Rob Brantly hasn’t forgotten what his catching coordinator in the minor leagues told him: have fun and learn something new every day.
When asked, he easily recounts the lesson he learned in his last game; it was about offense, and he’s quick to mention that jumping at pitches is an ongoing battle.
It’s hard to believe that this 23-year-old who is immersed in the Book of Mormon before a game against the Washington Nationals is a week away from making his first Opening Day start. The minor leagues weren’t so long ago.
Brantly is well-spoken, and it seems like he could go on forever about something he’s interested in talking about. His eyes are always engaged.
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“I think dealing with the debut part, as much as I try to hide the fact that it’s, ‘I’m not nervous, I’m not nervous, I’m not nervous,’ going through that process is going to help me,” Brantly said, thinking about the final week before Opening Day.
“That I’ve been [in the majors] for a month and a half, it’s still a brief time, but the fact that I’ve actually gotten a taste of it, it’s going to help calm me down a little bit.”
When Brantly arrived at Marlins Park in August, he played backup to veteran John Buck. Buck’s departure brought another experienced catcher in Jeff Mathis, but the former Blue Jay has been sidelined after sustaining a broken collarbone early in spring training.
Brantly will take on the primary role with 31 games under his belt and just 28 of them behind the plate.
“When Mathis was here in the beginning, right away, he was a big help to me,” Brantly said. “I went to him and started asking him questions about experiences I had last year when I got called up, or some things I could do better.”
Mathis hasn’t completely disappeared — he’s still wandering around the clubhouse with his arm in a sling, and Brantly still calls him to pick his brain when he’s not around.
“The best part about it, is I have a manager [Mike Redmond] also who has had a great career as a major-leaguer, and that helps as well,” he said. “He’ll pick my brain as much as I pick his because he wants to figure out what I’m thinking too and where my thought process is at.”
The timing for Miami to be managed by a 13-year-veteran catcher in Redmond is perfect. The two spend time between innings discussing the game and working through scenarios to polish Brantly’s game. Redmond digs for answers, and he’s happy with what he’s getting back from his soon-to-be everyday backstop.
“Part of not knowing him when I was coming in here was to kind of sit back and not give him too much out of the chute to get a feel for him; where he’s at, what he sees and his vision of catching,” Redmond said.
Heading into the regular season, Redmond wants to keep it simple with a game plan and allow the young player to be himself.
“So far this spring, he’s done a great job. We’ve been working a lot on his footwork and throwing. His throws have been accurate to second and he’s been blocking great,” the manager said. “I’m very happy with how hard he’s worked and the effort he’s put into it.”
His offense has offered no reason for concern. In his short time with the Marlins, he homered three times and had a .290 average by season’s end. Spring training as been no different, showcasing Brantly’s ability to drive in runs and hit for extra bases. His average this spring is .310.
For Brantly’s debut, there won’t be a seasoned backup sitting in the dugout to mentor him. The Marlins find him in the spotlight with a vacancy to back him up that can only be filled by another young player. There is no one else in the clubhouse with any major-league experience.
“I do have concerns about that, but I think he and I have a good relationship, and I feel like I can help him through anything,” Redmond said.
Until Mathis returns to the roster, Redmond will have to work with an atypical plan. Kyle Skipworth, who at 23 hasn’t played higher than Double A ball, likely will be the interim backup.
“Obviously [it’s] not an ideal situation to have your backup catcher be a left-handed hitter as well, and [have] two young guys, but that’s the situation we’re in,” Redmond said. “Will it change? I’m not sure. Right now, that’s just where we’re at.”