Big news out of Buffalo: an impact player will be in a Mets uniform tonight in Arizona to face the Diamondbacks. And it’s not who you think.
Yes, Matt Harvey is making his MLB debut tonight, but there’s someone else who can provide positive impact on the Mets — his Bison teammate and batterymate Rob Johnson.
After batting .313 during a three-week stint with the Mets, I couldn’t figure out why Rob Johnson was demoted back down to AAA upon Josh Thole’s return from the DL. Wasn’t it painfully obvious that Johnson was a much more competent catcher than Mike Nickeas? And, Johnson was on a hot streak at the plate — maybe the only one of his MLB career.
Only recently it dawned on me: Johnson is the Mets’ version of Crash Davis, the seasoned veteran catcher whose most valuable asset to the organization is to guide young flamethrowers toward the big leagues. My guess is that someone in the Mets hierarchy recognized that Johnson was perfect in that role, and further, that Nickeas wasn’t. Let’s be clear: Mike Nickeas is obviously a well-liked, nice person, respectful, and a hard worker — a good “organizational guy” who will do whatever is asked of him. But, there’s a reason he’s spent his entire career in the minors — all the hard work in the world can’t change his skillset, which is adequate. As a result, he’s played less than 70 MLB games. Johnson, on the other hand, has spent parts of six seasons in the bigs, with semi-regular duty in at least two of them. The difference in skills between Nickeas and Johnson is not so extraordinary that it is obvious to the casual observer, but it’s enough that it put and kept Johnson in a Major League uniform for several years.
In baseball, there are many immeasurable nuances that can change the course of an at-bat, an inning, and a ballgame. Little things, like calling the right pitch at the right time, giving a pitcher a pat on the back (or an earful of criticism) when he needs it, providing guidance to the infield on a simple popup or bunt play. Baseball teams, and particularly the pitcher, look to the catcher for direction. The catcher doesn’t necessarily have to be the team captain or main leader, but he does need to lead. As the only person on the field who is facing the play, he must take control of the defense and make decisions with authority — before and while the play is developing. When the pitcher and the defense have respect for, and confidence in, the catcher, there is less for them to think about, and makes it much easier to focus on executing.
Rob Johnson is not a superstar, and he’s not even a spectacular defensive catcher. But in his 11-game stint with the Mets, he did look more competent and in control than any catcher we’ve seen behind the plate in Flushing in about three years (maybe more). Sure, it was a small sample size, but we’re not talking about numbers here, we’re talking about the way a person carries himself — and generally speaking, people’s behavior is what it is.
I don’t expect Rob Johnson to take charge of this floundering Mets club and lead them to the promised land. In fact, I don’t even expect him to play more than once or twice a week (though if it were up to me, he would). What I do expect is to see a barely perceptible, positive change in body language and facial expressions by the Mets infielders and pitchers when Johnson is behind the plate. I expect to see veteran pitchers who look more comfortable and relaxed than they’ve been lately. And perhaps most importantly, I expect to see Matt Harvey relying completely on Johnson to guide him through his first Major League start, concentrating only on executing his pitches. In short, Johnson will provide stability behind plate (when he’s back there), and that should take a little pressure off several other men on the field — as well as in the dugout.
About the Author
Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers.