Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Getting to Know Astros Catcher Trent Woodward

Trent Woodward caught only five games in his first season after being drafted in the 20th round in 2014 out of California State University Fresno, filling in at first base and left field on a Greeneville Astros team with too many catchers, including highly ranked catching prospect Jacob Nottingham. But he was praised by Josh Bonifay, his Manager at the time, for his leadership and his work ethic as he filled in wherever needed.

Trent Woodward - August 2015
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Fast forward one season and Woodward became the Astros go-to guy behind the plate. If they needed a catcher to fill in, they felt very comfortable sending Woodward. Because of that, the second year draft pick started his season with a couple of games at AA Corpus Christi and ended it with AAA Fresno, spending time with Tri-City and Quad Cities in between.

By my unofficial count, Woodward caught 43 pitchers in game situations in 2015 and that doesn't even count the extra pitchers who he warmed up or caught bullpens for! I talked to Woodward recently and asked him how a catcher can possibly prepare to catch that many pitchers. He said, "A lot of it's just a process. I think you just have to enjoy it too. I love going up and talking to people and getting to know them and seeing what they like and what they like throwing in what counts, what their best pitch is, what they want.

But at the same time, all that preparation is good, but you have to be able to make in-game adjustments. Just being confident and instilling confidence in your pitcher and knowing maybe his changeup isn't working today; we have to use something else. Just being able to make in-game adjustments on the fly is extremely important. Simply communicating."

Woodward continued, "If you ask guys, they know what they want, what they want to do in (a given) situation. At the end of the day, I'm putting it down, but they're going to throw what they want, so you just have to be able to trust them and (be) prepared for any situation because you've done your homework."

Woodward felt right at home following his call-up to Fresno in late August. Having gone to college there, he still has many friends in the area and lived with a former Fresno State teammate's family. Friends, familiar faces and homecooked meals made the transition easier.

But going straight from Quad Cities to Fresno was a little overwhelming for Woodward at first. "I was in the bullpen warming up Joe Thatcher who has pitched seven years in the big leagues and, sure enough, the phone rings and they say, 'You're catching next inning.' And my heart started pounding. I started having a little mini heart attack because 24 hours before I was catching a game in Low A and now I'm catching a guy who's pitched seven years and I'm trying to stay composed and get my mind right. Dan Straily pulled me aside and (said), 'Don't get nervous and don't mess up!' And he kind of pushes me out of the dugout. And I'm (thinking), 'Oh, this is awesome, great, not like I'm any more nervous now.'"

Woodward continued, "So it was kind of fun. They razzed me a little bit, but then right after that first inning, they came up and gave me love and made me feel like a big part of the team. Once that first inning got out of the way, everything was smooth sailing. Hey it's just baseball. Slow the game down. And it was a lot easier to transition after that."

Woodward also credits teammate and fellow catcher Tyler Heineman with helping him. Of Heineman, he said, "He's got one of the biggest hearts. He was always looking out for me. Obviously, the jump from Low A to AAA was huge, and he helped with the transitioning, making sure I stayed calm, helped me communicate with the pitchers. I think he did a really good job of making the transition easier. (We) are similar type players so it was nice to pick his brain and see what he does as far as approach at the plate, how he catches, how the game is called differently between the levels. He helped tremendously. He took me under his wing."

Woodward caught a handful of games in the regular season, but never got into a postseason game as Fresno rode all the way to the National Championship with Heineman behind the plate. But he was still a valuable part of the team, warming up the bullpen pitchers and being ready just in case. Woodward was very grateful for the opportunity. "The fact that they needed a guy [when Max Stassi was recalled to Houston] and they thought about me means a lot. And when the (regular) season ended and they left me there, that they were confident enough that if something happened to Heineman, I'd be able to get the job done meant a lot as well."

During the offseason, Woodward was among a group of eight Astros farm hands invited to spend two weeks in the Dominican Republic, along with Alex Bregman, Jason Martin, Mott Hyde, Jamie Ritchie, Akeem Bostick, Brock Dykxhoorn and Thomas Eshelman (who was subsequently traded). They toured the area and worked out with the young Dominican Summer League Astros at the Astros facility there.

Woodward will carry with him a memory of a toddler he encountered in San Pedro, a young boy under two years old. He said, "It touched my heart because I have a nephew who's a year old and I can't imagine my nephew being in that situation ... dirty, no shoes, walking on rocks. It just kind of hit home because of my family background.

I handed him a piece of bubblegum. We go through a whole bunch of bubblegum during a game and I gave this kid a piece of bubblegum and it was amazing how he lit up. He was so ecstatic. I literally made his day. It's something that we take for granted. It's not something that we completely understand. A piece of bubblegum is no big deal to us, but it made his day. It was super powerful and moving."

Woodward was also moved by the poverty he saw, by seeing children the age of his younger brothers cleaning shoes for the equivalent of five cents. "I was sitting here taking it all in, but I try not to have a heavy heart seeing that side of a country. You understand more about the culture and the opportunity that baseball presents for young boys in the Dominican Republic and why they are so driven and why they have such strong work ethics, just because it's an opportunity for a better life," said Woodward.

At the Astros complex in Santo Domingo, Woodward enjoyed his time spent with the Dominican players, many of whom were only 16 to 18 years old, working out, hanging out, playing baseball and ping pong and just trying to relate and communicate. Woodward and the rest of the group took Spanish classes while they were there which helped them understand what it is like for the Latin players when they come to the States. "We (learned) how it is to be in an unfamiliar place, not speaking the language, But no matter what language you speak ... you were welcomed with warmth and a big smile," said Woodward.

That brought us to the topic of catcher/pitcher communications when the two don't share a native language. Woodward told me, " The Astros do a really good job of preparing the guys by helping them with English, but it's one thing that I do take pride in. I want to make sure that I can communicate because you really can't trust someone if you don't know them. So I have Rosetta Stone. I'm working on my Spanish to get better at it so I can communicate with them (and) build trust."

Woodward continued, "But there's baseball talk and there's off-the-field talk. You don't want to just be able to relate to someone on the field, but you want to relate to them off the field and find out what makes them happy, what makes them tick. The Astros do a great job, but that's something that I want to make sure that I can communicate and relate with them and connect with them on a personal level and not just on a professional level."

Woodward saw (and caught) a lot of talented players in 2015. During the course of our conversation, he singled out David Paulino's electric fastball, Chris Devenski's major league changeup and Dean Deetz's incredible slider off the top of his head. But he also noted that there are many pitchers in the organization who may not have plus-plus pitch repertoires. "They don't throw 95. They throw 90-93 and they have good command. They have good offspeed pitches so they can have success because pitching is all about keeping guys off balance. They don't have that filthy slider. They don't have that incredible changeup," said Woodward, citing RHP Keegan Yuhl as an example of a pitcher who has ridden his impeccable command to great success in his first two professional seasons.

I knew in my heart of hearts, though, who Woodward's favorite pitcher to catch in 2015 was and I put him on the spot. Was it OF Andrew Aplin? Woodward laughed and responded, "Without a doubt!" And then he proceeded to tell me the story of Andrew Aplin's pitching debut in late August.

The game wasn't exactly a blow out, but the Grizzlies were losing and were in the midst of playing 16 straight games. Tony DeFrancesco had already used four pitchers in the game, so it fell to outfielder Andrew Aplin to help save his bullpen that night. "Aplin came in and is pitching and sure enough, the first batter he faces is Alex Gordon (of the Kansas City Royals). Alex Gordon was down on a rehab assignment. We weren't allowed to call anything but fastballs. I wanted to get creative and mix in a cutter or a changeup, but there's no way they were going to let that happen. We're pretty much pumping fastballs up there and sure enough, he gets Alex Gordon to fly out to centerfield, pop up to centerfield, and gets out of the inning 1,2,3," said Woodward.

Woodward continued, "But my favorite part is that at the end of the game, we got him (the ball for) his first out as a pitcher and Aplin got Alex Gordon to sign it. I thought that was a real cool thing. First professional out as a pitcher, he's a position player and it just so happened to be against the World Series champion for the season in Alex Gordon. I can't tell you much about his stuff, but he competed like no other. He had a lot of heart out there."

2015 was one big adventure for Woodward. He knows that a repeat of AAA to start the 2016 season probably isn't in the cards for him, but he also knows that sometimes you have to create your own opportunities. He may have been sent to Fresno in late 2015 as a warm body, an emergency backup, but he gave it everything he had. He wants the Astros to think of him again anytime they have a need.

Woodward knows that where he starts the 2016 season is out of his control. "We can't control a lot of things in this game, but I can control how my attitude is and how my effort level is ... being a good teammate and going out there and getting the job done and performing. I've just got to go out there, be ready for Spring Training and, wherever they place me, play my butt off and see where it goes."

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Thank you for your time, Trent, and best of luck in the new season.

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