Clevenger proving to be worthy backup at backstop
Baltimore native cherishes opportunity to contribute behind Wieters at catcher
BALTIMORE -- The key, of course, in deciding on a backup catcher this spring was who would present the least defensive drop-off behind Gold Glover Matt Wieters. The Orioles made that clear early, and often, in camp, which is why Steve Clevenger -- who loaded his iPad with videos of all of the O's pitchers before he left for the offseason last year -- presented himself as a solid option right away.
The fact that Clevenger, who has a .294/.368/.588 line through seven games, can hold his own offensively as well has been a bright spot as the Orioles lineup has struggled through the first month of the season. A Baltimore native who grew up attending games at Camden Yards, Clevenger is leaving a lot of tickets for friends and family, something he doesn't see slowing down anytime soon. He hopes the same can be said of his performance early in the season.
"When we had the other guys [competing] in spring, we said we don't want the pitchers going, 'Oh, God,'" bench coach John Russell said of the search for Wieters' backup. "You got to prepare like you are catching, and I think that keeps him mentally sharp.
"Steve's got confidence. He doesn't want to be the guy that doesn't really want to throw. He wants to be a good catcher. So, I think the pride factor takes over. And what he wants to do is win. If it calls for throwing a guy out, he's going to do it."
Clevenger arrived in Sarasota, Fla., well prepared given the hours of "homework" he gave himself this winter in watching the Orioles pitchers and becoming more familiar with the staff. He continued to work with Russell, who handles the catchers, on his throwing and becoming less of a guy who pushes the ball. His arm action helped naturally improve his footwork and improve some of the sail Clevenger used to get on his ball.
A converted infielder, Clevenger allowed 45 stolen bases with the Cubs in 2012, throwing out seven for a paltry 13 percent caught stealing percentage. He played a pair of games in the infield for the Cubs last season before he was traded to Baltimore, an organization that was going to use him again as a full-time catcher. Clevenger adopted the idea immediately and, unlike another potential catcher in camp, never tried to present himself as an infield option. There was an opportunity with the Orioles behind Wieters, and the 28-year-old took it and ran.
"Catching was going to be the most important thing," Russell said. "If you could hit, that's a bonus. But I wanted all of them to concentrate on catching. And I think he really took that to heart. From Day 1 of Spring Training, he worked really hard. Asked questions, good questions. You could tell that was his mission. He wanted to be that guy. And he did everything that we asked of him and a little more."
Clevenger has done a much better job behind the plate so far, allowing two stolen bases and throwing out his first runner this season in a pivotal play against Boston that helped squash a rally for the Red Sox. The Orioles went on to win that game, 7-6.
"In Chicago, we didn't really hold runners well," said Clevenger who has benefitted immensely in a place where manager Buck Showalter has preached quicker times to the plate throughout the organization. "And that's why we lost so many games, I believe. Some big runs in situations where it was necessary to hold runs. And the nice thing here behind the plate is I have a chance to throw out guys."
Gone are the days when Wieters' name not being in the lineup card disappointed that day's starting pitcher and the opposing team prepped itself for what looked like a track meet.
"Tell me about it," Russell said of some of the Orioles' recent struggles at backup catcher. "A lot of times when a backup catcher catches, it's a day game, so if you get a little extra spark for a team, that helps. I think he's provided that for us, with a key hit, a nice play behind the plate. He's called a good game. I think that's a bonus for us. He's able to go back there and he helps pick the rest of the team up a little bit. He keeps in tune with what the rest of the pitchers are doing and the pitchers have confidence throwing to him. Again, it's preparation. You got to prepare as a starter, and Stevie has done a good job with that."
Clevenger throws with Russell four or five days a week, focusing on arm action and footwork, to stay on top of things in his limited role. He puts that same preparation into his hitting, although he's quick to point out there's no good way to simulate a 96-mph fastball. There's also no easy way to describe the feeling Clevenger had running down the orange carpet as part of the Opening Day roster, or the chills he gets even on the bench in front of a packed house at Camden Yards. He is reminded "all the time" of what it means to be an Oriole, wearing the uniform he grew up idolizing.
"Like I said when I first got traded over here, it's like a dream come true," he said. "Not many people get to play for their hometown team. So whether you are sitting on the bench or playing every day, you get to take it all in. You take it all in and respect the game. It just makes you want to play harder, playing for your hometown."
Added Showalter: "He understands the opportunity he's getting and he wants to be ready for it. He's alert to what's going on and you can tell, probably most importantly, he really, really has a stake in the Orioles doing well. It's worked out well for us."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.