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New Tampa Bay Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach takes pride in game-calling skills

PORT CHARLOTTE — The white cards sit in a box on a shelf in Kelly Shoppach's locker.

He'll talk for a long time about why they're not worth talking about rather than share any details. They're simply notes and thoughts about ways to get out hitters gleaned from his previous three-plus seasons in the majors, just, he insists, part of routine prep for a day's work.

"In order to leave your house, you've got to be prepared," Shoppach said. "I'm not going to go out of my house naked. I'm not going to go out on the field not educated."

The note cards, the intense prep, the relationship-building conversations with the pitchers, the applied thought process are all part of Shoppach's game, and his appeal.

And as much as he insists it's nothing different from what he has always done, it could make a big difference in the performance of the Rays pitchers.

Shoppach's influence has already been obvious, in the quantity and quality of conversations with pitchers. Manager Joe Maddon has been impressed with some of the things Shoppach has said in the dugout between innings and how he has said some things on the mound.

"All of that stuff is pretty much as advertised," Maddon said. "He gets into it. He has strong opinions, and I like that. And they're rooted in him doing his homework. …

"He's going to bring an element to us, in regard to how he studies and how he approaches the pitchers on a daily basis, that I'm kind of liking. And I think the pitchers will react to that favorably, also."

They have so far, even in the supposedly relaxed environment of spring training, Shoppach showing a knowledge of their repertoires ("It didn't feel like the first time I'd thrown to this guy," Grant Balfour said) and a directness in his approach ("He shoots you straight," Randy Choate said).

"He made me do some things I might not normally do (in terms of pitch selection and usage)," veteran reliever Dan Wheeler said. "He challenges you as a pitcher, and he gives you the confidence to go out there and make those pitches."

The Rays set it up for Shoppach to catch all the pitchers early and often in camp to accelerate his familiarity, but his work actually started shortly after the December trade from Cleveland.

He went online to find video clips of Rays pitchers, wanting to watch them work and to see their putaway pitches and whatever else he could pick up. He called baseball operations assistant Erik Neader to get versed in the terminology, color coding and other specifics of the Rays scouting system so he'd be ready to read their advance reports and also to tell them what information, and in what format, he wants provided for each game.

During the season, he'll spend lots of time watching video of hitters and pitchers, talking about game plans, combining the info the Rays have, the pitchers' preferences and his own notes and experiences.

Ultimately, it's all about building trust.

"I have to put my work in to let them know I've done what I needed to do, so they can go out there and relax and let me guide them in the direction on how to attack a team," Shoppach said. "I've never felt like it was really valuable for the pitcher to think, or overthink, too much."

Coaches who were with Shoppach in Cleveland say it's clear how much he cares about his game-calling.

"He's very good, and I think the reason why is that he takes a lot of pride in it," said Derek Shelton, the new Rays and former Indians hitting coach. "He's very diligent with his work; it's something that's ingrained in him."

"He prepares well, he's studious and he's interested, so he's a good game caller," said Chuck Hernandez, the former Rays pitching coach who was the Indians bullpen coach last season. "Of course, he was catching (2008 Cy Young Award winner) Cliff Lee a lot of the time — and I'd tell him that."

The prep work is only part of Shoppach's success. It's also a matter of being savvy, having a feel for the situation and a willingness to adjust.

"I have a scouting report, and I know what I'm supposed to do," Shoppach said. "But you're not sitting back there in that box watching him grit his teeth, squeeze his hands waiting for that heater. … You can't see that extra dig he gets, or the quarter inch he moves his spikes or rotates his heel. So sometimes you're calling the game on what you feel out there on the field."

"It's easy to just follow the reports and do what you're 'supposed' to do; he's not that guy," Hernandez said. "He's got a pretty good feel for adjusting."

Shoppach's philosophy is that he's here to help, and he has to do anything, and everything, he can.

"I do take a lot of pride in calling a game, knowing the pitchers, tricking the hitters at times," Shoppach said.

"Being able to get the best hitters in the league, A-Rod, to look back with two strikes and go, 'I didn't see that coming.' Well, you know, I enjoy that."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

New Tampa Bay Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach takes pride in game-calling skills 03/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 13, 2010 8:35pm]
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