Halos catchers learn at Camp Scioscia
Manager imparts wisdom from long career to young backstops
TEMPE, Ariz. -- With the Angels, catching is more than a position. It's a way of life.
This living, breathing entity has been molded and shaped with a parent's care by manager Mike Scioscia since he took the reins in 2000.
"The pitcher-catcher relationship, the connection, is at the heart of everything we do," general manager Tony Reagins was saying as Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis were taking their batting practice swings in Tempe Diablo Stadium. "And it all starts with Mike.
"He's been in it as a player and had a chance to work with some Hall of Fame pitchers. His job is just as important as their job, if not moreso. A pitcher has to learn to work with one or two catchers; a catcher has a whole staff to know and get the most out of. That takes a lot of time and work."
This is one job Scioscia does not delegate. He dives right in. A first time enrollee in Camp Scioscia can be amazed by how thoroughly the boss engages himself with the troops.
"One of the first things I noticed here was Mike Scioscia being on the field, right in there with the guys," said Jeff Kennard, a relief pitcher acquired last July from the Yankees for catcher Jose Molina. "I didn't see that in New York [with Joe Torre as manager].
"You can see he really likes getting involved and likes being in the middle of things. I think the players respond to that."
Scioscia would have it no other way. There was a moment on Saturday afternoon, as Reagins was talking, that the skipper was almost too involved on the field.
Fungo bat in hand, Scioscia was roaming the grass behind second base when Mathis lashed a line drive in his direction. The manager reacted quickly enough to get out of harm's way, eliciting a response from a fan.
"Hey, Mike, you still move around pretty good," the man shouted.
By now, Mathis, 24, and Napoli, 26, know Scioscia -- his belief system, mannerisms and speech patterns -- as well as their own family members.
Close friends and fellow Floridians, Mathis and Napoli have been in the organization since 2001, paying dues, moving up the ladder, adding coat after coat of polish to their games.
Napoli, providing tremendous power and plate discipline, seized control of the job in 2006 with 16 homers in 99 games. After shin and hamstring injuries limited him to 42 at-bats in the second half of 2007, he finished with 10 homers and a .247 average.
"There's no preference," Scioscia said. "Those guys are going to let us know who's playing better and will get more playing time. Both have the ability to play every day and be that 140-game catcher they'd both like to shoot for. If that doesn't surface, they'll share time, and we're going to be in good shape."
The Angels were 34-18 in 2007 in games Mathis started, compared to 38-30 by Napoli. The pitching staff had a 3.89 ERA with Mathis, 4.28 with Napoli.
"I don't think we have to lay down a template on how much both guys are going to play," Scioscia said. "I don't think we need to rank them. They've both shown they have the ability to play at a very high level."
Napoli and Mathis are constantly conferring in the dugout, no matter who's wearing the gear.
"I pull for Mike, and he pulls for me," Mathis said of his roommate.
"They've been friends first and both want to catch every day," Scioscia said. "That's not going to get in the way of their friendship. These guys carry a tremendous amount of pride. Whatever they do, they push each other on the playing field.
"The bottom line for these guys is winning. Although they'd like to be that guy who catches 140 games, more important to them is our team."
Having sent Molina to the Yankees last July, the Angels were taking a calculated gamble in entrusting the backup role to Mathis. He'd pressed and struggled in 2006, opening the door for Napoli to come barging through with a breakout season.
This time, after Napoli was injured in a home plate collision on July 1 -- three weeks before the Molina trade -- Mathis showed he was ready.
Guiding his pitching staff with the poise and assurance of a veteran down the stretch, Mathis was a force in helping drive the Angels to their third American League West title in four years.
"Letting me know they wanted me around, had confidence in me, that was uplifting," Mathis said. "It's a great organization, great people around here. It makes all the difference when you feel they do have confidence in you. You want to get the job done."
Having strengthened his lower body with an intensive winter training program, Napoli wants the No. 1 job just as badly as his buddy does.
"We try to make each other better," Napoli said. "We push each other in drills, try to make it fun. We know we're going to need each other to do whatever has to be done here.
"You never know what's going to happen, but neither one of us is going to catch 162 games. We both want to play, trust me. We'd love to play every game. But we know the situation. We're good friends, and we respect each other."
Scioscia acknowledged the risk in detaching the experienced Molina last July, but the organization's belief in Mathis paid dividends.
"Jeff's defensive numbers, particularly in the second half, I would put in against anybody in baseball," Scioscia said. "We were very confident when we traded Jose that Jeff would do the job. I think he learned how to relax and play the game before we got to that point. As [that happened] his confidence level rose, and he played better.
"The way he handled himself behind the plate last year was something we needed to see. He was an important piece of what we did in the second half."
Behind Napoli and Mathis on the catching depth chart are Ryan Budde, last season's No. 3 receiver, and Bobby Wilson. Ben Johnson, Tim Duff, Hank Conger and Anel de los Santos also are gaining valuable exposure to Camp Scioscia as they bid to move up the depth chart.
As head of player development, with precedessor Bill Stoneman in the GM chair, Reagins had input when the Molina deal was made last July.
"At some point, young players have to get an opportunity," Reagins said. "When they get that opportunity, it's up to the player to be ready to accept the challenge.
"Preparation is important. Players have spent their whole lives trying to get to that point. We thought with the depth we had with Jeff and Nap, we could make that deal.
"We project that they'll get better, have better years than last year. If they do, we'll be in good shape. If all our players are healthy and do what they're capable of doing, I like our chances."
It all starts right here, at Camp Scioscia.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.