Catcher Hanigan a valuable piece of Reds' puzzle
Is catcher the most underappreciated position in baseball?
Veteran backstop Ryan Hanigan ought to know the answer to that question.
"I think the people that know the game have a lot of respect for catchers, because they realize the responsibility," Hanigan said. "It's a lot of work that the catcher has to put in. It's definitely a selfless position. You gotta concentrate on getting the pitchers to do what they should be doing and try to bring the best out of them. That's a big part of the catcher's job.
"Besides that, you have to control the game on the field in terms of the tempo and what's happening, and make sure your guys are ready to go and the energy's right.
"I think overall people have great respect for the catchers, because they understand it's a demanding position. I don't think people understand what it takes to be a catcher, necessarily, but a lot of people respect it."
Part of what makes the job so tough is the physical wear and tear. Hanigan has established a routine to minimize the stress on his body.
"Pregame, I do a lot of stretching. I get in the hot tub, I get stretched. I make sure I am completely loose before I do anything," Hanigan said of his routine.
"After the game, it's real important [to recover]. When the game's over, you're pretty tired and you don't necessarily want to do anything after the game, but you have to put in your 20-30 minutes of recovery stuff. It's a lot of stretching and massage, hydration with different types of products to get your electrolytes back and get your body going. A lot of times I get in the cold tub, which is obviously no fun. But you get in there in ice water and it really helps get the lactic acid out of your body, and it helps your body recover."
Experience, he believes, also plays a crucial role in knowing how to take care of your body.
"As I've gotten older, I've started to realize how to conserve my energy in different times of the game where you can kind of try to relax and not spend energy when it's not necessary," Hanigan said. "Of course, the heat is a huge factor, especially here in Cincinnati. It gets hot, because it's an outdoor stadium. So conditioning before the game and after the game is a huge part of my routine, because I need to concentrate on keeping my body right to go every day."
The Washington, D.C., native called the baseball season "a physical grind."
"A lot of times you might not feel great -- something's hurting or you might not be hitting the ball very well, but you can't let that affect your defense and your work with the pitcher," Hanigan said. "Just the mental toughness and being able to separate offense and defense and the physical grind of the season is the toughest thing.
"I'm sure any catcher will tell you the same thing. There's no other position that you are working so hard for each pitch. A lot of guys are out there, but they're not squatting or working to block balls. You've got to understand what you're getting into. You've got to train for it, and it's going to be hard and there are going to be bumps in the road. As I've gotten older, I can handle that mentally a lot more, I can understand the ups and downs."
But one of the biggest challenges for a catcher might just come off the field. Right now, there are 20 pitchers on the Reds' 40-man roster. Hanigan is responsible for being able to catch every one of them. That means knowing the nuances of each guy's game. And that means Hanigan can't be shy.
"Everybody is different, everybody has a different personality," Hanigan said of the pitching staff. "Everybody has different things that push them to get better. ... Some guys need a little bit more tough love. Some guys need a little more encouragement. Some guys need specific mechanical suggestions. Some guys just need to relax. I try to have a good relationship with all of the guys. It's real important, so I know what buttons to push when they need it."
And out of those 20 pitchers, there were seven Hanigan hadn't worked with before this season. Many were September callups.
"The younger guys are not sure exactly what works," Hanigan said. "They know what pitches they have, and I know what they can do, but they're not always sure how to go about using them ... what the right sequence is, what parts of the game to do what.
"So there's a lot more involved in terms of them leaning on me, which is what they should do. They're smart about not shaking me off very often, and if I have an issue with a pitch, I make sure I talk to them before the pitch is thrown."
Also unique to the catching position is working with a handful of pitchers in every game.
"Each guy has a different set of pitches and style. You've got to work with his strengths and be on the same page in terms of what they're going to throw, the rhythm, the tempo they want to get into," Hanigan explained. "It's part of the game, part of what I do. I get a good feel for the guys, how fast they want to work, what pitches to call [and] when. It's something that, if you develop a relationship with the guys, it's easy to do."
That means the 32-year-old must be mentally focused at all times.
"Most of the time, I'm more mentally tired than physically," Hanigan admitted. "Obviously, it's a physical position, but you've got to put in a lot of focus. A lot of times, the game can come down to two or three pitches, really, in terms of who wins or loses. You try to make the smartest decision you can, but obviously it's about the pitcher executing the pitch. But if you can make the smartest decision you can and the most informed decision, you're going to have a better chance of having a good outcome."
On some clubs, the manager calls the pitches from the dugout. But for the Reds, Hanigan calls every pitch.
"If the pitcher wants to throw a different pitch and I agree with him, I'll let him do it," Hanigan said. "If not, I'll have to go out and talk to him about it. For the most part, the guys lean on me and we try to get into a rhythm. I think they have a lot confidence in me. I put in enough preparation. I know the guys and what I want to do, so it really hasn't been a problem."
Everyone wants to know: What does a catcher say to a pitcher in a meeting on the mound?
"I'll tell them whatever I think I need to tell them at the time," Hanigan said, "anything from, 'You've been making a lot of pitches and it looks like we need to take a second to take a break,' to something mechanical, to something about a specific pitch he wants to throw, what we're trying to do to get the guy out, baserunning, whatever is going on on the bases. It's basically about being on the same page in every facet of the game so you can make a smart decision."
When it comes to the undisputed success of the pitching staff (Cincinnati's 89-59 record and 3.42 ERA is second only to Washington in the National League), the man known as "Hanny" sounds like a proud father -- and rightfully so.
"The guys have worked hard," Hanigan said. "I think our team has a great chemistry. The guys pull for each other, guys push each other. No one wants to be the weak link.
"I think, for the most part, we have a lot of talent. Guys have worked hard to get the most out of their talent. I've been able to get in a good rhythm with a lot of these pitchers and to get on the same page. Keeping the guys' confidence up is huge.
"We expect to win games. Guys expect to do their jobs and do them to a high level to be successful. Combine that with a little luck and some talent and things have worked out so far."
The Reds are owners of an 11-game lead over second-place St. Louis in the NL Central, and with a magic number of four, they are virtually guaranteed a playoff spot.
Hanigan will be right there with them, savoring every second of it.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.