February 18, 2007

I SEE SUPERSTAR:

Nothing masks Paulino's signals: Pirates' catcher makes priority of handling pitchers (Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

He batted .310 last season, highest average for any rookie catcher with 100 or more at-bats since Mike Piazza in 1993. He threw out 32 percent of runners attempting to steal, his total of 38 caught stealings leading the National League. And he had shortcomings, too, particularly on defense, any of which might have consumed someone else.

But those closest to Paulino insist his focus never wavered from the pitchers.

"That's just how I've always thought about the game," said Paulino, 25. "The biggest part of the game is the pitching, and the biggest part of my job is handling the pitchers."

It starts with intense studying, not only of the Pirates' pitchers but also of the hitters they are facing. He often is among the first to the clubhouse on a game day, usually seated before a laptop alongside that evening's starter. And he is a vocal participant in all daily meetings related to pitching.

"This guy's right in the middle of all of it," Tracy said. "And that's why he's always on the same page with the pitchers."

Some of that goes beyond studying, according to bench coach Jim Lett, the man responsible for instructing the Pirates' catchers.

"There's a bit of a sixth sense to it, and a lot of guys don't have it," Lett said. "You can work into it, but some guys just have it naturally. They can just feel their way through what a pitcher's doing. To have it to Ronny's extent ... that's not really something you can coach."

And the result?

"You don't see the pitcher shaking him off much."

For all Paulino has achieved in this regard and others, though, there remains considerable room for improvement, at the plate and behind it.

His.310 average -- including a .339 mark against left-handers that ranked fifth in the National League -- might have been the Pirates' most pleasant surprise last season, ranking even above Freddy Sanchez's batting title. Paulino had topped .300 just once in eight minor-league seasons and entered spring training last year as a distant No. 3 on the catching depth chart behind Ryan Doumit and Humberto Cota.

Still, for someone who is a barrel-chested 6 feet 2, 245 pounds, he showed little power: Only 25 of his 137 hits -- 19 doubles and six home runs -- went for extra bases.

"As I say all the time, power is the last thing to come," Tracy said. "This young man has it."

"I'm not worried about power or the average," Paulino said. "I was seventh or eighth in the order most of the time, so I knew we just needed a hit, not a home run. And the average ... I don't think about .350 or .320. I just want to make sure I'm getting that hit when we need it, when it makes a difference."

That much he did effectively: His 55 RBIs ranked fourth on the Pirates, and he batted .346 with runners in scoring position, .444 with the bases loaded.

"Time and time again, this guy got us the big hit," Tracy said. "And he's going to get even better there."

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 18, 2007 12:00 AM
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