Rays expecting catcher Navarro to improve his game-calling

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are relatively pleased with the numbers Dioner Navarro has put up.

His production increased greatly in the second half last season (from .177, one homer and 13 RBIs to .285/8/31), he finished above average in throwing out runners (25.3 percent, 12th best in the majors) and he improved his fitness with an offseason of steady workouts (weighing in at a firmer 215, dropping about 10 pounds).

But as Navarro, 24, enters his second full season as the Rays' starting catcher, what will be most important to his future, and the team's success, will be the numbers he puts down.

"He's young, he needs big-league time and he needs to get confident with his game-calling ability," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's becoming pretty accomplished physically. Now we just have to really have him become more accomplished in regard to the whole mind-set of being a major-league catcher."

The most obvious signs are the ones he gives before each pitch.

A catcher must know the strengths of each pitcher, the weaknesses of each hitter and the strategies of every situation, and he has to be convincing in conveying it. The learning process with Navarro is ongoing.

"We had our struggles when he first was traded over here" in June 2006, starter James Shields said. "He struggled a little bit as far as getting on the same page as us. The most important thing for a catcher is getting on the same page as the pitchers. I think last year we jelled pretty well. He learned a lot more, and the more he catches us, the more he's going to learn about us, and the more we're going to talk."

Communication is key. Maddon has the pitchers and catchers literally sit in the grass and talk during the early days of spring training, and the conversations continue into the season as part of their daily pregame preparation.

Navarro has been working hard to win his pitchers' faith.

"I just want to show them they can trust me," he said. "Trust is the No. 1 thing in baseball. I want them to trust me so they can throw any pitch in any count and the ball isn't going to get behind me, and that when I put a finger down they trust that the guy knows what he's doing."

Maddon, a former catcher, expects even more, especially since he wants the game called on the field and not from the dugout.

"It speaks to the presence — how you present yourself to the entire team, and to your pitching staff," he said. "And it is your pitching staff. The quarterback takes care of his receivers, the catcher has to take care of his pitchers. I've often talked about the building of relationships; there's none greater on a baseball field than that between the catcher and the pitcher. The energy involved on every decision made there is incredible. &

"I thought he made great strides last year, but he's not a finished product yet. And he'll be the first one to tell you that.''

Navarro, who has endured a series of off-field family medical dramas, said he continues to work at learning the pitchers, and the best way to work with each.

"I'm so ready to go," he said, "and prove that I can do it."

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

.FAST FACTS

Catching on

Measuring what kind of a job a catcher does behind the plate can be difficult. One method is Catchers ERA, which is how the pitchers did with a particular partner. Here are the Rays' 2007 breakdowns:

CatcherERAInnings

Raul Casanova6.99168.2

Dioner Navarro5.50956.1

Josh Paul4.89277.2

Shawn Riggans4.3327

Overall5.531429.2

Source: Stats Inc.

Rays expecting catcher Navarro to improve his game-calling 03/19/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2008 3:28pm]

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