When the Mariners acquired catcher Mike Marjama in trade along with RHP Ryan Garton for promising young infielder Luis Rengifo, LHP Anthony Misiewicz, and cash/a PTBNL, veteran catcher Tuffy Gosewisch was put on waivers (he’s since cleared and returned to Tacoma, causing Steven Baron to be sent to Double-A.). The move surprised some players in the Rainiers clubhouse, where the veteran backstop was much beloved by the young pitching staff. Mike Marjama, a Triple-A All-Star this year for the International League, doesn’t have Gosewisch’s experience, but he is an inexpensive pickup that makes a ton of sense for an organization that will need a backup catcher next year. But in digging into his background, it’s clear that Marjama is more than just a positional fit.
Marjama recently turned 28, so he’s past traditional “prospect” status, but he’s still younger than the 33-year-old Gosewisch, and the bat is a significant upgrade. After spending the first few years of his career in stasis with the Chicago White Sox, where he never advanced past High-A, Marjama was sent to the Rays for, in his words, “a bucket of balls.” Freed from the clutches of the White Sox, Marjama’s bat took off; after posting a wRC+ of 142 in his first year with the Rays, he was promoted to Double-A in 2016, where he posted slightly poorer numbers but finally was able to address his pitiful walk rate, raising it to a respectable 6.2%, or double what he’d put up in both 2014 and 2015. Marjama again improved in 2017 for the Durham Bulls, raising his walk rate again to an almost-average 7.2% while keeping his strikeouts in check (18.2%). He also got his power stroke back in Triple-A, tying his career high of nine home runs before being traded to Seattle after the All-Star Break. For the Rainiers, he’s already picking up where he left off in Durham:
Marjama isn’t a huge dude, but is able to generate a lot of power with a big uppercut swing:
Here he is hitting a monster HR off Lucas Giolito, if you like that sort of thing. In watching some older ABs of Marjama from when he was with the White Sox, it looks to me like, since joining the Rays, he’s got a more compact swing, with the arms closer to the body and not reaching out over the plate so much. He’s also changed his stance some to be more engaged with the plate. There’s also some more loft in his swing, which is borne out by his 37.8% FB rate in Triple-A Durham this year, a career high. Another source of his power might be that he’s gotten fairly pull-happy in Triple-A: 52.6% compared to when he was in Chicago’s system, where he hovered in the low 40s. Marjama credits the hitting coach in Durham, Ozzie Timmons, with helping the cerebral Marjama learn to get out of his own head a little, once handing him a dugout rake to use as a bat. While most of his hits go to the pull side, Marjama can hit to the opposite side of the field, too; he just missed what would have been the walkoff HR in Tacoma’s game on Saturday night:
As for Marjama’s defense at catcher, that’s also a work in progress. He’s not rated highly as a receiver by BP, which gives him a -.8 FRAA for his time in Durham. Occasionally his pickoff throws can be inaccurate (such as in a spring training game this spring, when he twice overthrew second), but he’s a good athlete with plenty of arm strength. The toughest thing for Marjama is that he just doesn’t have a ton of time at the catcher position; after playing infield for his whole baseball career, Marjama began to get a few reps at catcher in Chicago’s system, but with very little consistency—or instruction, it would appear:
“In the White Sox organization, I didn’t know much about catching. We strapped on gear, and we talked about some basic stuff, but I had never caught. I played a lot of first base and DH’ed, but I had never really caught. So with the Rays, my first year, I didn’t catch a lot, I kind of played DH and first. And then Paul Hoover, the catching coordinator there, he divulged the inner secrets to me. Like I never knew that we got rated on receiving, I never knew that we got rated on blocking, pitch framing; I didn’t know any of that stuff. I didn’t know that we got pluses and minuses, and I’m sitting there going, what are you talking about? I thought we just caught the ball and tried to get strikes. So he opened my eyes to the whole science behind it, like, maybe when there’s no one on, try receiving with the knee down. So we started incorporating more techniques into what I had. I had a lot of raw tools, I think I’m an athletic guy, I think I have a good arm, and all these skills play.”
Marjama has done an admirable job so far catching Tacoma’s pitching staff, who range from soft-tossing veterans to young fireballers like Thyago Vieira and Dan Altavilla. Here he is framing up an Altavilla slider for a called strike:
While Marjama’s physical tools as a catcher might need some refinement, his understanding of the mental side of the game is advanced. Marjama values the relationship he has with his pitchers very highly, and prides himself on being great at reading people, understanding whether a pitcher needs an encouraging pat on the shoulder or to have a fire lit beneath him. So how hard was it for him to make his organizational debut on a bullpen day, catching seven different pitchers in a 12-inning game? “A challenge,” he admits with a smile. “But for the next few weeks, I think it’s less about individual numbers for me, and more about how I can learn these guys, get to know what their tendencies are, what they need to do.”
“Something I was kind of blessed with the Rays is for the past three years we’ve kind of had the same team through High-A, Double-A, Triple-A, so I got to know everyone, the continuity was better, I was able to take little ticks from what guys would do—maybe a mannerism or something—and I could kind of tell what was going on. So right now, individual numbers don’t matter. It’s all about trying to help the team win and getting honed in, getting on the same page with the pitching staff.”
Those “little ticks” Marjama mentions are honed not necessarily through years of catching experience, but from experience drawn from the classroom. “In the offseason I do some substitute teaching and you see it with the kids; some kids don’t respond well to an assertive tone, and some kids need that, it’s just on an individual basis.” Just as the best teachers are primarily focused on the needs of the students they serve, so too does Marjama understand that a good catcher must constantly be dialed in to what his pitcher needs. “I think it’s just about caring, and caring about your team, and caring about the guys, and first and foremost being a good teammate, and thinking about what these guys need. If it means I have to go out of my way to make sure these guys get what they need, that’s what I’m going to do. Of all the qualities a great catcher has to have, selfish isn’t one of them.”
The other place Marjama developed his mental skillset was at Sacramento City College, under future Mariners mental skills coach and farm director Andy McKay. Marjama wasn’t highly recruited out of high school—“not even JUCOs wanted me,” he says with a rueful smile. A combination of Marjama’s desire for perfection and an obsession with making weight for wrestling led to him losing his junior season to a battle with anorexia, and despite returning for a strong senior season, Division I recruiters passed over the slightly-built infielder. Being overlooked by bigger programs might have been a blessing in disguise, however, as it led to a relationship that still impacts Marjama’s life today:
I owe Andy McKay a lot, probably the most out of anybody. There were schools interested in me, and one told me I could be their starting shortstop. So I went into Andy McKay’s office and he said, “yeah, we’d love to have you.” And that was it. And I remember I said, “I just don’t know if I’m going to play here.” And he basically said, “do you want to play pro ball?” And I was like, “yeah, of course, who doesn’t?” And he goes, “Well, if you’re too scared to play at my school, I don’t want you to come here. Because if you don’t think you can play at a junior college, how do you think you’re going to play in pro ball?” And that’s just the way he is. I remember leaving his office thinking who the heck does this guy think he is? But after I thought about it, I was like, okay, he has a point. And once I got into working with him, the mental side, he took all of us under his wing. When I was out here for the All-Star Game a guy that I played in junior college with drove three hours just to see me and all he talked about was Andy.
Marjama was able to parlay his success at SCC into a role on LBSU’s baseball team, and was eventually drafted in the 23rd round in 2011—a long way from the career in health care he’d once envisioned for himself, while playing a little baseball on the side. Instead, he finds himself in a strong position to be Seattle’s backup catcher next season. And for that, he’s thankful to Andy McKay. “The things he’s done in this organization so far are really eye-opening. Great coach, tremendous motivator, but an even better person. Being under his tutelage for those three years and especially in those Northwoods League, that really changed my career.”