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Behind the Mask: The life of a Bison's catcher

STAFF REPORTS

BUFFALO, N,Y. -- The catcher is one of the most demanding positions in all of sports--both physically and mentally. Whether it's getting down in the dirt to block a pitch or throwing a runner out trying to steal second, the backstop is one of the most important positions in the game of baseball. Catching isn't just a skill, it's a craft--honed by hours, years even of repetition. 
As they strap on the chest protector and shin guards and pull down the mask over their heads, Bisons' catchers Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire gear up for a long nine innings of baseball.
Both Jansen and McGuire are among the top prospects in the Blue Jays' organization. They rank as the sixth and the 14th best talents, respectively, according to MLB Pipeline.
Jansen, a former 16th round pick by the Blue Jays in 2013, made a sharp ascent through the minor league ranks last year before landing in Triple-A with the Bisons at the tail end of the season. In 2017, he hit .328 and collected 22 hits, three home runs and 10 RBI in 21 games played with the Herd.
This season, in addition to playing catcher, Jansen doubles as a designated hitter and bats in the heart of the order--mostly in the cleanup spot. He has provided a steady bat in the lineup and has parlayed his strong finish from last year into this season. In 2018, Jansen leads the team in batting average at .304 and is tied for the team-lead in hits with 52. Additionally, he has registered four home runs and 37 RBI (all stats as of June 16). 
Jansen, a native of Appleton, Wis., began catching when he was right around Little-League age. 
"When I was nine years old," Jansen said, "I was fortunate to have a batting cage in my backyard, and my dad was the Little League coach."
Jansen followed in the footsteps of his father, who was once a catcher when he played baseball.
"It was his [Jansen's father's] passion back in the day, so he put it on me, [I] tried it out…it turns out that it's a fun position to play," Jansen said.
McGuire is a former first-round selection by the Pittsburgh Pirates back in 2013 and was acquired by the Blue Jays via a trade in 2016. He played the majority of the 2017 season in Double-A with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in a season shortened by a knee injury he sustained last May.
In 34 games played with the Fisher Cats, McGuire put up solid numbers. He batted .278 with 32 hits, six home runs and 20 RBI. In 2018, he has 33 hits, three home runs and 15 RBI (as of June 16). McGuire is coming off a productive series at the plate against Lehigh Valley in which he recorded five hits including a two-run home run on June 12. 
McGuire hails from Covington, Wash., which is about a 40-minute drive from Seattle. He also started to take up catching when he was young.
"Little League," McGuire said. "I played with my older brother Cash. He was a year older than me. We used to switch off catching whenever the other would pitch."
As his brother got older and began to develop into a pitcher, McGuire found his calling behind the plate.
"I just stayed back there behind the dish and fell in love with the position and liked being in on every play," McGuire said. "I ended up sticking with it through Little League. That's one thing I loved about that position--how much it demands every day."
The two catchers offered different reasons for wanting to continue playing the position.
"A lot of it has to do with the love I got from my dad," Jansen said on why he enjoys being a catcher. He explained that his father was a catcher for a long time and although he never played professionally, he takes to heart what his father once taught him about the game.
"I played shortstop a little bit in Little League as well and I liked that but something about putting the gear on and going back there, and stealing strikes, blocking balls and throwing guys out… it's a constant game back there, so that's what I love," McGuire recollected.
Catchers wear a full ensemble of protective equipment to prevent the possible dangers of being in such close proximity to the batter-let alone having a hard ball sent towards you at high speeds. 
 
Sometimes, catchers can take a beating and Jansen recalls this when he first started playing the position. "[I] wore a couple balls off my arms and legs," he remembered. 
The late Yogi Berra once said, "90 percent of the game is half mental." This "yogism" rings true, especially for a catcher, which was Berra's primary position in his playing days. For a catcher, the game is just as much mental as it is physical. 
"It's a tough game," McGuire said. "So, if you're 0-2, 0-3 heading into that seventh, eighth inning and you got a one-run lead, you can't be taking that last at-bat back there behind the dish. You got to be able to put that past you and be able to separate that."
Baseball players are often creatures of habit, and this is no exception for Jansen and McGuire who each have a unique routine when it comes to game preparation. Both catchers prepare for games doing a blocking drill of some kind.
Jansen likes to pair up with another catcher (usually Michael De La Cruz) and works on blocking before the game. "We have a little routine together and he'll just throw some balls, I'll be on my knees and just blocking and get a feel for the ball going off my chest," he said.
"We kind of draw up a little pregame routine," McGuire said. "For the most part I go out there, I stretch, throw with the pitcher and then right before I get warmed up with him I do a couple of dry blocks on my own."
There is also a lot of preparation to be done to before the team begins a new series. 
"Pre-series all the pitchers get in a room [catchers included]," McGuire said. "We have the lineup card as well as their whole roster and we go over each guy [in the opposing team's lineup]. We start with the leadoff guy and work our way down."
The meetings go into great detail. "We talk about what kind of style hitter they are, if they are aggressive on the base paths, if they are swinging a lot, if they are chasing, stuff like that," McGuire said.
A big responsibility that rests solely upon the catcher is calling a game--determining the type and location of a pitch every time a pitcher comes to the plate. 
McGuire said calling a game has a lot to do with utilizing a pitcher's strengths. 
"Sometimes, you know the attack plan will say, hey, this guy chases fastballs up with two strikes, but if we have a sinkerball guy like [Taylor] Gurrieri or [Chris] Rowley, guys like that [who] are more sinkers down in the zone, it will take away from their game to throw a fastball up."
"That's a good example of how we are going to pitch to our pitchers' strengths versus the hitter's weakness," he said.
Jansen added that calling a game is a combination of how the pitcher looks that game in addition to reading the batter. Jansen gave this example: "If a guy is struggling with the slider but his curveball is working, you are going to go to that more often." 
Jansen also said there is a lot that goes into adjusting game calling based on the hitter. "If a hitter is leaking over and he's really just looking for a heater away or whatever and you want to bust them in, [you] look at their feet. There's a lot to it." 
Jansen compares game calling to a popular strategy game. "It's like a chess match. It's fun."
Perhaps the most important piece of equipment a catcher wields is the round and heavily-padded mitt. Like most baseball players, Jansen and McGuire have preferences when it comes to the shape and feel of their mitts.
"Some guys take it crazy and they really form it however they would like," McGuire said. "For me, I just grab the All Star [brand of the mitt that McGuire uses] glove right out of the bag and pretty much just make sure the strings are pulled."
"I like just a pretty generic pocket," he said. "I just let it [the pocket] develop on its own."
While some catchers prefer a box-like, or "U" shape to their mitt, Jansen favors the opposite. 
"I like my glove loose and big," Jansen said. He even has a rather unusual method of breaking in his mitts. "Actually, one of the ways I break my gloves in is to kick it, to start playing hacky sack with it."
Catcher's mitts tend to wear out easily because of how often they are used to catch 90-plus mile per hour pitches. Jansen and McGuire each have multiple mitts in their leather arsenal at the ready. 
"I get mixed up every now and then in the middle of the season because I have like three or four [mitts] just laying around the bag and I'm like 'all right, which one is my gamer?' because they all feel the same," McGuire conveyed.
"I got four [mitts] right now," Jansen said. "I got two that are just my main two [mitts] and I'm breaking one in right now as well. The one I'm using now is broken in nice and hopefully [I can] keep it that way, keep it in shape."
There isn't much longevity when it comes to the lifespan of a catcher's mitt. 
"I usually go through about one every month and a half actually with the way the weather is," McGuire said. "I typically try to warm up guys with the practice glove and then use the game one when the game starts," he added.
Because the catcher works so closely with pitchers on the team, catchers seek to establish a rapport between themselves and the pitching staff. Jansen and McGuire both noted the relationship with their battery mates can be described by one word: trust.
"Some of my best friends are pitchers," Jansen said. "You just got to have trust and you got to have that relationship if you're going to succeed… it's all about trust. It's always square one."
"That's huge, especially in pro ball," McGuire echoed about establishing a relationship with pitchers. "That was the coolest part for me once I was first drafted in 2013 was kind of learning that whole side of the game, where you know, the relationship you have with that pitcher is very important."
"You want that guy to want you behind the plate for the game, as well as trusting his catcher back there to be able to bury a curveball with two strikes, with a guy on third base, things like that," McGuire commented.
As many other baseball players also do at a young age, Jansen and McGuire found players and coaches to look up to and emulated their games. 
"Growing up I used to watch Buster Posey and Yadier Molina a lot for two reasons," McGuire rationalized. "Yadier has always been really aggressive back there and one of the best game callers and blocking and throwing guys out. I've always admired that." 
"Buster Posey, same thing," he said. "He's a great defender, a great ball player. I think I looked up to him more as a kid just for how humble he was off the field and he'd always credit his pitchers when it was very successful."
Jansen looked no further than within the Blue Jays organization to find a role model. 
"The beauty of being a catcher is that you're a hybrid of all the watered-down versions of whoever taught you how to catch," Jansen said. 
"I love watching Russell Martin [current Blue Jays catcher] catch. Ken Huckaby was my catching coordinator, he still is. Sal Fasano, my old catching coordinator."
Jansen picked up on their cues and has applied them to his own game. "How they caught, how they thought about the game. Talk to them and you make yourself."
Because of their active nature in the game of baseball, catchers often take on a leadership role, and thus, should exhibit the qualities of foresight, decisiveness and game management. Jansen and McGuire chimed in on their thoughts about characteristics a catcher should have. 
"You got to be a leader," Jansen said about qualities a catcher should have. "You see the whole field. You're the one guy in there that knows what's going on and you see everything happening in front of you."
"I think being a leader is number one," Jansen added, "having energy… those are two big ones right there."
"You got to be a leader," McGuire agreed. "You're the one guy out there that's looking at the defense… A lot of guys feed off of our energy back there as a catcher, so you know, you show up to the ballpark every single day. This can be a grind, for sure, and when that game starts though, everyone is looking at us."
"You got to be able to put your defense before your offense," McGuire said. "I think It's a position that you got to be a little bit selfless at times and you know, pro ball is a great example of that."
Jansen and McGuire are well on their way to having successful careers at the professional level. Jansen is on pace to represent the Bisons at the Triple-A All-Star Game next month and McGuire has already acquired numerous accolades throughout his minor league career--including being named an Organizational All-Star by MiLB.com in 2016. 
At just 23 years old each, the catchers are primed to be the backstops of the future in the Blue Jays' organization.