For several seasons, Doug Mirabelli had a unique job for the Boston Red Sox.
The catcher, who played his last game in 2007 after 12 seasons with four different teams, was not particularly a threat in the batter's box — he finished with a .231 career batting average. He did not even take the majority of the team’s starts at catcher, but he was valuable to the Red Sox because they usually used him to catch for knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
While Penn State starting pitcher Steven Hill does not throw a crazy pitch like Wakefield did — although he joked that he’s “working on the floater” — J.C. Coban has exclusively caught for him in both his starts this year. The Nittany Lions have two capable starters at catcher, and have tried to use both so far early in the season.
In the second games of each of the three-game series the Lions have played, Coban has caught for Hill. The other starters, Dave Walkling and Patton Taylor, have been caught by junior Alex Farkes.
Pitching coach Jason Bell said the experience behind the plate, even if for one game every series, is helpful for Coban.
“You can’t replicate in-game experience, in-game speed…Everybody talks about wanting to have experience, well, the only way to get experience is to be out there,” Bell said.
Coban, a sophomore, said he does not think the cycle has much to do with anything, and that it simply worked out that way.
Farkes did not notice too much of a process, either.
“I think that was up to [head coach Robbie Wine],” Farkes said. “He puts out the best nine guys that he thinks are going to get the win…However we play in our previous games kind of dictates that a little bit.”
The Lions had a similar situation last season. There was not necessarily a set pattern of starts, but Farkes and Coban both received time at catcher.
While Farkes’ batting statistics were not as strong as Coban’s last year, the lineup isn’t hurt when Coban doesn’t catch. Coban owned a .311 average and collected 18 RBI in his 29 games played last season, and this year routinely makes an impact as designated hitter when Farkes catches.
The lineup adjustment is something Coban is content with.
“I love to hit, so I’m happy when I’m DH,” he said. “Of course you want to play every game, you want to catch every game. But at the same time, I got to keep my legs fresh, and he has to keep his legs fresh.”
Each catcher exhibits different strengths, which may have made the decision to start Farkes more often easier.
“Coban’s more offensive. That’s not saying he’s a bad defensive guy,” Wine said at the team’s spring media day session on Feb. 13. “But Farkes is more of a defensive guy, throws a little better. Coban probably has the edge on hitting.”
The situation has allowed Coban and Hill to develop a great chemistry. Coban said they are always on the same page, and Hill knows what is coming before he even puts his sign down.
“We were making pre-pitch, mid-inning adjustments in the last game, and it was like, I didn’t have to step off or do anything, ” Hill said. “I knew what he was going to do. But I mean, I have the same relationship with [Farkes]; it’s just the way it’s working right now.”
Splitting the catching duties could have other potential benefits, too.
The rotation almost acts as an insurance policy. If one catcher goes down with an injury, the other will be able to step in immediately, without any signs of rust, Bell said.
“The reality of it is in the catching position, you’re one foul tip away from only having one catcher,” Bell said. “That could happen pretty quick, so the fact that we have two quality catchers you can put back there and that get the job done is obviously huge.”
Even if each catcher’s abilities make the starting decision difficult, Bell does not see it as a bad thing.
“It’s a good problem for us to have as coaches,” Bell said. “You want to have that problem where you have two guys that deserve playing time but you only have one spot. So you try and keep both guys involved as much as possible.”