When Mike Nickeas was out-righted to Triple-A earlier this month and he elected free agency, I wasn’t exactly shaking in my boots. When it comes to the .180/.241/.238 career line he’s put together in parts of three seasons for the Amazins, I thought to myself, “Well, it’s not like it’s going to be hard to replace that kind of production.” It only took a couple of days before Nickeas re-signed with New York to a minor league deal, including an invite to Big League camp in February. Again, I felt indifferent, but it wasn’t until I read this article by Adam Rubin that helped me realize the importance of retaining him.
To summarize Rubin’s piece, he was focusing on Matt Harvey and his approach to off-season workouts as he prepares for his first full season in a Major League rotation. However, it was a span of about three sentences that caught my eye; when Harvey is not at home in Connecticut or in the New York area, he resides in Atlanta, Georgia. When it’s time for him to start throwing off a mound this winter, Harvey will be doing so to Nickeas, who also lives in the Atlanta area. In addition to Matt, Nickeas will also be catching for Zack Wheeler and Collin McHugh.
One of the most underrated parts of baseball is the pitcher-catcher relationship. When a hurler is throwing to someone behind the plate he’s comfortable with and trusts, the game goes a lot quicker (and has a better result) than when it’s the other way around. As a former player, I could see the difference in our starting pitchers throwing to someone they always threw to instead of pitching to the second-string catcher.
Now, that’s no knock on the backup, but there’s a distinct flow to a game when the battery on the diamond is in sync with one another. When things are good, no one notices, but when these two are not on the same page, nothing seems to come naturally. It just so happens that the team’s third-string catcher meets up with two of the organization’s best and brightest pitching prospects since those of Generation K to have bullpen sessions with them during the winter. I don’t know about you, but I think keeping him around just became really important.
Despite his lack of offense, many people affiliated with the Mets organization have nothing but nice things to say about Nickeas’ knowledge of the game, how to work with a pitching staff, and how to plan to attack opposing hitters. Some even say he’d make a good manager once his playing days are done. Keeping him around to mentor the team’s young pitchers, specifically Harvey and Wheeler, makes it worth retaining him. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Nickeas deserves to start behind the plate every time one of these two pitch, but he’s an integral piece of their current development into Major League pitchers, and his continued presence and guidance will help get them ready to hopefully be cornerstones of the Mets starting rotation for years to come.
So, to stay with my theme today of discussing minor deals potentially bringing back large dividends, the minor league contract the Mets signed Nickeas to on November 9th could be the most significant of them all this winter. He’ll be able to continue mentoring both Harvey and Wheeler during Spring Training, and will likely head to Triple-A with Wheeler as they put the finishes touches on him before he’s called up to Flushing, which has been rumored to be as early as the All-Star break.
Does having Nickeas around have that much of an effect on young pitchers? Who knows; it’s not as if he walks around handing out pointers to everyone, but they’re comfortable pitching with him behind the plate. When this happens, a pitcher trusts what a catcher calls, and they’re more willing to take risks and challenge a hitter instead of shying away from the situation. Whether this signing was a big deal or not, I have to believe hurlers like Harvey, Wheeler, McHugh, and others are happy he’ll be with the organization at least another year.