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Bizarre twist of fate that led Sandy Leon to catching

Rob Bradford
August 13, 2018 - 11:46 am

Any catcher would absolutely love to be Sandy Leon right now.

This is a player whose team, the Red Sox, has won 27 of the last 29 games Leon has started at backstop. And along the way, the 29-year-old has compiled the best catcher's ERA in the majors, with pitchers carrying a 3.05 mark with him behind the plate. It makes little difference that the switch-hitter is batting just .172 with a .535 OPS during the stretch. That's not the priority. It is a relatively inconsequential piece of this story.

"(Former Washington catching coordinator) Bobby Henley taught me if you go 0-for-4 but you put up eight zeroes that’s like going 4-for-4. That got into my mind," Leon said. "I want to hit. I want everything. If you play, you want to do something to help the team. For me, my strong point has to be behind the plate. So just don’t let the other team score. If they don’t score, we’re going to win."

Leon has become arguably the best defensive catcher in the majors.

It's a reality made even more amazing considering this is a guy who hadn't manned that position until after becoming a professional baseball player.

The story goes Leon had made his mark throughout his youth in Venezuela as a really good hitter and pitcher. ("I loved to pitch, that was my dream," he said.) Starting at the age of five he played shortstop before moving to third base. The positions, however, really didn't matter because he could really hit.

But as Leon crept closer to becoming eligible for a professional contract the position thing became more of an issue. The problem? He was slow. Even too slow for a third baseman.

So after one Little League tournament game in Venezuela, Leon was approached by Diamondbacks scout Miguel Nava, the man would helped find Carlos Gonzalez, Ender Inciarte and Rougned Odor.

"He said he wanted me to catch, but I had never caught before," said Leon. "The next day I went down and it was the worst workout ever because I had never caught before."

Leon found his pro contract, signing with the Nationals as a 16 1/2-year-old. But he jumping into the world of professional baseball without a position, but with plenty of uncertainty. 

"I got signed six months after (meeting with Nava) but I had never caught a game. I caught my first game in the GCL (Gulf Coast League)," he said. "It was crazy. My English was also bad. I was crying almost every day back at the hotel. I didn’t know how to communicate with the pitchers and the coaches. It was hard."

Fortunately for Leon, there was someone who was willing to steer him down the proper path -- Henley, who played in 41 major league games as a catcher for the Montreal Expos.

"He taught me a lot," Leon said of the current Nationals third base coach. "He always would find a way to explain something about the game. Calling the game. Knowing the pitcher. Knowing the hitter. He taught me a lot. In all my years there he was always teaching me something new. He taught me how to communicate with the pitchers in English. Every day was a new word. Every day I was learning something. Catching. Blocking. Calling the game."

Leon did his part, blocking 100 balls a day while soaking in the lessons learned while watching and playing with the likes of fellow Venezuela catchers Henry Blanco, Carlos Maldonado and Guillermo Quiroz.

So by time Leon was traded to the Red Sox in the middle of the 2015 spring training, he was on his way. But the Sox were getting far from the finished product. He had to get to know an entirely different league and a whole new staff of pitchers. All the while trying to hone a craft that was anything but second nature to the former slow-footed third baseman.

At the heart of it all, Leon was rooted in the words left behind by Henley: "Don't let the other team score."

He's managed to do a pretty good job of it.

"You have to be able to communicate with the guys on the mound," Leon explained. "You have to know who is pitching. You have to know the way they throw the ball. You can’t call the game the same way for Porcello or Price, or Sale and Eovaldi. They’re all different. You have to know who is pitching, what is their No. 1 pitch, their second-best pitch and their third-best pitch.

"We have a great pitching staff. They’re really good. They compete. They fight. That’s the No. 1 point. Second, (pitching coach) Dana (LeVangie) is always working to give you something you can work with to call the game. He knows the hitters so well so he gives you stuff to call the game with. And then you see how the pitches are working and what is their best pitch. Yeah, I can call a good game but if the guy on the mound doesn’t execute that pitch nothing happens. If I call for a fastball inside and they miss with middle-away, it won’t matter. You have to go with the staff we’ve got. They've been great."

The feeling has been mutual.

"He's playing everyday we're treating him like an everyday catcher," Red Sox manager Alex Cora told reporters before Sunday's game. "He's been amazing."

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