McKenry a stabilizing force behind the plate

Veteran catcher has plenty of experience working alongside young hurlers

McKenry a stabilizing force behind the plate

DENVER -- Catcher Michael McKenry isn't just the Rockies' resident psychologist in shin guards. He's also an expert on what lost seasons can mean in the long run from his time with the Pirates.

With injuries paving the way for their playing time during the Pirates' 2011-12 seasons, McKenry caught pitchers like Jeff Locke, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson, Charlie Morton and Justin Wilson as they found their groove in the Majors.

After Pittsburgh lost a combined 173 games those two seasons, it all came together last year. In ending a Pirates playoff drought that dated back to 1992, all six of the aforementioned young arms proved their worth in key roles.

"In 2011 and 2012, we had a lot of injuries," said McKenry, who signed a Minor League deal with the Rockies in January. "We were fortunate to have a lot of guys step up in 2013 because they had that experience in the past."

In his first year back with the organization that drafted him nine years ago, McKenry could use a rolodex to keep track of all the arms the Rockies have run through.

Splitting time with Wilin Rosario behind the plate, McKenry has seen 10 different pitchers land on the disabled list for the Rockies this season. That has forced a Major League-leading total of 15 different starters on the mound in 2014.

"You never dream that you're going to go through this many starting pitchers in a year, but it's part of the game," McKenry said. "As I've told these guys before, you can't ever take away experience. It's going to make us better down the line."

But how is it humanly possible for one catcher to learn how to handle that many delicate psyches? Well, by "keeping your mouth shut and your ears open."

"You've got to find out what makes them tick," McKenry said. "Some guys are bulldogs, you go out and slap them on the chest and say, 'Let's Go.' Other guys, you have to babysit them a little bit."

McKenry's job description has also meant analyzing seven Rockies pitchers who made their Major League debut this season.

"For a lot of young guys, it's just learning themselves," McKenry said. "Figuring out what is their strength, what is their identity, how am I going to pitch every single day, how much am I going to use the scouting report. ... At the end of the day, they've got to trust their stuff and trust what they see once the game happens and make those minor adjustments in the game."

And no one knows the power of minor adjustments more than McKenry. He was shut down for the rest of last season following surgery on his left knee in late July. While unable to play for the Pirates, he reflected on everything that was wrong with his swing by taking a step back and soaking up the sport.

"I had time last year when I got hurt to watch a lot of baseball," McKenry said. "All I did was break down guys. Some of my favorite hitters, I put them on my iPad. I watched them constantly and then I watched as much baseball as I could. I kind of became an extension of the coaching staff."

Now healthy, McKenry is batting a robust .347 for the Rockies. He still doesn't throw many batters out with a 13 percent caught-stealing rate (4-for-32) this season. But that's because he's more focused on giving his pitcher a chance to succeed by calling a clean game with an emphasis on blocking the plate.

In his latest start on Sunday, McKenry reached base a career-high five times in Game 1 of the doubleheader, registering four walks and single. Some may call his career-high numbers the "Coors Field effect" but McKenry refuses to let any Mile-High mumbo jumbo into his mind.

With three of his four home runs coming on the road and a .380 average away from Denver, McKenry has impressed away from hitter-friendly Coors Field.

"The biggest thing is to just not think about the altitude," McKenry said. "Everybody talks about it. It's the monster in the room. But at the end of the day, if you let it get to you, it's going to get to you. ... This game is all mental, so sometimes if you don't let things creep into your head, it's the biggest thing you can do."

It's all part of McKenry's master plan in molding what could be the future of the Rockies' pitching staff.

"This game is so focused on negatives and weaknesses," McKenry said. "If we don't have that positive reinforcement, a lot of times, it can just dig you deeper and deeper and deeper.

"You have to find positives out of every negative situation. This has been a very, very tough year. Our two best players are on the shelf, but the positive in all this is there are a lot guys here learning and growing. That's only going to make you better."

Cody Ulm is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.