Braves General Manager Frank Wren talks with outfielder Evan Gattis (24) during spring training at Champion Stadium. Gattis takes over as the team’s starting catcher. (Reuters)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Monday morning, Evan Gattis reached down to pull a compression knee brace over his right knee, with a donut-shaped protective pad over the knee cap, above a fading scar from surgery in 2006. The top of the fabric brace was stretched to capacity in order to encircle a tree-trunk-sized lower thigh.
As a 26-year-old rookie last season, the 6-foot-4 Texan came to camp at 258 pounds. He’s at 250 this year, but Gattis’ thickly muscled arms and legs are even a little more ripped than a year ago. The midsection is where the weight was shed, which, Gattis explained, was the result of better workouts and a vastly improved diet.
“More plants and animals and no bread, no sugar, no beer. I had to go to light whiskeys,” he said in deadpan.
Despite having no previous experience above Class Double-A, Gattis led major league rookies with 65 RBIs and ranked second with 21 homers in 382 plate appearances. He hit a modest .243 with a .291 OBP, but his .480 slugging percentage was third among rookies.
He did this while playing out of position in left field more than not, never complaining, glad that the Braves thought enough of him to put him at positions he’d barely played — first base was the other — in order to keep his bat in the lineup.
The man nicknamed El Oso Blanco — The White Bear — made 47 starts in left field and only 38 at catcher. He was a beast of a pinch-hitter, going 6-for-10 with four homers — the rest of the team had two — and 11 RBIs, second-most in the majors.
“I was proud of myself for being able to go out there (in the outfield),” Gattis said. “I was terrified, man. Totally … I still feel like I could be a good outfielder someday. I know I’m not old, but I’m not young, either. So, someday is getting shorter.”
But for now, with perennial All-Star catcher Brian McCann gone to the Yankees as a free agent, the Braves turn to Gattis.
“We’re going to end up giving Evan the chance to handle the bulk of the catching duties,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Here’s a guy that had a pretty good rookie season playing a position he’d never played before, or very little. So maybe going into this year, he feels more comfortable catching and maybe we’ll get even a better year offensively from him.”
Gonzalez was a catcher in the minor leagues and he praises Gattis’ defensive skills as being not just significantly better than the below-average defense some people expected, but actually quite solid.
“The (pitchers) were comfortable with him,” Gonzalez said. “I remember having conversations with a couple of veteran pitchers that had a chance to throw to him and they really liked him. They liked how he catches and calls a game. Leader stuff, I think that will take care of itself. Once he stuffs a couple of guys in a locker.”
Gonzalez was kidding. He likes to joke about Gattis size and strength. When he was still in the minors, crushing a home run seemingly every other game, Gonzalez wistfully spoke of getting the “knuckle-dragger” to the majors. Now he has him.
“Somebody asked me, ‘How comfortable do you feel with him catching the majority of the games this year?’” Gonzalez said. “And I said if I didn’t see him catch last year, I would be uncomfortable. Even (pitching coach) Roger (McDowell) would say he does his homework, he follows a game plan and that’s something where he’ll get better and more comfortable the more games he catches.”
Veteran backup catcher Gerald Laird will get more playing time with McCann gone, but probably not more than 40-45 starts if things go as planned with Gattis. Gonzalez believes could catch 100-110 games, possibly more, though he wants to make sure to rest him. Ryan Doumit was acquired in a trade from Minnesota to serve as a third catcher and backup first baseman and corner outfielder, but the Braves plan to rarely have him catch as long as Gattis and Laird are healthy.
The presence of Doumit allows Gattis or Laird to pinch-hit when not catching. Gonzalez doesn’t plan to use Gattis much, if at at all, in the outfield.
Laird is a good defensive catcher who’s been around the best; he was Yadier Molina’s backup in St. Louis. He’s confident Gattis will excel as a primary catcher and said he made significant improvement last season.
“To come in and do what he did, make the strides that he did, this kid did a lot of studying. He watched film, did everything you need to do for a catcher,” Laird said. “Some people get caught up in the offensive side, but his first priority was to be the best that he could behind the plate and it showed.
“I think people don’t give him the credit he deserves (for defense). He can be as good as he wants. He’s got a big body and does a good job of taking care of himself. He puts in the work to be a good catcher. I think he’s above average throwing guys out. He was learning and doing the best he could to get on the same page as the pitchers, which I thought he did a good job. I think he’s proving a lot of people wrong and I think it’s going to be a big year for him.”
Asked if he’d be a “hands-on” manager when it came to Gattis catching, Gonzalez smiled and said, “I’m not getting close to him. Did you see the size of that guy? I’m going to call him ‘Sir.’”
Gattis looked up after pulling on the knee brace, made a comment about how hairy his legs are, then engaged a reporter in conversation about skiing and snowboarding and laments that he has had to give up ‘boarding because it’s just not safe to do the jumps and other airborne maneuvers he digs. The man is a catcher in the majors now, not some young adult wandering the western United States, working a string of odd jobs that included ski-lift operator in Colorado.
That was part of his now well-chronicled period of nearly four years away from baseball, when Gattis battled his inner demons and searched for deeper meaning to his life. The knee surgery in 2006 happened when he was at Seminole Junior College in Oklahoma, where he played half a season before checking out to do his Kerouac thing. But most have heard that story before. And he’s frankly a little tired of talking about the details.
Besides, he’s a few chapters into the fascinating second half of his story.