DUNEDIN, Fla. – Midway through what was becoming a messy opening night to the 2013 season, Henry Blanco approached J.P. Arencibia – struggling with three passed balls on the ledger – in the Toronto Blue Jays dugout and told him to open up his stance when catching R.A. Dickey.
Moving from a straight-up squat to one with his body twisted is key to handling the knuckleball, he explained, and while Arencibia never got the chance to apply the tip after that game, it at least helped him survive the rest of that contest.
What’s the relevance of that little anecdote, you ask?
Well, Russell Martin caught Dickey in the bullpen for the first time Wednesday, and notable was how the all-star backstop, who sits sideways when he squats, was twisted even further to the right during a first session that bodes well for the whole experiment.
In essence, he’s starting where Arencibia left off.
Martin only allowed three balls to squirt past him, challenged himself by asking Dickey to deliver pitches without warning him what was coming, and muttered under his breath several times, “that was filth,” after pitches danced into his glove.
Afterwards, Dickey complimented him and said, “I don’t anticipate us having trouble, I think he’s going to be able to do it,” while Martin added, “It’s definitely not an easy task, but if you focus and you follow the ball into the glove, it’s doable.”
No definitive conclusions should be drawn from the session, but given that the duo had only played catch once before, on a backfield Tuesday, it’s a pretty good start.
“(Martin) always sits a little sideways naturally, regardless of who he’s catching, that’s going to help because you have to do that to catch a knuckleballer,” said manager John Gibbons. “Really, for the first day, he looked like a natural. He looked like he’s been doing it for a while.”
Their progress together is, of course, one of the key storylines in Blue Jays camp because of what a successful pairing means for the club’s roster configuration.
The Blue Jays don’t want to carry three catchers but might have to if a suitable trade partner isn’t found for Dioner Navarro and Martin can’t handle the knuckler. Under that scenario, Josh Thole remains on the team as Dickey’s personal handler and another bench player finds himself out of luck.
But if Martin builds up his comfort level Thole, who is selflessly sharing his wealth of knowledge on Dickey, will find himself at triple-A Buffalo until Navarro gets dealt to open up a roster spot.
In other words, for a lot of people there is plenty riding on this.
“You’ve really got to emphasize tracking the ball all the way through because it can dance all the way to the last couple of inches,” said Martin, adding that the other adjustment he’s making is physical.
“You really want to position yourself in a way that you feel free and usually, when you’re a bit more square to the pitcher, what happens is if the ball cuts toward my left, sometimes if the ball is down I can hit my knee. If you turn yourself sideways, it allows you to have more room with the glove and you can move it around a little bit. Blocking, you don’t really think about it, the key is to keep the ball in front of you, catch it. Framing is also something I’m not going to be too concerned with. I just want to make sure the ball stays in the glove.”
For the most part Martin kept it there Wednesday, but grew frustrated when he failed to snare one pitch that dropped in front of him.
“It was in my glove,” he muttered to himself in the bullpen, “it’s got to stay in there.”
The challenge of it all intrigues Martin, although the scrutiny on both him and Dickey (who’s now experiencing it for a third straight spring) is sure to tire both men soon if it hasn’t already.
After all, this isn’t rocket science, and real assessments can’t be made until Martin handles Dickey in actual games, when factors such as pitch blocking and throwing come into play.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Dickey’s knuckleball doesn’t always move the same way.
“Sometimes it drops, sometimes it will just kind of float up there,” said Martin. “For the most part, it’s not going to do something crazy that I haven’t seen before. It’s not going to stop halfway and make a right turn. It’s work. At the end of the bullpen, you feel like you’ve worked.”
The work extends beyond Tuesday’s catch session and Wednesday’s bullpen.
The two have spent time talking about pitch sequencing, set ups behind the plate, how to control the running game (Dickey is unlike most knuckleballers in that he has a strong pickoff move and is very quick to the plate).
“He’s a craftsman, he wants to be good at his craft and he is, and it shows in his pedigree and the things he’s been able to achieve, the reputation he’s gotten. I knew that coming in,” said Dickey. “What you’re really not aware of until you work with someone first-hand is really how athletic a guy is.
“He’s a really good athlete behind there, and because of that he’s going to have a real good opportunity to give himself the best chance at catching it.”
In more ways than one, the Blue Jays are counting on Martin to do just that.