DETROIT — Wearing scuffed-up catchers gear and holding a green Gatorade-printed cup of water in the dugout, Bryan Holaday carried on a conversation with his pitcher on a warm day at Comerica Park. The game plan is discussed, but Holaday's curiosity about the pitching staff, the league, and the energy he brings to a conversation are what stands out.
"He's constantly talking to you on the bench and always dissecting the little parts of the game," Max Scherzer said. "We're each our own pitchers and how do we go about getting guys out is different. He's doing a great job of being able to blend what he knows about the hitters and matching up with everybody's strengths."
Even though this is Holaday's first full year as the Tigers' backup catcher, he doesn't carry himself like a rookie. Holaday spends a significant amount of time before every game putting in the work to memorize important information about the league. Throughout a game you'll often see Holaday talking to his pitchers in the dugout, asking questions about anything from pitcher preferences to league trends and everything in between.
"He's doing that at a much faster rate than I thought where he'd be at," Scherzer said. "He's doing a great job of understanding what guys are trying to do and matching that up with your strengths."
With the departure of Brayan Pena to the Cincinnati Reds at the end of the 2013 season, Holaday was handed the responsibility of being the primary backup for the first time in his career. With just 20 games in the majors under his belt before 2014, it was a challenge because Holaday didn't have the benefit of extended playing time with the Tigers before this season. He needed a way to quickly adjust to his extended role in a league he knew little about.
"I think I've done a good job, just in terms of handling the pitching staff and calling good games and working with the pitchers," Holaday said. "I had had a couple stints up here before, and so I had a good idea of what to expect. I think it's as difficult as I expected it to be. It's definitely a tough job and I like the challenge and I like the difficulty, it's been a lot of fun."
Couple the challenge of catching with his ability to ask the correct questions at every turn has given Holaday the capacity to defensively adapt more quickly than others handed that role. While mistakes still happen, they are becoming less frequent and Holaday has gone from making several at the beginning of the season to being a more sure-handed catcher.
The most recent example was on July 19 — the first game of a double-header against the Cleveland Indians — when Holaday caught three runners in one game for the first time in his big league career. Prior to that, Holaday hadn't caught more than one in the same start. The changes have been noticeable for Scherzer, who's been impressed by Holaday's improved ability to call a game.
"He's done a fabulous job, for me personally, of working with me and really trying to get on the same page on how I work and how I attack the league," Scherzer said. "Most rookie catchers can't do that and pick it up as quick as he can."
Experience only comes with time. Alex Avila may have years of experience to his credit but he still learns something new every day, because the league and his staff are always evolving. Because of that, having the energy to get ahead of the league is key for any catcher.
While the Tigers catchers have done well defensively, however, it's been a struggle with the bat and Holaday is no exception. The Tigers had offensive power in Pena last year but it was more of an exception when you look at his .261 career batting average, and this season he's hitting .272/.303/.397 with the Reds.
Because of Avila's issues at the plate, Ausmus has taken up the idea of sitting him more frequently. Of course, that means more playing time for Holaday, but if he's going to make an effective contribution he's going to need to continue making adjustments at the plate, not just behind it. Holaday admits he'd like to see more production at the plate; but being able to bring consistent offensive production coming off the bench presents its own challenges.
The fact of the matter is, while Avila's .681 OPS may be painful to see, Holaday's .613 OPS is anemic at best and it's not comforting to see two players share both one of the most important jobs on the field and a lack of production at the plate. However, if anyone expects that to create a sense of self-doubt for Holaday it's had the opposite effect.
"I'm doing everything I can, I'm working as hard as I can," Holaday said. "I work with both our hitting coaches and it's tough, it's not easy for anybody up here. Maybe Miggy (Cabrera) and Vic (Martinez) are the only ones that it's easy for, but it's a tough job, but it's a good challenge."
Before the start of the season and amid questions whether Holaday would be able to handle his new responsibilities, Avila said Holaday would not only be a good backup catcher but went so far as to say Holaday has the chance to one day become a starting catcher. Taking on that role is for a later discussion, but Holaday is off to a decent start at this point in his career.
"He's learned a lot, he's improved very much," Avila said. "There's stuff I learn from him as well, and you have to have that type of relationship going back and forth."
While catchers aren't generally known for their power with the bat, the Tigers need a backup catcher capable of producing at both ends of the plate; especially if Avila can't get his bat going. Whether Holaday can be that for the Tigers in the future hasn't been determined yet, but at least he's doing well for a rookie major league backup catcher.