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Major league teams wrestle with personal catchers

March 9, 2015

MESA, Arizona (AP) — Soon after the Chicago Cubs signed Jon Lester over the winter, they brought in David Ross. Clayton Kershaw praised the work of A.J. Ellis, and the Los Angeles Dodgers re-signed the veteran catcher in January.

Then, there is Johnny Cueto and Brayan Pena in Cincinnati, and R.A. Dickey and Josh Thole in Toronto.

The concept of personal catchers, the pairing of ace pitchers and usually light-hitting backstops for a majority of their starts, has been around for decades. Steve Carlton and Tim McCarver had a successful run with St. Louis and Philadelphia, and Greg Maddux loved throwing to Eddie Perez in Atlanta. But there are a handful of teams taking a closer look at that type of arrangement this spring, with most of them trying for more flexibility for the upcoming season.

“I think it has to be a very special relationship,” said Reds manager Bryan Price, a former pitching coach. “That being said, you have to be capable and willing to throw to whoever is back there. The catcher’s responsibility is making that pitcher comfortable and confident that he’s back there.”

Lester had a lot of success with Ross last season, but the revamped Cubs also acquired Miguel Montero in December. The Dodgers got Yasmani Grandal in an offseason trade with San Diego, likely pushing Ellis into a reserve role, and the Reds have emerging star Devin Mesoraco behind the plate. Russell Martin is learning how to catch Dickey’s knuckleball after signing an $82 million, five-year contract with Toronto, putting Thole’s roster spot in jeopardy.

It’s a much different situation for Kansas City, which is mulling over a personal catcher for one of its starting pitchers to ensure Salvador Perez gets more rest. Perez set a couple of major league records last year by catching 158 games and 1,389 2-3 innings, including 15 games and 141 innings in the playoffs.

“It’s just easier when you’ve got a guy like Sal, for me, you know he’s not playing that day,” manager Ned Yost said.

The most popular reason for a personal catcher is the rapport between the battery, and the importance of that relationship to the success of the team. The particular catcher and pitcher are often close friends, which helps them work together on the field.

But the rise of defensive metrics, including data on pitch framing, also can help create a successful pairing.

“A part of a catcher being good is that maybe he receives velocity better,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “and that could be a consideration. This guy’s a low-ball pitcher, this guy really handles the low-ball well, this catcher does, that could be a consideration. So there’s different ways to look at it, absolutely. I don’t try to get too nuts about it, I really don’t.”

Lester had Ross behind the plate for most of his starts last year, when he went 16-11 with a career-low 2.46 ERA. The left-hander finalized a $155 million, six-year contract with Chicago on Dec. 15, and Ross’ $5 million, two-year contract was announced eight days later.

Lester has a 2.77 ERA in 29 games and 195 innings with Ross behind the plate, according to STATS. His career ERA is 3.58.

“It’s always good when you have comfort, when you see comfort, when you feel comfort,” Lester said after throwing to Ross in his first spring start. “That’s obviously something that you always kind of fall back on.

“But like I’ve said in the past and here recently, he’s obviously going to be a vital part of this team. He’s not just here for me.”

Ellis was behind the plate for 22 games and 164 1-3 innings as Kershaw put together one of the best seasons for a pitcher in years. The lefty was 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA in 27 starts on his way to his second consecutive NL Cy Young Award and his first NL MVP trophy.

Ellis has caught Kershaw for 603 1-3 innings over 86 games, compiling a 1.94 ERA.

“He’s been around for three years now and he deserves a lot of credit for my success,” Kershaw said. “We’re on the same page and that just comes with trusting him and knowing the game. You hope you can have that rapport with all your catchers and I’m sure as Yasmani catches me more we’ll get there, too. But it’s definitely nice to have somebody that’s been there before.”

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AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta, and Associated Press freelancers Gary Schatz and Jack Thompson contributed to this report.

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Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

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