Before Jordan Newton was promoted to Lakeland the Flying Tigers catchers were, to put it mildly, struggling at the plate. Jeff Kunkel and Adrian Casanova were both under the Mendoza line and providing little power. When Jeff Kunkel was promoted to Erie it opened the door for Newton.
"I knew coming in [to this season] that I had a shot to move up" After struggling for the better part of the 2008 season in West Michigan, Newton went on a tear to start the 2009 season. With a .386 average and 1.188 OPS Newton was the obvious choice to get the call.
He rose to the occasion. In his first game in Lakeland he batted third in a struggling lineup and went 2-for-4. In his first 74 at-bats in the Florida State League Newton is fourth in average and fourth in OPS for starting catchers. Not to mention first in slugging and second in average for the Flying Tigers.
When Newton makes contact good things happen. Half of Newton's hits have gone for extra bases. The extra base hits come to no surprise since last season he hit ten triples in the Midwest League. "I just try to drive it to the middle of the field, nothing really special, [I] just have to stick to the same approach."
The difference is Newton's innate ability to get the extra base. Turning singles into doubles and doubles into triples with great regularity is Newton's trademark. Considering the majority of catchers are station to station base runners it catches opponents on their heels when he breaks for the extra base.
"A lot of times catchers aren't really fast or athletic, but I guess I'm trying to change the mold."
The approach has worked so far. His work in the offseason has helped get him prepared to take the next step. "I just wanted to go into this season fresh and feeling healthy." Like almost every athlete Newton was also looking to get more explosive. So he started training with Erie first baseman Ryan Strieby.
Health was the key entering this season. Newton has been healing from a hamstring injury that finally feels like it has fully recovered. To help get their arms and legs in shape Strieby and Newton would do football drill and run routes. Both have reaped the rewards this season.
Offensive catchers are a rarity at any level in baseball. Since the main responsibilities are behind the plate. "It's pretty tough to think about hitting when you're catching, every pitch you have to be thinking about what to throw." That is why, historically, catchers have been one of the least productive bats in the everyday lineup. Gary Carter's career numbers of a .262 average, .774 OPS and 324 homeruns were Hall of Fame worthy since they came behind the plate.
Catchers do have a minor advantage when it comes to the batters box. When most players go into a slump they can take it to the field. "The most important thing for a catcher is behind the plate. Being able to handle the staff well. It's a little bit easier to let your at bats go." Any advantage helps when you're enduring the physical pain of catching.
Newton has had a recent battle with the taxing nature of catching. During the continuation of the first game in the series against Jupiter Newton took a ball off his throwing hand. He played through the pain but had to be scratched for Wednesday's game when it started swelling during batting practice. He had to forfeit his hacks in the cage for time in the training room, but of course he went out for defensive drills after batting practice. It's all part of being a catcher.
Taking the bumps and bruises both physically and mentally is part of the maturation process that a prospect has to go through. Newton's maturity is starting to become an asset for him. "Experience has helped a lot and just learning not to get too high or too low each day. You can't strike out three times and think you're the worst player or hit two home runs and think you're the best." The even keel mentality Newton has helps through the marathon that is the baseball season.
Being able to follow coach's instructions is also part of the progression for a prospect. It doesn't matter which pitcher you talk to, they all follow Joe Coleman's philosophy. Newton has become an extension of Coleman, "Just trying to get your pitchers through with the least amount of pitches that you can. Not worrying about getting strikeouts just pitching to contact."
Trying to be as efficient as possible has been the mantra of the Flying Tigers pitching staff all season. Missing bats is great, but secondary. Trying to get the starting pitchers as deep as possible into games is the focus.
There is still work to be done. Currently Newton is throwing out just 19 percent of base runners and has allowed four pass balls so far this season. That's part of what Newton has to work on to get to the next level. "Just trying to come in every day and be as consistent as I can be, defensively and offensively. What separates the guys up there [in MLB] from us."
The grueling work of a catcher is never finished. Between working with pitchers, pitching coaches, taking swings at batting practice, mending wounds and calling games, catchers always have a full plate. If Newton can balance it all, the pain will be worth it in the end.