Smith, Renteria confident young catchers' skill sets will develop in time
By Fabian Ardaya
CHICAGO -- As Kevan Smith saw the tag applied on Cubs outfielder Jon Jay before Jay's hand touched second base on July 27, the White Sox catcher couldn't help but pump his fist.
It was just the second time this season Smith has thrown out a basestealer. White Sox catchers have thrown out just 13 would-be basestealers, ahead of only Houston (11) for the fewest in the Majors.
"The numbers aren't where I want them to be, but that's just something that we're going to get better at," Smith said. "I got a guy the other day, so that was a pretty good relief."
A right elbow injury to Opening Day starter Geovany Soto has thrust the bulk of the catching duties onto Smith and Omar Narvaez -- a pair of young, unproven backstops learning on the fly in the midst of a rebuild. It's shown in the running game.
The team has allowed the most stolen bases in the American League at 86, with Smith's 42 allowed stolen bases tying Toronto's Russell Martin for the AL lead. Martin, however, has thrown out 22 percent of runners compared to Smith's 5 percent. Narvaez has performed slightly better, allowing 36 stolen bases (seventh most in the AL) while throwing out 10 runners.
As has been the case with most of the White Sox rebuild, it's a learning process.
"In the big leagues, guys are going to steal bases, you know they're stealing the base," White Sox manager Rick Renteria said. "You know they're going to run at some point. You do everything you can to try to minimize what they do, but they're still able to learn that skill. I think it's something that's developed over a long period of time."
The White Sox are hoping to develop that skill on the fly with their two young catchers. Whether it's working with pitchers to adjust leg kicks, throwing over, back picking or just simply the catchers improving their pop times or accuracy, it's learning via trial by fire.
"In the Minors, guys just kind of run aimlessly," Smith said. "They'll run on pitches and slide steps that kind of make it a little easier to get guys. Up here, you have some veteran guys who know how to run or you have guys like Billy Hamilton and guys that have some speed that you really have to be on your toes and be on your A-game against them."
Narvaez and Smith combined for 40 games behind the plate entering this season, giving the White Sox one of the most inexperienced backstop combos in baseball. Renteria said his focus has been on progression, as each phase of developing into big league catcher comes with time.
"I think sometimes, also, you try to make sure that they don't get so focused on the baserunner that they don't do what they're supposed to do, which is get the batter," Renteria said. "That ultimately is the greatest thing they can do."
"We're very focused on our pitching and mechanics and attacking hitters, staying down in the zone," Smith said. "It's just building blocks. Once we feel comfortable with that, we're going to get to the running game. Then we keep working. I don't think it's as amplified as it may seem sometimes. If it was that big of a deal, I think it would be stressed a lot more."
The White Sox rebuild will have growing pains, Smith said. The development of their two young catchers is just a part of it.
"It's just all part of the progression of being young," Smith said. "We're learning to control the running game, and it's only going to continue to get better."
Fabian Ardaya is a reporter for MLB.com based in Chicago. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.