DENVER – When the Braves signed 38-year-old catcher A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year, $2 million contract on Dec. 24, many people questioned or criticized the move, and some acted as if the team had just given itself a figurative lump of coal on Christmas Eve.
The 18-year veteran was coming off a career-worst season in which Pierzynski batted just .251 with five homers, 37 RBIs and a .337 slugging percentage in a career-low 274 plate appearances for Boston and St. Louis.
Why the Braves would sign a veteran who not only appeared to be in decline, but who also came with a reputation for being an occasionally disruptive clubhouse presence, for rubbing not just opponents the wrong way but also plenty of teammates over the years?
Four months later, the move looked shrewd when Pierzynski, after a strong spring training, hit .422 with three homers and 14 RBIs in 12 April games, splitting the catching duties with rookie Christian Bethancourt instead of serving as the expected backup to the promising prospect. Six months later, the move looks like one of the key reasons the Braves have managed to stay near .500 in a rebuilding – or retooling, as they prefer – season.
“A.J.’s been great, in every sense of the word,” Braves assistant general manager John Coppolella said. “He’s been great offensively, great defensively, he’s helped our young pitchers, he made a lot of efforts to help out Christian Bethancourt…. I can’t say enough about what he’s done for the Braves this year.”
Bethancourt didn’t do much in the spring or in April to persuade the coaching staff that he deserved to play more, and eventually he would make enough defensive mistakes that the Braves decided to demote him to Triple-A, and they would try out a couple of different backups for Pierzynski before settling on Ryan Lavarnway.
Meanwhile, Pierzynski has settled into the familiar role of primary catcher, something that he didn’t think he’d be doing this year, but something he’s done quite well. He’s below average throwing out runners, but Braves coaches and pitchers say Pierzynski more than makes up for that deficiency with his game-calling ability, especially handling a pitching staff that’s even younger than the Braves anticipated it would be this season.
Offensively, Pierzynski has surpassed expectations and gotten back to doing what he’s done most of his career, batting .289 with 25 extra-base hits (six homers) and 29 RBIs in 57 games, with a .323 OBP and .455 slugging percentage in 211 at-bats. His .778 OPS ranks fourth in the National League among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances.
“He’s a guy that puts the ball in play,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “My dad told me, you put the ball in play, you’ve got a chance of the ball finding holes. And he’s doing that right now. And he’s also hitting the ball out of the ballpark…. He’s a good baseball player. He’s a guy who, whenever he gets done playing, he can be in this game for a long time. Because he’s got good baseball smarts, good baseball instincts.”
Pierzynski slumped in May after his sizzling April, but in his past 29 games before Thursday’s series opener at Colorado, he hit .324 (34-for-105) with 13 extra-base hits, a .349 OBP and .514 slugging percentage. That included a stunning 10-for-13 in his last three games, with three doubles and a triple.
“I don’t even try to think about it,” Pierzynski said of being on such a hot hitting streak. “I’m just going up there trying to hit the ball, I’m not even thinking about anything else. First at-bat (Tuesday at Milwaukee), I hit a home run on a change-up; I thought it was a fastball. I don’t even know what I’m doing. I’m just trying to get a good pitch and put a good swing on it, and whatever happens, happens.”
It was easy this winter to overlook, given his falloff in 2014, that Pierzynski had two of his best seasons in 2012-2013, batting .275 with 91 extra-base hits (44 homers), 147 RBIs and a .462 slugging percentage in 269 games with the White Sox (2012) and Rangers (2013).
Before and immediately after the signing of Pierzynski, even some Braves coaches and others in the organization wondered whether it was a wise move. They didn’t know about bringing in the brash, sometimes-volatile veteran to serve as a backup and mentor to rookie catcher Christian Bethancourt, who was finally going to get his chance to hold nail down the starting job at the big-league level.
And then the Braves signed another fiery veteran, Jonny Gomes, in January, prompting one national baseball writer who had known both of them for many years to predict that Pierzynski and Gomes would come to blows before the All-Star break.
They haven’t. In fact, while they aren’t close friends, they can often be seen at one or the other’s lockers on the road, showing one another something on a smartphone. Behind the scenes, they talk enough to make sure the right things are being said and done to keep the good clubhouse vibe the Braves have had since spring training.
Gomes was asked about Pierzynski this week in Milwaukee, and thought for a moment before giving his answer.
“First of all, he’s climbing all-time lists (for catchers),” Gomes said. “Not climbing (the list of) a league or a team – like, history of the game type stuff. Any time you do anything in this game, when you’re ranking among all-timers, impressive is kind of an understatement. If you were to sum up what he’s done this year, I think it’s just pretty much par for the course for what he’s done for 15 years.
“What he’s done this year doesn’t really surprise me by any means. But on the other side of it, there is a human element to this game. There is a decline, especially at that position. So, again, definitely very impressed.”
Gomes, who has been the heart and soul of the team since the day he arrived at spring training, was asked about Pierzynski and what a fit he’s been guiding so many rookies and other young pitchers this season.
“I think what’s extremely helpful with the young pitching is not so much a defensive catcher and not so much the captain, but simply a guy back there that knows the hitters,” Gomes said. “Like, ‘This might be your third-best pitch, but I need you to throw it here.’ And the pitcher on the mound is probably thinking, ‘No chance, this is my go-to (pitch).’ So for him to get that trust from these young guys – which he should get, because it has succeeded with the young arms.”
Rookie Manny Banuelos, who had a 29-pitch first inning in his second major league start at Milwaukee this week, said that Pierzynski helped him get on track by telling him how to get into a rhythm, not take so much time between pitches. And to use all his pitches, not make it easy on the Brewers by throwing fastballs when they were clearly expecting them and being aggressive swinging at them.
“I have a lot of confidence with A.J. behind the plate,” said Banuelos, who is 1-0 with a 0.82 ERA after two starts. “Every pitch he calls, I have confidence to throw it.”
While some others weren’t sure about the Braves’ winter pursuit of Pierzynski, president of baseball operations John Hart felt strongly that he was the right guy. Hart had known Pierzynski for more than 20 years, they were now neighbors in Orlando, and he didn’t doubt that Pierzynski could be on his best behavior and give the Braves just what they were looking for.
Hart was confident that Pierzynski, one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball over 14 full seasons he’d spent in the majors, would be a good fit, that he would help bring an edge that last year’s team lacked.
Equally important was this: Hart said that Bethancourt would not be simply given the job, that he would have to prove he was ready and perform in the primary role. And if he didn’t, then Hart wanted to make sure he had a veteran who could step up and catch 100 or so games instead of the typical 30-40 that most backup catchers handle.
It didn’t take long for the move to look like a wise one, when Pierzynski had a big spring training and then an even bigger April, getting more of the playing time because his bat was too hot to keep out of the lineup and Bethancourt hadn’t made the strides that the Braves wanted the kid to make behind the plate and calling games.
As for that potential personality clash, between Pierzynski and Gomes or Pierzynski and anyone else, it’s just not been an issue.
“I’ve been watching that carefully,” Gonzalez said. “It’s one of those things where you kind of hate the guy across the way, but when he’s your teammate you like him. People say, ‘He’s an (jerk).’ My response to that, ‘Yeah, but he’s my (jerk).’ You know what? He wants to win, and he’s got a little edge. I think you know where you stand with him. He’s the same way every day.
“I’ve enjoyed him. He’s been really good. I lay out (the schedule) exactly – you’re going to play here, day off here. That’s what he wants. And he’s been great. He really has.”
Pierzynski in the past was known to fly off the handle and get in the faces of teammates, or say something to make them want to get in his face. The Braves haven’t seen that.
“I’m from the side of things of like, my friend roster is packed,” Gomes said. “I don’t need another friend. I’m not looking for another friend. If you do have a strong personality and you do have … however you want to describe the attitude or whatever, if you bring it every day, the guys around you are going to have to adjust. But when you’re moody -- when you’re chatty Patty one day, and then you’re not -- then there’s a grey area.
“The A.J. Pierzynski we see, from the first day in Orlando, is the same. So I think that’s where things sometimes get a little grey. You have to adjust around people, and when you start asking people to adjust around you, that’s when things start to get grey. I mean, he’s the same personality when I played with him in Boston. But personality and attitude is not very high on the list of things I’m looking for to try to win a ballgame. This is a results-driven industry. Results. And they’re definitely there with him behind the plate.”
Gomes was asked if Pierzynski’s desire to win has superseded anything else.
“Yeah, similar to me -- when winning is first, second and third on your to-do list on an every-day basis, you need that guy,” Gomes said. “Everything else is just going to fall in place.”
• Let's close with this classic from Hag.
but they won't let my secret go untold.
I paid the debt I owed them, but they're still not satisfied,
now I'm a branded man out in the cold,
When they let me out of prison, I held my head up high,
determined I would rise above the shame.
But no matter where I travel, the black mark follows me,
I'm branded with a number on my name.
If I live to be a hundred, guess I'll never clear my name,
'cause everybody knows I've been in jail.
No matter where I'm living,
I've got to tell them where I've been,
or they'll send me back to prison if I fail.
Now I'm a branded man out in the cold.