DENVER -- Terry Collins refused to use the term "personal catcher" when asked Tuesday about Ronny Paulino's return to the lineup for Mike Pelfrey's start against the Rockies. But it's no coincidence, either, and Collins suggested that he is likely to continue with the pairing.
"Yeah," Collins said, before adding, "maybe."
There's a reason for Collins to be less than definitive on the matter. Managers loathe the concept of personal catchers because it hamstrings them when planning lineups. It can create conflict between the players involved, and even hurt a pitcher's confidence. Injuries tend to muck up those arrangements, as well.
But that doesn't mean it won't work in some instances, and the Mets seem to be at that point with Pelfrey. The experienced Paulino, a seven-year veteran, is a better fit than the relatively inexperienced Josh Thole for Pelfrey, who needs more guidance from behind the plate.
When Collins made the switch Thursday, Pelfrey pitched his best game of the season, allowing four hits and one earned run in 72/3 innings in the Mets' 5-2 win over the Giants. The Giants are hardly an offensive powerhouse, but Pelfrey did get back to what had made him successful -- pounding his two-seam, sinking fastball.
Seeing that Pelfrey had his fastball early, Paulino didn't mess around, and helped him maximize the pitch into the eighth inning. When asked the key to reading someone like Pelfrey, Paulino said he knows early. The true test is in the first inning.
"I found out quick the stuff he had that day," Paulino said. "He had good command of his fastball and we stayed with that."
Perhaps Thole would have discovered the same formula, but he's off to a shaky start with Pelfrey, who has a 9.56 ERA with him behind the plate in four starts this season. During that stretch, opponents have hit .356 off Pelfrey.
Overall, Thole has a 3.97 catcher's ERA in 90 starts, dating to his 2009 debut. That's better than Paulino's 4.31 ERA, but his greatest asset is experience, having caught more than four times (415) as many games as Thole. That can be a boost for Pelfrey's fragile confidence.
"I don't think anybody works any harder than Josh Thole at trying to figure out what he has to do to get a hitter out," Collins said. "There's some pros on both sides. But I think maybe in the case last time out, Mike just thought, hey look, I'm going to go with what he's calling. He knows some of these guys. He's been around a little longer."
That had been an area of concern with Thole. Pitchers had been second-guessing his calls, and after Pelfrey got bombed in Philadelphia, he said he should have shaken off Thole more often. Before Mike Nickeas was sent down to make room for Paulino, the Mets were considering him over Thole for Pelfrey's starts.
If Paulino does maintain his foothold as Pelfrey's personal catcher, and Thole continues to struggle, it may be only a matter of time before Paulino takes over the top job. When the Mets signed him to a one-year deal worth $1.35 million, Paulino said he intended to fight for the starter's job, and the Mets could use a more regular dose of his offensive ability.
Paulino entered Tuesday hitting .474 (9-for-19) in seven games, a small sample made more seductive by Thole's .239 average and .294 on-base percentage. And Paulino is eager to take advantage of any opportunity.
"You always want to compete," Paulino said, "and I'm always going to be prepared for whatever happens."