Fox keeping eye on ball, and Orioles' backup catcher job

Versatile player knows he'll have to make impression with work behind plate

March 13, 2011|By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — In his perfect world, Jake Fox would bat 500 times in a big league season.

He would be an everyday force in the middle of a lineup.

And, since this is his carefully painted picture, he would be with the Orioles, the club that rescued him from oblivion last June in a minor trade with the Oakland Athletics.

Fox, though, is too busy for daydreaming right now.

He's locked in a battle with Craig Tatum for the Orioles' backup catcher spot. He's taking grounders at first and third base and shagging fly balls in the outfield. He's doing whatever he can to show Buck Showalter and company that he deserves to be on the Orioles' 25-man roster.

"I feel like I have found the right fit here. Now it is a matter of proving I can do it on an everyday basis," Fox said. "I need to be ready for my opportunities and take them where I can get them. Ultimately, hopefully, I will have a chance to be an everyday player someday, but at this point, to get my foot in the door, I have to move around."

Fox is doing his part this spring, batting .324 in 37 at-bats with three homers, four doubles and six RBIs. He has started games at first base, designated hitter, catcher and left field.

Showalter, however, said the club's primary concern is whether Fox can handle backup duties behind starting catcher Matt Wieters.

"I think initially he is here to show us he can catch," Showalter said. "We are aware that Jake is capable of going out and playing first and left field and maybe some third. Our focus here has been deciding whether he can catch well enough to be our [number] two catcher. Knowing that other things are a possibility certainly doesn't hurt him."

That mystery has enveloped Fox since he was drafted out of the University of Michigan by the Chicago Cubs in 2003's third round. Of the 113 games he has played in his three seasons in the big leagues, only 22 have been at catcher.

"I've always had the stereotype that I couldn't catch in the big leagues," Fox said. "But in the big leagues, it gets easier than it is in A ball because you have guys who actually know where they are throwing."

The basic stuff — setting up targets, throwing to second — feels routine to him. Now he is attempting to get better at the nuances of catching.

"To me the hardest thing about catching is handling the pitching staff and calling the game," he said. "I think that is the biggest part, and how I am getting evaluated. How well I call games, how well I handle pitchers and if I get the best out of them on a daily basis. I think that's the part they are really looking at."

Tatum, who was the primary backup for much of last season, is hitting .304 with three RBIs in 28 spring at-bats. He's considered the better defensive catcher, but he also has a minor league option remaining. The Orioles can't send Fox to the minors, however, without attempting to get him through waivers.

Fox likes Baltimore, and the Orioles like him on and off the field. He is one of the more gregarious Orioles, always joking with his teammates.

When he made his spring debut in left field this week, he sprinted to his spot and pumped his fist, to the amusement of the Orioles' bullpen.

This month, the club's top pitching prospect, Zach Britton, was incredibly amped up against the Philadelphia Phillies in his first start when Fox, who was catching, went to the mound to calm down the rookie with a little terrible humor.

Fox offered the following joke to the jittery Britton: "A sandwich walks into a bar. The bartender says: 'I'm sorry. We don't serve food here.'"

"Nothing. Crickets," Fox said, relaying Britton's reaction. "I was like, 'All right man, just come on, let's get this guy out.'"

Fox will talk to anyone on just about any topic. Get him started on college athletics — especially his beloved Wolverines — and pencil in an afternoon. He spent several minutes in the clubhouse recently mapping out a playoff format for Division I college football (conference championship winners only) to a group of relievers.

"He is high-energy, positive all the time," Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley said. "I really like him. But his bat is his main asset."

And that is, and has always been, the bottom line for Fox, 28.

"He's a professional hitter, he looks for pitches, he knows what he is doing. He is not just up there hacking and slashing," Presley said. "He can hit the ball the other way, but he can also hit the ball out of the ballpark. Sometimes that gives him a little bit of an issue, but he knows how to hit and knows what his limitations are."

Fox has batted just .236 in the big leagues, but he has 18 homers in 428 at-bats. He attributes the low average to not being accustomed to a part-time role after playing every day in the minors and college. It's another adjustment he is making.

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