To Catch and Catch Not

Bullpen catchers like Rob Flippo are underrated contributors to a team. (via D. Benjamin Miller)

It was around 20 years ago when I noticed a guy in a uniform with a high number lumbering toward the Rangers’ bullpen with catching equipment in his arms. I saw his number listed in the scorecard. His name sounded familiar but I couldn’t place it. A few days later, searching through my baseball card archives, I had a positive ID. He had been a catcher for the Oklahoma City Red Hawks, the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate. Now he was in the big leagues, though he wouldn’t get in a game.

The rise of the bullpen catcher dates back to the 1980s. The main impetus was the disappearance of the third-string catcher due to an increasing number of pitchers on the 25-man roster. Typically, the third-string catcher was rarely called upon to play, but with the second catcher in the bullpen, two pitchers could warm up simultaneously. But if there’s no third-string catcher, what to do?

Well, you could tap into Walter Mittyism. Imaging turning to the Bleacher Creatures in Yankee Stadium and asking for a volunteer to warm up Aroldis Chapman. I’m sure there would be plenty of volunteers; I’m equally sure there would be plenty of injuries.

Instead, how about a former catcher re-donning the tools of ignorance and warming up a pitcher? He is indeed in uniform, can hang out in the dugout and the bullpen, participate in pre-game practice, and indulge in authentic major league baseball tomfoolery…I mean, camaraderie. Just one catch: He is not on the 25- or 40-man rosters. If he’s really lucky, he might get to play in an exhibition game, but he will never play in a regular season game.

Even given the extravagant budgets of contemporary big league franchises, the advent of the bullpen catcher represents considerable savings. According to the Career Trend web site, the pay for a bullpen catcher runs from $30,000 to $60,000. No need to waste a precious, expensive roster spot (the current major league minimum is $555,000 per year) on a third-string catcher who will appear only rarely in games. Of course, this same philosophy is evident in other fields. Sometimes you can get by just fine with a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner. A more highly-compensated M.D. is not always necessary.

The pay range for bullpen catchers may not be impressive, but they have the offseason to supplement their incomes, so it is still possible to live a middle-class lifestyle. For example, Twins bullpen catcher Nate Dammann, who majored in secondary education at Hamline University (where he also played baseball and football), has worked as a substitute teacher. In more recent years, he has assisted minor league coaches during the Florida Instructional League and has coached minor league players at the Twins Academy in the Dominican Republic. He first learned about the opening for a bullpen catcher when he attended a camp run by former Twins outfielder (and current broadcaster) Dan Gladden. Dammann is in his 12th season with the Twins.

Of course, as a bullpen catcher, you get to stay at first-class hotels and get meal money ($100.50 a day in 2015). If you’re strapped for cash, it shouldn’t be too hard to eat on a budget and pocket the difference. Plus, there is always the possibility of sharing in postseason income. In that regard, a successful postseason can greatly enhance a bullpen catcher’s income, as was the case with World Series shares in ye olden days of modest player salaries. “It’s potentially life-changing money,” noted Rob Flippo, former Dodgers bullpen catcher.

And there are the intangibles. Former Braves bullpen catcher Alan Butts recalls standing on the foul line for the pre-game introductions and hearing legendary Yankees PA announcer Bob Sheppard call his name before the third game of the 1999 World Series. At the 2000 All-Star Game in Atlanta, he pitched to Ken Griffey Jr. during the Home Run Derby. Sounds like one of those old MasterCard card “priceless” commercials.

In the two decades since I first noticed the Rangers’ bullpen catcher, the job has become pretty much standard in the majors. Only the Angels, White Sox, Nationals and Marlins do not formally list a bullpen catcher on the roster among their coaches.

If you read between the lines of a coach’s job description, however, you can see that he may also be a bullpen catcher. Case in point: the aforementioned Rob Flippo, who is now listed as a “bullpen coordinator” for the Marlins. He spent 16 years as the bullpen catcher for the Dodgers. I have to believe that when it comes time to warm up a pitcher in the Marlins bullpen, he will be the go-to guy.

While one might think catching experience at some level is a must, there are exceptions. One was Aron Amundson, former bullpen catcher for the Twins, who never caught but played first base, third base, pitcher and designated hitter during his college career.

At the other extreme there’s Henry Blanco–a former big league catcher–who served as an assistant coach/bullpen catcher for the Diamondbacks in 2014. He now serves as bullpen coach for the Nationals.  This job usually falls to a former pitcher, so one suspects that Blanco, a 16-year major league veteran (he played for 11 teams), brings a lot of savvy to the bullpen. Also, he can serve as a translator, which is more and more important as the game becomes more and more international. He is over-qualified for the role of bullpen catcher, but I have to believe if you study the Nats’ bullpen this year, you will see him warming up pitchers. The same is true of 15-year veteran Jose Molina, officially listed as a “catching coach” with the Angels.

Of course, the name “bullpen catcher” is a job description in itself, but warming up pitchers in the bullpen is just the core of the job duties. Having a spring training number (i.e., a high number) is an unwritten part of the job description. Swinging the bat, of course, is not, though some bullpen catchers may hit grounders or pop flies during infield practice. Staying busy is one of the unwritten rules of being a bullpen catcher. Don’t want management people to see you playing thumbnail hockey with your iPhone lest they wonder if they really need you.

Typically, the bullpen catcher has served as a catcher in college and/or minor league ball, sometimes not beyond the low minors, other times indy ball, and sometimes as high as Triple-A. Bill Artz, former bullpen catcher for the Phillies, played in the Pendel amateur league after graduating from LaSalle College in Philadelphia.

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Like Blanco, a few bullpen catchers have major league experience, though you’ll never see the likes of Johnny Bench or Carlton Fisk toiling away in the bullpen. Mark Salas, a veteran of eight major league seasons (1984-1991), was working for the White Sox as a bullpen catcher as recently as last season. Naturally, he brought a lot of street cred to the job. “I’m the bullpen babysitter,” he observed. “You’re a father figure out there.”

Aside from a catching background, bullpen catchers share a number of other characteristics. Notably, a number are what would be termed organizational players. In other words, they have a long history of minor league ball with one franchise. Perhaps they were never serious prospects, but they proved their worth at the minor league level. Management takes note and often finds a place in the organization for such players.

Consider the case of Jose Yepez of the Braves. Originally signed by Seattle, he spent 15 years (2001-2015) in the minor leagues, including four at Gwinnett, the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate. In 2011 he was called up to the Mariners for a few days but was returned to the minors without appearing in a game. He never made it back to the major leagues until he became a bullpen catcher. In the offseason, he serves as the general manager for the Cardenales de Lara in the Venezuelan Winter League. Obviously, he brings more skills to the table than warming up pitchers.

While having a background as a player is mandatory, a post-college baseball career is not. Consider Dave Racaniello of the Mets, now in his 18th season as a bullpen catcher. His bio shows no professional experience, only high school and college ball (he was a battery-mate of Erik Bedard’s at Norwalk Community College when that team won the NJCAA Division III Baseball World Series). His introduction to the Mets’ bullpen was right out of a Hollywood movie script.

A 19-year-old college catcher, Racaniello was introduced to manager Bobby Valentine, a friend of his father’s, before a game in 1997. As fate would have it, the Mets’ bullpen catcher couldn’t make it that day, so Valentine enlisted Racaneillo to take over in the bullpen. Racaniello filled in periodically during the rest of the season, and when the job opened up full-time in 2001, he took it and never looked back. He has been such a fixture with the team that he even had a jersey with his name on it in the team shop at CitiField.

This brings up another perk of being a bullpen catcher. When it comes to staying in shape, one could certainly do worse. It’s certainly preferable to working as a keyboard jockey in a cubicle.

Racaniello also pitches batting practice, another of those duties that sometimes falls to bullpen catchers. After all, batting practice is when pitchers are shagging flies in the outfield, so no bullpen catcher is needed. Again, make yourself useful at all times; the GM might be watching.

Racaniello now shares bullpen catching with Eric Langill (now in his eighth full season with the Mets), whose pro career in the Dodgers system took him as high as Triple-A Las Vegas. The two-catcher bullpen is not standard yet, but some teams have gone that direction.

Racaneillo has become something of a legend even though he has never appeared in a game. For one thing, he set the record for most cheesesteaks consumed (14) in the Phillies’ visiting clubhouse (a record previously held by Dmitri Young). Ironically, he is a fitness buff, having climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2012 (with R.A. Dickey and Kevin Slowey) and participated in a couple of New York City marathons. In 2010, he biked from New York to Port St. Lucie, Florida for spring training.

Speaking of legendary feats of consumption, Jeff Motuzas, former bullpen catcher with the Diamondbacks (this year former major league catcher Humberto Quintero is sharing duties with Dan Butler), achieved fame (or notoriety) for his willingness to eat anything for a price. Reliever Sam Demel once said of Motuzas, “Tooz will eat anything except poop, urine and vomit. No, wait–I’m sorry. He will eat vomit.”

A better role model is the Giants’ Taira Uematsu, now in his 11th season as a bullpen catcher. He also serves as a medical assistant. He played no baseball after high school, but he worked as a bullpen catcher/batting practice pitcher/student trainer while pursuing an undergraduate degree in kinesiology at Southern Illinois University. He interned as a bullpen catcher in Triple-A Fresno in 2006 and returned in 2007, this time for a paycheck. He was promoted to the Giants in 2008. His skills as a translator (he grew up in Japan but came to the U.S. after high school) were a big plus.

Another bullpen catcher with more than catching responsibility is Aaron Muñoz of the Rockies. He played college ball at Northwestern State of Louisiana and five seasons (2011-2015) of minor league ball, rising as high as Double-A. His job title now reads as “bullpen catcher/major league operations assistant.” I’m not sure what that title on the right side of the slash line means, but it must take a fair amount of time away from his bullpen duties, as Kyle Cunningham has been hired as “assistant bullpen catcher.”

Another longtime bullpen denizen is Javier Bracamonte of the Astros. Like Racaniello, he has been out there since 2001 and also throws batting practice. Unlike most of his peers, though, he gets to reacquaint himself with lumber by hitting infield practice. He started out as a batboy in the Venezuelan Winter League and signed as a middle infielder with the Yankees Venezuelan Academy, playing from 1988 to 1990. As a member of the Astros, he has participated in three major league All-Star Games.

A contemporary example of a multi-skilled bullpen catcher is Josh Frasier, now in his 18th season (not counting his two years as an intern) with the Rangers, though only his 13th as a bullpen catcher. He started out as the team’s major league video coordinator. Lest you conjure up an image of a video nerd, be informed that he was a catcher at Rockwall High School and Northwood University, both in suburban Dallas.

Then there are the two Cleveland bullpen catchers, Armando Camacho and Ricky Pacione. In addition to the usual chores of bullpen catching and throwing batting practice, they assist “Indians positional coaches with functions relative to their positional responsibilities.” Casey Stengel couldn’t have said it better.

As you might suspect, upward mobility is not likely for bullpen catchers. But perhaps a flashier title helps. For example, the Phillies have two bullpen catchers, Bob Stump and Craig Driver; the former is also a “catching coach,” the latter a “receiving coach.”

On the other hand, even if he doesn’t climb the corporate ladder, a bullpen catcher may have more job security than a player does. If a pitching staff shines, he will not get any credit, but if the staff tanks, he will not get any blame. Lack of accountability can be your friend!

Another benefit of being a bullpen catcher is your social status at a gathering when someone inevitably asks, “What do you do?” That insider status could also be a gold mine. Just imagine you are an aspiring writer keeping a diary during the season.

It worked for Jim Bouton; it could work for a bullpen catcher.

References and Resources


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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Jim
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Jim

Very, very interesting. Thanks, Frank.

Curacao LL
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Curacao LL

Great piece…
but the guy is BOTH a ‘Fitness Buff’ AND he ate 14 cheesesteaks in one sitting?
Something in there is Fake News…

Turkle
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Turkle

This was really great. Now I have a couple of new names to look out for with my binoculars next time I’m at Progressive Field or Citi Field! Can’t wait to thrill and impress my friends with my deep knowledge of bullpen catchers…

Cubbie23
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This is one of the best baseball articles I have read in some time. Really enjoyed learning all about this underappreciated side of the game!

Eric Robinson
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Good job! I really enjoyed this

ScooterPie
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ScooterPie

Listed on the roster or not, a guy named Nilson Robledo has been the Nats’ bullpen catcher for several years. Of course, I can’t swear he’s back this year; that might be why he’s not listed.

But more importantly, Stump is a great name for a bullpen catcher, and Driver is pretty good too. Who wouldn’t want to go to Stump & Driver’s Catching School?

harshaksh
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harshaksh

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