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Good preparation helps Tampa Bay Rays backup catcher Shawn Riggans grow into role

PORT CHARLOTTE — Dioner Navarro puts it simply: Shawn Riggans "loves to talk."

Riggans, 28, the Rays' colorful backup catcher, can lighten up the clubhouse by cracking a joke.

But when it comes to taking notes, Riggans is all business. And the notepad Riggans filled with scouting reports last season, a symbol of his improved preparation, is a big reason he's feeling more comfortable in his role than ever.

What Riggans gleaned in between games — in meeting rooms and video sessions — was pivotal in him coming through with key hits and improving his game-calling during his 38 starts in his first full big-league season.

"I want him to really relax a bit and understand: He belongs here now," manager Joe Maddon said. "I think he knows that. He had a lot of big hits for us, he caught really well. The pitchers really liked to throw to him. And furthermore, he's a great guy in the clubhouse. He's got all these wonderful backup catcher qualities, he really does. I don't want to just relegate him to the backup role, but that's what he does for us and he does it well. He accepts his role and knows how to deal with it."

That wasn't always the case. Riggans, who never started a game in high school, got used to being "the guy" in the minor leagues, when he could play every day and stay in synch with his pitching staffs.

But during an injury-plagued 2007, he couldn't find consistency. And with pitchers and hitters changing "from day to day," it was easy to get lost when he went five or so days between starts.

"Before that, I was trying to wing things together, and try to make things up on my own," Riggans said. "Which at this level, nothing is really a secret. Everything is on video. So you should use the resources."

That was Maddon's mandate during last year's spring training: Be prepared. Riggans responded by absorbing information like a sponge, filling pages with tidbits on pitchers. Riggans sought out video coordinator Chris Fernandez, who gave him film clips of specific hitters he could study.

When Navarro played, Riggans often spent some innings in the video room, notepad in hand. Other times, he'd hang out in the bullpen, ask questions, catch pitchers to stay fresh.

"Pitchers change week to week with what they got, how they feel," closer Troy Percival said. "For a backup catcher, you get thrown in there and haven't caught the guy in two weeks. That's why he comes down to the bullpen, sees what we're doing down there. He does a good job of making sure he gets down there and gets a feel for what they're doing."

As Riggans felt more comfortable, Maddon noticed conversations became easier. When Riggans relaxed, he retained.

And Riggans reaped the rewards, with pitchers having a 3.62 ERA with him behind the plate (including three shutouts), including a 2.52 ERA from Matt Garza, who loved the way Riggans stayed so low in his stance.

That's one thing Navarro, an All-Star last season, is trying to learn from his backup. "It's hard for me," Navarro said, grinning. "I'm not as flexible."

The biggest thing Riggans wants to improve is controlling the running game; he threw out just one runner last year in 25 chances. Maddon said Riggans' issue is more mental than physical. He said like hitters who try to overswing, Riggans tried to overthrow. "We just have to get him to back off and actually try easier," Maddon said.

But Navarro said, with Riggans' improvement, his preparation will be easier; he could "bring a smaller notebook this year. He won't have to write as much."

That may be true, but Riggans won't quit what got him here.

"I don't know that many hitters in this league, but now I feel like I'm starting to form a good, brief overview summary of these guys," he said. "It's constantly changing, you can't go by the book. But I think (the notebook) definitely helped me. I know it's helped me."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

Good preparation helps Tampa Bay Rays backup catcher Shawn Riggans grow into role 03/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 1:06am]

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