Mesoraco quietly assuming reins in Cincinnati
Despite pair of DL stints, catcher making big impact with bat and behind plate
Devin Mesoraco is bursting seams -- of baseballs and of dreams.
Long regarded by Reds brass and fans alike as a diamond in the rough, Mesoraco is coming into his own, realizing the visions of potential greatness Cincinnati saw when it took the catcher in the first round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.
The man known affectionately in Cincinnati as "Mez" is quietly establishing himself as one of the offensive and defensive stalwarts of the National League. And right now, he is making Reds general manager Walt Jocketty's decisions look nothing short of prophetic.
Though Jocketty can't lay claim to the actual drafting of Mesoraco -- that honor belongs to his predecessor, Wayne Krivsky -- Jocketty has been instrumental in Mesoraco ascending to the role he has today.
Three times the Reds have taken a chance on the 6-foot-1 Punxsutawney, Pa., native. First, in drafting him out of high school. Second, in the 2011 blockbuster trade that brought Mat Latos to Cincinnati and, more importantly for Mesoraco, sent his main competition to be Ryan Hanigan's long-term replacement, Yasmani Grandal, to San Diego.
And finally, in the December 2013 dealing of Hanigan -- the tried-and-true veteran, the safe bet -- to Tampa Bay.
If the moves make the man, then these are Mesoraco's calling cards, the evidence he can point to when asked about things like job security.
"It meant a lot that they were going to give me the opportunity to play more, and [that] they have the confidence in me that I can go out there and do the job," Mesoraco said. "That obviously spurred some confidence in myself."
That's the part about Mesoraco making dreams come true -- his own, Jocketty's, owner Bob Castellini's and, of course, Joe Fan's.
Then there's the whole busting baseballs thing.
Despite having just completed his first down week of the season, Mesoraco leads the Reds in batting average (.304), slugging percentage (.609) and OPS (.961). But the 25-year-old leads his club in another way, too -- a less tangible but arguably more important way.
Slowly but surely, Mesoraco and Todd Frazier have become franchise faces.
It's a role that Mesoraco is hesitant to assign as his own.
"I don't think [I'm more of a leader than I was before]. I feel I'm the same guy," he said. "You know, day in, day out, no matter what, I go out there and work hard and do the best to help my team and my teammates. That's about it."
But those around Mesoraco are more than happy to single out his success. Brayan Pena, backup backstop, did just that.
"He's doing a great job for us. I think he was very committed from the get-go," Pena said. "Every time I got into a conversation with him in Spring Training he told me, 'Pena, I'm very committed to leading this team to where we wanna go,' and he's doing that. He's doing that, not just offensively, but defensively as well -- calling a good game, blocking baseballs. Our team really appreciates all the things that he does."
As does Mesoraco's manager, Bryan Price.
"We knew that he was ready to kind of take over the lion's share of the playing time behind the plate. We certainly couldn't have anticipated this type of offensive performance," Price said. "We expected more than we've seen, but certainly not to the degree that he's hit at this point. We're really starting to see the type of player we anticipated Devin being, I'm sure when he was drafted, and as he worked his way through the system."
Mesoraco has proven himself in a big way in 2014, despite a pair of stints on the disabled list (once from March 21-April 7 with an oblique injury, and a second time from April 26-May 16 for a left hamstring strain).
Even though he didn't start the season with the club, Mesoraco came in with a bang when he got off the bench a week into April. In 11 games in April, he managed to pack a major punch, going 22-for-47 with a .468 batting average, three homers and 13 RBIs.
And then disaster struck in the form of the aforementioned hamstring strain.
"That was a little tough," Mesoraco admitted. "I was feeling great at the plate. I was feeling like I was going out there and helping the teams get runs. And to get hurt is obviously never fun."
But in true Mesoraco style, he never took his head out of the game.
"I watched all of the games and paid attention as much as I could," he said. "I would say, 'Those are things I do every day anyway.' I was able to maintain like I was still playing by watching. You can learn a lot that way. Be a part of the game. I definitely paid attention a lot to how the pitchers were looking and what they were working on."
Mesoraco wasn't too worried about getting his swing back.
"I felt like whenever I came back, my swing was the same," he said. "I felt fine. It was only a couple of weeks. It wasn't that long of a time that I would have lost anything."
That's because he didn't need to. Any doubts were quickly dispelled when, in his first at-bat off the DL, Mesoraco smashed a three-run dinger off of Philadelphia's Kyle Kendrick.
"He's been one of those guys that's pretty much carried our team every time he's been in the lineup," Pena said of his teammate. "We really appreciate that he's back [from injury] and that he's doing a great job for us."
Mesoraco has evolved considerably the past few seasons as he has taken up the veteran's mantle. He denies feeling extra pressure due to his extended playing time, as well as the notion of any miraculous offseason changes.
"I think that in the role I was in the past, not being out there every day, I kind of felt more pressure because I was only playing so much," he said. "I knew I had to go out there and perform, and then I would put more pressure on myself and then I wouldn't do so well. Being an everyday player, I think makes it a little easier, you know. Those 0-for-4 [days] a couple of games in a row don't last as long as whenever you're only playing a couple of days a week.
"I think the comfort level of being an everyday player and being able to go out there and know if I go 0-for-4, I'll still be in the lineup. That certainly helps. But I think my swing, my mechanics of my swing improved quite a bit. I worked with [hitting coach] Don Long, and we talked a lot during the offseason about what approach we wanted to take in Spring Training. And I knew it was getting close down there. I knew it felt pretty good. And then once the season started, I was ready to go."
"To be honest with you, he was ready," said Pena, whom Mesoraco credits for helping him with pitch calling and sequences. "I think these couple years in the big leagues, he's really learned a lot. He really knows how to study the game film and all the guys, and Devin is doing great. He's one of those guys that's committed to improving his game, and he's willing to learn even more. He's just doing great. He's one of those guys that's not afraid to continue to improve, and we really appreciate him."
That goes double for the guys who serve as Mesoraco's batterymates.
"I think [the pitchers and I already] have had a good relationship in the past," Mesoraco said. "I was able to catch quite a bit the last couple of years. Most of the guys have been around a while, so they're used to me being back there."
That doesn't mean understanding and working with the pitchers isn't an ongoing process.
"It's definitely something that's always improving, something you can always work on, keep going forward with that," Mesoraco said.
That can-do, let's-improve attitude is what makes Mesoraco the success he has become.
"No one has put more pressure on me than myself. Because I expected a lot, and to go out there and produce at the big league level. And early in my career, I hadn't done it. Now that I am playing well, it definitely feels good," he said. "It's such a tough game -- you got to stay strong and know that at some point you are going to be able to go out there and produce."
Produce: that's something the Reds can count on Mesoraco to do, and do well.