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Bisons' Reese McGuire a defensive maestro behind the plate

Every time the umpire called strike two, Reese McGuire called for a change-up.

It was 2017, McGuire’s first full season in the Toronto Blue Jays’ organization after being traded by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the catcher was in the early stages of developing relationships with the pitchers at Double-A New Hampshire. The learning curve with each new teammate was as varied as their skillsets and deliveries.

“For me, it was probably a couple of outings,” relief pitcher Justin Shafer said. “I’m not a very heavy change-up guy and he kept calling change-up, and I’m like, ‘No.’ But I don’t really shake, so I just throw it, and I’d get to two strikes and he’d call change-up… But that’s not really a strikeout pitch. If I get two strikes, I want to go to my slider or heater or something, and he just kept calling change-ups.”

Before that season, McGuire had been named the sixth-best catching prospect by The former first-round draft pick was cited for his advanced defense and consistent contact as a batter, but knocked for an inability to drive the ball. McGuire appeared in only 45 games that season because of injury.

Two years later, McGuire is receiving a lion’s share of the starts behind home plate this season for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons. The 24-year-old remains a steady receiver with the athleticism to block balls in the dirt. His strong arm and quick release feed a knack for gunning down would-be base stealers. He’s had his first taste of the majors. And he’s embracing this extended opportunity to further refine his game, both as a batter and batterymate. Like breaking in a glove, it takes time.

“The pitcher-catcher relationship is huge,” McGuire said. “You want to get to know the guy and how to kind of coach him as a catcher when he’s out there on the mound, and whether he’s having a good day or a bad day, knowing kind of how to get him to tick, how to get back onto his A-game.

“One thing you obviously want to do is you want to know what pitches he’s got, what he’s comfortable doing, if he’s comfortable throwing a curveball for a first-pitch strike or if he’d rather throw the slider for that and the curveball for the more put-away pitch. Each guy’s different.”

McGuire was named the player of the year after helping the United States capture the International Baseball Federation 18U Baseball World Championship in 2012, but he still had much to learn when the Pirates drafted him with the 14th overall pick in 2013, giving the Seattle high school senior a $2.36 million signing bonus to turn pro.

In 2016, McGuire played 77 games for Double-A Altoona before the Pirates traded him to the Blue Jays, along with fellow prospect Harold Ramirez and veteran pitcher Francisco Liriano, for pitcher Drew Hutchison. McGuire, a 6-foot, 215-pound left-handed hitter who throws righty, closed the 2016 season with just 16 appearances for New Hampshire, then had an injury-shortened 2017, when he needed arthroscopic surgery for a meniscus tear in his right knee.

But McGuire quickly drew the attention of Bisons manager Bobby Meacham, then the manager in New Hampshire.

“He’s one of the guys where it was like, ‘OK, now I know why we got him. I know why he was a first-round pick from the Pirates.' He’s got a lot of ability,” Meacham said. “Catchers are hard to come by, the guys that can handle pitchers well, can read what the hitter’s doing so he can counteract that.”

It wasn’t long before McGuire and Shafer were on the same page.

“Eventually, just from throwing to each other, I’d be like, ‘Yo, I understand what you’re trying to do, but my change-up’s not good. So we do not need to be throwing that,’ ” Shafer said. “He’s like, ‘I know, but we’ve got a guy on second. If we can get him to roll over.’ I was like, ‘I know. You’re right. It’s definitely the right pitch to throw. I just can’t throw it.’

“After that, we talk, and he figures out different ways to get the same result, just with a different pitch that I’m better at throwing.”

Last season, McGuire and Danny Jansen split catching duties with the Bisons.

McGuire played in 96 games. He scored 31 runs and produced a .233 batting average with nine doubles, two triples, a career-high seven homers and 37 RBIs in 322 at-bats.

But Jansen, a 16th-round draft pick in 2013, was the more polished batter. He played in 88 games, scored 45 runs and had a .275 batting average with 21 doubles, one triple, 12 homers and 58 RBIs in 298 at-bats.

With the Blue Jays out of the playoff race, Jansen was called up in August. He played in 31 games with the big league club, finishing with a .247 batting average, six doubles, three homers, 12 runs and eight RBIs in 81 at-bats.

McGuire received a call-up and made his major league debut in September. He appeared in 14 games with the Blue Jays and hit .290 with three doubles, two homers, five runs scored, four RBIs and a stolen base in 31 at-bats.

“And while I was up there,” McGuire said, “a lot of the pitchers I caught I was familiar with from spring training or even guys that were here in Triple-A for most of the season, so that made the transition up there a little more smooth.”

But those were relatively small sample sizes. And after the Jays traded starting catcher Russell Martin during the offseason, Jansen was promoted to take his place, with veteran Luke Maile remaining the backup.

The move opened considerable playing time for McGuire in Buffalo.

Bisons starting pitcher Jacob Waguespack praised McGuire after earning the victory in the season opener against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The right-hander allowed just one earned run on six hits in six innings while striking out eight and walking none. McGuire additionally picked off a runner at first base.

“I think I only shook twice with Reese behind the plate, and he knows me,” Waguespack said after the game. “He was giving me some good locations and we were pounding the ball inside and going back outside as well. I was just pitching through Reese and I’m glad he was back there …

“He just has a good knack for the game and whenever we’re sequencing pitches, we’re always on the same page. I love how he steals a few strikes in the bottom of the strike zone, and that’s good for me since I’ve got a good downward angle on my fastball. I love what he does back there. And, of course, he gets me out of that jam, throwing the guy out at first, too, so that’s huge.”

Meacham said McGuire’s performance in the season opener offered “perfect evidence” of how well the catcher diagnoses batters’ weaknesses and tailors his calls to maximize his pitchers’ strengths.

“There were several turning points in the game early with Wags where he helped by calling the right pitches,” Meacham said, “making the right – they don’t call it framing anymore – but making sure he receives the ball just right to present it to the umpire to get that extra inch that it may have been off the plate. He’s really good at that. And then you saw him when the kid (Corey) Copping came in and was struggling and Reese was able to get him back in the strike zone by doing little subtle things. He’s really good at that and it’s a niche.

“I don’t know how you develop it, but he has it, so I’m really excited to see what he can do again this season, playing most of the time. He’ll get the bulk of the playing time to develop that and continue to develop his bat, which is there, he’s just got to continue to get the reps to develop his swing and become the type of hitter that can help your team win.”

Shafer, who made his major league debut in August, said McGuire works to get the most out of his pitchers and ultimately makes his job easier.

“For me, the biggest thing is understanding me from a catchers’ standpoint,” Shafer said. “I want him to understand what I like to do, not necessarily call pitches that he thinks are right, but call pitches that I do well. I think a lot of catchers call what they think may get the hitter out, which isn’t necessarily wrong, but that might not be what I’m good at. So don’t call pitches just because you think that’s going to get the guy out, if that’s not my strength. I think at first me and Reese, that was the learning curve, because he’d have his ideas of what he likes to do and since we had just got him, that was kind of the struggle at first. But that’s with any new catcher.

“I think a good catcher, as soon as a new guy walks in, he walks right up, ‘Hey, what do you want to do? How do you pitch? What do you like to use? What’s your strikeout pitch? What’s your pitch to get back into counts?’ And Reese does that.”

McGuire said having a strong grasp of a pitcher’s skillset is only part of the equation.

“Also just personally getting to know the guy,” McGuire said, “to where when you’re working together, obviously they have the trust in you with each finger you’re putting down for what pitch you want, that they believe you’re not just throwing numbers down there, you’ve got a plan.

“And that, for me, is the fun part of it, is where you get to know each guy, build that relationship, and then it’s fun when it pans out ... and you find success and you help guys. Because that’s one thing in my position, where there’s quite a few pitchers that will be going up to the big leagues as well at some point. So for me, when a guy gets called up, it’s exciting for me as well, just because I feel like we kind of worked it together.”

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