PORT CHARLOTTE — Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon was talking after Saturday’s workout about the atmosphere surrounding his ballclubs, how fewer rules lead to more discipline, how he doesn’t care much for how a player looks, only how he plays, when the conversation shifted to Ryan Hanigan, his new catcher.
The hair? Maybe could use a trim.
His uniform? Perhaps a bit too saggy.
Then Maddon mentioned how it was not long after the catcher joined the Rays in an early December trade with Cincinnati when Hanigan asked for video on all the pitchers and how Hanigan began calling those pitchers to better familiarize himself with a new set of arms.
“That’s the most important part,” Maddon said.
Not Hanigan’s hair or the way his uniform hangs on his 6-foot, 210-pound frame, but his offseason preparation.
“It’s not eye wash, I know that,” Maddon said. “I think it’s a combination of being eager and wanting to prepare and just being a really solid major-league catcher.”
Hanigan began studying up on David Price and Alex Cobb and Matt Moore and the rest of the staff in early January. He flew to Tampa Bay a few weeks ahead of spring training so he could catch some bullpen sessions with the pitchers who worked out at Tropicana Field.
Cobb said he thinks Hanigan watched every pitch thrown by a Rays pitcher during the 2013 season.
“Our first bullpen I threw to him, he’s already talking about stuff that I’ve done in the past and things he would like to see us build on,” Cobb said. “When you hear that right out of the gate, the first time you throw a bullpen, you have nothing but trust for that guy.”
Hanigan said the real work began when he left his home in Andover, Mass., for Florida. It’s one thing to see how Price pitches on TV, it’s another to see Price pitch while you’re squatting behind the plate.
“Once you start catching the guys, then you get a feel for what’s really going on,” Hanigan said. “A lot of the video stuff takes a back seat to what they’re doing now. The video gives me a little bit of a head start, but this is where it counts.”
Hanigan came to the Rays with a reputation as one of the top defensive catchers in baseball. He has thrown out 36.3 percent of base-stealers in his career, third among active catchers with 400 games played. His catcher’s ERA is 3.63, best among active catchers.
Hanigan is a .262 career hitter with more career walks (189) than strikeouts (159).
“He’s a very good catcher in all components of the game,” Maddon said.
Hanigan is here to give the Rays a boost behind home plate. He will receive the bulk of the playing time, a move that returns Jose Molina to the role of backup. That’s a role Molina held for most of his career and one Maddon thinks will make Molina more productive this season.
Hanigan said he was surprised by what he found earlier this month when he rode over to the Trop to catch bullpen sessions.
“I couldn’t believe it. There were 10, 12 big-league guys up there for weeks,” he said.
Price was also a bit surprised with what he saw from Hanigan.
“He was catching bullpens with no gear, so we all looked at him like he was crazy,” Price said. “He started picking stuff and not diving out of the way, and I still think he was a little bit crazy for doing that.”
Said Hanigan: “I don’t sweat it. I’m not planning on getting hit in the face.”
It’s all about the trust.
Hanigan said he was excited to be traded to Tampa Bay, to a team that contends for a playoff spot every season and one that boasts this kind of pitching staff. He quickly felt welcomed. The pitchers were just as eager to work with him as he was to work with them.
“It’s always nice to be wanted, for sure,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in my game. I feel I have a lot more to prove in this game. They’re giving me an opportunity.”
While Maddon is still getting to know his new catcher, he said he has been impressed with what he heard about Hanigan from Reds manager Bryan Price after the teams made the trade and what he’s learned this week from talking with Hanigan.
I really believe he’s the kind of guy (who has) one motivation, one agenda — to win tonight. That screams when you talk to this guy,” Maddon said. “We’re very happy to have him. I don’t think I’m wrong with what I’m saying.”