1 year after nearly retiring, Delay thriving

June 14th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Justice delos Santos’ Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The temperature at first pitch for the first game of the Pirates’ doubleheader on June 14, 2022, at Busch Stadium was 94 degrees. The clouds were sparse, and the humidity was unbearable. These were the conditions in which Jason Delay, adorned in several pounds of black catching paraphernalia that made the conditions even more excruciating, made his Major League debut.

“We got to the seventh inning of that game and, in the back of my mind, I was like, ‘Man, am I going to pass out on this field?’” Delay said. “I wonder if anyone has passed out in their debut.”

Delay didn’t pass out that afternoon. On the one-year anniversary of his first game, Delay, who was days away from retiring, continues to stand tall.

“Everything’s changed,” Delay said. “It’s just crazy because I was so close to walking away from the game of baseball, and now to be approaching the one-year anniversary of getting called up, it’s hard to put into words what has gone on.”

In an alternate universe, Delay might be putting his economics degree to use, his equipment banished to a closet or garage.

By June 2022, Delay was prepared to retire. Delay, rostered with Triple-A Indianapolis, was told he wouldn’t be playing, relegated to bullpen catcher. After weeks of sitting, Delay decided that when Indianapolis traveled to play the Gwinnett Stripers, located near Delay’s hometown, he would accompany the team but not return. His career would be over.

That plan was scrapped when, in mid-June, Delay was called up. Sort of.

When bullpen catcher and coaching assistant Jordan Comadena tested positive for COVID-19, the Pirates called up Delay to join the team in St. Louis on the taxi squad as a bullpen catcher. Same role, different level. But when Duane Underwood Jr. tested positive for COVID-19, too, Delay was right there to join the roster and, on that muggy afternoon, play in his first game.

The Pirates optioned Delay back to Indianapolis immediately following his debut, but Delay’s one-game soirée gave his career a second wind. Retirement could wait.

Retirement is still waiting.

A year in, Delay has a fine resumé for someone who was on the cusp of leaving the game. He’s knocked out several firsts -- first hit, first home run, first caught stealing -- and is approaching his 100th career game. This season, Delay ranks in the 71st percentile of framing and has taken a step forward on offense. He has a .778 OPS across 87 plate appearances, after posting a .536 OPS in 167 plate appearances last season.

“What he sees from a defensive perspective on how to get hitters out is really, really advanced,” Austin Hedges said. “He’s helped me out a ton with it. It’s been incredible to have a counterpart in him that, as much as I’m trying to help him, I’m leaning on him a lot, too. From a teammate perspective, a person perspective, he blows me away every day.”

Delay’s growth extends beyond ability. Delay confessed that he felt a bit of imposter syndrome last season. There were instances when he’d walk into a clubhouse and never truly feel that he belonged, that being there felt too good to be true.

“It’s a lot more common than I think people realize in the big leagues,” Delay said. “Confidence is such a frail thing. It’s such a separator in this game. Anything you can do to push it and harness it and develop it is only going to help you.”

Following his offseason workouts -- Delay spent time at Vanderbilt working alongside catchers such as Sean Murphy, Austin Nola, Jacob Stallings, Curt Casali and Austin Wynns -- Delay read books centered on sports psychology, including “The Confident Mind: A Battle-Tested Guide to Unshakable Performance” by Dr. Nate Zinsser and “Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence” by Gary Mack.

“One of the foundations of sports psychology is that the brain will believe whatever you tell it,” Delay said. “Whether it’s true or not, you tell yourself things enough times and you’ll start to believe yourself. I would write down things like, ‘I’m the best catcher in the world.’ Whether it’s true or not doesn’t really matter. It’s just feeding your brain that positive image.”

Along with his readings, Delay wrote in a “confidence journal,” where he’d “write things that I want to believe about myself, whether they’re true or not.” Delay has journaled off-and-on throughout his career, but especially embraced it this offseason. Delay wrote in that journal that he would experience his first Opening Day this year, an affirmation that came true when he won the Pirates’ backup catcher job out of camp.

“In my mind, I don’t think there was a doubt that I was ever going to make the team,” Delay said. “I don’t think that I was probably the favorite coming in, but I think that’s the way you have to think if you want to be successful in sports.”

If the past year has been any indication, more Opening Days could be in Delay’s future.

“I believe that he’s going to be a starting catcher in this league for a long time,” Hedges said. “He’s good enough to do it already. He has the skillset to do it already. Now, the more experience he gets with catching this year and leading this ballclub, I think it’s going to show up in years to come. What he’s doing right now is setting his career up, starting next year, to be a starting catcher in this league.”

If Delay is to become a starting catcher in this league, the opportunity, in all likelihood, won’t happen in Pittsburgh.

Endy Rodríguez and Henry Davis, the Pirates’ No. 2 and No. 3 prospects, per MLB Pipeline, are on the cusp of the Majors. Pittsburgh’s future, without question, evolves around those two. But Delay’s future with the organization is another problem for another day. Regardless of the uniform he dons, Delay believes he has far more baseball ahead.

“I definitely believe [a long career] is a real possibility for me,” Delay said. “Going back to what I was saying about the mental game, I think if I didn’t think that way, I’d be doing myself a disservice. So, yeah, I fully believe I can have a very long career in the big leagues. Ten years is the gold standard, and everyone wants to get there. I include myself in that. I want 10 years, and I’m going to work to make sure I can stay in this game for as long as I possibly can.”