"You start worrying about your pitchers, you start worrying about calling a game, and getting the pitches right against guys. Next thing you know, it doesn't work out and other teams are lighting your pitchers up. Now, you're sitting there going 'what am I doing wrong?' second guessing yourself, getting anxiety because you don't know what to call. You're panicking."
Four years ago, before he matured into one of the best catchers in baseball, Jonathan Lucroy was languishing as a rookie with the Milwaukee Brewers.
At age 24, he had been promoted on his reputation as a hit-first catching prospect. But he quickly fell into a familiar trap. He threw himself into learning the nuances of handling a pitching staff, a catcher's most important job, even at the detriment of his offense.
For all the hype surrounding his bat, Lucroy hit just .253 in 2010, his first season in the big leagues. He followed up by batting .265 in 2011. Like many young catchers before him, he found himself overwhelmed by juggling his responsibilities, both at the plate and behind it.
It's precisely the predicament facing Mets catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud.
"At the time, you feel like you're stuck," Lucroy said in the visitors' dugout this past week at Citi Field. "You're like 'Man, what am I gonna do? I don't know what to do.' As time goes on, you start maturing and learning."
The Mets hope that d'Arnaud can follow a similar path after his sudden demotion June 7 to Triple-A Las Vegas. Just as Lucroy had done, d'Arnaud broke into the big leagues at age 24, carrying with him the weight of expectations. And just like Lucroy, d'Arnaud has fallen short of meeting them.
D'Arnaud was hitting just .189 in his first 257 plate appearances in the big leagues when he was sent down. In Las Vegas, away from the spotlight of New York, the Mets hope that he can rediscover his swing and regain his confidence.
With the Brewers in town to play the Mets this past week, Lucroy made it a point to seek out David Wright. He asked specifically about d'Arnaud, a 2007 first-round pick acquired from the Blue Jays in the blockbuster trade Dec. 17, 2012 for that year's Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey.
"Whenever a young catcher comes up, I always feel for them when they're struggling," Lucroy said. "Because I know what it's like to go through all that."
Few understand the plight of a young catcher better than Lucroy.
Not easy getting started
"At the time, it's hard, because when you're trying to catch, you're trying to call a game, you don't know what to do, you're inexperienced, you're kind of panicking, and all of a sudden you're questioning your ability. You start questioning yourself. And then on top of that, you're not hitting, and you're like 'oh man.' "
Lucroy still marvels at the conversation he had with Jason Kendall, the three-time All-Star catcher who retired at the end of the 2010 season after 15 years in the major leagues.
"Jason Kendall told me one time that it took him six years to learn how to call a game in the big leagues," Lucroy said. "Jason Kendall."
The learning curve has become even steeper thanks to a growing trend in amateur baseball. Instead of calling their own games, pitchers and catchers often receive instruction from the dugout, where coaches and managers handle the mental heavy lifting.
"You'll see in high schools and colleges now, no catcher calls a pitch," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "A pitcher can't shake off. So these guys have to learn this, a very hard skill, with never having had any practice at this. You sign professionally, you go into the professional ranks, you've never called a pitch in your life. Now, you've got to call 150 pitches a game."
Refining other required skills, such as throwing mechanics, blocking balls in the dirt and framing pitches, often takes a backseat because of the mental stress that comes with learning game management.
"Once that gets easier for them, they're able to relax, they're able to see the whole game," Roenicke said. "And then the skill set comes out."
But for catchers, particularly for those who are projected to hit, the process takes time.
Big names once struggled
"I knew I could hit. And I was more worried about the defensive part, proving that you know what, I can handle this. Just give me some time to learn. It took [Yadier Molina] time to develop, I mean Kendall, it took him six years to learn how to call a game. Myself, I'm just now starting to get comfortable with doing what we've been doing. And this is my fifth year in the league. It's tough, dude."
Injuries deprived d'Arnaud of at-bats in the minor leagues. The Mets were well aware of this. Nevertheless, they promoted him last August, hoping that he could adjust on the fly.
Coaches raved about d'Arnaud's growth behind the plate. Pitchers enjoyed throwing to him, partly because he had proven adept at making borderline pitches look like strikes. Just as Lucroy has done, d'Arnaud quickly developed a reputation as a capable pitch framer.
But his bat lagged behind.
After about 10 days of internal debate, the decision was made. With his average down to .180 this season, d'Arnaud had run out of time.
This is perhaps the only difference between d'Arnaud and Lucroy. One wound up back in the minors and the other stayed in the big leagues, despite his struggles. Still, Lucroy acknowledged that he was spared by circumstance.
"The only reason I stayed? They didn't have any other options," he said. "That's why I stayed."
Alderson makes move
"That's unfair, because you know what? The Brewers could have wrote me off. They didn't. They stuck with me and they gave me a chance. I think the key words here are trial by fire. That's the best way to learn. What's the best way you learn to not touch a hot stove? You touch it. It made me so much better."
General manager Sandy Alderson took the long-term view as he discussed the decision to demote d'Arnaud, who has quickly started his climb back to the big leagues. In his first four games with Las Vegas, he was 6-for-13 with a double and two homers.
Said Alderson: "If you look at some of the young catchers in baseball, you'll see that several of them -- many of them -- have struggled early in their careers with the bat and gradually figured it out."
The best recent example happened to be standing across the field.
In the fifth year of his major-league career, Lucroy, who turned 28 Friday, is in the middle of perhaps his best season yet. Among all catchers, through Thursday, he ranked first in runs (29), hits (80), doubles (25), average (.336), on-base percentage (.398), slugging (.513) and OPS (.910).
With the benefit of time, Lucroy said he finally figured out a routine that works for him, one that allows him to squeeze in both his duties in handling the pitching staff and his responsibilities to produce at the plate.
One day, the Mets hope for the same with d'Arnaud.
"The Brewers stuck with me, and they gave me a chance to grind it out," Lucroy said. "And learn through trial by fire."
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