Bench coach Hoover already resonating with Royals catchers

February 17th, 2023

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- When Pedro Grifol left to manage the White Sox this offseason, the Royals were excited for their longtime coach and catching instructor to get his next opportunity.

But it also meant there was a large and invaluable gap to be filled; Grifol was respected and well-liked around the Royals organization and helped catchers constantly, including Salvador Perez.

Luckily for Kansas City, its new manager had a name to consider.

“When Kevin [Cash] and Eric [Neander] in Tampa said, ‘Hey, we’ll let you bring somebody if you’re interested,’ [Paul Hoover] was an obvious choice for me,” Royals manager Matt Quatraro said Friday. “That was something they did not have to do that they allowed me to do, so I was super appreciative of that. The importance of it has been immense.”

Quatraro brought Hoover with him from the Rays to be his new bench coach and catching instructor, and Hoover hit the ground running this spring.

“It’s been challenging. Trying to learn people, players, the staff, the front office, the complex and trying to figure out the optimal practice setting or schedule and get the best out of players,” Hoover said. “It’s been a huge challenge but super gratifying, as well.”

Quatraro and Hoover have known each other since the late 1990s, when they were drafted a year apart by the Rays. Quatraro was drafted in ’96 as a catcher, Hoover in ’97 as a shortstop. Hoover was quickly converted to catcher, and the two played and roomed together throughout the Minor Leagues.

Paul Hoover works with Brett Phillips before Game 5 of the 2020 World Series (Getty Images)

Quatraro’s playing career ended in the early 2000s, while Hoover’s extended into 2011, but the two kept in contact. They were reunited in ‘12, when Hoover managed the Gulf Coast League Rays and Quatraro was the Minor League hitting coordinator. For the next six years, Hoover was the organization’s Minor League catching coordinator.

Over the last four years, they were on Cash’s staff with Tampa Bay -- Quatraro as the bench coach and Hoover as the Major League field coordinator.

“There’s no one that’s more detail-oriented and aware of things going on around him,” Quatraro said. “Somebody that doesn’t miss a beat of anything. Which is helpful in this situation because there’s a lot going on with me as a first-time manager.”

The Royals were impressed with Hoover’s background and the things he focuses on to improve a catcher’s skills. There has been so much talk about improving the Royals’ pitching staff, and the catchers are part of that conversation; they want to improve, too. Discussion has revolved mainly around catchers’ setups.

“Where are they on the plate, their distance in relation to the hitter, how far back they are, some of those real simple things that are very correctable seem to be at the forefront of what [Hoover’s] looking for,” general manager J.J. Picollo said. “We’re not trying to turn balls into strikes. We’re trying to make sure strikes are called strikes.”

The overarching theme to the Royals’ Spring Training so far is for their pitchers to fill up the strike zone as much as they can. Baseball America recently looked at a simple way the Rays help pitchers improve control by having their catchers set their target in the strike zone rather than on the corners. Catchers are trying to set their pitchers up for success by targeting the middle of the plate and letting the pitch movement work.

Hoover confirmed the theory.

“It’s something we’ve seen work in Tampa, power arms throwing to the bigger areas instead of moving to the corners and smaller areas,” Hoover said. “When they miss, they’re still missing in the strike zone. We see similar pitchers over here that have power, that have stuff, but maybe not the best accuracy and pinpoint control.

“If we give them the whole plate, instead of corners, they’re more apt to throw strikes. That’s something that we need to help the pitchers do in this organization is fill up the zone and try to get ahead of hitters.”

The catchers are all in on Hoover’s and the pitching team’s methods. That includes Perez -- who has five Gold Gloves and 12 years in the big leagues but is “still learning,” he said earlier this week -- and Royals’ younger catchers in MJ Melendez and Freddie Fermin.

Hoover’s work has resonated already.

“We’re working together with the pitchers, throwing a lot of strikes and throwing them early in the count,” said Melendez, who has also worked with Hoover on quieting his movements behind the plate to be less sporadic. “Getting ahead and putting the pressure on the hitter, rather than us always being on the defensive side. We need to go out there and establish that zone early for us and put the hitter on their heels.”