Buck helps develop Mets staff, blasts homers
Backstop, who leads Majors in RBIs, has strong rapport with phenom Harvey
NEW YORK -- Several times this season, Mets catcher John Buck has thrown down a finger more aggressively than usual, flashing the fluorescent tape on one nail. Matt Harvey has seen it on the mound and grinned to himself, funneling higher-grade octane into his four-seam fastball.
Their communication has been subtle, instinctual, the type honed over many years as colleagues. But Harvey and Buck have only known each other for two months.
"He already knows what's coming," Harvey said. "It's really fun every time I take the mound and see him back there. It's just positive energy. It's more fuel."
It is, in short, exactly what the Mets hoped they were receiving when they absorbed Buck and his $6 million salary -- that was important to the Blue Jays -- in December's R.A. Dickey blockbuster. Odds are Buck will not lead the Majors in RBIs all season, as he has through three weeks. But the Mets do believe he can serve a critical role in developing this young pitching staff -- a responsibility that only increased in scope when New York's catcher of the future, Travis d'Arnaud, suffered a season-altering foot injury last week.
Once considered obvious midseason trade bait, Buck now has a better chance to stick around all summer. It could create a boon for a 32-year-old catcher in want of another nice contract, but Buck insists he does not see it that way.
"My stance is still the same," Buck said of d'Arnaud. "I truly feel if I do good, he does good. I've been around too much to take positive thoughts out of something bad happening to someone else."
Those are not just words. When d'Arnaud flew to New York last week for tests on the fractured bone in his left foot, Buck made plans to pick him up from the airport and take him out to lunch. The rendezvous never materialized because d'Arnaud's flight was late, but the effort and concern were both evident.
It is the same attitude that Mets pitchers see on a regular basis. Buck keeps folders filled with notes on opposing hitters, pores over data on his iPad and meets with pitchers daily. Honed over two years with the Marlins, his knowledge of the National League East has served him well early in his Mets career.
To be fair, Buck is not a cure-all for pitchers. He could not elevate Miami's staff into anything more than a last-place bunch in 2012, and he will not transform struggling Mets into overnight All-Stars. Crediting Buck for Harvey's record-setting start would require discrediting him for the struggles of Jeremy Hefner, Aaron Laffey and others.
But Mets pitchers clearly enjoy their relationships with Buck, feeling they gain something out of them. That has not always been the case in New York, particularly in recent years.
"He knows what the hitters are going to do," said Harvey, estimating he has shaken off Buck's signs "five or six times" over his first four starts. "The studying that he does and the video that he watches and the plan that he comes up with for each individual pitcher, it's something that I'm learning still. And it's awesome. We kind of have the same plan already. Then he comes in and lays it all down, and it's go time."
Harvey says that works in large part due to the catcher's self-assurance -- something Buck has also displayed quite often with the bat, walking off the field Sunday as the Majors' RBI leader. Buck's solo homer off Jordan Zimmermann in the second inning traveled an estimated 460 feet, one of the longer blasts in Citi Field history.
Similarly impactful have been the runs Buck has plated outside of his seven homers. His RBI single Friday, for example, prevented Stephen Strasburg from skating clear of early trouble. His run-scoring double in a losing effort Saturday gave the Mets a real chance at victory.
Said manager Terry Collins: "John Buck seems to be in the middle of everything that's good right now."
That may not remain true all summer, considering the offensive limitations he displayed over the first nine years of his career. But the tools are clearly there for Buck, a former top prospect of the Astros, and the Mets will make use of them for as long as they are sharp.
So will the pitching staff. And so will d'Arnaud. Once considered a temporary fix, a glorified seat warmer for d'Arnaud, Buck is suddenly staring at a much longer tenure in New York.
The Mets do not fear the thought of it.
"And until someone tells me otherwise," Buck said, "I'll just keep going about my business."