ANAHEIM, Calif. — Omar Narvaez started his 54th career game on Tuesday night. He has yet to face the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Houston Astros.
Kevan Smith has appeared in 12 games. The list of opposing hitters he has yet to familiarize himself with is even longer than of Narvaez.
Yet with Geovany Soto out for several months after he had arthroscopic elbow surgery on Tuesday, the two young backstops are what the White Sox will move forward with for the time being. While both catchers are green, the White Sox like what they have, a studious, intelligent pair who are driven to learn. All they have to do now is get up to speed as quickly as possible in order to aide the White Sox pitching staff.
“We do a lot of videos,” Narvaez said. “Whatever it takes to help the pitchers and the team we do. We talk a lot. We have a pretty good relationship. We’re friends. We’re competing but we’re still friends, that kind of relationship. We help each other. That helps a lot to help the pitchers.”
All pitching coach Don Cooper wants is a smart catcher who will take the information provided and best apply it to aide his staff. It’s critical they know the strengths and weaknesses of their pitchers and of the opposition and figure out how to attack. Though Cooper’s staff has a heavy influence in the preparation, it’s up to the catcher once the game begins.
“They’re holding the brain for that day to a large degree,” Cooper said. “They’re holding the plan to carry out.
“I like our catchers. They’re good. They’re young. They’re into it and they want the information and they want to learn.”
Because they have a combined 66 games of experience, Smith and Narvaez are hitting the books big time. Both spend a lot of time poring over video, reading scouting reports and looking at spray charts trying to get a feel for opposing hitters. Much of it is handled in pre-series pitchers’ meetings and then on an individual basis before each game.
But the White Sox also don’t want to overload their youngsters. Bullpen catcher Mark Salas, who appeared in 509 games from 1984-1991, said he thinks Narvaez and Smith should pick and choose from the information they receive.
“I’d just take everything in that you think is going to work and let the other stuff go,” Salas said. “But the main thing is try to listen and learn and watch. If you’re not playing, then you’ve got to watch the game.”
Starting pitcher Miguel Gonzalez said he always advises his catcher to trust whichever pitch is working best that day. If it’s the cut-fastball, Gonzalez wants his catchers to turn to that more often than his other pitches.
Whereas he rarely shakes off Soto, Gonzalez said he won’t hesitate to ask the younger backstops for another pitch. But he also likes the effort to learn he has seen from Narvaez and Smith.
“If we have to shake for a pitch then we’ll do it,” Gonzalez said. “Geo has a lot more experience in the big leagues and he knows the hitters so we feel a little more comfortable going out there and whatever he throws down, trust it.
“But we feed off each other just helping each other out.”
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Narvaez writes down notes after each game to build his knowledge for future use. He said one of the biggest benefits is how Cooper handles mistakes, which are inevitable. The wrong pitch is going to be called from time to time. But Narvaez said Cooper withholds his anger and tries to offer constructive criticism.
“All he wants do is help us,” Narvaez said. “I feel great with Cooper right next to me to support me, supporting what I do and to teach me when I do something bad.”
Cooper realizes how important catchers are to the equation. Rather than having them run scared, he wants them to be ready to handle constructive criticism. Even though he might be angry, Cooper tries his best to hold back.
“If something doesn’t go right, I’ll word it like, ‘Hey, what were you thinking there? Hey, this is what we might be able to do the next time,’ ” Cooper said. “You don’t want them coming back to the dugout like you’ve got a newspaper rolled up and they’re the dog and you’re going to beat the dog. You don’t want that. Nobody wants to work under those situations. But that doesn’t stop me from getting pissed sometimes.”
The way Cooper handles him has Narvaez in a great frame of mind. Given all the ground he and Smith must cover, Narvaez feels like he’s in a pretty good place — and that’s good for everyone involved.
“Things I pick up, that’s when I write it down and next day,” Narvaez said. “ ‘Ok, from this game I picked this and that might help me for the next game. I take a lot from each game I catch.
“It’s always good to learn. For me, I’ve just got to keep an open mind and pick up whatever I can to be better and make the pitchers better. That’s the whole idea as a catcher.”