J.P. Arencibia communicates with the best of them. He knows how to get pitchers in the right frame of mind with a quick comment or joke, and has more than 72,000 Twitter followers.
The Toronto Blue Jays’ catcher doesn’t mince words or shy away from letting his thoughts be known. He batted .219 with 23 home runs and 78 RBI in his first full season in the major leagues. So it seemed logical to ask him about the challenge of raising his batting average while maintaining his power and productivity.
“Who says I want to increase my average?” Arencibia shot back. “Statisticians? Writers? Hey, I’m not saying that.
“Now, I don’t want to hit .219. Don’t get me wrong. But I will put my .219 with 23 homers and 78 RBI up against, say, .291 with five homers and 40 RBI. What I’m most interested in is productivity. Look at Carlos Pena. Do you think the Rays are worried about his average?”
Pena, the Tampa Bay first baseman, batted .225 with 28 homers and 80 RBI for the Chicago Cubs in 2011 and returned to the Rays as a free agent with a $7.25-million (all currency U.S.) contract for this season.
“Are you paid to drive in runs or hit .300?” Arencibia asked, realizing that Pena and other middle-order hitters provide the answer he prefers.
He set Jays’ single-season homer and extra-base hit (47) records for catchers, and his RBI were surpassed only by the 80 of Darrin Fletcher in 1999. No American League catcher hit more homers than he did last year, and only Detroit ’s Alex Avila drove in more runs with 77.
“I feel there is a better average in there for J.P.,” Toronto manager John Farrell said. “But if he stays with what he’s doing, he is going to be okay. He put up a lot of quality at-bats last year, and he’s in a good place right now.
“J.P. exhibits power to all fields. If he stays middle to right-centre with the pitch on the outside part of the plate, that’s perfect. And he’s understanding the leverage of getting into a hitter’s count.”
Arencibia, 25, played shortstop growing up and didn’t move to catcher until high school at Westminster Christian School near Miami. He tied the school record of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez with 17 career homers, and went on to the University of Tennessee before becoming Toronto’s first-round pick in 2007.
“Once I started catching,” Arencibia said, “my favourite players became Javier Lopez and Mike Piazza, catchers who could hit.”
He loves the competition of hitting, and perhaps no at-bat in his rookie season exhibited that better than his walk on a 12-pitch at-bat against Tigers ace Justin Verlander on May 7 at Rogers Centre. Arencibia was the only Jay to reach base that game, and early in that confrontation he pulled a pitch down the line that was about one foot away from being the lone hit.
“Ball four was the only time in my life when I did something wrong by getting a walk,” Arencibia said. “It ruined a perfect game, and I didn’t want it to end that way. Hey, that guy is going to be a hall-of-famer.”
Verlander, the American League’s MVP and Cy Young Award winner, was five outs from perfection when he faced Arencibia and walked him on a low, outside fastball.
“That was an amazing, amazing at-bat,” Verlander said. “You’ve got to tip your cap sometimes.”
Still, as much as he loves hitting, Jays pitchers know it is not his focus.
“J.P.’s number one priority is his pitching staff,” Toronto ace Ricky Romero said. “He takes it so seriously. He had a plan for everything, even as a rookie, and is very smart with his pitch calling.
“He knows me better than anyone else, and knows how to get me through things. We execute pitches so well, and it’s pretty special to have him back there.”
Jays right-hander Kyle Drabek added: “All last year, I didn’t shake him off once.”
Drabek began to smile and shook his head.
“He’s a guy who can be serious,” Drabek said, “but he likes to have fun. He keeps you loose out there in a tense moment.”
Special to The Globe and Mail