Davidi: Arencibia opens up about turbulent 2013

Catcher J.P. Arencibia. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – Where some see flaws, J.P. Arencibia sees progress.

Where others see regression, he sees room for improvement.

Where others see the need for a replacement, he sees no reason to doubt his future.

“No chance – I could care less about what anyone thinks who doesn’t make a decision,” the embattled Toronto Blue Jays catcher says in an interview with sportsnet.ca. “I’m not going to make everyone happy, but ask people around baseball. Fans don’t write the lineup, I’ll tell you that. The ones that are critical are the ones that most of the time never played and don’t really understand it.

“That’s what it is. I don’t have a problem with it, that’s out of my control, what happens. From my belief, and what I’ve understood, I’m the guy and there hasn’t been any loss of (faith). I believe that, and I believe that baseball people believe that, as well.”

Without a doubt there are many people who still believe in Arencibia, who over the past four years has gone from saviour prospect unfairly blocked from his rightful place in the big leagues, to polarizing lightning rod among portions of an impatient, restive fan base.

His raw talent, his durability, his work ethic and his toughness – he rejected a cortisone shot to ease the bursitis in his right knee back in July because it would have meant a month on the DL – are why the 27-year-old remains an intriguing commodity, even amid the turbulence.

Yet four-and-a-half months of struggle, particularly at the plate, along with the controversy over his infamous attack on Sportsnet analysts Gregg Zaun and Dirk Hayhurst for their ongoing critiques of his play, have made him an easy target for fan venom.

The .200 batting average Arencibia took into Wednesday’s contest against the New York Yankees was the second worst in baseball among qualified batters, trailing only Dan Uggla’s .183, while nobody had a lower on-base percentage than his .236. His OPS of .610 was the fourth lowest in baseball, behind Adeiny Hechavarria, Alcides Escobar and Darwin Barney.

With 20 homers and 52 RBIs, there is some decent production Arencibia can point to, but eight of those homers and 16 of those RBIs came during a scorching April. He’s been largely ineffective at the plate since, and hasn’t been able to make the needed adjustments to recover.

“That’s fair, and he knows it, too,” says hitting coach Chad Mottola. “It’s one of those things that we just keep hitting on the same thing every day, but at times in the game, he gets caught up in the moment a little too much and wants results, and he’s a little more results-oriented than most, even in practice.

“I keep trying to drive it home — I don’t care where this ball goes in practice, I want you to be in position to hit, rather than you worrying about where the ball goes.”

The lack of results, Mottola stresses, shouldn’t diminish the effort, as “he’s tried 100 per cent; there’s never been a day where he hasn’t shown up and not tried to apply what we’re talking about.”

Still, since hitting his eighth homer in a 6-5, 11-inning win at Baltimore on April 24, Arencibia has posted a slash line of .185/.225/.315 with 12 homers and 37 RBIs. Without plus defence as a complement, that level of offence isn’t going to cut it.

“Offensively, obviously, there are adjustments I have to make, with just being able to get better knowledge of the strike zone, maybe getting in a better position to hit earlier so I can see it better,” says Arencibia. “It’s been tough for me, I haven’t felt great. I feel like I come off my legs a little bit sometimes, trying to, subconsciously maybe, protect my leg. It’s just being able to have a mature approach about things, and to look at the end of the year, ‘OK, how can I improve? What can I do to be better next year, what can I do to improve myself?’

“Because as a man, and as a person who’s very honest with himself, obviously there are adjustments I have to make and I can’t stand here and say that I shouldn’t. I have to. I can be better at plate discipline. It’s not exactly saying to draw walks, but picking better pitches to hit, which is going to turn into that stuff.”

One thing the Blue Jays must settle on is how much the bursitis in his right knee and the subsequent hamstring and plantar issues he’s experienced in his left leg as a result of compensating have affected Arencibia’s hitting, and whether his approach is more the issue.

The 2007 first-rounder has always viewed himself as a run producer, relishing the responsibility of hitting in key spots. In 2011 his OPS with runners in scoring position was .750 and last year it was .987, but that’s collapsed to .507 this season.

The Blue Jays must figure out which one is the outlier, and what adjustments are needed.

“To me it’s more anxiousness, more wanting to get the job done and wanting to perform and when he gets in slumps; they’re prolonged because he wants to hurry up and get out of it, rather than what I like to call invest at-bats – take one or two when nobody’s on, and slow the game down, see some pitches, get your body in better position and have checkpoints,” says Mottola. “His tension, his eagerness to perform and please everybody is almost his fault, (the) I want to show everybody I can do this.”

That in part may be because Arencibia’s been under a critical gaze ever since his remarkable big-league debut on Aug 7, 2010, when he homered twice and doubled as part of a four-hit afternoon in a 17-11 whipping of the Tampa Bay Rays.

To some, his defensive gains haven’t come fast enough, his offence too all or nothing. But the long grind of the baseball season can also make it too easy to pick on a player’s faults and not appreciate his qualities.

“One thing I understand is you’re not going to make everyone happy,” he says. “My first couple of years, I drove in a lot of runs, hit .230, (was among the leaders in) catcher production, and still it wasn’t ever going to be good enough. That’s the problem, that’s part of it, and I understand.

“The world, I feel like, thrives on negativity, you have to write some things sometimes, and you can’t always be positive,” he continues. “I’m not worried about that stuff. I’m just going out there and playing. That’s what I’ve learned this year — you open yourself up in a good way and sometimes people turn it into a bad thing.”

Certainly that became evident in early July, when Arencibia attacked Zaun and Hayhurst during a radio interview for their regular criticism of his play.

Arencibia bailed on his Twitter account soon after, tired of the constant invective hurled his way.

Generous with his time for fans in need and very active in the community, it’s understandable that he felt a little burned by all the scorn and spinoff stories that followed.

“It makes no difference,” he says when asked if shutting off the background noise has been good for him. “In April, when I was having a great month, you’re not going to make everyone happy. At the end of the day, that’s the thing I’ve always understood, and I’m not trying to make everybody happy.

“People are going to have bad things to say, if I was hitting .300 and I only had two walks, people would say I’m not taking enough pitches, whatever it may be. The first month people were still writing negative things and it didn’t really affect me. It just got to a point where I was tired of trying to give back to people when people were using it as a negative outlet. There’s no need for that. I’m going to give my time to the people that I can influence and help out, not to people who just sit there and berate you and try to knock you down.”

The one thing he’s been knocked for steadily throughout his three full big-league seasons is his defence.

While no one is going to confuse Arencibia with Yadier Molina any time soon, he isn’t the train wreck behind the plate he’s made out to be, either. He’s made important gains this season with his receiving and pitch framing, and his game-calling has gotten better, too.

His blocking still needs work, as evidenced by his league-leading 13 passed balls and 38 wild pitches allowed, and his throwing has been uneven, with his caught-stealing rate of 25 per cent sitting right at the league average.

That’s why his offence is so important, as without being an impact defender, a catcher must make a difference with his bat. If Arencibia posts an OPS more in the .710-.720 range, like he did the past two seasons, the debate over his defence ebbs fairly quickly.

The talent, power and desire for Arencibia to again be that player, or perhaps even better, is still there.

But with the Blue Jays having squandered the first season in their three-year competitive window, the question they’ll debate is whether they can afford to count on him fulfilling that potential in 2014, when jobs up and down the ladder will likely be on the line.

“I still know what I bring to the table,” he says. “This is a very down year for myself, but I could have tapped out a few months ago when I was told I could go on the DL if I took a shot so the pain would go away, or I could stick it out and play it out.

“It is what it is, there are a lot of things in this game that people don’t know about, a lot of things that we have to play with and injuries I can go on the DL with or play through. Do I care about that stuff? No, because I know what I’ve had to deal with this year.”

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