Pierzynski plays to win games, not friends
Red Sox's new catcher's hard-nosed approach often clashes in modern era
A.J. Pierzynski has started 1,589 games in the Major Leagues, working at least 1,000 innings behind the plate for 12 straight years. He's a career .283 hitter who has delivered 172 home runs, including 44 the last two seasons. But the play Pierzynski is most remembered for came when he struck out.
Remember when Pierzynski, then with the White Sox, hustled to first base as Angels catcher Josh Paul rolled the ball back to the mound and his teammates jogged off the field in the 2005 American League Championship Series?
Nolan Ryan sure does. It was one of the reasons that he wanted the Rangers to sign Pierzynski a year ago.
"Not many players would have [run to first]," Ryan said. "I didn't think there was anything wrong with it. That was a heads-up play. If somebody's in the game mentally like that, I want him on my team."
Umpire Doug Eddings and Pierzynski might have been the only people at U.S. Cellular Field who felt the pitch from Kelvim Escobar had hit the dirt, but Pierzynski's willingness to look like a jerk turned into a key moment in the White Sox's ride to a championship.
The Red Sox will look to the 37-year-old Pierzynski to help them defend their claim to the World Series in 2014. Allowed to walk by the Rangers, he has agreed to a one-year free-agent deal with Boston, which turned the page on Jarrod Saltalamacchia after he fired the ball past third base to lose Game 3 of the Series.
Pierzynski may seem like a curious choice for the Red Sox, as general manager Ben Cherington rebuilt the team around well-liked, high-character players (Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes and Ryan Dempster ) last winter. But the reality is that Pierzynski is as professional as he is durable, even if polls have shown that he is unpopular among his peers.
When the Cubs' Michael Barrett punched Pierzynski after a home-plate collision in 2006, Barrett's approval ratings soared. But it was a legal play by Pierzynski, who slammed into Barrett as he stood in front of the plate awaiting the ball, even if baseball's unwritten rules mandate catchers should have ball in hand if a runner is going to bowl him over.
Pierzynski and Jake Peavy clashed in the White Sox's dugout at one point in 2012, and he and Yu Darvish had an animated discussion in a September game last season, after which Geovany Soto took over as Darvish's personal catcher. But a month earlier, Pierzynski had been so strongly behind Darvish's perfect-game bid in Houston that he got ejected by Ron Kulpa after a questionable walk.
In an interview last spring, Ryan compared Pierzynski to one of baseball's most competitive players.
"People hated Pete Rose," Ryan said. "Opponents always hated him. He was the least-liked guy in the game, but it was because he came to play every day, came to win. He was a gamer. He would do anything to help a team win. And that's what I think you get with A.J."
Maybe Pierzynski would have fit in better in another era.
"Remember when Alex Rodriguez said 'I've got it' on that popup [while he was running the bases]?" Ryan said. "Everybody criticized Alex, said it was bush league. I liked it. That was the way we played when I got to the big leagues. You looked for little things, little advantages, like the hidden-ball trick. If you could help your team win, you'd do stuff, anything. Now it's about what you're supposed to do, how you're supposed to act, and nobody likes to stand out."
Former White Sox general manager Ken Williams frequently gnashed his teeth because of Pierzynski at the start of his career, when he helped the Twins reach the playoffs in 2002 and '03. Williams needed a catcher after the '04 season, when the Giants non-tendered Pierzynski, and did a background check before signing him.
Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire probably didn't get a call, but he would have given him a favorable report if he had.
Gardenhire calls Pierzynski "a gamer" who plays the right way.
"We all know he is a different breed, he can irritate people," Gardenhire said. "But over here, we had a lot of fun with that. It just takes a little getting used to."
Believing that they needed to find out about Pierzynski's longtime backup, Tyler Flowers, the White Sox allowed Pierzynski to leave as a free agent after the 2012 season. Flowers hasn't emerged as a sure-fire starter, and the South Siders are still trying to find a solid catcher to fill the void.
Casting about for a long-term replacement for Jason Varitek, the Red Sox have used 10 catchers during the last four seasons. The left-handed-hitting Pierzynski figures to share time with David Ross and possibly Ryan Lavarnway while Cherington monitors the development of prospects Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart.
With Nelson Cruz suspended for the final 50 games of the regular season, the Rangers frequently hit Pierzynski fifth. He'll probably slot into the bottom third of the Red Sox's lineup, although with three openings remaining to be filled (center field, shortstop and first base) it's silly to write down an Opening Day lineup.
Few players are less inclined to take a walk than Pierzynski (nine unintentional walks in 529 plate appearances last season), so it will be interesting to see if the Red Sox's notoriously patient approach rubs off.
Pierzynski is not a clear upgrade over Saltalamacchia, whose career-best numbers in 2013 positioned him for a three-year deal with the Marlins, but he is a known commodity. And when the Red Sox play the Yankees next season, Brian McCann won't be the only catcher on the field with an attitude.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.