When A.J. Pierzynski agreed to terms on a one-year, $2 million contract with the Braves on Christmas Eve, the team never imagined there could be so much comfort and joy – not to mention hits – left in the 18-year veteran catcher with a reputation for being ornery and irritable.
Nine months later, the 38-year-old signed to be a backup enters the final day of the season with a .300 average, nine homers and 49 RBIs in 436 plate appearances and 113 games, including 104 starts at catcher.
Among major league catchers with at least 400 plate appearances, Pierzynski had the second-highest batting average (behind Buster Posey’s .315) before Sunday and a .765 OPS that was tied for fifth with Yankees (and former Braves) catcher Brian McCann.
To repeat, Pierzynski is 38. He’ll be 39 in December, and the Braves hope to re-sign him.
“He’s been terrific,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We’ve gotten every nickel and dime we spent on him. Here’s a guy who was going to catch 50 games, ends up catching 100-plus, hitting .300, doing everything you ask him to do. He’s been great. He’s been great in the locker room, he’s been great for me, he’s been great with me, he’s been great with the coaching staff, great with the pitching staff. I can’t complain. Can not complain. Really.
“When he plays there’s a little edge to him, which you appreciate more when you see him (daily) than when when you see him across the diamond (on an opposing team). He’s been terrific.”
Pierzynski has a nine-game hitting streak and a .340 average and .836 OPS in his past 59 games, including an RBI double in the third inning of Friday’s 4-0 win against the Cardinals. Later in Friday’s game he was hit by a pitch in his left knee, then fouled a ball off his right shin, which left him limping noticeably and finally forced him to exit in the ninth inning.
With just two games left in the season — Saturday night’s game was rained out and rescheduled as part of a Sunday doubleheader — there was a pretty good chance that Pierzynski would not play again, Gonzalez said. The manager didn’t want to use him to catch Saturday unless there was an emergency, and was also reluctant to use him to pinch-hit because rookie catcher Christian Bethancourt is nursing a thumb injury and unavailable.
That left Pierzynski as the healthiest backup if anything happened to catcher Ryan Lavarnway. But Gonzalez also said that before Saturday’s game was rained out. Since it might be a bit much to ask Lavarnway to catch both ends of a doubleheader, the Braves could have Pierzynski or Bethancourt catch the second game if either is ready.
Pierzynski, whose two homers Tuesday against the Nationals made him the oldest catcher to have a two-homer game since Jason Varitek in 2011, will finish the season with exactly a .300 average for the third time in his career if he doesn’t bat again Sunday.
The batting average will be his highest since Pierzynski hit .300 in 2009 for the White Sox, and his .769 OPS would be his highest since his career-best .827 OPS in 2012, when he had a career-high 27 homers and won his only Silver Slugger Award as the American League’s best-hitting catcher.
It’s been quite a bounce-back season after 2014, when Pierzynski hit .251 with five homers and a career-worst .625 OPS in 362 plate appearances with Boston and St. Louis. His production dipped so much last season that, given his sometimes-surly reputation, plenty of people questioned the wisdom of the move when the Braves signed him to be a backup and mentor to Bethancourt.
He leads active major leaguers with 1,872 games at the catching position, and his 1,989 hits ranks 10th all-time among catchers. Now it looks like there’s a good chance Pierzynski – who’s expressed interest in returning — could be back in 2016, either to split catching duties with another offseason acquisition or with Bethancourt, if the Braves decide the 24-year-old’s trade value is too low and they don’t want to give him away after putting in so much time developing him.
When the Braves were negotiating with him in December, Gonzalez met with Pierzynski and asked him, point-blank, about his reputation. The manager liked his reponse, and he and his coaches have had nothing but praise for Pierzynski’s performance on the field and his leadership and demeanor in the clubhouse.
Gonzalez recalled Saturday his discussion with Pierzynski before the Braves signed him.
“We had conversations, we had lunch, we flew him here, (pitching) Roger (McDowell) poke to him, (bench coach) Carlos (Tosca) spoke to him,” he said. “It wasn’t easy. We tried to do our homework, we called people – some people called us back and told us what we would be getting, and some people didn’t call us back, maybe they didn’t have the answer they thought we wanted….
“The people he had played for said, listen, you just tell him exactly what you want, and you won’t hear him complain one bit. That’s what we tried to do. And as he became the regular catcher, it became easy. He never complained once. About anything.”
Someone asked Gonzalez Saturday about re-signing Pierzynski and where that was on the Braves’ radar.
“He’s on 30 (teams’) radar right now. Here’s a guy that … we’ve seen backup guys sign multi-year deals making more money, playing less games and being less productive than what we’ve got out of him. He’s got to be on 29 other teams’ radar right now.”
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