Extra work helps Gradoville find success

Like most backup catchers, Chris Gradoville is rarely recognized in a Rangers system loaded with top prospects. But the Omaha native did a lot of work to help the talented Frisco pitching staff in 2009. Lone Star Dugout sat down with the 25-year-old Creighton product.

Backup catchers are often one of the most underappreciated commodities on a baseball team, and that was absolutely the case with Frisco's Chris Gradoville in 2009.

At the plate, the Omaha native didn't post great numbers. Playing approximately once every four days, Gradoville batted .227 with five doubles, one home run, and 15 runs batted in on the season. However, it should be pointed out that, once Gradoville began receiving consistent playing time [after Manny Pina was traded to Kansas City], he finished the season on a 9-for-29 [.310] streak with three doubles and a home run.

But Gradoville isn't in the Rangers' system for his bat. He was selected in the 24th round of the 2007 MLB Draft due to his defensive abilities.

Those defensive skills helped the RoughRiders pitching staff post a 3.54 earned-run average in games he started.

Granted, there is plenty of valid debate over the legitimacy of the catcher's ERA statistic. However, when Gradoville didn't start, Frisco's team ERA jumped up a full run–to 4.56. Given the large sample sizes in both instances, it would appear there is something to the number.

As the 25-year-old Creighton product explains below, he makes use of his off days by learning his pitchers and doing research on the opposing team's hitters. He has also spent much of the last couple of seasons studying game calling and receiving with former catchers-turned-coaches like Damon Berryhill, Mike Micucci and farm director Scott Servais.

Lone Star Dugout spoke with Gradoville about his 2009 season and his craft of backup catching.

Jason Cole: Looking at your 2009 season–your first at Double-A Frisco–what were your thoughts?

Chris Gradoville: I was in a backup role, so I mostly played once every four or five days. With that being said, I was still continuously following every game because when it is my turn to play, they expect me to do well and know the hitters of the team we are facing.

Those three days I don't play are off days, but they're days that I try to focus on the other team and learn this and that about what pitch to call and what batters do–their tendencies and stuff. I learned a lot with [Mike] Micucci as our manager. I'm still always trying to learn the game of hitting at this new level with better pitching.

Cole: Was Micucci a catcher in his playing days?

Gradoville: Yeah, he was.

Cole: What has Micucci been able to help you with?

Gradoville: Different things with game calling. I'd like to say I was a little more advanced with game calling coming out of college, because I called my own game in college, which you don't really see anymore. But I've still got to learn a lot of things with the pro ball game as you move up.

Micucci has helped out a lot with that–teaching me different things and bringing me aside between innings and telling me situations where he would have called a different pitch or this and that. He helps with that and he helps with our blocking drills and different techniques he has learned. And that comes from Scott Servais, as well, who was a catcher. They talk a lot and they're close, so that helps.

Gradoville was a standout catcher at Creighton.
Cole: Did you have the opportunity to call your own game in college from day one?

Gradoville: No, not day one. I didn't become the full-time starter until my junior year. But my sophomore year, I caught a little bit and played left field the majority of the year. When I did catch, I called the game. My junior and senior years–they were my fourth and fifth years in the program because I was a redshirt. He understood what we were about a just let me take over from there. I put my time in, I guess.

Cole: How long did it take before you were comfortable with calling your own game?

Gradoville: It took awhile. It took all of fall ball and then our simulated games and live batting practice session. Then the stuff in the winter definitely helped with that.

Cole: Are you comfortable calling your own game in pro ball?

Gradoville: Yeah, absolutely. It is just all about reading hitters, remembering hitters from previous at-bats, and being able to know your pitching staff. That's a big thing. A lot of guys come into it not knowing what other pitchers have and what not. That's why you've got to work really close with them. Sitting in the bullpen between my three days, I can talk to pitchers about different scenarios like what they'd throw here, what their pitches are, and so on.

Cole: You mentioned that you do a lot of work with studying in between your starts. What exactly do you do to study?

Gradoville: We have a spray chart for the opposing team that we have to keep. When I don't play and I'm in the dugout, I do that sometimes so I can read where a guy's spray chart is for lefties and righties.

I kind of just pay attention close to what they did against a left-hander or a right-hander and who I'll be catching in a couple of days. If he's a right-hander on the mound or a left-hander and how we're going to attack that hitter down the road.

Cole: As a backup catcher, is this something the Rangers told you to do, or are you doing it on your own?

Gradoville: No, I just did it on my own. There was an article a few months back in USA Today about backup catchers and how it's an art. And if you can do it, you can play this game for a long time. They were telling different techniques and stuff those guys do.

That's at the big league level, and that was one of the things–studying these hitters and working with pitchers and learning all that stuff. So I figured, ‘Why not start now? I can do it here and lead up to it if I ever get there.'

Cole: Is that when you started studying–when you read the article?

Gradoville: Yeah. I tried doing it last year at Bakersfield, and it was a little bit harder because on the road and at home, we had to catch in the bullpen. But here at home, we have a bullpen catcher, so I'm in the dugout, which helps out a lot. And with Micucci in there in the dugout, I can talk to him and ask him questions and listen to him talk with Jeff, our pitching coach. It's just something I do.

Cole: What all was in that article?

Gradoville: It was just talking about how they play once every four or five days and they're expected to catch a good game, call a good game, know their pitchers, don't have any mess-ups with defenses. If their hitting comes, that's just an added bonus.

They told me that this year–if I hit, that's a bonus. They just want me to catch, take care of the guy on the mound, and win games. That came straight from Micucci, and that's what I'm trying to do.

The article was just saying how there are guys that are playing 40 games out of a big league season and they are getting paid about $1 million just to help young pitchers and young catchers. What they're helping them with is learning the game of baseball. These guys are a little more talented than them, but they're still getting paid a good amount of money to teach the game of baseball.

Cole: Towards the end of the season in San Antonio, I saw you hit an inside-the-park home run. Tell me about it.

Gradoville: I got a fastball on the first pitch. I hit it, but I was like, ‘That ball is struck well, but in this park, it's dead here in that area.' I was like, ‘He'll probably catch that, because he's a good centerfielder.' It was Cedric Hunter. And it gets to the wall and I saw it hit the wall, then I saw it hit the ground.

I thought it was going to be a triple. I mean, I've got probably seven triples in my life. Then I get halfway to third, and Brant Brown is yelling, ‘Let's go! You're going home!' So I hit third–I don't know what was going through my head. I was just like, ‘This is unbelievable.'

Whoever was on deck was telling me to get down–to slide. But I was going so fast at that point that I didn't even want to slide–so fast in my eyes, at least. I didn't want to slide. If there ever was a play at the plate, I was just going to have to take him out at the plate, because I wasn't sliding.

When I hit the plate, I couldn't believe it happened. I was just ecstatic and screaming. The team was going nuts. They were fanning me off with towels and they had water waiting for me and stuff. It was pretty cool. I finally got my first home run of the season.

Cole: Had you ever hit an inside-the-parker before?

Gradoville: No. I've never been close. Never in my life. Not even t-ball, little league, or anything. What's funny is that my little league coach was there. He flew in for three games. He was like, ‘I don't ever remember you doing that.' He coached me for seven years when I was little. I've never had anything close to doing that.

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