* Justin Atkinson (Surrey, BC) is a man of many trades and now he’s wearing the tools of ignorance at the Blue Jays instructional league camp. Atkinson, a former Langley Blaze infielder, was catching for the Jays when they played Demi Orimoloye (Orleans, Ont.) and the Canadian Junior National Team at the Bobby Mattick complex in Dunedin.
By Alexis Brudnicki
DUNEDIN, Fla. – Justin Atkinson has played every position on the infield, he’s moved to the outfield, and now he is learning how to be the man behind the dish.
The 21-year-old utility player from Surrey, BC is broadening his horizons and added another potential position to his ever-expanding baseball resume during the fall instructional league with the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin.
“There aren’t many positions out there that I don’t know how to play now,” Atkinson said. “So putting me behind the plate is obviously good for me. I’ve played everywhere in the infield, I can go to the outfield, and now I can catch, so I’m pretty valuable to whatever team I’m on. The coach can put me anywhere he wants and not have a problem. I think it will benefit me in the long run.”
Heading into the instructional league in September, Atkinson was coming off of his best offensive season. Though he only got into 77 games with the Lansing Lugnuts due to a wrist injury, the former 26th-round pick of the Blue Jays hit .291/.336/.355 with one home run, eight doubles, three triples, 34 runs scored and 29 runs driven in.
“I haven’t hit a lot here,” Atkinson said of the fall league. “I’ve just been working on catching a lot, but when I do get in the box I’m just trying to stay the same. They’ve mentioned that I should try to get more power out of myself and I’ve always wanted to do that but whatever comes, comes … I’ve had no problems with my wrist here.
“Everything is pretty sore from catching though.”
It’s a tough job, and one that the young player is continually learning.
“Catching properly is the hardest,” Atkinson said. “My thumb is taking a little bit of a beating. It’s a lot different than the other fielding positions that I play. I’m just trying to protect myself and obviously protect my thumb.”
There are a lot of aspects of the new job that the infielder-turned-backstop never really thought about before stepping back behind the plate.
“A good relationship with the pitchers and the umpires is pretty key,” Atkinson said. “And the catcher has to know pretty much everything and where everyone goes. It’s a lot of talking and a lot of communicating. I’ve got to be more vocal back there. In the other positions I can obviously let whomever is catching do that but when I’m catching I’ve got to do it.”
Atkinson is working with the best the organization has to offer, as a student ofSal Fasano during his time in Dunedin, a former big leaguer and Toronto’s minor league catching coordinator.
“Taking charge and being a leader, and taking care of your pitcher,” He said of what he’s learned from Fasano. “That’s pretty much it – just being vocal and becoming a captain out on the field.”
Learning from Fasano, Atkinson has gained a whole new perspective on the game.
“Sal has a couple classroom sessions [on] what to look for, if the hitter is this way throw him this, so that’s helped me with my hitting a little bit,” he said. “I’m trying to stay consistent with everything so obviously the opposing catcher doesn’t do the sae to me. The strike zone has opened up for me, knowing what actually is a strike zone. So I’m laying off more pitches and taking advantage of the things that I can do.”
Atkinson occasionally caught this year in Lansing when a third backstop was needed and the team was only carrying two, though it seemed only temporary then and he always had to use someone else’s equipment. He now has his own gear, courtesy of his agent, and a lot more to work on than when he was just in the bullpen.
“Calling a game is going to be hard,” he said. “That’s something I’ve got to work on. If they want something they will yell at me, which has happened, and then I’ll call that…but the one thing I need to really work on is reading the hitter, how they swing, throw this, why did you throw that – the pitching coach will be in your ear and everyone is in your ear.”
Atkinson got his second start when the Blue Jays matched up against the Canadian Junior National Team, his former program.
“It’s always fun to play against the Canadian guys and obviously see Greg [Hamilton, head coach of Team Canada],” he said. “The Jays give me crap when they come down here but it’s fun. It gets better every year. These guys can compete with us and obviously it’s a good program and I’m glad that I came out of it.”
During that game, the new catcher was able to find a new level of comfort in his game, though physically he was left with a new level of discomfort.
“Actually, I’m enjoying the catching part,” Atkinson said. “I’ve just got to learn how to catch it properly so my thumb stays alive, but it’s not easy. [Playing Team Canada], it hit me a lot and I felt like I was running underwater. It’s a lot on your legs and I’m very tired. Hopefully it gets a little bit easier …
“But I felt more comfortable, and it was my second time catching in a game. I’m still trying to get a better feel for it but if they’re putting me in a game obviously they believe in me and I believe in myself, so I just have to go with it.”
Atkinson is still in a period of adjustment, but is excited about the new opportunities that might await him.
“Not a lot,” Atkinson said of what he likes about catching. “You catch bullpens, you catch in the game; you take foul tips. It’s probably getting the chance to throw someone out but no one has tried to run on me yet. I’ll you what’s not fun – blocking. That will eat you alive…
“But I’m enjoying it. It’s a lot different for me but I’m getting better every day.”
– Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis