SAN DIEGO — Jorge Alfaro wore a dark T-shirt Tuesday with “BORN TO CATCH” written across his chest. He sat at a folding table in the middle of the visitors clubhouse at Petco Park and pored over video of the Padres hitters. He stuffed scouting reports, heat maps, and handwritten notes next to a laptop.
The rookie catcher finished his homework. Then Tuesday’s starting pitcher, Mark Leiter Jr., opened a laptop near Alfaro for his own pregame study session. Alfaro put his papers in his locker and kneeled next to Leiter. The pitcher and catcher formed a plan.
“You never stop learning,” Alfaro, 24, said. “I’m trying to take the most information I can take this year.”
The Phillies have three catchers on their 40-man roster. It is a decent bet that two of them begin the 2018 season in the majors. Alfaro is all but guaranteed to be one of them; after this season, he cannot be sent to the minors without passing through waivers. The competition for playing time between Cameron Rupp and Andrew Knapp had simmered before Knapp fractured a bone in his right hand.
It is an imperfect situation. Catcher is typically a defensive position and one manned by experienced players. The Phillies have neither of those types. They like pieces of each player’s game, but there are unanswered questions about all three.
“I love it,” said John McLaren, the team’s bullpen coach who oversees the catchers. “To me, that’s the best. If you can respond to competition, it’s going to make you a better player. I talk to Rupp and Knapp about it all the time: This is going to make you a better player. I don’t want to hear why you should be playing. How you play is going to dictate how much you play.”
The learning curve is steep. Knapp, on the disabled list, remembered his first start earlier this season in Cincinnati. “I was like, ‘Don’t [mess] up,’ ” Knapp said. “You know?”
The game has slowed down.
“Preparation is key,” Knapp said. “You need to know what your pitcher can do. A lot of the times certain guys can do certain things. You catch [Aaron] Nola and you catch [Jerad] Eickhoff, they’re two completely different guys. So you have to know what their strengths are and how you’ll approach guys. You’re not going to ask Eickhoff to do something that Nola can do.”
That is something McLaren has stressed to Alfaro. He’s asked the rookie catcher to sit with Knapp — another rookie — or assistant pitching coach Rick Kranitz in the dugout during games he does not start.
“If nothing else, sit there with the report in front of you,” McLaren said. “Watch the swing path. Watch the hitters’ approaches. Learn our pitchers. What are their strengths? To me, that’s one of the biggest keys as a catcher — knowing each pitcher and connecting with him. We need to do that. We need to connect with each pitcher. They each have their own style. You handle them different. You talk to them different. Whatever it takes to get the best out of that pitcher.”
McLaren has exchanged messages with Dusty Wathan, another former catcher and the manager at triple-A Lehigh Valley. Wathan has overseen the development of Alfaro, who has lessons to learn behind the plate. The current project is, in McLaren’s words, to “quiet his body.” Too often, Alfaro is not set when he offers a target for his pitcher. It compromises his ability to catch an inaccurate pitch or frame a close one for the umpire.
“It has to be a focus thing,” McLaren said.
“He has work to do,” Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said of Alfaro. “In time, I think he’ll get it going.”
It is possible the Phillies pursue a third catcher this winter, a veteran they could pair with two of their current catchers. That would be an unconventional solution, but the Phillies are faced with the task of developing catchers at the major-league level.
“There can’t be any questioning of your ability to just catch,” Knapp said. “The catching has to be second-nature so you can manage everything else. If you’re thinking about catching the ball, that’s a bad place to start.”