Calling games, strategizing Shoppach's forte
Red Sox catcher enjoys chess match between hitter, pitcher
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Catchers see everything, and Kelly Shoppach has seen a lot of the American League.
Aaron Laffey, a lefty who in his first three years in the Majors while with the Indians threw to Shoppach, cruised for five innings against the Red Sox on Tuesday night. Laffey's one hiccup came in the second inning, when Shoppach pulled a 1-0 sinker -- on the outside of the plate no less -- over the Green Monster at JetBlue Park.
Laffey hasn't thrown to Shoppach since 2009, but they were together for three seasons, and a sinker away is the kind of pitch that's hard to drill unless you might have an inkling it's coming. The two-run homer were the only runs Laffey allowed, and he retired the next 10 batters.
"He went out and got it," Laffey said. "He's a guy who's caught me in the past, knows me pretty well. He seems to hit all his former pitchers that he used to catch pretty well. He hit CC [Sabathia] well, too."
It was the first homer of the spring for Shoppach, who signed a one-year, $1.35 million deal with Boston in December. He's spent all of his seven-year career in the AL, and the past two seasons in the AL East with the Rays.
"I'm sure that's a part of their interest me for me," Shoppach said. "I'm not sure if it creates comfort. We have a job to do. I've been in the AL my whole career, so any AL team would be a fit for me, but I'm sure that was part of their interest in me -- maybe get some outside views from a guy that has been around the league a little bit."
Pop and defense are what the Red Sox hope for from Shoppach, who turns 32 April 29. Hitting for average has never been his strong suit. Shoppach posted a .185 average in a combined 150 games with Tampa Bay the past two seasons, and even in his days as a Red Sox farmhand, .253 was his best average above Double-A, while with Triple-A Pawtucket, in 2004.
He did, however, throw out 41 percent of potential basestealers last season.
"He's a very calm guy," said Shoppach's former manager, Joe Maddon of Tampa Bay. "He's able to slow the game down. He handles pitchers well. He threw really well last year. [He has a] very quick release. Overall, the hitting was inconsistent, but he came on at the right time. Notoriously, he can hurt a left-handed pitcher. That's who he is. But he's a great guy on the team. I had a blast with him. I really enjoyed him a lot. I think he has a chance to add a lot to that team."
Shoppach isn't much interested in selling himself, or in homecomings.
"I bring a lot of things. I'm not going to sit here and tell you what I do," Shoppach said. "I would love for people to make their own opinion after they watch me play and see the way I go about my business. I've never been one too really talk about me doing anything. I just do my job."
The Red Sox drafted Shoppach, a Texas native, in the second round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, and he made his debut with Boston in '05, going hitless in nine games and 15 at-bats. Circularity, though, isn't really his thing.
"It's not like I'm a prized possession here," Shoppach said. "I wasn't a top free agent on the market here."
The Sox's organization has certainly changed a lot, too, since Shoppach was traded to the Indians in 2006 in exchange for Coco Crisp. Aside from spending time with Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz, the faces are all new.
"It's completely different -- new manager and a new GM, new players," Shoppach said. "Changing teams can be a challenge. I thought this time around when I changed teams after playing against these guys in those years, there's already a little bit of a [comfort level] there. Now it's just getting to understand and learning personalities."
How much playing time Shoppach gets with Jarrod Saltalamacchia as the starting catcher is to be seen. Jason Varitek played in 68 games last season, for comparison, but Shoppach said he knew what was here, without naming any names, when he signed with the Sox.
Until Shoppach's signing, there seemed to be potential for Ryan Lavarnway to be Boston's No. 2 catcher. Shoppach said he's gotten to know the others in the catching corps this spring, but that hurt feelings were not his to think about, if there were any.
"That's not my concern or my responsibility to even worry about that," he said.
The trick for any new catcher in Spring Training is to learn a pitching staff, a feat that manager Bobby Valentine said can be done fully in the short month and a half's time. Bullpen coach Gary Tuck has been working hard on that end, as has pitching coach Bob McClure. Valentine called Tuck the "wild card" in the process, and Shoppach said things have progressed well with the pitchers.
But spring hasn't been without a speed bump, according to Valentine, who said Shoppach had some stiffness in his throwing elbow early in spring that limited his ability in throwing drills. That's now cleared up, Valentine said.
"He had a bit of an elbow which he always early in the spring, so some of the throwing drills weren't exactly what I expected," Valentine said. "But he's getting there now, and I'm not sure what else I expected [from him coming into camp]."
Shoppach did not care to discuss being on the other side of Boston's comeback last season. He played in 87 games with Tampa Bay in 2011, hitting .176 with 11 home runs and striking out 79 times.
What Shoppach did illuminate about his game is how much he enjoys the behind-the-scenes action: planning, strategizing. It wouldn't even be a stretch to call it scouting. And the hope is that knowledge Shoppach carries can help him and others hone in on a few more sinkers away.
"That's the part of the game that is fun for me, that I really thrive on," he said. "The special off-the-field, the things you don't see in the stat line. The chess match between the two, the hitter and the pitcher. That's fun, that's stuff that you can prepare for every day. And no matter what you're feeling like physically, that's something that you can handle on a daily basis."