The ball skipped in the dirt before it crossed the plate and was able to reach his catcher's mitt so Mark Thomas, as taught since 11, blocked the ball from passing him with his chest.
After he secured it, the Biscuits backstop then picked the ball up, cocked back but did not release. He didn't have to. The runner on first base did not try to advance; he started to and even positioned his legs to go further, but stopped and retreated.
Thomas' raised arm, ball in hand, served as the deterrent.
"When he's back there he shuts the running game down and guys get intimidated to go," says Jamie Nelson, the Rays organization's catching instructor for all levels. "And that started when guys would go, and you would say, ‘Oh, he's got no shot,' and all of a sudden; bam, he's out."
Such a scene has become an ordinary rerun for Thomas after the defensive standard he set for himself last season for the High-A Charlotte Stone Crabs. Thomas nailed down 42 out of the 87 runners who tried to steal a base while he was behind the plate in 2011, good for 48 percent. For a better idea of what those numbers mean, Jose Molina, the Rays starting catcher who is employed for his defensive prowess and ability to throw out runners, twice led the American League with a 44 percent mark.
Through his first 14 starts at the Double-A level, the native of Atlanta has thrown out six of 17 runners and has one passed ball against him — he allowed only five passed balls in 88 games last season.
Throwing out would-be base stealers and blocking pitches, however, are just two aspects of any catcher's game. Regarded as the organization's most talented defensive catching prospect, but also someone who was passed over 648 times in the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft before working to receive that acknowledgement, Thomas realizes what it takes to make it to the next levels.
"I made great strides but there was a lot more that I needed to work on. I don't want just my throwing to be good," he says. "I want everything to be good: my throwing, my blocking, my receiving and the way I'm directing traffic. When it all works together it's a lot better feeling than when I'm just throwing good."
Nelson, who works with all of the Rays catchers in spring training then roves from one team to another, does what he can to ensure Thomas' goals are attained and constantly sets new ones for him. At this point in Thomas' career, Nelson says pitch selection and getting the most out of a pitcher every night regardless of how good or ineffective the pitches are is what the 23-year-old catcher needs to develop on the most.
"And that part of his game has improved," says Nelson, who also managed Thomas in 2007 for the Princeton Rays. "What I want him to do is take it to the next level and not only get the best out of that pitcher with what he's throwing but match that up with who the hitter is, the situation and how to attack our opponent with what the pitcher possesses on the mound that night."
Nelson has his ways of making sure that happens, too.
"Sometimes I'll ask him when he comes in and have him recall the whole inning and he'll have to tell me pitch by pitch what he did," Nelson says. "Or I'll ask him why he called that pitch in that situation and he'll tell me. Well, his answers have gotten better."
Although Thomas said "in terms of stuff, everyone I've caught looks pretty good," the Biscuits have a 4.38 ERA after 175 innings pitched, which leaves the team at the bottom of the barrel for that category in the Southern League. The staff has also issued the most walks, 85, and has recorded the fewest strikeouts, 126.
The Biscuits pitchers say Thomas has nothing to do with their disappointing start as a unit, especially right-handed reliever Scott Shuman, who sports an ERA of 18.00 through six innings himself.
"He's probably one of the best catchers I've ever thrown to in my baseball career," says Shuman, who threw to Thomas last season in Charlotte as well. "Knowing that you've got a guy like Mark, who basically throws out everybody, your comfort level is pretty high. When a runner gets on first, you're not really worried about him taking second or advancing on a ball in the dirt."
The high praise does not come as a surprise for Thomas' mentor. Every year, Nelson gives out evaluation sheets to not only the catchers to evaluate the pitchers, but also the pitchers to evaluate their catching target in terms of their blocking ability, throwing, if they have confidence in the catcher, if they think the catcher has confidence in them and if the catcher knows what the pitcher likes to throw.
"Over the last couple of years, either they're being really nice or they're being truthful," Nelson says. "They've been giving him some pretty high grades. They didn't always do that the first couple of years. They would tell me he has problems in this area or that area. I don't hear that anymore."
While his baseball savvy is slowly developing along the same lines as his physical defensive tools, Thomas' batting is dragging far behind, especially early on this season and he knows it.
"To get to the big leagues I have to be able to hit too," Thomas says.
In 2011, the catcher put together his finest offensive season in professional baseball: 13 home runs, 64 RBI, a .237 batting average and a .299 on-base percentage. Following knee surgery in the offseason, Thomas was sent to play in the Australian Baseball League, where he was 16 for 41 with five home runs and owned a .800 slugging percentage over his final 10 games.
He has yet to hit a home run this year, has only six hits in 57 plate appearances, has drawn only four walks and has whiffed 20 times for the Biscuits.
Despite his struggles, Thomas finds himself in the lineup on a regular starting basis because of his ability to save runs, not necessarily create runs, according to Biscuits manager Billy Gardner.
Though defensive sabermetrics for catchers are yet to be universally-used, especially at the minor league level, Nelson keeps tally of some personal statistics for a better understanding of what his catchers are doing right, including "RBOs," or, "run blocked outs." If a runner is on third base and a ball gets in the dirt, is blocked by the catcher and that runner does not score, Nelson records it as a RBO. He says Thomas is "off the charts" when it comes to this statistic but did not provide a number.
Neither Thomas nor Nelson is overly concerned with Thomas' meager offensive output so far in his professional career. The focus remains on when he's squatting behind the plate, blocking balls, calling the game and instilling fear inside the minds of runners on base.
"His physical tools," Nelson says, "if they are second to somebody, they aren't second to many."
Will Sammon is the Montgomery Biscuits beat writer for Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @WillSammon.
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