Every year in the deserts of the American Southwest, baseball’s newest crop of twentysomethings embarks on an odyssey of self-discovery. Some hit the Arizona Fall League hoping to find the next mechanical adjustment that unlocks their swing, others hope to turn the temporary improvements of the previous season into permanence. It’s a sort of alchemy fitting for the arid, sandy landscapes that Paulo Coelho depicted 30 years ago in his famous novel about finding one’s true destiny.
For Mariners prospect Joe DeCarlo, his journey of fulfillment hit a critical fork in the road two seasons ago. In the spring of 2017 the organization decided to convert DeCarlo from a third baseman to a catcher, perhaps one of the hardest positions in all of sports to master. Like any major change in athletics, life, or self-improvement, the transition will take time to reach its desired point. But in speaking to DeCarlo, he’s approaching the move like a slider in the dirt, knowing that focusing on the things in front of him will prevent any panicky looks behind.
“It hasn’t been easy, but I feel like I’ve come a long way,” DeCarlo said in a recent phone interview. “I’ve been able to make some big strides. Right now, I’m at a place where I believe in myself at the position and I know that with some continued hard work and development, I can make it at the position, contribute at that position, and be productive at that position.”
While the Fall League attracts ballplayers of varying rankings, draft slots, and experience, all participants are tied by the common thread of baseball. With a resource pool as vast as the Arizona sky, DeCarlo has been sure to pick as many brains as possible. During our conversation he mentioned that his older brother, a former catcher, has been a valuable wealth of knowledge, as well as Mariner Hall of Famer Dan Wilson.
“The process has consisted of a lot of drills and early work before batting practice. In the offseason last year, we tried to put in as many long hours as possible on technique and form,” DeCarlo shared. “Also, we had conversations about situations and things like that, but nothing beats game experience of course. I’m very fortunate to have the resources that I have. There’s a whole bunch of people who have been very supportive and helped me get better. Just like anything else, it’s tough to do on your own.”
As long as baseball is around, so too will the unavoidable discourse about its perceived slowness and lack of fast-paced action compared to other sports. It is, admittedly, the only sport where players can eat on the field. An outfielder practicing his swing between pitches is not uncommon, neither is a fielder going several hours without touching the ball.
This is not the case for catchers. A catcher’s mental stamina, fortitude, and strength are just as–if not more important–than their physical ones. With the recent shift to such a cerebral position, DeCarlo has understandably faced a steep learning curve in gathering all of catching’s requisite skills.
“The toughest part in the first couple months was blocking stuff. You’re trying to learn how pitches break and move, but once your eyes get used to it, those fundamentals become inherent,” DeCarlo told me before launching into a deeper, nuanced explanation reminiscent of a wily veteran.
“The thing that takes the longest and separates the best catchers from the average guys is the ability to navigate through a baseball game strategically. Knowing what pitch you can call to help a pitcher get out of a long inning, that’s what you feel the best about when it goes well. Doing right by your pitchers is the best feeling and probably takes the most time. That’s the challenge for every catcher. I feel like I’m getting better at it every day.”
In 10 games with the Peoria Javelinas, the 25-year-old DeCarlo is also proving his mettle in the batter’s box. DeCarlo is raking to the tune of a .344/.476/.438 slash line, with nine walks to just seven strikeouts. The defensive conversion is surely dominating the conversation around DeCarlo, but his hitting prowess is undoubtedly drawing additional attention.
Last season with the Arkansas Travelers, in his first season at Double-A, DeCarlo posted his lowest strikeout percentage since rookie ball and improved on his 2017 batting average and slugging percentage (.240 to .246, and .415 to .440, respectively). He says the decreased strikeouts are a product of both pitch identification and pride.
“You want to be a tough out at the plate, you want to swing at good pitches and take the bad ones and make the pitcher work to get you out. It’s about taking pride in battling a pitcher and not striking out. That’s something that I’ve always prided myself on, but to say that I’ve always been good at it isn’t true. I had some seasons [2015 and 2016] where I struck out 100-plus times. I mean, if you’re striking out 100 times a season, it doesn’t really take a coach for you to realize that you need to get better.”
The third baseman-turned-catcher certainly approached the Fall League with that intention to get better, and the early offensive numbers show an immediate payoff. Of course, spending autumn in the Arizona sun comes with its own perks as well.
“The Fall League is a lot of fun,” DeCarlo said. “You get to meet people from other organizations and, what’s cool is, you get to learn everybody and all the paths they took to get here. What will always make playing baseball worthwhile, and fun, and unlike anything else that you’ll ever do or feel in another profession, is the clubhouse. It’s the camaraderie that’s really cool about the Fall League and baseball in general.”
Like every other minor leaguer blazing their trail through Arizona’s outposts, the ultimate goal of reaching the majors drives DeCarlo through each day. With the MLB carrot constantly dangling in front of the cart, motivation is never scarce among the Fall Leaguers.
if this deal goes through as reported, consider it a huge vote of confidence (currently) in converted catcher Joe DeCarlo, who is currently having himself a very nice AFL after a strong season (114 wRC+) at Double-A.— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) November 8, 2018
For now, DeCarlo is focused on taking the whirlwind of information he’s processing and turning it into progress, no matter how big. It’s yet to be determined where he’ll start the 2019 season, but with Mike Zunino’s departure, every DeCarlo frame job, pitch call, and plate appearance drip with extra intrigue.
“I’m 25 now and learning all the time. I’ve learned a lot over the years. Now it’s about taking what I’ve learned, repeating the good things that I do on a baseball field, and doing them as consistently as I can. That’s kind of the goal. As long as you’re able to be consistent, the opportunity is going to be there for you. Whatever happens from there will happen.”