Name: Luke Carlin
DOB: December 20, 1980
First and foremost, a catcher must be able to – catch. There is no greater friend to a pitcher than a backstop that receives and frames the ball well. When the ball hits the outer edge of the zone, the catcher can be the difference between a ball and strike. It is one area that Carlin excels.
"The catcher is very significant in influencing calls," explained Carlin. "The umpire calls what he can see, and my job is to make that pitch look great every time. Sometimes I'll have to go out and reach for pitch before it tails and curves out of the zone. Other times I'll have to catch it deep to let come back down into the zone.
"There are many techniques to make pitches look better. Most of them are a combination of body placement and anticipation on the catcher's part. The best receiving catchers are quiet with their movements and aware of the umpire's zone as well as the pitchers tendencies. Receiving pitches properly is one of the most important aspects of catching."
His .991 fielding percentage was tied for second among all catchers in the Pacific Coast League with 70 or more games played and pitchers widely trust in his abilities.
There is a quiet confidence in a pitcher's mind that tells them they can spin a ball in the dirt and Carlin will dig it. He stays in front of the ball and squares his body up to make sure the pill doesn't scoot through the five-hole.
"The most important trait for a catcher is to get the most out their pitchers everyday. A good catcher has to be able to handle their pitching staff. That involves building a relationship with all of them, establishing trust and an understanding of what needs to be done each game. A pitcher may only have his "best stuff" one of every five starts. Those other four starts the battery has to work together and find out what works best that particular day. There isn't a better feeling for a catcher when a pitcher wants you behind the plate. You're going into battle with that pitcher – every batter – and you want to lead him the best way possible."
Carlin snared 24-of-66 would be thieves, good for 36 percent, a year after tossing out 48 percent of the runners attempting to steal against him. He has a quick release and solid footwork to go with a strong, accurate arm. His snap throw to first has also improved.
"Luke is the best defender," roving catching instructor Carlos Hernandez admitted. "I enjoy working with him. He is a guy that when I go to Portland or anywhere else to see him play, he already has a couple of points he wants to work on. We were working on a pickoff play to first base. He wasn't real comfortable doing it. We did it one day and he threw the guy out at first base that night. He was excited like I was too.
"We are very happy with Luke. He has shown how much he wants this game and that he wants to be up there everyday. He has shown a lot of progress. I think it was a great job that he did this year."
More than just the defensive numbers, Carlin is a student of the game that works hard on understanding hitters so he can impart that knowledge to his pitching staff. His ability to effectively communicate, combined with his baseball acumen, rarely have a pitcher shaking him off. Thus, calling the game comes natural to the 25-year-old.
The other area that isn't often mentioned but bears tremendous weight is his willingness to challenge the pitchers to come inside. Usually, the pitcher is blamed for not accomplishing the task but it oftentimes falls on the catcher to make the call. Carlin has no reservations.
His ability to setup late while still showing the right target doesn't allow a hitter to cheat.
"The one thing I like about Luke is he is not afraid to come inside," Portland pitching coach Gary Lance said. "I had some pitchers who were very tentative to coming inside on the hands and he was real good in helping me encourage them to do it enough where they saw the value of it and then we were set. Luke was real good with that. Luke calls a consistent game. Luke blocks the ball in the dirt as well as any catcher in baseball. He throws real well.
"He receives the ball and frames it. Blocking the ball, throwing the ball, being consistent – the only thing I need to break Luke on is that he goes to the mound probably twice as much as I would prefer. For instance, a guy will throw two strikes in a row and he will call time and go to the mound. Well that breaks the flow and plus he just threw two strikes so that is a positive. Don't go out to the mound because that is a negative. I haven't approached him about that. There were times when he would stay behind the plate and then other times he would get in a habit of going out too much at inappropriate times. Other than that he did a great job – and we will work on that."
Carlin is major league ready defensively and many believe he could handle the job today.
He has also made improvements offensively. Despite a four-year career in the minor leagues coming into the season, Carlin had just 741 at bats, an average of 185 per season. He registered the most at bats and plate appearances of his career and showed good strike zone discipline.
Carlin drew 49 walks for Triple-A Portland, boasting a .392 on base percentage. The switch-hitter is a better hitter from the right side of the plate than the left, despite not getting nearly as many at bats. He has a level swing and is adept at working the count.
"He did a real good job for us," Portland hitting coach Jose Castro said. "We worked on a few things. Here is a guy that used to shift his weight a lot and get buried inside with fastballs and I got him a little closer to the plate and that helped him out. It gave him a sense of not panicking on pitches in and what to do because of body positioning and he knew he was getting beat inside and he would panic and chase. That gave him a comfort level and I think that helped him out in pitch recognition as well as that patiently aggressive approach that he showed."
While he won't ever be considered a power hitter, Carlin can hit the gaps with line drives. Deficient in bunting, Carlin uses his smarts and bat control to go the other way to move a runner over.
ETA: With a spring training invite, Carlin has an outside chance to make the club in San Diego. More likely, Carlin will be sent back to Triple-A where he can log the bulk of the work and be called upon as an injury replacement. A Brad Ausmus type of career is within reach once he gets his shot in the major leagues. He may not hit a ton but his defensive prowess alone could prove to be a valuable asset.