Blanke Eyes Bounce-Back Season In Hopes of Earning a Starting Role
When you look back on the season that was for catcher Mike Blanke in 2015, there is not much to make you think that he performed poorly. He played in 92 games out of the team’s 139 and was gone for approximately three weeks after being signed by the Boston Red Sox in May. While with the Flock, he compiled a .282 batting average, the highest since his rookie year of 2010, nine homers, 43 RBI and 42 runs. However, the year was anything but smooth-sailing for the Canada native.
“I didn’t feel like I was as prepared coming into the season,” Blanke said via telephone this week. “I started slow because I just didn’t have the at bats. I wasn’t able to lift anything after getting hurt because I couldn’t put a lot of pressure on my lower back. Having to deal with that and losing a lot of weight because I wasn’t able to get into the weight room, I didn’t feel as physically strong last year as I normally do.”
The injury he references was one suffered while in spring training with the Chicago White Sox. Blanke suffered severe stenosis in his lower back and the sciatic nerve which required an epidural. Dealing with the setback required him to miss most of a spring that already had presented him with a challenge.
2015 was going to be a transition year for Blanke after spending the previous season as a pitcher. Following four seasons behind the plate, he opted to take the mound in 2014 after the White Sox gave him the option of either going to their Advanced-A affiliate as a catcher or becoming a pitcher. Blanke had earned an All-Star selection the year prior with Double-A Birmingham in the Southern League, so he elected to reinvent himself as a pitcher rather than go back down a level in the minor leagues.
“Looking back now, I probably would have just went and played,” he noted. “Then again, I don’t have regrets because being a pitcher helped me realize a lot of things hitting and a lot of things I was good at. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself as a player in the minors, and I wasn’t always consistent because of that. I felt like once I saw it from the other side, it’s almost like that got taken away from me. I felt like I knew what I could do, how to mentally approach the game differently as a catcher, be a little more patient in myself and allow myself the chance to be more consistent.”
He also still had that itch to put on the gear and get into his crouch behind the plate. The lure of being involved in each and every game, and often on each and every pitch, was much more appealing for the University of Tampa alum.
“Watching games from the bullpen felt almost like I wasn’t really part of the team,” Blanke recalled. “When you’re pitching two innings every three days or so as a reliever, it’s definitely something that you have to either love or be fully committed to. I had a lot of feelings that I still wanted to catch, and I was very close when I was with the White sox talent-wise. I just needed the consistency. I knew that if I could mentally approach the game differently that would help me transition back to catcher.”
With an injury preventing him from both getting the at bats he desperately needed and building his strength back up to be a catcher, Blanke was left with few options. After being traded by the White Sox to the Arizona Diamondbacks, his new organization wanted to put him on the phantom roster in Double-A Mobile since they had no space on the active roster. However, that would not have allowed him to see live pitching and get regular at bats should he be needed at any point. Blanke instead opted to play independent baseball, and that’s when the Ducks took a chance.
“I was extremely thankful,” he exclaimed. “I don’t know what I would be doing without the Ducks. They’re the only place that really gave me the opportunity to get on the field and prove myself. I appreciate how patient they were with me because I started slow, but they kept putting me in there and were still patient when I eventually had my opportunity. They could have brought another guy in, but they trusted me and, I think, knew talent-wise that I could play. I was thankful for all of the coaches and management to be able to let me do that.”
When Blanke began the year with the Ducks, he served as the back-up initially to former big leaguer Jose Morales. However, injuries to Morales in early June allowed the 27-year-old to get more playing time. Blanke took full advantage, batting .355 for the month and compiling a .423 on-base percentage. Then on July 2, Morales suffered a season-ending hamstring injury while running the bases. His teammate behind the plate now had an open lane to the starting role and much more consistent playing time.
“It was unfortunate, but it gave me an opportunity to step in and play,” Blanke said. Once I got consistent at bats, I got more comfortable and started remembering and knowing things about how to hit. I went back to the same batting stance and style from when I got drafted and got back to what I was comfortable with. It seemed to benefit me doing that.”
At the moment, Blanke remains the only catcher on the Ducks roster. Last year, Long Island’s first catcher (Morales) wasn’t signed until March 12, and Blanke did not receive a contract until April 9. The fact that he was the first backstop to be signed this year, and that he was brought back so early, says something about what the organization thinks of him. Regardless of when the offer came, he is simply happy to be returning to a team that gave him the opportunity to keep playing and was so closely knit.
“I love playing there and the environment that it creates,” he stated, “especially with all of the fans that we get. It’s also good to have some of the guys coming back. I got real close with a lot of my teammates there. I felt like we had a great clubhouse, and that’s key for a good, close-knit team. It seemed like no matter who was in the locker room, it was still a close and fun environment to be around.”
This has been a common theme among the returners we have spoken to thus far. Last year’s team had the cohesiveness and looseness around it to accomplish anything it set out to. While they fell short of their ultimate goal, it was clear that the team on the field was composed of talented pieces that the organization desired and players that truly wanted to play on Long Island. Blanke knew the importance of keeping that bond intact.
“You definitely want to keep up that team chemistry because every player kind of feeds off of each other,” he noted. “Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn’t, but the best teams I’ve been on are the teams that really get along in the clubhouse and support each other on the field. It’s almost like you’ve got to be a team on the field and off the field as well.”
This year, the backstop will come to Long Island feeling much more ready for the looming 140-game schedule. He made it a point to return to the player he once was. Much of his offseason has been spent in New Mexico, where Blanke and his family now live after moving from Florida. His father, Gordon, still pitches him baseballs as he trains. After spending last year rehabbing and transitioning back into his role as catcher, he is now ready to take full flight.
“That’s what I’ve really focused on this offseason is getting back to more of a catcher’s shape,” Blanke said. “Training like a pitcher for a year, running and not lifting as heavy, it changed my body a little bit to be a little more flexible and have less power. This year, I went back to getting after it in the weight room to try and get myself ready to withstand a full season of catching. I feel like I’ve done a really good job of that this offseason. I feel prepared to do that.”
He went on to note, “I wanted to make sure that I got weight back in my legs. Everything comes down to running and lifting, and squatting has really helped me build my legs back up because I had lost a lot of strength in my legs. I feel like it did slow me down towards the end of the year since they weren’t as strong as they should be to withstand a full season.”
A lot of Blanke’s career has been defined by his abilities at the plate. However, he feels his work behind the dish is what will enable him to maintain a role as the team’s starting catcher. Blanke had thrown out approximately 30% of base stealers each season of his career, with a high of 41% in 2011 at Advanced-A Winston-Salem and a low of 29% in 2013 with Double-A Birmingham. However, in 2015, he threw out just 15% of base stealers in 78 games behind the plate with Long Island. That’s a statistic Blanke knows he can, and must, improve upon.
“Going from having to learn a new motion pitching to missing the time and reps in spring training to get my arm ready to throw to bases, I kind of lost that,” he reminisced. “I thought I was very inconsistent in my throwing to where I should be. I used to be very consistent with it.”
If he is able to improve upon those numbers, manager Kevin Baez will surely feel comfortable with Blanke in the starting role. It’s a spot that is extremely important to him, especially after all that he accomplished in the past year.
“I need more opportunity to show myself on the field, and I think I give us the best chance to do that back there,” he affirmed. “Getting to know the pitchers, especially the guys coming back, I’ve built a good rapport with them and won a lot of games with them. It seemed that once I got that consistent playing time I started playing better. It’s hard to get into a rhythm and develop a hot streak when you’re constantly having a day or a couple of days off.”
Blanke has put in the time and work to get back to 100% health and put himself in a better position to succeed. Now, it’s just a matter of translating that to the field once the season begins. With a full season of getting reacclimated to the position, both offensively and defensively, in the rearview mirror, it will be exciting to see what Blanke can do for the Flock this season.
Posted on February 25, 2016, in Player Signings and tagged 2015, 2016, Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlantic League, Catcher, Chicago White Sox, Jose Morales, Long Island Ducks, Mike Blanke, University of Tampa. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.