Wagner has caught up at the plate
Being a catcher consumed Mark Wagner last season, to the point that he was “being a little stubborn-headed,’’ he said. He spent his time in the locker room studying tendencies of opposing batters and mapping out a plan for each of them. He practiced framing pitches, blocking balls, and throwing out runners.
Wagner left himself scant opportunity to work on his hitting, and it showed. His hitting coach, Dave Joppie, urged him to make time, but Wagner focused on catching. “It was just my negligence,’’ Wagner said.
It showed. Wagner batted .219 for the year.
“I was really working hard on turning into a professional catcher, hopefully a big league catcher,’’ Wagner said. “It did affect me physically and mentally.’’
Wagner credits last season’s travails - “ups and downs and tribulations’’ - for his success this year. In his second season at Double A Portland, Wagner leads the Sea Dogs in hitting at .311, with 18 doubles and a .414 on-base percentage. He narrowly misses qualifying as an Eastern League statistical leader; if he did, his .908 OPS would rank seventh.
Wagner, 25, modified his stance during the Arizona Fall League, but he traces his improvement at the plate primarily to simple time management. Joppie tells Wagner, “Make sure you get in the cage,’’ and Wagner listens. He might take home opposing batter scouting reports the night before a game so he can make time for extra swings before a game.
Wagner also made last season a lesson. He allowed 0-for-4’s to stick with him and questioned himself after games about pitches he could have hit. Wagner feels more at ease with the season’s daily grind, more able to shed mistakes.
“I tried to reflect back on it,’’ Wagner said. “It was a good wake-up call and learning experience. I hadn’t really struggled a lot my whole career. It was a gut check a little bit.’’
While Wagner struggled in 2008, the Red Sox never worried. Team officials and scouts believed he possessed major league potential and that his statistics did not represent his ability. Wagner still must improve his game calling, which should come with experience.
“We didn’t feel like that .200-plus average was very indicative last year,’’ said Red Sox director of player development Mike Hazen. “He hit some balls very hard at people. It wasn’t all bad luck. The game has slowed down for him a little bit this year.’’
Wagner’s emergence highlights the farm system’s talent at catcher. Tim Federowicz hit .345 with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs in 226 at-bats for Greenville in the first half of the season. Federowicz was named to the South Atlantic League All-Star team, and the Red Sox promoted him to Salem during the break. He’ll join Luis Exposito, a catcher with vast defensive potential who hit .276 during the first half.
Federowicz and Exposito remain in the farm system. George Kottaras leapt from Pawtucket this spring, and Dusty Brown has spent the last three games with Boston.
“I think our depth is emerging,’’ Hazen said. “We’re still not happy where we are. We still have improvements to make to identify a couple long-term catchers for the system. It’s definitely a positive area for us.’’