DiFazio putting focus behind the plate

SURPRISE, Ariz. - Catcher Vin DiFazio had the best debut of any '09 Rangers position player draft pick, as he posted a .943 OPS between short-season Spokane and Single-A Hickory. Lone Star Dugout caught up with the 23-year-old during our recent visit to Fall Instructional League.

The Texas Rangers focused on adding pitching depth to their system in this past summer's MLB Draft, as 19 of their top 23 picks were pitchers.

Of those four position players, one stood out above the rest during his debut season.

Catcher Vin DiFazio, the club's 12th-round pick, posted a .278/.417/.526 line between short-season Spokane and Single-A Hickory. Remarkably, he was even better during his late-season stint with the Crawdads, as he batted .290 [18-for-62] with five doubles, five home runs, 17 runs batted in, and 12 walks.

While DiFazio is a very talented player, he slipped in the draft because professional teams simply didn't know much about him.

The backstop played his freshman season in 2005 at the University of Connecticut, where he batted .306 in 42 games. DiFazio then transferred to Indian River Community College in Florida before eventually moving on to the University of Alabama.

Unfortunately, that's when the injury troubles came.

The New Jersey native played in a total of nine games–getting eight at-bats–between 2007 and 2008. As DiFazio explained to Lone Star Dugout after the draft, he developed an unusually serious form of neuritis that left his baseball career hanging in the balance.

After over two years of rehab, DiFazio not only returned to the diamond for his senior season in 2009, but he won the starting job. DiFazio was one of the Crimson Tide's top hitters, batting .329 with 14 doubles and seven home runs in 140 at-bats.

The 23-year-old has a solid approach at the plate, and he is a good enough natural hitter with plenty of strength. DiFazio was a man amongst boys at the Rangers' Fall Instructional League, particularly in batting practice when he consistently laced balls into the gaps and over the fence with relative eyes.

But all the time off has left him behind the curve defensively, and the catcher has been playing catch-up. During his debut summer, scouts came away impressed with his bat, but questions remain regarding his defense. DiFazio has the ability to become a solid defender, and he made catching his primary focus both during the season and at instructs.

Jason Cole: As a whole in Spokane and Hickory, what were your thoughts on your first professional season?

Vin DiFazio: For my first professional season, I have to give all the credit to the Texas Rangers organization. It's a great organization. I was a little nervous going out there. Pro ball is a little different than college ball, but everybody from the coaching staff to all the players they drafted–everybody works together to get the job done. Everyone makes each other feel comfortable. I just think it's great that we've got guys that really know how to make a team, because that's the most important part of this game.

Cole: I don't think I asked you this when you were drafted, but I have to ask you–how did a guy from New Jersey end up at Alabama?

DiFazio: I went down to junior college in Florida after my freshman year at the University of Connecticut. I wanted to try to play somewhere down south with a little bigger competition. Fortunately it worked out to where I got my scholarship at Alabama, coming out of there.

The assistant coach at Alabama at the time used to be in upstate New York. He recruited me a little bit out of high school, so he knew who I was. When he found out I transferred, he recruited me to Alabama.

Cole: How'd you feel about your time at Alabama?

DiFazio: Alabama was great. Unfortunately I suffered some injuries back in college and I was out for about two years. Most programs–most big programs like that, an SEC program–would just give up on somebody like that. They would say, ‘Sorry, it didn't work out.' But not at Alabama.

They were real stand-up guys and everybody from the administration and the staff just stuck with me. They said, ‘If you get through this, you're always going to have a chance.' With that positive energy and with my faith, I was able to combat through the injuries and they gave me the shot. Fortunately it shined through.

Cole: Did you turn into a bit of an Alabama football fan while you were out there?

DiFazio: Definitely. Absolutely. Especially when Saban came to town, because he resurrected that place. Yeah, Alabama football all the way and New York Giants all the way in the NFL.

Cole: Talk about your development at the plate this year. You really had success all the way through, and especially after your promotion to Hickory. What was it about you that allowed you to hit so well in full-season ball?

DiFazio: The good thing about going through what I went through–with all the injuries and stuff–is that I got a little chip on my shoulder. I was a pretty big prospect coming out before I got hurt, and then I kind of fell off the radar when I got hurt. I kind of felt like I've always got to prove myself. Fortunately I was in a good place at a good time, and I got the right pitches to hit and took advantage.

Cole: Were you working on anything at the plate in Spokane and Hickory, or were you just kind of playing your game this year?

DiFazio: Pretty much just playing my game. But I worked with all the hitting instructors in Spokane. Josue down there and then Luis here. They really just worked on rhythm and timing. It's a really big thing. I felt like I have pretty good rhythm and timing. It's getting better with the more at-bats I get. Pretty much, right now, we're just sticking with the game plan, getting drill work, and just not putting too much pressure on each at-bat.

Cole: Are you working on anything different here at instructs?

DiFazio: Offensively is one thing, but defensively is where my game has totally changed. I'm working on so many things. I never really had a big catching coach, but now I'm working with former Major Leaguers all day long.

It's amazing how much knowledge I'm taking in and how much I'm learning about the game, especially defensively. Hopefully I can take all of it in. I'm trying to take every piece I can, and hopefully it'll all click and I'll come ready for Spring Training.

Cole: Being a guy that missed so much time in college, do you feel you're a little behind the curve defensively?

DiFazio: Definitely. Especially just because this is finally the end of my first year back from the injury. I was at Alabama for that year, and this year that was it. Other than that, I was at home doing my thing when I was injured. I was trying to get better.

I've been a catcher my whole life, but now I'm learning at this high level of competition with each guy throwing 95 miles an hour. You've gotta know the little things that are so important.

It's about anticipation–it's about taking everything in. You can't go out there with a hard head. I'm really enjoying this because I'm taking in so much knowledge from these guys that have been around the game for so long.

Cole: What are some of those things that you've been working on and that you feel you've really improved on defensively?

DiFazio: It's more of just the game defensively as a whole. Everything from calling games–which is humongous–pitchers meetings, learning what counts to throw what. It's not like college–it's not aluminum bats. Wood bats are a totally different game, and these guys can hit up here and these guys can pitch.

You go from calling a game to blocking–my blocking has gotten a lot better. My throwing and footwork. Everything. It's not really one thing we're focusing on. We're just trying to work on becoming the best catcher I can be–getting the best out of me in every aspect of the game.

Cole: Did you get a chance to call your own game when you were in college?

DiFazio: Just at the very end of the year. I asked coach and said, ‘Coach, do you mind if I take a couple of games?' A couple of our pitchers were more rhythm pitchers, and with our coach at Alabama taking his time, we decided that's when they struggled. They didn't have a good tempo. Some guys pitch that way and others can't. So with the guys that really I felt pitch better when they were just going, going, and going–that was when they let me call the game, and it worked out.

Cole: Starting out in Spokane, did you have the games to yourself?

DiFazio: Yeah. I had the game. Occasionally I would give a look over to a pitching coach. Justin Thompson is very knowledgeable–a former MLB All-Star. So in certain situations sometimes. In the very beginning, he said he would help me out, but about two weeks in, he said, ‘Look, this is a learning experience for you, so you've got to figure out what's good and I'll let you know what's good and what's not.'

Cole: Was that a little bit different knowing it was all on you pretty much?

DiFazio: Exciting. More exciting than anything. Just because being a catcher my whole life, I love the fact that I was the only one that could see the whole field. It's difficult when, in college, you're getting the signs from a coach. It's difficult to stay really in with the game because you're so focused on getting the signs with him.

But when you're calling your own game and you're looking out and you say, ‘We're going on my clock right here. I control the rhythm of the pitcher, I control the rhythm of the game.' Everything. It's amazing. It sent chills up my spine the first couple of times I did it in front of that big crowd in Spokane. I was like, ‘Wow. I'm calling this game–I'm calling a professional ball game right now.'

Cole: Now you're out here in pro ball away from the crowds. There's really nobody out here but scouts and players. Just talk about how your instructs has gone.

DiFazio: It's great. I came out here at first and I was a little nervous because I knew what was ahead. I knew it was going to be a lot of hard work. But I'm really excited because this whole instructs, I've learned more about every part of the game from hitting, defense, baserunning, and everything.

Things I never even thought of. Simple things that, if you actually listen and pay attention to during the game, it happens so many times. People who aren't around the game all the time don't show you, but then you get down here around these guys–everybody in this organization harps on how important the little things are. It really shows you how special this game is–how in-depth it is. It's a game, and it's very difficult to master. You've just got to keep working and keep working.

Instructs as a whole has been a great experience. I've met tons of different guys from everywhere. I've met guys from Korea who have come here. A bunch of different backgrounds, and everyone has really gelled well together. You get to see the top prospects in every organization. You're playing against San Diego, teams like Cincinnati. It's pretty incredible.

Cole: I know you guys have a bit of a classroom setting in the morning. How big is that in what you mentioned about learning the little things of the game?

DiFazio: It's huge because at that time, it's time for you to sit back as a player and get away from the field. You're not relying so much on instincts as you are your brain. They say all the time, ‘You can let it go in one ear and out the other, but we're just trying to help you get to the big leagues.'

It's not about just getting there, it's about staying there. The things they teach us are things that will help us throughout our whole career. It's amazing because you can really tell that they truly believe in everybody in this organization, and with hard work and discipline, anything can happen.

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