For Mets, Buck more than d'Arnaud's placeholder
Veteran catcher's game-calling skills give him value, even with anticipated callup
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- John Buck's agenda had grown to be routine: hook on with a new team, request video of his new pitchers, then become so fluent in their tendencies that he understands them better than they do.
About two years ago, Buck installed a computer program that simplified the process even further. Now he can click on a pitcher's name and an opposing batter, and watch every tendency flash before him on the screen. Does the pitcher tend to throw a lot of first-pitch fastballs? That's a click. How does he proceed with the bases loaded? That's another. What does he throw most often on 2-2 counts with a runner on third? Click, click, click.
Though teams throughout baseball have access to this software, Buck invests far more time with it than most catchers do. He also keeps a journal; whenever he dispenses advice to a pitcher, Buck chronicles it on his iPad. Then he circles back to revisit his corrections weeks or months later.
"Those are little tiny things you can file away in your mind and lose," Buck said. "You might not remember exactly what you say to people. Giving them proof -- not just a catcher saying it, but actual proof -- has definitely helped me."
They are the types of things that have earned Buck his reputation as one of the premier game-callers in professional baseball. They are also the types of things that have kept him floating around the big leagues despite two straight miserable offensive seasons, and that could keep him in Flushing even after uber-prospect Travis d'Arnaud arrives to take his job.
They are his livelihood.
"He prepares as well as any catcher I've ever played with," said starting pitcher Shaun Marcum, who first played with Buck in 2010. "He's always ready."
He has been in Mets camp for roughly two weeks, for example, and already Buck has generated thoughts:
… on Johan Santana: "A lot of the stuff for older veteran guys, it's little things. I'm not trying to reinvent Johan Santana or try to make who he is. He already is who he is. If he has tendencies, if there's something that's glaring, numbers will show up."
… on Jon Niese: "I like his cutter. It's something that wasn't really in my mind when I faced him on the other side. But now that I've seen a lot more film and concentrated on that aspect, and feeling him talk about how that makes him feel comfortable … it stuck out to me."
… on Marcum: "He hasn't changed. He's a touch-and-feel guy. He's going to pitch to contact. He's not going to overpower anybody. With him, it's more or less knowing what you've got, and when a team comes in, matching up with your stuff."
… on Dillon Gee: "He's not necessarily pitching away from contact. He can definitely miss over the plate because he's got that extra zip on the ball. He can elevate. He and Marcum complement each other really well."
… on Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler: "Real good. Real good."
The Mets coveted Buck as a piece in the R.A. Dickey blockbuster because of his reputation with pitchers, understanding they have struggled to retain a strong game-calling catcher in recent years. Even the players that came to the Mets with good game-calling reputations -- Brian Schneider, Rod Barajas and others -- did not distinguish themselves during brief tenures in Flushing.
The issue with Buck is two-fold. One, he has not hit in the big leagues with any authority since 2010, when he bashed 20 homers in 409 at-bats for the Blue Jays. The Mets can deal with that if he lives up to his reputation behind the plate.
More vexing for Buck is the knowledge that no matter how well he performs, d'Arnaud is pining to take his job. One of the top overall prospects in all of baseball and No. 1 in the Mets' system as ranked by MLB.com, d'Arnaud should arrive in New York within the first couple months of the season -- and when he does, the Mets want him to play every day.
They also want him to stick around for, oh, the better part of a decade or two.
"It's only human nature to say, 'Wow, I've got a star coming,'" manager Terry Collins said. "But the real good players, they just keep playing. It doesn't bother him."
Collins suggested that if Buck plays as well as he is capable over the first few months of the season -- if he turns out to be a "real good player," in his manager's words -- surely teams will be interested in trading for him. And if that happens, Buck will pack up his computer, slip his iPad back into its case and learn a whole new pitching staff one more time.
"It's my job," Buck said. "It seems like a lot, but when all you do is think about calling games and getting people out, a lot of that stuff comes naturally."