Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pawtucket's Wagner climbing the ladder

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- Of everything Mark Wagner brings to the table as a catcher at Triple-A Pawtucket, one thing sticks out to Pawtucket Red Sox manager Ron Johnson: His movie collection.

“He has every movie in the free world,” Johnson said. “It’s unbelievable. He’s got more movies than you can shake a stick at.”

Said Wagner, “That’s just scraping the surface. Back home, you could call us Blockbuster.”

For that reason – and because Wagner is among the newest players on the Pawtucket roster and thus brings fresh material – the catcher has become the team’s go-to guy for bus-ride entertainment. On one recent expedition between Buffalo, N.Y., and Scranton, Pa., while most of the team dozed, both manager and catcher exulted as Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon splashed down in the Pacific Ocean in the climactic scene of “Apollo 13.”

“Arms up and wide – it was like a touchdown,” Wagner said with a wide grin. “Everybody was going wild. Well, me and him were going wild, anyway. Everyone else was probably asleep.”

An impressive collection of movies isn’t what’s going to get Wagner to the major leagues. But the 25-year-old’s catch-and-throw ability is a different story entirely. If you’re a Red Sox fan frustrated with watching opposing teams steal bases at will, in fact, Johnson has a story you’re going to want to hear.

It was the eighth inning of game in early August against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the Triple-A affiliate of the Yankees. Third baseman Ramiro Pena was at first base and a new pitcher was in the game, and no one was making any effort to prevent Pena from stealing second base.

“The lead was huge,” Johnson said. “The delivery time of our pitcher was slow. The runner read it and took off. The runner had plus speed. You’ve accepted the fact that this man is going to steal second base.

“When (Wagner) threw the guy out, he slid into second and popped up and ran right back to the dugout almost before the umpire made the ball because he was that out. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be (kidding) me! He just threw that guy out!’”

Wagner has thrown out almost half of potential base-stealers this season: 31 of 67, a rate of 46 percent. He threw out 62 percent of would-be base-stealers at Double-A Portland and has caught 34 percent of would-be base-stealers since his promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket.

The average Double-A catcher this season is throwing out 33 percent of base-stealers. The average Triple-A catcher this season is throwing out 27 percent of base-stealers.

“He’s probably about quick as I’ve seen as far as guys throwing the ball,” Johnson said. “His release is ridiculous.”

(Wagner isn't the only strong defensive catcher coming up through the Red Sox system. Single-A managers chose Luis Exposito and Tim Federowicz the best defensive catchers in the Carolina League and the South Atlanta League, respectively.)

Wagner's bat is coming along, too. He hit .301 and had more walks (28) than strikeouts (26) for Portland during the first half of the season before his promotion to Pawtucket. He since has hit .229 and has three times as many strikeouts (18) as walks (5) – but that’s in a four-week stretch in the dog days of the summer.

Besides, when it comes to catchers, the bat often is the last thing to come along. Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek hit .224 in his first season in Double-A and .244 in his first season in Triple-A but hit .269 with 20 home runs in his first full season in the major leagues.

Wagner knows everything is coming together for him. It’s just not coming together quickly enough – say, with the speed he throws out prospective base-stealers.

“I feel like I’m a high-energy guy, and when I’m on the field, the energy is really there, really going, and I’ve got to learn to channel that in the right way and not be out of control,” he said. “That’s in terms of hitting and staying consistent with my swing and not trying to do too much – and catching, not trying to throw one (second) flat to second base but to stay within myself. When I stay within myself, I’ve found, I can hit with the best of them and throw with the best of them.”

Outgoing and well-spoken, he has the maturity to be a clubhouse leader and the enthusiasm to be a pick-me-up for a struggling pitcher. Not much gets to him – he caught Nolan Ryan at a charity event in college and John Smoltz in a rehab start at Double-A, and he didn’t seem fazed by either.

But he still needs to find the even keel he’ll need to advance to the next level. Fenway Park is somewhere on the horizon, but he’s not there yet.

“Sometimes I don’t have the most patience in the world,” he said. “But I’ve got to take that time and, in the end, it’ll all work out for the best.”

1 comment:

chris said...

Good stuff. Very interesting read.