Ian Kinsler was off and running in the fifth inning of Monday’s game for the Texas Rangers and it appeared he had second base comfortably stolen when Toronto catcher J.P. Arencibia came out firing – from his knees.
The throw’s trajectory was low and Blue Jays pitcher Kyle Drabek ducked to avoid getting struck. The ball landed in the glove of second baseman Kelly Johnson several feet in advance of the would-be base stealer.
Perhaps Johnson was distracted by how easily the throw beat Kinsler but in his haste to get the tag down the ball deflected off his glove and fell to the dirt and Kinsler was fortunate to be safe.
Johnson was given an error on the play.
As a catcher, throwing from the knees is not exactly how developing baseball players are instructed as they’re progressing through the minor leagues.
But it is a method that Arencibia is often resorting to in a season where the second-year catcher is being lauded overall for a marked improvement in his defensive play.
“I’ve been throwing to bases a lot more from my knees this year,” Arencibia said in a recent interview. “I feel it just saves me a little more time than having to get up and throw.”
Arencibia said he has been making throws from his knees for as long as he remembers, and it has not always been a popular style with his coaches.
After being selected by the Blue Jays in the first round (21st overall) in the 2007 draft, Arencibia went to play for the Auburn Doubledays, the Blue Jays former Class-A affiliate that plays in the New York-Penn League.
Back then Mike Basso was the Blue Jays’ minor league catching instructor and Arencibia said Basso threatened to fine him $50 each time he threw from his knees.
“So we’re in the championship game, which we won, and I threw a guy out from my knees – and I still got fined,” Arencibia recalled incredulously.
While the more conventional style is for the catcher to jump up from the crouch, transfer the ball from the mitt and then step into the throw, there have been catchers over the years who have been successful throwing from their knees.
One of the first catchers to popularize that style was Benito Santiago, a former five-time MLB all-star.
“We certainly don’t dissuade him from doing it,” Toronto manager John Farrell said. “We’re looking at it, execute an out. And if that’s where he feels the best and shortest route to that spot is, then we’re all for it.”
Arencibia established a Blue Jays record when he cracked 23 home runs in his rookie season last year so it was easy to overlook his defensive shortcomings.
He constantly dropped balls and, more worrisome, many were getting past him at an alarming rate.
The Blue Jays pitching staff led the American League last year with 73 wild pitches, a stat that often relates to a catcher’s defensive prowess as much as a pitcher’s accuracy.
Combine that with the fact that Arencibia led all Major League catchers with 12 passed balls in 129 games played, one for every 10.6 games played, and you get a sense of just how ragged it was defensively behind the plate for the Blue Jays.
So far this year Arencibia has allowed three passed balls in 21 games, or one for every seven games, but Toronto pitchers have been charged with just six wild pitches.
Arencibia has also thrown out 50 per cent of attempted base stealers (five of 10) after successfully nabbing just 24 per cent (28 of 115) all of last season. At least two of those put-outs have been throws that he made from his knees.
Don Wakamatsu, the Blue Jays’ bench coach who also trains the catchers, said a new glove with added support in the thumb area, and a slightly different hand angle when receiving the ball, has made all the difference to Arencibia’s defence this year.
“Last year we had a bet, he owed me $10 bucks every time he dropped a ball,” Wakamatsu said. “The first month in he told me, “I can’t do that any more, I’ll go broke.
“I think right now I have four drops on the whole year so far.”