When Kane County left spring training, the only catcher on the roster with pro experience was on the disabled list as Will Remillard had yet to make his pro debut and Benjamin Carhart hadn't caught since little league.
"That's A-ball," said Kane County Manager Mark Johnson. "Its what we're here for, teach them to call a game and become fundamentally sound."
Carhart's catching career started at fall instructs after spending the first two years in the organization as a third baseman. He was told last summer about the position switch.
"I was all for it. My whole life everyone's told me I had the build and style of hitting that would fit a catcher. When they called me and told me I was coming to instructs to catch, I was beyond happy," Carhart said of how he reacted when notified. "Gave me another chance, not to just play infield, but be another position guy in the field. If you can catch and play another position, its just gives you that much more of an opportunity. Made me very excited."
The position switch also didn't catch the Stetson grad by surprise. He said during the draft process several teams asked about moving behind the plate as he spent his college career at third base at Stetson, and infield/pitcher at Palm Beach State College.
After getting drafted in the 35th round in 2012, Carhart hit .353 with 16 multi-hit games and a 12-game hitting streak in 35 games for Mesa. While in Arizona, Carhart began to hear rumblings about a position move.
"When I came back for instructs there was a rumor going around that maybe I would start catching, and we kinda threw it around a little bit, but never really did anything. Then when I came back for spring training, I was in a lot better shape, and they were like, we really should have done it. You know, we'll work with it this season, and come back at instructs, so I kinda knew last year in Daytona that I would probably be moving to catcher. Then in middle of season, they said we're gonna go full throttle with this after the season."
With a new glove in his bag, Carhart made his way back to Mesa for fall instructs and an education in catching. "Personally, for me, it was more the experience of a comfortable feeling when I first did it. They kept telling me, ‘you're doing great' and I felt like I was doing everything wrong, just because I had never done it in my life."
Unless you want to count when he was a 12-year-old and forced to catch because no one else could handle the flame throwers on his Little League team.
"I just felt like I was doing it wrong and they kept telling me ‘no, keep doing it' and eventually it all got comfortable and I feel like I've progressed really well and I've gotten more comfortable."
Not only did Carhart have to learn the fundamentals of a new position, he also had to become familiar with the pitchers.
"Biggest thing for me was getting to know the pitchers and getting to know what they like to do and what their ball does, especially at instructs with all the new draft guys. I was catching all these new people that I didn't even know, let alone catch. Its a lot easier now that I know everyone."
It didn't take long for MWL base runners to figure out Carhart was fresh meat as Quad Cities stole five bases in his second game and then Fort Wayne swiped six his next start. You think this would shake the confidence of the new backstop, but Carhart seemed unfazed by the start, and both he and his manager had an explanation.
"There were a lot of factors. It was freezing cold and hard to get a grip on the ball," Carhart said about the start. "Will and I joked about the 0-19 start. We were confident we would get there. It was the beginning of the season, they had fresh legs, we had cold fingers and couldn't grip the ball. We're set to go now. It was never a questionable thing, we knew it would come."
Johnson said most of those stolen bases weren't even chances as the pitchers were concentrating more on throwing strikes, than holding runners on. "He's thrown the ball well for us and done a good job from day one, and continues to get better and improve."
The numbers back it up as after the 0-for-11 start, Carhart has nabbed 15-of-his-last-33 and has thrown out 34 percent of runners on the season. He's been charged with one error and four passed balls in 22 games behind the plate.Carhart's backstop tutorial is aided by the game's latest technology, including the Cubs extensive video library.
"Today's baseball is great, we have video for every game," Carhart said regarding pre-game work done before each pitcher's start. "We look at the video and see what you did well and what you didn't do well, try to attack those things that got those guys out. And if you had a bad outing or they touched you up a little bit, we'll see why and how, what pitches, and what counts, and attack them in the opposite direction."
Carhart also gave some insight on how the Cougars' attack hitters.
"The biggest thing here is Rosy (pitching coach David Rosario) loves the guys to go fastballs, pound them with fastballs until they prove they can hit it. And a lot of times, we'll do that and if they start getting good swings on it, everyone on this team, and its awesome at this level, have plus breaking pitches or a good change-up, As catchers we always say, its really easy to call a game because all of them throw strikes and all of them are able to spot their off-speed pitches. As far as going over video, you just try to do well what you did last time that worked, and if it didn't work, go in the opposite direction. "
He's also using video to tap into the experience his manager provides as a former big league catcher. "MJ, he caught, so he's a brainiac. If I have a question or he wants to show me something, we'll just go to the video from the day before. He'll help me out as far if its blocking or throwing or anything."
And the teacher has been impressed with his pupil.
"He's a quick learner, you only have to tell him once," Johnson said. "Tell him a thing one time and he gets it. He's got a very high aptitude, and he wants to learn, and he wants to get better. Can't say enough about his work ethic, he really gets out there and works his butt off, day-in and day-out to get better, and that's what it takes to improve and advance in this game."
Carhart jumped from the Rookie League to High A and was third on Daytona's FSL championship team with 112 games played behind Zeke DeVoss (117) and Dustin Geiger (123). He hit .281/.337/.393 the first half of the year, including a 12-game hitting streak, but really struggled the final 50 games of the season finishing with a slash line of .247/.297/.336 in his first full year.
After his struggles in the second half last year, Carhart made an adjustment at the plate.
"Last year I had a bigger leg kick, and then, I don't know if I just wasn't use to full season but in July last year, I struggled really bad. I don't know if it was because of my leg kick or what it was, but I was getting beat a lot inside. And at instructs and spring training, I talked to hitting guys and I tried to lower my leg kick and I've done that this year. I can hit the inside pitch a lot better. Just trying to get your pitch in the count and not being so much of a free swinger as I was."
Its worked as the 24-year-old is one of the Cougars most consistent hitters this season, batting .293/.341/.374 through 63 games with 15 doubles, 25 RBI and 37 runs. Because of his success at the plate and his versatility, Johnson's been able to move Carhart around the diamond with time at first (6 games), second (1), third (5), and DH (30).
The former Florida Junior College Player of the Year sees some similarities in the Daytona team that won the FSL title last year and the 2014 Cougars.
"The group of guys last year was unbelievable, this year, is very similar to that. We all get along, we all play as a team. There's really no selfish players on the team. One thing in college, can't be selfish, only have 50 games and you want to win all of them, and this team, just like last year's team, feels like a college team."
"A lot of other players and people I talk to in other organizations, say if they go ‘0-for' they are really mad, whether they won or not. Our team is not like that at all. Whether its to move a runner or sacrifice a ground ball to second instead of trying to pull a base hit to move him. Everything we do, is as a team. And it was the same thing up there (Daytona). I feel like its very similar in that aspect, as you can see we are winning a lot of games, and I think that‘s why. "
That maturity not only shows with his manager but also his younger teammates who are anxious to learn about life in the Florida State League.
"It's totally different to last year as pretty much everyone was my age, so its fun to sit there and listen to them, and they're always asking me questions. I personally tell them that the biggest difference as far as pitchers is the bullpen. All starters are very similar in my opinion, just stronger guys everywhere up there but its fun to talk to younger guys. I feel like I'm kind of a mentor to them in some aspects, but they're just as smart as me and they're awesome to be around."
Johnson has noticed Carhart's influence on the rest of the Cougars' roster.
"I think a lot of his leadership has rubbed off. He's a leader, leader in the clubhouse and a leader on the field, He's a mature guy, so the guys look up to him and he plays that role very well."