Entering the 2018 season, Timber Rattlers catchers Payton Henry and KJ Harrison had a tough act to follow. In each of the last three seasons Wisconsin had sent at least one catcher to the Midwest League All Star Game: Carlos Leal in 2015, Max McDowell and Mitch Ghelfi in 2016 and Mario Feliciano in 2017. McDowell and Feliciano are still catching in the organization and Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel included both in his recent roundup of top prospects in the organization at that position.
Henry and Harrison have embraced the challenge of following in those footsteps, and both were also included on Rosiak's list. Henry made it four consecutive years with a Wisconsin backstop in the All Star Game when he represented the Timber Rattlers in Lansing in June, and Brewers Field Coordinator and Catching Instructor Charlie Greene said he's pleased with how both players are developing.
"Payton's had a good first half, you know? He's had the bulk of the catching here, he's really progressed since coming out of Utah a couple of years ago. He's really turned a corner, he's played well all around. KJ's just new to the position, he didn't play much in college, so he's still learning on the job here," Greene said.
As Greene noted, Henry had a notable experience advantage behind the plate coming into the season. Drafted out of high school in the sixth round in 2016, Henry spent most of his first two professional seasons behind the plate in rookie ball.
Harrison, meanwhile, was primarily a first baseman and designated hitter in college at Oregon State, where he shared playing time with catcher Adley Rutschman. In his sophomore season at OSU in 2018 Rutschman set school records for RBI in a season (83) and hits in a College World Series (17) . He's a candidate to be taken first overall in the 2019 MLB draft.
"Payton's ahead, time-wise, of KJ. KJ just hasn't played that much. He's playing catch-up with guys his age, because he played mostly first base and DH. He's caught some. It's tough, but he's playing catch-up right now," Greene said.
Meanwhile, Henry has been asked to take on the lion's share of Wisconsin's catching duties. He was behind the plate in 58 of the Timber Rattlers' first 87 games, putting him on pace to catch 93 games this year. Working that often at that position would put him in pretty rare company: Max McDowell is the only other Timber Rattler to catch 90 or more games in any of the last eight seasons.
Despite his heavy workload, Henry's high energy level has not waned. He credited his training regimen for allowing him to remain healthy and effective through the bumps and bruises of a season behind the plate.
"I'm actually feeling really good. My legs still feel great, I think I've been doing the right things to help myself prepare for every day. So I'm feeling pretty good," Henry said.
Henry's power also has not suffered. He recently hit home runs in back-to-back games against Peoria.
"He just got back to what's he's used to in the beginning of the season," Timber Rattlers hitting coach Hainley Statia said after the second of those home runs. "He got away from his approach the last couple of weeks a little bit, and we had a talk, and you understand that he feels it too. And he's back on track, what he used to be in the beginning of the season."
The high demands on a catcher's time limit Henry and Harrison's availability to work on their hitting. Statia outlined the extra level of planning and attention to detail that goes into making the most of his catchers' time with him.
"He's got a special time that he has to hit in the cage because he's got to go catch bullpens and all that, so you make sure he doesn't take a lot of swings. It's more direct, what we're working on, instead of just going out there and taking swings to take swings. We limit his swings, work on what he needs to work on," Statia said. "It's quality, not quantity."
Henry and Harrison's time is at even more of a premium when Greene is with the team. Having a roving instructor in town means more time is put aside for early work before the day's normal activities begin.
"He just likes to see us and keep us working," Harrison said of Greene. "Obviously he's always watching video of us, critiquing us here and there on little things we can work on. He takes us here in the cage to do some early work. He does a really great job."
On top of the challenges of learning the catching position on the job at the professional level, Harrison is also working to overcome a slow start at the plate. As of Wednesday Harrison was batting .260 with a .506 slugging percentage in his last 28 days, but his overall numbers still lag well behind that.
While his offensive contributions haven't been all he was hoping for, Harrison has had a flair for the dramatic in big moments: Four of his seven home runs have come with runners on base and two have been grand slams, making him the first Timber Rattler with two grand slams in a season since Taylor Brennan did it in 2014.
"I just think about putting a good swing on it, getting a good pitch to hit and putting some runs on the board for the team," Harrison said of his approach with the bases loaded.
Despite a challenging year, Harrison said his development process behind the plate has been good and credited his coaches for their help with it.
"It's helpful when you've got really good coaches. To be able to pick everyone's brain and have them help me out and balance between hitting and catching, it's been great," Harrison said.
In the meantime, however, one of the biggest things any catcher has to learn comes from within: The ability and will to endure long days on and off the field through the grind of the season.
"I think all catchers have to deal with the bumps and bruises through the year," Greene said. "You're banged up, probably more so than any other position. But that comes with the job description. That's part of the job, you get beat up but you have to learn to enjoy it, I guess."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.