Eric Fryer is one of four catchers on the Minnesota Twins 40 man roster. We know that Kurt Suzuki will be on the Opening Day roster, but who will join him? Will it be the offensive force that Josmil Pinto could be? Will Chris Herrmann’s versatility and athleticism put him in the role? Eric Fryer knows that his defense is what gives him a chance to make the Twins Opening Day roster.
I had the chance to talk one-on-one with Fryer last month at Twins Fest and got to learn a lot more about him and about what goes through the mind of a good catcher.
Eric Fryer was born in August of 1985 in Columbus, Ohio. He said, “Columbus is kind of a Cleveland/Cincinnati split, but I was always a Reds fan. My dad liked The Big Red Machine.”
And his favorite player? “I liked watching Pete Rose play, just how he always went hard-nosed and just went at it.”
Fryer became a star in high school. He attended Reynoldsburg High School where fifteen years earlier another Major Leaguer honed his skills. The player is someone that Fryer has emulated throughout his career.
“My favorite athlete was Mike Matheny. He was a catcher. We went to the same high school, same high school coach and everything. Talk about a guy who knows how to run a staff, knows how to block and throw and everything. I liked to watch him play as much as I could. He’s built a lot different than me. He’s a lot bigger than I am. It was cool. I got to see his Hall of Fame induction in our high school, got to meet him a couple of times, so it’s always been cool trying to follow in his footsteps. From the same hometown, getting up to the big leagues. So, I always emulated him growing up.”
Matheny had a 13 year major league career and won four Gold Glove awards behind the plate. He was the catcher on two St. Louis Cardinals teams that lost in the World Series. In 2012, he was named the Cardinals manager, and in 2013, he led the team to the World Series where they fell to the Red Sox.
Matheny went on to the University of Michigan. Fryer stayed home and played for THE Ohio State University. Following the 2007 college season, Fryer was the 10th
round selection of the Milwaukee Brewers.
After hitting .335/.407/.506 (.914) in the SALLY League in his first full season, he was traded by the Brewers to the Yankees for left-handed pitcher Chase Wright. In late June of 2009, he was on the move again, this time to the Pirates in exchange for pinch-hitter Eric Hinske. He hit .300/.391/.474 (.865) in 2010.
In 2011, he moved up to AA Altoona where he hit .345/.427/.549 (.976) in 37 games. On June 26, he was called up to the big leagues and made his big league debut against the Boston Red Sox.
It was an eventful debut. He started, batted eighth, caught James McDonald, and faced Andrew Miller. “I got thrown at in in my big league debut, and I had a collision at home plate with David Ortiz. So that was certainly memorable. He didn’t hit me super hard.”
He played in ten games for the Pirates over about five weeks before being sent down to AAA Indianapolis. In 2012, he played in six more games with the Pirates. Following that season, he became a six-year minor league free agent, and the Twins signed him quickly to a minor league deal.
He spent the entire minor league season with the Rochester Red Wings, playing for manager Gene Glynn. “For a while, we had like five catchers on the roster at one time. It’s pretty tough to get everyone some playing time, but the communication he had was very good. He let everyone know the plan. Down the stretch, him and (Red Wings pitching coach) Marty Mason, we got together and had a pretty good game plan as we put together a playoff push. They just really showed me how to lead, how I could lead the staff. They trusted my judgment, what I saw. They helped with the running game. For the most part, they gave their input and really encouraged me to do what I believe with the pitchers and it worked out well for us.”
When the Red Wings playoff run came to an end, Fryer was one of seven players promoted to the Twins for the remainder of September. The circumstances of his promotion were very similar.
As Fryer said, “In 2011 (in Pittsburgh), there were a lot of injuries. I think I was the eighth catcher the Pirates used that year.” He continued, “(It was a) Similar situation here with Joe (Mauer) and Ryan (Doumit) and the concussions. They needed an extra catcher. It was a fresh start for me. I was really excited to go up there.”
Fryer played in just six games
for the Twins, but hit .385 including his first major league home run, a moment he will never forget, even if it came in a game the Twins would rather forget.
“It was pretty cool. I hit it. It is a huge ball park, especially in left center, so I was busting out of the box thinking maybe a double. Then the umpire put his hand up and swirled it. Oh my gosh. I’m not really a home run hitter. It was a huge joy, but I didn’t really know how to act. I think it was 16-2 or 3 at the time, so I had to kind of be cool. Everybody in the dugout was great, smiling. Gardy, after the game, like he does for everybody’s first home run I guess, brought everyone together, tossed the ball to me. So, it was a really cool moment that they made special even though the game is one we want to forget.”
Since the offseason, Terry Ryan and others have continued to talk about the positive impression that Fryer has made within the organization. As any of us would, Fryer feels good about that. “I really appreciate that. It’s a big honor. It’s just nice to know that they trust you. Sometimes people worry that the backup catcher, whatever the role is, they’re going to derail it. You want to have a guy who will keep continuity with the staff and with the game plan every time out there. I think last year I showed I can do that. It wasn’t a lot of playing time, but when I went out there, I did some things that they liked. Did some things that the pitchers liked. So hopefully I can move forward and do the same thing.”
Fryer is known as a defensive catcher. So, what does that term mean to him?
“I think I have a pretty good relationship with pitchers. I think they know that when I’m back there, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing with the bat or anything. It’s me and them. We’re going to get through the game each time. I try to take it seriously, get stretched out, have a game plan. It was nice in AAA, I’ve been there a little bit so I kind of knew hitters, so that was a good part of the game. But, defensively, I think I do a pretty good job holding pitches, catching the low pitch, with balls in the dirt. They’re going to know that I’m going to do my best. Defensively, I’m going to do my best for them.”
Fryer is a smart guy and knows that the best way to learn is through playing, but also through watching how others prepare. “I love picking the brains of the older guys. When I was with the Pirates, I got to talk to AJ Burnett and Kevin Correia. It’s just nice seeing those guys, even if you’re not playing, to see how they go about their business, how they prepare for a game, what they look for with hitters. It’s nice to talk to a lot of those guys.”
So, how does he put all of that information into action during a game? In 2013, Fryer worked with many of the pitchers that we saw with the Twins.
“Communication is big, not only with the pitcher, but the pitching coach and the manager, especially in the minor leagues. All those guys, when they’re going good, they’re attacking hitters. They’re going after hitters. They’re getting ahead. Catching Andrew Albers, some of his complete games, he was Strike 1, 0-1. It’s a big advantage to the pitchers, puts the hitters at a huge disadvantage. I was catching Vance (Worley) when he was rolling down there in AAA too. (Caught Kyle) Gibson a lot. The recipe was pretty much the same. We attack with the fastball, get ahead of guys, and then you can start picking around and do what you want to. Always pitch to their strengths, that’s the biggest thing. Whether it’s not working that day, we’re going to get it going the right direction one way or another. If it doesn’t work, start getting hit around, we go to plan B. I don’t like them to be passive, I want them to be aggressive. Go after hitters. I think that’s been a big recipe of mine, calling pitches.”
Fryer is excited about the 2014 season and the signings that the Twins made, adding a couple of guys who have had a lot of success. “You want as many guys with playoff experience coming in here. Build a tradition, build it back up where there’s an expectation of going out there and winning every ball game. The moves that we made, it sounds like we’re moving the right direction.”
I asked Fryer about his goals for spring training, and if that included making the Twins Opening Day roster. He said, “I think all of us are planning on making the team, but in the past, I’ve had chances to do that. If you start putting too much pressure on results instead of working to improve every day, then you actually put yourself in a worse situation. So I think going out and approaching it the same way I have each spring, just each day get a little better, build up to the start of the season. Normally that puts me in a pretty good spot. I think all of us -- me, Pinto, Herrmann, whoever else is challenging -- we’re going to approach it the same way.”
But Fryer has a good perspective on this game. He fully understands his role as a backup catcher and dives into that headfirst. He is a guy that you can’t help but cheer for.
“You never know when it’s going to be your last time in the big leagues. So I just want to do the best I can and play with my hair on fire,” Fryer continued. “Every day, I just try to treat it as a blessing. You never know when it’s going to be done, whether it is injury or they’re just going to tell you you’re not good enough, so go out there and play as hard as you can and enjoy it.”