's 2010 season may have had a storybook ending, but his 2011 campaign is all about new beginnings.
Last September, the veteran catcher capped his fifth professional season with a walk-off homer that won the Southern League championship for the Jacksonville Suns. He was then called up to the Florida Marlins, playing in five games for the club over the final two weeks of the season.
But these highlights, significant as they were, weren't necessarily indicative of the direction in which his career was headed. Hatcher's championship-winning homer was his first postseason hit in 28 at-bats, coming after a regular season characterized by an endless flirtation with the Mendoza line. And the September call-up was as much a comment on the Marlins' temporarily depleted catching ranks (John Baker and Brett Hayes injured, Ronny Paulino suspended) as it was on Hatcher's status as a prospect.
These sobering realities bring us to the present, in which Hatcher finds himself in a rare (and potentially groundbreaking) situation. The 26-year-old is back in Double-A with the Suns, but now employed as a flame-throwing reliever. And so far the results have been promising -- Hatcher has compiled a 1.78 ERA and struck out 32 over 25 1/3 innings while holding opponents to a .198 average.
Suddenly, the Mendoza line is a good thing.
If Hatcher does indeed make it back to the Marlins, he would become the first player in Major League history to have successfully made the switch from full-time catcher to full-time pitcher. But this shift from behind the plate to on the mound does have precedent in his own career.
Hatcher had twice been called upon to pitch for the Suns (one in 2009, once in 2010), and in both instances he blew away the opposition. The Marlins had always been enamored with Hatcher's throwing abilities, and this coupled with his impressive cameos on the mound led to an intriguing offer: would he be interested in switching occupations?
"My reaction was 'Yeah!'" recalled Hatcher, speaking by phone prior to Tuesday's game against the Birmingham Barons. "I mean, I told them I had to think about it, but pretty soon I called back and said 'Why not?'" [The Marlins organization] gave me five years to hit, and it didn't pan out. I kept making adjustments that didn't work, so why not?"
"The velocity was there, and it had never been a question of arm strength for me. I thought maybe this would get me back [to the Majors] quicker, especially considering the guys [the Marlins] have in the bigs catching now," he continued. "My arm has always been my greatest asset, and both times I had pitched [in '09 and '10 with the Suns] I was throwing in the mid-90s. ... In one game the Mobile [BayBears] coach ran by and said 'What are you doing behind the plate?' I'm sure other teams thought that too. Hitting .200 sure didn't help my case."
Jim Fleming, the Marlins vice president of player development and scouting, seconded Hatcher's self-assessment.
"He has tremendous arm strength and a long lean body, the type that converts to the mound easily," he said. "His motion is effortless and he has good throwing action, all the ingredients we look for. ... The way we presented this to him was 'You can always go back and catch, but let's try this now while you're still young.' So far it's worked out well."
No matter what the circumstances, it's rare for a pitcher to begin his career in the relatively elevated confines of Double-A (commonly referred to as the make-or-break level of the Minors). But Hatcher hasn't had much of a problem making the adjustment.
"I know how hard it is to hit, hitting a moving ball with a round bat is one of the hardest things in the world," said Hatcher. "And having caught five full seasons, I know how to set guys up. I just need to repeat my delivery, throw strikes and stay healthy."
"He's been behind the plate. He knows how to call a game and he knows the nuances of Double-A. The only thing he needed was pitches," said Fleming. "When we evaluated him at Spring Training, his slider looked good and his change-up looked good. There was no reason not for us to be aggressive."
Life in the bullpen is quite a bit different from a life spent donning the tools of ignorance, but all things considered Hatcher doesn't seem to miss his old life very much.
"The best thing about it is waking up in the morning and actually feeling refreshed," he said. "My knees aren't barking and my lower back doesn't hurt. And as a catcher, you have to think out so many things before they happen that you go home after the game and feel mentally drained. Because you're not just worried about catching -- you're helping to position guys on the field, and scouting the other team and always thinking about their hitters and your pitcher."
"But as a pitcher, I'm just looking at one set of scouting reports," he continued. "It's just 'Boom! Who's this guy and what are his strengths as a hitter versus my strengths on the mound?' Catchers have it so much worse. I don't look at them as position players, I look at them as field generals. They're running things out there and always have that weight on their shoulders."
He can't completely leave his old life behind, however.
"I'll still be in the bullpen thinking like a catcher, like 'What would I do in this situation?'" he said. "We have a young catcher [21-year-old Kyle Skipworth] on our team, and if I see something I can help him with, I will. The catcher in me still comes out -- I grew up with it."
Hatcher also grew up with a bat in his hands, but that's been a significantly easier aspect of the game to say goodbye to.
"I don't miss hitting. I had five years to do that and I failed," said Hatcher, who then paused to re-evaluate this sentiment. "Well, I wouldn't say failed, but it was never as good as I would have liked. I tried it, and it just wasn't working out."
That pragmatic attitude has certainly played a part in Hatcher's smooth transition thus far. He's at peace with this new reality, enjoying a newfound lease on his baseball life.
"I just take things one game at a time, one pitch at a time," he said. "Wherever I land, I land. But right now I feel like I'm 12 years old again, having fun every day just by going out there.
"If you beat me, you beat me. That's how it goes. But if I beat you, even better."