Advertisement

Why didn’t Rays get a starting catcher? Because they have Rene Pinto

The improvement he showed from 2022-23 has the team feeling the 27-year-old Venezuelan is a better bet than an outside acquisition.
 
Rays catcher Rene Pinto looks out at the field after a taking a turn hitting ground balls Wednesday at the Rays' spring training complex in Port Charlotte.
Rays catcher Rene Pinto looks out at the field after a taking a turn hitting ground balls Wednesday at the Rays' spring training complex in Port Charlotte. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 14

PORT CHARLOTTE — As the Rays maneuvered through the offseason, shedding several veterans and adding mostly younger talent, the one position they didn’t address was catcher.

While there was speculation they would be in the market for a proven backstop and — from at least a segment of their fan base — frustration that they weren’t, the Rays felt they had their guy all along.

Wednesday, before the first workout of spring training, Rene Pinto stood in front of his locker and said he will show they were right.

“I want to thank the team for this opportunity,” Pinto said. “I’m so excited about it. I’m ready.”

Pinto is 27 but has played only 63 games in the majors. His stats don’t make a very compelling argument — a .235 average, eight homers and a .654 OPS at the plate; four of 32 runners caught stealing, 27 combined passed balls and wild pitches over 466⅓ innings.

But the improvement he made from his 2022 rookie season to last year — statistically, technically, mentally and in other ways — after being called up in late July and eventually moving into the lead role ahead of Francisco Mejia (who was dropped from the roster) and Christian Bethancourt, boosted the Rays’ belief in him.

“We made a difficult decision with (Mejia) last year to open up some opportunity for Rene,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said, “and we love what he did with it.”

Rene Pinto catches a pitch Wednesday at the Rays' spring training complex in Port Charlotte.
Rene Pinto catches a pitch Wednesday at the Rays' spring training complex in Port Charlotte. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Most obvious was his stronger offensive performance.

Pinto had hikes in average (.213 to .252) and OPS (.566 to .723); an improvement in power production that projects to a 25-30-homer pace over a full season; and increases in advanced stats, such as percentages of balls hit on the barrel, that would compare to league leaders. He also ranked among the fastest in pop time, the measure for making throws to bases.

“We’re going to lean heavy on him,” said manager Kevin Cash, a former catcher. “He’s a really good player, a really good catcher. Felt like what he did offensively might not have been appreciated as much as it should have been. The home run output (six over 103 at-bats last season) was impressive. He’s just gaining confidence day by day.”

In the Rays’ way, a catcher’s most valuable contributions are made behind the plate — in what they do and how they do it.

Despite some issues with balls getting away, Pinto earned good reviews from pitchers, who noted the inviting target his big body presents, his knowledge of their repertoires and the connection he makes with them.

Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene

Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter

We’ll send you news and analysis on the Bucs, Lightning, Rays and Florida’s college football teams every day.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“I don’t know what’s out there on the market, but I think we all in this room feel really confident in the way Rene can handle a pitching staff,” veteran reliever Colin Poche said. “As a catcher, that’s pretty high up on the list — handling a pitching staff, calling a good game, stealing strikes, all those things he does really well. The bat is almost extra with a catcher.

“So, really excited to hopefully see him get some extended playing time and see what he can do.”

Rays catcher Rene Pinto celebrates hitting a two-run homer against the Boston Red Sox in September at Tropicana Field.
Rays catcher Rene Pinto celebrates hitting a two-run homer against the Boston Red Sox in September at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Reliever Jason Adam is another fan.

“He’s a great catcher, great teammate,” Adam said. “He’s awesome. He cares. He is so passionate about calling the right pitches. You feel like you’re on the same goal out there. He doesn’t carry over his at-bats to the plate, good or bad.

“He just wants to go back there, and he wants to help you dominate. And when you don’t, he almost takes it personal, like he wants to be better. … He has a reason for every pitch he calls, and you can have dialogue with him about it.”

Pinto, who signed with the Rays in 2013 as a teenager in Venezuela, is quiet by nature. He said his 2023 experience made him more comfortable and confident in all aspects of his game.

That includes something Cash and catching coach Tomas Francisco addressed with him last year and will continue to again— being more assertive with the pitchers.

“He knows he needs to be more vocal, to be the leader that he is, that he was in the minor leagues,” Francisco said. “He’s coming in here, he knows what his role is going to be this year, and I feel like he knows the things he needs to get better at, especially when it comes to leadership.”

Said Cash, “The message is pretty clear — it’s your runway, your path, go make the most of it. We want him to be himself. We want him to be as outgoing as he can be. Don’t change. But we know there’s a lot of confidence to be shown, because we’ve heard about it.

“... We want to see more of that this spring. There was a lot thrown at him last year when we were going into playoff contention, trying to win a division, and he was playing. This should be a big spring for him to get his feet set. And know that he’s the guy to go out there and lead the staff.”

• • •

Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.

Never miss out on the latest with your favorite Tampa Bay sports teams. Follow our coverage on Instagram, X and Facebook.