and accurate,” Keister said. “He’s agile and quick behind the plate. He’s good as anybody with block and recover. His hands are very good at presenting pitches.”

What Keister loves most about Severino is the look on his face when he approaches the mound to take a pitcher out the game. Severino is just as upset as the pitcher about the bad outing. “He takes the pitcher’s success very personal,” Keister said.

Back when he was 15, Severino wasn’t sure he wanted to catch. He wanted to quit playing baseball if it meant catching. His father urged him to keep trying because, as Severino put it, the Severino family doesn’t have any quitters. His father kept motivating him a year later when he was struggling at the plate. Now, he loves it.

“If they were to talk to me about another position, I don’t have another one,” he said. “That’s the one love because I’m always part of the action, catching, moving and I love moving around all the time.”

As has been the case with other Latin American players, language is often the part that needs as much, if not more, work as the on-field game. In his first season in the United States with the Nationals’ Gulf Coast League affiliate in 2011 at 17, Severino said the English-speaking pitchers didn’t want to throw to him because they didn’t trust him. He said they thought he was too young. And language was, obviously, a barrier.

Severino’s English has improved but still needs work. (The Nationals require players to use an English language computer program.) Early in his career, Severino’s responses to pitchers and coaches were either to simply laugh or say “everything good.” But Henley urged Severino to tell people, “‘I don’t understand.”

“After that, I said, ‘I don’t understand’ without any embarrassment,” Severino said. “I’m not American. I’m making an effort.”

Living in the United States as a teenager without knowing any English wasn’t easy and made his baseball development more difficult. But he has grown accustomed to living in the U.S. and doesn’t miss the Dominican Republic as much as he used to.

“I feel more comfortable,” he said. “It almost feels like home.” 

So does catching for Severino, who has found his place on the field.