Diligent work paying off for Stallings at camp

July 6th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- The saying goes that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it was not simply months away from baseball that made Pirates manager Derek Shelton develop a greater appreciation for his starting catcher.

While quarantined in his home near St. Petersburg, Shelton watched a bunch of Pirates games from last season. One of the things that impressed him on film even more than it did from the dugout, Shelton said, was ’ work behind the plate.

“Professionalism’s one of the things that really stands out -- his ability to take a game plan from the pitching group and then watch him implement it in terms of conversations with players and then even in games,” Shelton said. “Then the receiving really stands out. I don’t think I got a full appreciation for his receiving during Spring Training.”

Stallings took tremendous strides defensively last year and worked to stay sharp even during his downtime. The 30-year-old felt comfortable with his pitch-framing at the bottom of the zone and around the edges last season, but he described himself as only “about average” at the top of the zone. So he focused on how to handle high pitches in his conversations with Pirates coach Glenn Sherlock and bullpen catcher Jordan Comadena, asking them for input while studying well regarded framers like Yasmani Grandal and Sandy León.

Stallings had to come in ready, too, as he’s one of only three catchers on the Pirates’ Summer Camp roster at PNC Park. Most backstops ease into Spring Training, but Stallings squatted behind the plate three days in a row before his first day off on Saturday. You won’t hear Stallings complain about the workload, though, especially since he prepared this offseason to start a majority of Pittsburgh’s games.

“I feel a lot better than I probably would if we had played a normal season and it was July,” he said.

Stallings said he’s caught Derek Holland, Joe Musgrove and Mitch Keller since camp opened. He also hit against Chad Kuhl, Chris Stratton and JT Brubaker. As Pittsburgh’s only returning catcher from last year, Stallings tries to share information about pitchers with fellow backstops Luke Maile and John Ryan Murphy. He also chatted with pitchers during the shutdown to check in on their throwing programs.

To stay prepared physically, Stallings worked out with a group of Major League players at a high school near his offseason home in Nashville, Tenn. He caught pitchers like Steven Matz and Lance Lynn and worked with hitters like Bryan Reynolds, Adam Duvall and James McCann.

“Just a lot of guys, good big league guys,” Stallings said. “It actually ended up working out that there were days where it would simulate to seven or eight innings of at-bats and innings and catching. I was very lucky in that regard to be able to stay in shape and hit live and catch live. It was really good for me.”

Stallings reported to Pittsburgh along with his wife and two children, and he said he’s become even more mindful when it comes to practicing safe and healthy behavior amid the coronavirus pandemic. The mild-mannered Stallings smacked Reynolds in the chest in the dugout on Saturday, the kind of contact that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow six months ago, then felt obligated to apologize later in the day.

“It’s just little things like that,” Stallings said. “You don’t know if you’re sick. There’s so many people who are sick who are asymptomatic, and I think we have such a good group of guys that we don’t want to pass it to each other. So it’s a different world we live in, and you just have to be careful, and we’re trying to be as careful as we can for sure.”

There are some things Stallings can’t control, however, like his position on the field. In a time of social distancing, he’ll be within close proximity of the home-plate umpire and every opposing batter -- not to mention all of his own teammates in the clubhouse, in the dugout and while traveling. That came up in conversation about a week ago, Stallings said.

“And they asked how I felt about that, and I said, ‘Well, I hadn’t thought about it, but thank you for bringing it to my attention,’” he said, grinning. “But yes, definitely more aware. I like to talk to the opposing hitters, not in-depth conversations, but just, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ and that sort of thing. I’ll probably keep my distance a little more this year. You just don’t know. It’s just such a complex situation.”