Modesto, California —— During the last week of spring training at their facility in Peoria, Arizona, the Seattle Mariners called third base prospect Joe DeCarlo in to the front office for a chat. DeCarlo had seen some action with the top squad in Peoria during the Cactus League—enough to prove himself a capable third baseman with a mature approach at the plate—but by the time the meeting ended, that was over forever.
Joe DeCarlo wasn’t a third baseman any more.
“They said they thought that catching would be a good opportunity for me, and hopefully I could make an impact there in the future,” DeCarlo recalled about the fateful meeting in an interview with Baseball Census last month in Modesto. “They said that with some of the things I showed them character-wise last year, catcher would be a good fit. So I started catching at the very end of spring, and I really haven’t looked back.”
The ‘last year’ DeCarlo referenced is his redemption from an extended early-season slump with the Bakersfield Blaze in 2016. After getting demoted down to baseball’s purgatory, extended spring training, DeCarlo returned to Bakersfield weeks later and became the team’s best hitter down the stretch as they rolled through the California League playoffs.
Rather than stumble through that difficult early season start, or fall victim to the inevitable cuts that come from a new front office seeking to fill the Seattle Mariners’ minor league depth chart with their own hand-picked guys, the Pennsylvania native and former second round (2012) draft pick proved himself unwilling to give up, and slowly worked himself back to relevancy in Bakersfield. That’s a good character trait for somebody now taking on the most physically demanding, unforgiving position in the game.
“With everything that happened last year, if that didn’t happen, maybe I wouldn’t be catching right now,” DeCarlo offered. “Everything happens for a reason, and I’ve been given a path to create an opportunity for myself. I like this decision. Any time the powers that be come together and talk to you about something like this, it’s not a bad thing. And knowing that this move will make me more valuable, and help whatever team I’m on, that gives me a lot of confidence, too.”
With less than a week of spring training to prepare the new position, Joe DeCarlo finds himself back in the California League again, this time with the Modesto Nuts. Now, all he has to do is catch.
No problem, right?
“The first week or ten days my body was like, ‘why are you doing this,’” he remembered, laughing. “But after a couple weeks, you start to learn the technique, and you start to develop relationships with pitchers. You start to put it all together. It’s been a major transition, both mentally and physically, but after a little while you get used to it.”
“And it’s pretty cool being the quarterback,” the Seattle Mariners farmhand continued. “I like having that relationship with the pitching coach and the pitchers, and game planning to try to win a game. That’s something I’ve really enjoyed, because I’m developing relationships with guys I wasn’t usually around before. And now I’m starting to get a feel for who I am behind the plate, and I’ve been trying to improve ever since.”
There’s still a lot of work to be done, of course, and it’ll be likely several more seasons before he’s truly an above-average defender behind the plate. Watch him catch now and you can see the skills peeking out here and there, despite difficulty at times in framing, blocking, and pitch calling. The nuances of the game will come, though, and Joe DeCarlo was a good defensive third baseman with skills that should transition well behind the plate: quick reactions, good anticipation, great reflexes, soft hands, and a strong arm.
There’s a survival component of this, too. Catchers quite passionately fight for their chance to stay behind the plate, intuitively understanding how valuable the position is and how much good defense can take pressure off their offensive game. DeCarlo, one of the more intelligent players I’ve ever covered, is no different in that regard.
“That’s the thing, you look at some of these guys who have been journeyman catchers, and they’ve got ten, twelve years in [the big leagues],” DeCarlo acknowledged when I mentioned how 36-year-old Ryan Hanigan is still making a big league impact now in his 11th year in The Show. “There’s a lot of value in being a good catcher. Some of those guys play forever. It’s the kind of thing where if you can do a few things right to help a pitching staff, there’s a lot of value in that.”
Catching means toughness, of course; like every other backstop in the game, DeCarlo will take his fair share of foul tips and back swings and maybe a rough slide or two every single game, leaving him battered and bruised like he’d never been at third base. Catching means technical knowledge of the craft, too; pitch framing alone is increasingly critical as organizations try to figure out how to measure and analyze the art of getting a few extra strike calls every night.
But more than anything, catching means intelligence. Maybe there’s a stereotype that catchers are the tough, stocky, rough-around-the-edges, bulldog-type ballplayers who just like getting dirty, but it takes a surgical mind behind the plate to make a pitching staff come alive. Put frankly, Joe DeCarlo has that mind. He’s soft-spoken, reserved, almost shy in his notably quiet personality—don’t expect him to be a rah-rah type of catcher like, say, Jose Trevino—but once he opens up, the Seattle Mariners’ prospect proves himself an incredibly thoughtful student of the game.
“You try to think ahead a lot more than when you’re out in the field,” he noted. “Out at third base, I’d just be reacting to the ball and anticipating that current situation. But behind the plate it’s like, ‘we have this pitch, the next one, and the one after that, and who’s coming up next, what is the score, who is warming up, and how do we attack for this situation and plan for what may happen next?’”
Even early in his newfound role as a catcher, Joe DeCarlo has had his nights in the spotlight. On May 4, he caught Anthony Misiewicz’s brilliant one-hitter against Lake Elsinore—which, the new catcher found out, is a feat unlike anything he used to do at third base.
“That’s a feeling I didn’t realize existed before this,” he remembered about his elation after the Modesto Nuts’ victory that Thurday night in early May. “To be on the same page with somebody like Misiewicz, that’s a really good moment as a catcher. That gives me a cool feeling like, hey, we did that together.”
“But let’s be honest,” he continued, grinning. “That was him. The way he was throwing made my life a lot easier.”
Now, as the Modesto Nuts wind down the Cal League’s first half in the driver’s seat for the North Division title and a September playoff berth, Joe DeCarlo is starting to figure things out behind the plate. It’s going to take a long time for him to become good back there, but the foundation is being laid, the tools are starting to come together, and the prospect now has an entirely new outlook on the rest of his professional career.
“Right now, every day, I show up to the park and immediately focus on all my catching work first,” the Seattle Mariners farmhand said. “I know it’ll continue to develop, but I’m not trying to rush anything. Our organizational motto is ‘trust the process,’ and if I continue to do that, it’ll all take care of itself.”
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