Mike LaValliere was never the sexiest catcher in baseball. He didn’t make any All-Star teams and in parts of 12 big-league seasons [1984-1995] hit just 18 home runs. Nicknamed “Spanky” he ran like he was carrying a piano on his back.
But he was a damn fine backstop. The Pirates went to the playoffs in 1990, 1991 and 1992, and LaValliere was their primary catcher all three years. In 1987, his first year in Pittsburgh, he won a Gold Glove.
Originally signed as a non-drafted free agent, he broke in with the Phillies and also played for the White Sox and Cardinals. He caught a lot of good pitchers, and in this interview he talks about which of them had the best stuff, and which — much like himself — did the most with the least.
David Laurila: How good of a hitter were you?
Mike Lavalliere: Put it this way, with my speed they were all legit. I didn’t have many infield hits, so the ones I got were earned. I was a guy without much power, although I did have a little gap power. I like to think my hits helped the team.
DL: You hit .300 [twice] and had a pretty good OBP [.351 lifetime].
ML: I had a pretty good eye and didn’t strike out much. Again, if I could have run a little better, I probably could have flirted with .300 a few more seasons. But without running well, you’re kind of limited offensively.
DL: How much would you be valued in today‘s game?
ML: Catchers nowadays have maybe a little more bang, without quite as much emphasis on their defense. If I were joining a team that had a bunch of boppers and didn’t have to rely on my offense, I think I could be a real good fit.
DL: Did being a catcher help your plate discipline?
ML: They’re two different animals. Even so, I like to think there’s a little bit of an advantage, because you do concentrate on the pitcher’s release point. As a catcher, you have to pick up the ball early. As a hitter, it’s essentially the same thing.
The whole key is to pick up the ball out of the hand as soon as you can. When you do that, the game slows down for you. When guys talk about being hot, they’re always telling you they’re seeing the ball well. It’s coming in like a beach ball, and what is happening is you’re picking it up right out of the hand.
DL: Does picking the ball up early help a catcher when he gets crossed up?
ML; Some of that depends on how good the pitcher’s stuff is. If you’ve got someone like Stephen Strasburg’s, if you’re not on the ball you have no chance. But if you have a regular-stuff kind of guy, a sinker-slider guy, you can get crossed up and still have a decent chance of catching it.
In a more general sense, if you’re expecting a fastball and get a breaking ball, you can make that adjustment. If you’re expecting a curveball and get a fastball, you can’t. There’s not enough time.
DL: Who was it challenging to catch?
ML: There were a few guys. One who was really tough was Jason Bere. Jason was a young pitcher with the White Sox and he had a great arm. He had good stuff and hid the ball really well. When I went over there from the Pirates, he was one of the toughest guys I caught.
DL: Is acclimating to how his pitches move a big part of learning a pitcher?
ML: Absolutely. You can call a curveball, but curveballs come in all shapes and sizes. Some guys are a little more over the top, some guys throw it a bit harder, some throw it softer with a little more break. Until you actually get behind the plate and catch someone, you really don’t know.
DL: Who stands out among the guys you caught in Pittsburgh?
ML: Doug Drabek was probably the best I caught, as far as consistency. He was a guy you wanted to have on the mound all the time. Dougie was easy to catch. You put the number down and he gave it to you in the location you wanted it.
Bob Walk, on the other hand, was kind of tough to catch. He was coming from all different angles and he’d throw some balls in the dirt. He also hid the ball well. Walkie had a real hard sinker, he threw a couple different kinds of curveballs, and he had a little split-finger. I don’t know that he ever threw a ball straight.
DL: How did John Smiley get guys out?
ML: Smiles had fortitude on the mound. He was an imposing figure and he had good angle on his fastball. When Ray Miller developed a changeup with him, that was the big key. As a young kid, he came out of the bullpen as a fastball-slider guy without a lot of control. Then they made him a starter and Ray Miller gave him a curveball and a changeup. John became more of a finesse guy — although he still had a good fastball — and he was just a big believer in himself. He went out and competed, but I‘ll tell you, that changeup is what totally turned his career.
DL; Were you big on reports, as a catcher?
ML: I liked reports, but recent reports. We had a book on everybody. In 1993, when the Pirates let me go and I went to the White Sox, I knew every hitter in both leagues. I had the book, so what I wanted to know was if they were hot. There were certain guys where, if they were hot, it didn’t make any difference. You could throw the book out the window.
A lot of information helps some guys and clouds other guys. Too much information sometimes puts too much information in someone’s head. When a hitter steps into the batter’s box, he has one thing in mind, and that’s seeing the ball out of the hand. All of the preparation should already be done. Once that pitcher starts in motion, all you’re looking for is the ball.
DL: Getting back to the guys you caught, who else is notable?
ML: I caught a lot of guys. When I was just a kid, and first got called up, I caught the tail end of Steve Carlton and Jerry Koosman. I caught Tug McGraw. I caught Bob Forsch with the Cardinals. I had some good ones.
Later on — and probably the guy I’m most surprised didn’t win a Cy Young — was Alex Fernandez. He had the best stuff of anybody I caught. Velocity, command, curveball, slider, changeup — four great pitches. Great athlete, could hold runners on. I think he should have had more wins than he ended up with.
DL: Who did the most with the least?
ML: That’s hard to say, but there were a couple guys on the Pirates. Bob Patterson did a great job for us. He was a left-handed reliever who started a little bit as well. Bob didn’t have anything special, but he threw it all over the plate and changed speeds. If you saw him warning up, you would never take two looks and say, “wow.” He was a guy who was very average at everything, but he competed and got the job done.
DL; Did Carlton still have the great slider when you caught him?
ML: It was good, but it wasn’t great. It had flashes of greatness, but it wasn’t there all the time and a lot of that had to do with a lack of velocity on his fastball. Whenever he had the good slider, he had a little more velocity on his fastball and guys couldn’t cheat on his breaking ball. As he got older, he didn’t have enough, so they could wait back a little longer.
DL: How about Koosman?
ML: He was more of a curveball guy by then. It’s probably not fair to [talk about his stuff] because he wasn’t having a whole lot of success at the very end. That’s the case for most of us when we’re finishing up. Old man time tells us that’s it’s time to hit the highway.