The timing had lined up perfectly for Jamie Ritchie to enjoy an off-day in New York. The Buffalo Bisons played in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa. last Sunday and weren’t due back in Buffalo until Tuesday, so Jamie and his wife, Lauren, opted to fit in a day exploring NYC.
The timing of The Call was less kismet.
Ritchie was nearly back in Buffalo when Bisons manager Casey Candaele called to let him know he was joining the Toronto Blue Jays on their taxi-squad; He was headed for New York, where he’d just returned from, the following morning as the Blue Jays had a series against the Yankees. The flight from Buffalo to New York was a short one; the jump from minor-league off-day to major-league taxi squad was not.
“Taxi squad” is a term for a group of players that a team can have around as additional depth without putting them on the active roster, “taxi-ing” between triple-A and the majors as needed. It was used heavily during the pandemic-adjacent seasons and is available for the playoffs, but its use is limited in a normal season. Teams can have a player on the taxi squad only if they’re anticipating putting a player on the injured list or, in some cases, a third catcher.
Enter Ritchie, who has spent the last few years working his way to this emergency-catcher status.
Drafted in 2014 by the Houston Astros, Ritchie has played at triple-A since the middle of 2018. After Houston, Ritchie spent a year in the Arizona Diamondbacks system, then nearly made the Pittsburgh Pirates out of spring training in 2022 before suffering an oblique injury. In January, the Blue Jays signed him for additional depth at the attrition position.
“I was fortunate to get that opportunity and just tried to keep my head down this year and play,” he said. “Whatever the opportunity was, just try and take advantage of it. Some things have gone my way this year to be on the taxi squad, so just trying to prepare and be ready for anything because you never know what tomorrow brings in baseball.”
Even then, Ritchie wouldn’t have guessed he would be the player in this spot. He entered the season as Buffalo’s depth catcher, without a guarantee of significant playing time. Alejandro Kirk, Danny Jansen, Tyler Heineman, Rob Brantly, and Stevie Berman were all ahead of him on paper. Slowly, Ritchie moved up the depth chart and was the top triple-A catcher standing when the Jays wanted to add insurance behind Kirk and Heineman ahead of the playoffs.
The role is not a glamorous one. The idea is for Ritchie to shadow the team’s other catchers so that he’s up to speed in the event of the most dire of situations, where Kirk and/or Heineman join Jansen on the injured list. He is the extinguisher inside the glass that’s broken in case of emergency, tucked behind an additional pane of emergency glass.
Ritchie’s first time visiting new Yankee Stadium saw him arrive as early as possible to get his hitting work in before roster players arrived to do theirs. He is the lowest priority, so if Ritchie can’t get batting practice in on the field with the first group, he’ll look for a spot with a later group or, if all else fails, hit in the cages when there’s a gap in his day. There are also hitters’ meetings to go over scouting reports, and possibly some work in the field.
The headline item for Ritchie, though, is the pre-game battery meeting. Those sessions include pitching coach Pete Walker, that day’s starting pitcher, Kirk, Heineman, and the injured Jansen. The group goes through the various reports and game-plan for that day’s hitters. Each series also has a similar meeting with the team’s relievers.
The goal is to take a wealth of information and narrow it down to something actionable in a pitch-calling situation. That’s especially important for a call-up who hasn’t been in the organization very long.
“Working through all the data information to condense it to try and make it as easy as possible to understand,” he said. “Every organization has their different system of analytics that they use and not everyone’s the same as far as their data points. Like the wrist bands that we use to call pitches. Reading those and understanding, I guess you could say, the language that they use.”
As needed, Ritchie will also help catch pitcher side-sessions and other work. At this point in the year, few relievers are doing true bullpen sessions, but even flat-ground catch gives Ritchie a chance to get familiar with a pitcher and his stuff. The goal is for Ritchie to have familiarity with every pitcher on the roster, whether from spring training, Buffalo, or this recent stint.
“So you’re not back there for the first time catching Jordan Hicks’ 102-m.p.h. fastball or something,” Ritchie joked.
Once the game begins, Ritchie can be in the dugout observing or in the bullpen helping pitchers. Most relievers have a routine with bullpen catchers Luis Hurtado and Alex Andreopoulos, so Ritchie’s games are spent in a mental dress rehearsal, talking through situations with the pitchers who aren’t in the game and anticipating what he would call in each spot.
“You go through the scouting report in your mind,” he said. “The pitches that are called, are they matching up with what I’m thinking? I can go back during the game and look at where (Chris) Bassitt was throwing his two-seam and where Kirk was setting up. That type of thing, to reiterate in my mind what we went through in the pregame.”
The experience is short-lived. After series in New York and Tampa, the Jays have returned home, where roster rules are more restrictive. The post-season is still a week away, so this is a kind of limbo-week for Ritchie and other Bisons who may join the postseason taxi squad — Buffalo’s season ended Sunday.
He now waits armed with more experience, more intel, a few better pre-game meals, and the knowledge that at age 30, his major-league dream is close.
“it meant a lot,” Ritchie said. “It did, because this game, if you play it long enough, will bring a lot more downs than ups. That was definitely an up in that situation, to kind of get that feedback and some affirmation to how the Blue Jays maybe think about you as a player. So it’s meant a lot to be here and be around these guys.”