Career Talk: Being a Major League Baseball Bullpen Catcher

Career Talk: Being a Major League Baseball Bullpen Catcher

The average length of a Major League Baseball playing career is just shy of six years. Casey Chavez has worn the cap and the jersey – shoot, he even has the shin guards – but he hasn’t stepped inside the lines once in nine MLB seasons. And the fans let him hear about it. “Every stadium you go to, you hear the crowd chanting BULL-PEN CATCH-ER like I’m just some bum and just some guy freeloading it,” Chavez, who has held the lesser-known role for the Oakland Athletics since April 2007. “They have no idea, but I'm not mad at them -- because they really don't have any idea.” To give the rest of us a window into his reality, ValuePenguin asked Chavez about life in the bullpen, where he mostly goes unnoticed among his millionaire teammates.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. To contribute to ValuePenguin’s coverage on careers, follow us on Twitter @VP_Careers.

Before you got the job in April ’07, what did you know about being a bullpen catcher?

Like most people, I had no clue what the position was. When I would come to watch my brother. the bullpen catcher looked like a player to me just as much as anybody else, so I had no clue what the position was, how it existed, how it works, all that -- I had no idea. It's nothing I ever envisioned myself doing, I'll give you that much.

You mentioned your brother, former 17-year MLB veteran Eric Chavez. Did he open the door for you?

Yes, when I was coaching college baseball in Missouri, my brother said they needed help at batting practice. I came out not really knowing what I was getting into, what I was doing. At the time, my arm was really good. I was already throwing for an hour to my team every day when the A’s needed some help. So I flew out, I did it a couple times, and they said they liked it and brought me on board.

Then I started hanging out with the team but didn't travel with them for the first couple of weeks. After that, one day when the team was at home, the pitching coach, Curt Young, asked me if I could catch. I’d done a little bit of it in high school, and I said, "Man, I'll do whatever you want.” I started learning how to catch right in the big leagues.

How did you learn how to catch in such a short time?

Repetitions. Reps. And more reps. I asked Jason Kendall when he was here, and I said "’J,’ I need help man." He said "You just need reps." And I said, "Timeout -- like that's it? Let's get technical." And Jason was right. So what I did is, I just got on a pitching machine in Oakland, I started scooting up on it so that it'd be faster for me than it would out in the field. Then I started to get the timing and the pace of 90-plus miles per hour pitches for every pitcher. The most important thing was learning the rep at that higher speed to know the higher intensity. That's what I did, as much as I could.

I’ve got over a thousand big league games under my belt now. That’s the best teacher. If you just use your eyes and you ask questions and you watch drills and you watch different guys catch, there's enough information in the game. I have the conversation with people that have played the position and with the pitchers and what they're trying to do, of having an idea of what I need to do back there and then it's just like basically like getting in the gym. It's getting in the right position, keeping my body in shape so that I can get in that position and maintain it.

Speaking of 90-plus mph, who's the fastest-throwing pitcher that you've caught?

Henry Rodriguez. He’s the kind of sling-it guy that didn't necessarily know where he was going or what he was doing, but he threw hard. I want to give you a percentage of effort for what these guys give in the bullpen, but they're really just trying to get loose for the game. You can't equal that intensity for them when they’re out there on a big league mound facing big league hitters. They're going to take it to another level that I've never seen in the bullpen, and I shouldn't have seen. But Henry definitely was one guy who, for a lack of a better term, we say, "Let it eat.” He would "let it eat" in the bullpen, and Henry was 98 mph on the field. There's tons of times you would think he'd spike it, an 90 mile-an-hour slider. I don't know that Henry knew how to throw a ball easy, but it still wasn't the same as the game.

Don’t you ever wish you could experience that MLB-level intensity inside the foul lines?

When I went to college, I'd already stopped playing and then I discovered the coaching side of it. I just had more energy on that side of the game than I ever did as a player. I can't really tell you why other than I feel like maybe this is something I was born to do. But I enjoyed playing just as much as anybody else; I had dreamed of playing as much as anybody else. The work that I wasn't willing to put in as a player, for whatever reason, I was willing to put in on the coaching side. So being on that side of the game and not holding on to that player hope or the player dream, I had a different work ethic. And when they asked me to learn how to catch, I was fixated on doing it and I worked as hard as I could; I talked to as many people as I could; I studied the position as much as I could, and I'm still doing it. And Curt Young got me involved more on the pitching side because I don't even throw batting practices that much anymore.

So what exactly is your routine like on a gameday at the ballpark?

For a 7 o'clock game, I don't like to get to the park any later than 1 p.m., as I try to work out. The older I get, the more I need to do that to be able to handle all the grind on the body and everything, catching and throwing, and the travelling actually even gets harder. So I get there at 1 p.m. with the coaches. We also have a younger team, and we have a lot of guys who need to do early pregame work.

Casey Chavez picutered in uniform

My responsibility number one is the equipment, the baseballs. I have about seven different bags. I like to do things organized, so everybody knows where they're at, which bag to use so there's no confusion. I might throw a batting practice at 2 p.m., maybe at 3 p.m., that little window. Everyday around 3:30 p.m., we're out with a starting pitcher or two doing long toss, doing side work, maybe a couple of pitchers that are rehabbing injuries might come out at the same time.

I stretch a little over an hour later, and then all the bullpen guys come down and they have their throwing partner. The past couple of years, I've had a throwing partner for that as well. I throw at one of the guys, and then I'll start catching any fly ball/ground ball work and then if any guy wants to do some cuts off on the mound, I'm ready for that.

Then I grab something to eat real quick, grab a shower, head back out to the bullpen, be there in case the starting catchers needed to pick them up to the side. Some catchers like to play long toss, some guys don't, and they leave it up to our catchers, Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley. Thankfully both like to play, so it's a little easier on my arm, and then after that it's waiting until the phone rings to get any relief pitcher ready that we need to get ready.

It’s pretty much the same gig for all 30 teams. Sure, it's different for each bullpen catcher and maybe the workload is different. I know some teams have two guys, but I've been the only guy here since I took over for Brandon Buckley.

What’s your mindset like when you’re not catching a reliever and just watching the game?

During the games, I'm a big environment guy. I’m designed to help set an environment that will create the best amount of success for these guys and as a group, to get a job done. For me, a lot of it is the talk, focusing on the talk, focusing on their mindsets and then ultimately having fun because when guys are having fun -- nobody's sucking and having fun.

How involved are you in decision-making, game-planning?

All that scouting and stuff, I leave that up to the coaches. I don't even know the signs just so players won't ask me. I want them going to the coaches for that because you build a reputation. This year, I've had more respect than I've ever had because I’ve been here for a while. You get new players from other organizations and they hear about you. They know how you are as a person, they know how you feel and act towards players. I like to stay in my lane as much as I can.

With that said, you are sitting in coaches’ meetings. How would you describe your role beyond catching?

I would call it support. I don’t do it so much in a game, giving my input and speaking up in the meeting. That’s not me. Maybe other bullpen catchers are in other organizations, but not me, not here. I do have a good working relationship, a trust-based working relationship, with Curt, our pitching coach, that has developed over the years. Curt will give me some leeway after a guy will throw a side session. We come up and we talk about what he's trying to do, what approach it is, different pitches, what he's working on. He trusts me enough to let me mix it up with the guys. As far as the game plan, all that, that's all him and the bullpen coach and the manager, and I leave that to them. I'm here to do my job and support these guys the best that I can.

What’s the hardest part about the job?

The travel. When I started out, I didn't have a family. My wife and I have two beautiful girls now and moved to Arizona. California got too expensive, kind of ran us out. So we moved to where Spring Training is held -- it was the best way to do it for us, where I could give them a better life and spend six months with them during the offseason, and then six months here in Oakland.

Being away from them is the hardest by far than anything else you deal with. It's baseball at the end of the day. It's baseball, and it's the big leagues, so if you can't find the joy in that, then there's something wrong with you and you don't belong in the game.

How do you spend your offseasons?

I've done it a little bit different every year since I've been doing this. One offseason, I studied at an online Bible school, and I was going to get into the ministry. There have been a few offseasons that I spent in the ministry. Last year, my wife wanted to get a job, so I told her, "Go get a job," and I stayed home with the girls a lot to kind of rekindle our relationship. And my wife could get out and mix it up with the adult, professional world. She worked a lot, and I would give some lessons here and there, but spending as much time with my family and my kids and being a dad was my top priority last year.

Do you see yourself returning to coaching? That seems like the natural next step in career advancement…

Absolutely. I love the game of baseball; I love the idea of helping somebody get better; I love the idea of a team coming together; and I think I've learned a lot about teams, players, individuals, mindsets, how to get better. I've tried to pick the brains of guys like Bob Melvin, our manager, and Curt Young, and Ron Washington, and Tye Waller and Mike Gallego. I've tried to learn as much as I can watching these guys do drills, watching them work with players; how they talk to players; how they deal with their mindsets, how they build environments in clubhouses and trying to build a winning environment.

Being that I have tons of ideas, if I were ever given a chance to be a part of a club, any capacity, yeah, I’d be interested. As long as I’d wake up every day fired up, ready to go and to take on a challenge. Right now, me and my wife have been talking about that the last couple of years. Basically, all I gotta do is turn in my ministry application. I could be ordained as a minister as well, and I'm trying to figure out how that fits in. But, yeah, definitely. I have a coach's heart. I always have since I was still playing, and I loved the idea of creating opportunities for players to get better and putting them in that position.

We talked about the rigors of the job. How about the rewards? What keeps you doing this?

The day we clinched the pennant in 2012. No other memory I've ever had in baseball was like that one -- the feeling was like it's a dream. When you get into the big leagues, you realize that the ultimate goal is to win, and to win a championship. For me to go to the playoffs, there's nothing like it. Once you do it, you want it every single year. It's a hunger and you gotta do it again.

I call it a champagne bath. All the injuries, all the coming and the going and the tough times that you had during the year as a team -- if you can take that champagne bath at the end of the year and have a shot to play some bonus baseball and win a World Series or advance, there's nothing like that reward.

There is also the conversation with professional Major League ballplayers, talking hitting with a coach like Chili Davis, or some of the hitters or even my brother for that matter, and talking pitching with Sonny Gray or some of the bullpen guys in the past that I've been here with. I also get to watch young guys come up and build careers, from their first Spring Training to their first time in a stadium with a second deck. The baseball rewards are insurmountable -- they're just everywhere.

And this is why fans often say that bullpen catcher – ranked somewhere near NFL long snapper, NBA benchwarmer and PGA caddy – is among the easiest, best jobs in sports. Your response?

I don't know what other ones are out there. I just know that I got here with that coaching mindset of trying to put a player in the best position to have success was already ingrained in me. So when I got here and I learned what my job was all about, that's what I just tried to stay focused on. I had my fun, I did my stuff in the first couple of years, but it’s never been cake and it's not simple. I joked about this with Vogt and Phegley. Vogt came to me one day and he goes, "I'd like to see one of these fans try to catch one of Sonny Gray's fastballs," because Sonny Gray's fastball may never do the same thing twice.

There's also surviving in a clubhouse around professional athletes. There's an edge that comes with these guys that you have learn how to be secure in yourself in a clubhouse because they're competing at the highest level. So it's not just farting around, having fun, and having the time of your life. It’s work -- it's a lot of work – it’s physically demanding. You don't sleep the best all the time; your neck's out of place; your back's out of place; you have arm problems; you have back problems, knee problems; you're trying to manage your family life or you're away from home all the time; and then you're dealing with a mindset where you're at the highest level of sport and you're trying to help these guys and their mindset be right. That’s not always easy here, and then you're trying to be a support staff to a team that's trying to win a championship.

All those things are not easy. Maybe everybody thinks they could to it. Somebody might be able to do it for a day -- somebody might even be able to do it for a week -- but doing it day in and day out, day after day, month after month, year after year would weed a lot of people out. There would be a whole newfound respect for the job. It's not just cake and ice cream, man. It's work, and you got to stay on top of it like anything else, or you'll be gone.

I always think about this game, and in the clubhouse, I'll ask a guy, "Where will we all be when we're not in here anymore?" The answer is that we'll be sitting on a couch or we'll be somewhere else, but we won't have a uniform or a team. We'll be looking back on it like, "Did I do it right?" because you never know how long it's going to last.

Andrew is a Senior Writer at LendingTree, the parent company of ValuePenguin. Andrew has covered the cost of higher education and other personal finance topics, starting with ValuePenguin in 2015. His work has appeared in more than 40 publications, from Lifehacker and U.S. News & World Report to Marketwatch. He also pens an "Ask the Expert" column for Debt.com. In addition, Andrew previously worked in marketing for a leading online lender where he got to see behind the curtain. He’s also been quoted as a student loan expert, including on NBC News, CNBC, Fox Business, Yahoo Finance and Kiplinger.