Bud Black covets quality catching.
The Rockies manager believes that a catcher’s ability to call a good game, block sliders in the dirt, cut down baserunners, marshall the infield, and work in concert with pitchers is essential to winning baseball.
Offensive production from a catcher, while certainly not an afterthought, is not as crucial, in his mind.
But the Rockies, desperately needing to power up their lackluster offense, have changed their outlook for 2021. That became evident in December when the club non-tendered light-hitting Tony Wolters, despite his tight relationship with Rockies pitchers.
Call it the changing of the shin guards.
Over the past two seasons, Colorado’s catching corps ranked near the bottom in nearly every offensive category. Rockies catchers, for example, hit nine homers in 2019 (14th in the National League) and had a .665 OPS (13th). In the shortened 2020 season, they hit just two homers (15th) and posted a .551 OPS (15th).
Enter Elias Diaz and Dom Nunez as Colorado’s primary catchers this season. Both have displayed potential with the bat, but both remain a work in progress behind the plate.
But Black believes the duo can grow.
“I think (Diaz) has good hands,” Black said of the projected starter. “Elias improved his blocking as the (2020 season) went on. We have some pitchers who throw that breaking ball in the dirt, and I thought he improved on (blocking) that. His receiving on balls on the corners, and balls low in the strike zone, he improved on that, too.”
Regarding Nunez, Black said: “He is going to be given a real opportunity to see what he can do on the big-league level. We have seen Dom make a lot of strides.”
Nunez, 26, is not lacking confidence.
“I believe I can be one of the better offensive catchers in the game. Not just in the lineup or on this team, but one of the better ones in the game,” said Nunez, who was drafted in the sixth round in 2013 out of Elk Grove (Calif.) High School.
Nunez came to the Rockies as a third baseman but the club decided he had the tools to be a big-league catcher. His conversion, however, meant he had to spend extra time in the minors. The left-handed hitter spent two seasons playing rookie ball in Grand Junction, a year at low-A Asheville, a year at high-A Modesto and two years at Double-A Hartford.
He broke through in 2019, hitting .244 with 17 home runs and a .921 OPS in 61 games at Triple-A Albuquerque. He was summoned to the majors in August when Colorado released veteran Chris Iannetta. Nunez made an immediate impact, smacking a home run off Arizona’s Yoan Lopez in his debut and going 4-for-15 with two doubles and the homer in his first five games.
He struggled against off-speed pitches in his final 11 games, going 3-for-24 with two doubles and a homer. The pandemic wiped out the 2020 Triple-A season, robbing Nunez of a chance to develop. But he participated in the team’s alternative camp and his confidence grew.
“It’s the best I have ever felt,” he said. “I had only 30 at-bats but I’m excited to get more. I know that I am repeating my swing more, the ball is jumping even more off my bat than it did in 2019.
“I have always had a little bit of power in my back pocket, and playing at Coors (Field) is going to be beneficial to me. I hit the ball in the air quite a bit. I don’t try to create it, but it’s just my swing. So I’m going to use that to my advantage as best as I can.”
Nunez caught most of the Rockies’ current pitchers as he rose up the minors and said he already has a solid connection with them. As for the other essentials of catching, Nunez believes he’s up to the task.
“To be honest, I’m not too worried about any of them. I’m excited more than anything,” he said. “You do your studying and you get prepared, but at the end of the day you have to trust your instincts, too, and trust your eyes.
“So there is not one particular thing that is overwhelming to me. I believe I’m ready and I think my time is now.”
While Nunez has only 16 big-league games on his resume, Diaz has 276. He’s proven he can hit for power, but he’s also prone to slumps.
In 2018, Diaz batted. 286/.339/.452 with 10 homers, 12 doubles, and 34 RBIs in 82 games (277 plate appearances) with the Pirates. But he struggled in 2019 with a .241/.296/.307 slash line with two homers and 28 RBIs in 101 games (332 PA).
Diaz slashed .235/.288/.353 for the Rockies last season. Despite playing in only 26 games vs. 42 for Wolters, Diaz drove in nine of the 21 runs from the catcher position.
“I know I wasn’t in the lineup for five, six or seven days, but I worked hard every day to prepare like I was going to play every day,” said Diaz, who signed a one-year, $1.2 million deal to remain with the Rockies. “I have been working for a year for this opportunity and finally I’ve got it. I’m just going to play and compete and help my pitchers to win. I want to show that I’m the guy.”
Rockies catchers have struggled offensively for the past two seasons:
|2019||.239 (9th)||.665 (13th)||9 (14th)||70 (13th)||59 (15th)|
|2020||.217 (11th)||.551 (15th)||2 (15th)||21 (12th)||35 (15th)|
National League ranking in parentheses
Note: wRC+ takes the statistic runs created and adjusts that number to account for external factors, such as the ballpark or era. A wRC+ of 100 is league average and 150 would be 50 percent above league average.
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