NEW YORK — Amid their slew of disappointments, the Rays have had a few success stories this season.
Certainly James Shields. Casey Kotchman. Ben Zobrist. Kyle Farnsworth.
And Kelly Shoppach.
Shoppach? The same guy whose batting average is so low — .183 — he admits he has stopped looking up at the video board before each at-bat?
Well, yes. Not for his work at the plate, obviously. But behind it, where his preparation, game-calling and defensive maneuvering have helped make the Rays pitchers the success they are, and where his percent rate for throwing out basestealers — 43.7 (14-of-32) — is the best in the majors.
"What Kelly's done defensively this year has benefitted us in so many ways," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "People talk about our pitching a lot but don't tend to take it to the next level, which is to give Kelly a lot of the credit that he deserves."
"Obviously the offense is what's holding him back from the true recognition," manager Joe Maddon said. "But if you just wanted to go out and rate him as a defender right now, he rates very highly. … Shop, this year as a catcher, is among the best."
Shoppach is 31 and in his sixth season, so he has been around enough to understand what's most important, which is to do anything and everything he can to help the pitchers, not only with what they throw but how they think.
"It's not just satisfaction, that's my job," he said. "It's my job to make sure that I'm doing everything I can to help the pitchers succeed, first and foremost. And when that is your job, then your offense is a bonus."
He's quick to add the obvious addendum, that of course he'd like to do more with the bat. (In addition to the obvious benefit, it would also help him in free agency in the winter, with the Rays not expected to pick up his $3.2 million option.)
But he has grown to understand what he can and can't do, which is what keeps him from being drawn down by his numbers, which include seven homers but just 18 RBIs and a .583 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). His .183 average is in the bottom 10 of all players with 150 at-bats, he's hitting just .129 against right-handers, and his 63 strikeouts in 198 plate appearances divides out to be among the highest ratios (3.14 SO/PA) in the majors.
"It's just not where I am," Shoppach said. "There once was a time that would just defeat me when I was younger. But that's not where I am anymore. I understand that me going to the plate, having a plan and staying with that plan and approach is all I can do."
So he works on his offense, but he focuses on his defense. And there are reasons he has gotten better, specifically his throwing, after catching only 17.1 percent of runners last season: His shoulder isn't as sore; his right knee, after two surgeries in three seasons, is strong enough to provide a solid base; his motion and footwork improved with some help from bullpen coach Bobby Ramos.
"I've always hung my hat on what I've done behind the plate," Shoppach said, "and I'll continue to do that until I die."
For all the Texas bravado Shoppach usually spews, he acknowledges this is an uncertain time. He isn't ready to retire and move on to his planned next career as a high school football coach, but he knows his job prospects, heading into free agency for the first time, are uncertain: "It's definitely a nerve-wracking time."
His interest in staying with the Rays — obviously for less than his option — is another sign of his grasp of the situation. Because for all the nice things the Rays pitchers say about him — "He does a phenomenal job," Shields said — Shoppach knows whatever success he has had is clearly the mutual result of working with the talented staff.
"These guys," Shoppach said, "make me look like a genius."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.