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The Rise of the Bullpen Has Led to the Rise of the Bullpen Catcher

Once just a starting point for a career in coaching, bullpen catchers are sticking around longer as relief corps become more strategically important.

by Derek Evers
Mar 30 2016, 3:01pm

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco Giants are stretching out on the field of their spring training facility in Scottsdale, Arizona. First-base coach Bill Hayes plays catch with bullpen catcher Eli Whiteside. Hayes had been the team's bullpen catcher for 12 years before being promoted at the start of the 2015 season; Whiteside stepped into the role. Each toss is a figurative passing of the torch. The two are only interrupted when Rollie Fingers, in his oddly placed Oakland Athletics jacket, strolls by to say hello. It's the sort of wistful scene only baseball could script.

Hayes, 58, is gruff, with a full goatee, and a little more padding than Whiteside. Outgoing and brash, Hayes is a player's coach worthy of his nickname, Wild Bill. Whiteside, who also sports a goatee, is now entering his second full season catching in the pen. The 36-year-old shares his predecessor's Southern drawl and distinguished-looking salt-and-pepper hair.

Together, the pair have been part of two World Series Championship Giants teams, in 2010 and 2012 (Hayes earned a third ring in 2014), with Whiteside earning his rings on the field. He didn't envision being in the bullpen when he began his 2015 campaign.

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"I had signed a contract to play," Whiteside says. "Last year was my first not playing."

Indeed, Whiteside had already inked a minor-league deal with the Atlanta Braves when the Giants offered him the bullpen catcher position.

"Bobby [Evans, the Giants general manager] came to me in the offseason and said there was a spot opening up with Bill going to first. He kind of came to me with this opportunity," Whiteside said.

"I knew I was kind of toward the end of my career and didn't know what I was going to do after baseball for sure, so I figured this would be a good transition for me."

Technically members of the coaching staff, bullpen catchers are responsible for much more than the title implies. Yes, they help warm up the relief corps and starters on their off days, but they also offer a unique perspective and guidance to the staff as a third coach behind the pitching and bullpen coach. Much like during games, some pitchers work exclusively with one catcher in the pen; the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, worked with the same bullpen catcher, Mike Bozello, for 11 years, until Bozello joined Joe Torre's staff with the Dodgers in 2007. Aside from catching, they fill a multitude of roles: pitching batting practice, prepping baseballs, catching simulated games, playing long toss with the outfield, providing a baserunner for fielding drills—they're essentially the utility infielder of the coaching staff.

Bill Hayes has left the bullpen for the wide-open confines of the first-base coaching box. Photo by Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

For former catchers, the bullpen is often the start of a coaching resume. Not so for Whiteside's predecessor, Hayes.

Hayes is something of a bullpen celebrity, and probably the only bullpen catcher to have been profiled by the New York Times. Unlike Whiteside, he came to the position after a 14-year run of coaching in the minors. He had even spent one season (1998) as the Colorado Rockies bullpen coach.

"After 14 years coaching in the minors, I just didn't see it happening," Hayes said of his chances of becoming a coach in the big leagues.

The former first-round pick (he was selected right after Kirk Gibson in 1978) had just finished the 2002 season managing San Francisco's AAA-affiliate San Jose Giants when Dusty Baker left the Giants to coach the Cubs, opening up vacancies throughout the bench. "When Dusty left, I felt I needed to take the opportunity."

Though returning to catching in the pen might not have seemed like a step up for a man who's managerial career lasted longer than his playing career, the move, in 2003, kicked off the longest big league stint in his career.

It's worth noting that neither Hayes' age nor his longevity at the position are anomalies. Chicago White Sox bullpen catcher Mark Salas is 55, and the Brewers' Marcus Hanel is entering his 16th season behind the plate.

"My hip was hurting," Hayes said when I asked about the daily wear-and-tear on his body. "But by the end, I was only taking a few pitches, mostly in a coaching capacity, anyway."

Cody Clark (right) after the first of his four major league hits. Photo by Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In 2003, the same year Hayes began his bullpen catching career, Cody Clark was an 11th-round pick of the Rangers. A lifetime minor-leaguer, Clark passed through four different organizations over 11 years, including six with the Kansas City Royals, before finally reaching the majors with the Astros in August of 2013. One month and four hits later, he was off the roster and subsequently retired.

Today, Clark is back with the Royals as their bullpen catcher. He is an integral part of a bullpen many consider the best in baseball, yet he plays an unheralded role—even the team's media coordinator acknowledges having only spoken to him once or twice. After many failed attempts to track him down using his player profile photo (at one point, I mistook Ian Kennedy, the Royals' new $70 million starter, for him), I caught up with Clark as he took a break from a coaches meeting.

"My dad was a coach for 35 years, and my brother's a coach, so I knew at some point in time when I stopped playing, I would want to coach," he said. "And this seems like a good transition, being that I've got little time in the big leagues as a player. I wasn't up for very long, so spending the past couple years in the big leagues is just a good experience to learn."

Like Whiteside, Clark wasn't thinking about manning the bullpen catching duties. "It just kind of fell into my lap."

"After I decided I was done playing, I got a call from [Royals Assistant GM] Scott Sharp, and he said, 'Do you want to come work for us?' At the time, they didn't really know whether it would be like a coach in the minor leagues or what. They called back a couple days later and said they were making their bullpen catcher the instant replay guy, so they asked me if I would do it."

Two years into the job, and he's already been to two World Series.

"A lot of people will say I came at the right time," he said, smiling. "I've been here two years and we've been to the World Series two years in a row, so maybe it's me."

Bill Hayes during his bullpen catching days. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The position of bullpen catcher has become increasingly important as teams rely more heavily on their relief corps. In 1980, a team's bullpen accounted for roughly 1.5 innings pitched per game; today it's nearly double that. By comparison, 30 years ago, starters and relief pitchers gave up a similar OPS+ of around 100. Today, relievers are nearly 20 points better.

"Our travel secretary [Jeff Davenport] was a bullpen catcher for the Red Sox and Cubs, and he said back in the day it wasn't a long-term job," Clark said. "Now it's a job that people don't want to leave."

Though it is the lowest-paid coaching position on most teams—salaries average $90,000 annually, according to Fangraphs—Clark gets to say that he was a cog in a bullpen that was responsible for the second-most innings pitched and second-best ERA in 2015. It's changing the way teams think about roster construction.

"This is a great bullpen to be with," Clark said. "In my 11 years as a minor league player, we went to the playoffs 10 years and we won three championships, but nothing like this. A lot of really good teams, but nothing like last year."

Back at Scottsdale Stadium, Bill Hayes is pitching batting practice to the team's heavy hitters—a responsibility he assumed even before his promotion. Whiteside is starting his stroll toward the bullpen as a smattering of early onlookers playfully taunt him from the stands with a few "Eli" chants.

"Coaching is about passing your knowledge and insight to the next generation," Hayes says in a nod to his replacement. "That's a great part of this game, just getting to interact with the players and relay your experiences, no matter what position you play, or what your role is as a coach."

So does Whiteside envision being the team's bullpen catcher into his 50s, too?

"You never know," he laughs. "I've played with these guys for four or five years and the same staff is still around.

"It's a good gig."