Catchers are changing ... starting at the top

Originally Published: April 25, 2007
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

It looks so odd, the lowercase "c" next to the name at the top of the lineup in the box score, as in "Kendall c" or "Biggio c" or "Rodriguez c." The leadoff spot is usually for shortstops, second basemen and center fielders: ss, 2b, cf -- all two characters. It's not for slow guys with mangled fingers, guys who wear equipment, the only guys on the field who face the other way.

And yet this year, when a left-handed pitcher faces the Detroit Tigers, left-handed hitting Curtis Granderson, a center fielder, moves to the bottom of the lineup, or out of the lineup, and catcher Pudge Rodriguez hits leadoff.

Jason Kendall
Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesJason Kendall, off to a slow start in 2007, had a .373 OBP hitting in the leadoff spot last season.
"When people think of catchers, they think of Engelberg from 'The Bad News Bears,'" said A's catcher Jason Kendall, who has caught and hit leadoff 444 times in his career. "They think of big bulky guys. Look at me … and [Houston's Brad] Ausmus. We're not big guys. The position has changed."

It has taken a long time for it to change. It is difficult to determine how many catchers have hit leadoff in a major league game, but there haven't been many, especially on a regular basis. Hall of Fame catcher Roger Bresnahan hit leadoff many times for the New York Giants in the early 1900s, but he wasn't a traditional catcher. He began his career as a pitcher, but played the majority of his games early in his career in center field because, at 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, he could really run. Teammate Christy Mathewson convinced Bresnahan to catch full time in 1905, which he did without giving up hitting first in the order.

Bresnahan was 26 when he became a full-time catcher, but the wear and tear was so great on catchers back then, they rarely played 100 games a year. So, in 1907, Bresnahan invented shin guards in an attempt to protect his legs, and his running ability. He also added padding to the catcher's mask to make it more comfortable and protective. He turned the catcher into an everyday player, but he didn't make it a position for leadoff men even though he stole 212 bases in his career, including 25 in 1906 as the primary catcher.

The last 40 years have given us approximately 20 catchers who have hit leadoff, but only Kendall has done it consistently. John Roseboro (1968), Tim McCarver ('60s and '70s), Butch Wynegar (1977) and Brian Downing (late '70s) are among the catchers we found who hit leadoff in a major league game. So did the Orioles' Floyd Rayford, a natural third baseman who was nicknamed "Sugar Bear" because of his chunky build. Not often do you find a slow catcher named Sugar Bear who hits leadoff in a big league game.

The last 20 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, nine catchers have hit leadoff in a major league game: Kendall, Rodriguez, Craig Biggio, Ausmus, Michael Barrett, Don Slaught, Jason Varitek, Paul Lo Duca and Scott Hemond. That list is so short because most catchers don't run very well, most aren't a threat to steal and most are beaten up halfway through the season by the punishment they take behind the plate. Most catchers are done as good hitters in their early 30s because of the toll the position takes on their bodies.

Rodriguez, 35, is a lifetime .304 hitter who batted .300 last year. "He's one of our better runners," says Tigers manager Jim Leyland. Rodriguez says the toughest part of hitting leadoff is the bottom of the first inning of home games.

"As soon as the top of the first is over, you have to run down, take the gear off, grab a bat and run to the plate," he said. "Sometimes you're not ready for the first at-bat because you're running around so much."

That was Biggio's biggest challenge when he caught and hit leadoff 34 times for the Astros in 1989 and 1991. In those 34 starts, he batted .257 with four home runs, 18 RBIs and four steals, then was moved to second base -- a more traditional leadoff position -- in 1992.

Kendall is a more traditional leadoff hitter because he hits for a high average (.301 lifetime entering this season), he puts the ball in play (54 strikeouts last year, never more than 79 in any season) and he can run (159 stolen bases). Hitting leadoff as a catcher hasn't affected him at the plate: In those 444 career starts as catcher hitting leadoff, he has hit .292 with six home runs, 132 RBIs and 45 steals.

"It's pretty cool that I've done something that very few guys in history have ever done. It is also pretty cool that I might get five at-bats in a game instead of four."
-- A's catcher Jason Kendall

"You don't want to throw away that first one [at-bat] because you're rushing to get the gear off, and rushing to get to the plate," he said. "Sometimes you have to smooth-talk the umpire to give you a little extra time."

For road games when he is catching and hitting leadoff, Kendall said he rarely warms up the starting pitcher in the bullpen before the game because it doesn't always give him enough time for his first at-bat in the top of the first inning. Kendall is a veteran who knows his pitchers, so he's not at a disadvantage when he can't catch a pitcher before the game.

"You have to pace yourself to save yourself for a 162-game season," he said. "That's one way."

Kendall has hit all over the lineup for most of his major league career. Recently, he was dropped from leadoff to eighth in the order because he got off to a slow start. The A's have another leadoff hitter in Shannon Stewart, and A's manager Bob Geren likes hitting Nick Swisher second because it means more at-bats for a potential 40-homer guy. Kendall surely will hit leadoff again and, as always, it will be OK. Kendall and Bresnahan are the only catchers ever to hit leadoff in a postseason game.

"It's pretty cool that I've done something that very few guys in history have ever done," Kendall said. "It is also pretty cool that I might get five at-bats in a game instead of four."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Click here to subscribe to The Magazine.

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