"Being a major leaguer isn’t who I am, it’s something I did.”
Sometimes as fans, we lose sight of the fact at just how difficult a game baseball is. We watch players compete game after game and year after year and it just becomes routine to us. We lose perspective at how hard it is to master so many different skills to a level that very few people on the planet have ever reached.
Even when a player masters hitting, the most difficult thing to do in sports, they still have to understand the intricacies of the game and apply them in the blink of an eye while also playing a defensive position at an elite level—save for the designated hitter.
Imagine playing third base as an amateur so well that you are one of the few lucky people to hear his name called in the draft. Then after a first successful professional season, you’re switched to catcher. Now, in order to achieve the ultimate goal of reaching the majors, you not only have to progress as a hitter, but you have to master the most difficult position in the game. Seems like an impossible task, but there have been some who have done it successfully.
Adam Melhuse is one of those fellows and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
A 13th round pick as a third baseman out of UCLA in 1993, Melhuse played his first professional season in short-season A Ball in the Blue Jays organization. He played all 73 games as a third baseman before the organization switched him to catcher the following season.
Melhuse successfully made the difficult switch and by 2000, he worked his way to the major leagues. He played eight seasons, mostly for the A’s and Rockies, and 204 of his 229 career games came behind the plate. Melhuse has since got into scouting and coaching and has used his experience to help a new generation of players navigate the difficult waters of baseball development.
As he puts it, he may not have seen and done everything, but he has seen and done a lot, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Adam Melhuse.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Melhuse! I appreciate you taking the time to talk baseball with us. Before we get into your professional career, let’s go back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up in Stockton, California?
It was standard stuff, Little League and whatnot. Nothing like travel ball today. Fairly often, my dad would take me to see the Stockton Ports, which was the Single A affiliate for the Milwaukee Brewers at the time. One evening after school, my dad picked me up to go to the game. We enjoyed getting there early to watch infield-outfield and batting practice. I liked to go right down to the gate to watch the guys put their pine tar on their bats and get ready to play. That day it turned out that the only bat boy there had to leave, so the guy in charge of the bat boys asked me if I wanted to take his place. I went and asked my dad and he said I could. I did it for both sides and had a blast with it, so they asked me if I wanted to do it permanently, which I did.
You were drafted in 1993 and spent seven years in the minors before being called up. What was it like to finally get that call?
I got drafted by the Blue Jays as a third baseman out of UCLA and played my short season in the New York-Penn League as a third baseman. Then in instructional league, I was switched to catcher, so for the next six years I worked to learn that position. I signed as a minor league free agent with the Dodgers in 2000 and I had something in my contract where if another major league team wanted me on a major league offer, the Dodgers had to call me up or let me go. The Colorado Rockies wanted me in the major leagues, so my agent told me something was going break soon. The Dodgers had Todd Hundley and his backups, so I thought they’d let me go. But they called me up for a three-game series against the Mets. The first game I dressed for was Kevin Brown against Mike Hampton. The place was sold out and it was an unbelievable experience. To say I was nervous would be quite an understatement.
I didn’t get in any of those games, so they came and went. Then Adrian Beltre was coming off the disabled list and they needed a spot, which was mine, so they sent me out. The Rockies still wanted me, so that scenario played out about two weeks later and the Dodgers called me up again. We were playing the Cardinals and David Veres was pitching. I pinch hit in the ninth and struck out. Then they needed my roster spot again, so they told me that if I wanted to go to the Rockies, I could go. I went because it didn’t look like I could crack the roster in Los Angeles. I only had one at bat with the Dodgers, but to get your call up there with such a storied franchise and play in Dodger Stadium was something I won’t forget.
Adam Melhuse #17 of the Oakland Athletics warms up before a Spring Training Cactus League game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on March 22, 2006 at Phoenix Municipal Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
It was with the Rockies where you got your first hit and it came in a really unique situation. I’ve already interviewed Brent Mayne about this, but can you tell our readers the story of it from your perspective?
We were playing the Braves in Colorado and it got to the 12th inning. We went through all of our available players. They came up to me in the ninth inning and said they weren’t going to use me right away because I could play four positions and they wanted that versatility. We ran out of pitching, so they had to use Brent Mayne to pitch, and he got out of the inning unscathed. His spot was coming up and they sent me out to hit for him. He had a hand injury and couldn’t swing the bat. As soon as I stepped on deck, their bench coach [Pat Corrales] pointed out to me and said to Bobby Cox, “Look who’s on deck.” Jeff Cirillo was the hitter ahead of me, so they intentionally walked him to load the bases to get to me, which was the right move. I got up there figured the first thing that looked good, I was going for it.
Stan Belinda threw me a fastball that was middle but started to sink away. You know with sidearm guys like that if it starts low, it was gonna drop out of the strike zone. But this was up a little bit. I was able to get a good piece of the bat on the ball and lined it to left field for my first hit on the first pitch. After the game, our bench coach Toby Harrah told me that if we didn’t score, I had to go in and pitch. I was glad he didn’t tell me that before my at bat.
But my best asset as a coach is being able to look a player in the eye and say, “I know what you’re going through.” I spent six years in the minor leagues and six years in the major leagues. I can’t say I’ve seen it all and done it all, but I’ve experienced a lot of success and plenty of failure.
What an unbelievable story about your first hit. I doubt there’s any others like that. You ended up going from the Rockies to the A’s and got there in 2003, so it was after the Moneyball season, but before the book and movie. Did you see some of those principles around the A’s in 2003 when you got there?
The biggest part of it was the on base percentage stuff. It was their way of finding value. Even a few years later, they brought in Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza at the end of their careers because they were so good about getting on base and working the count. Those were the players they targeted, so I saw that. I was a guy who walked quite a bit too even though I was a first-ball fastball swinger. If I got a first-ball fastball, I wasn’t waiting around, but if not, I would work the count. One year in the minors I had 118 walks. At the time I didn’t quite understand everything, but I did notice we kept getting guys who would work the count and take their walks, but were also good hitters, like Milton Bradley. You didn’t need to be a genius to see what kind of guys they were bringing in.
In 2003, the A’s won the American League West and you got your first taste of the postseason. In Game 4, you went 3-4 with a triple, run and RBI. What was it like getting to the postseason for the first time?
That was an unbelievable experience. We jumped out ahead of Boston in the ALDS [two games to none] but couldn’t put them away. Starting Game 4 was another surprise thing and it was another blessing that I didn’t get much time to stew on it. Ramon Hernandez’s back tightened up, so it was a last-minute thing. It was a few hours before the game, so I was able to prepare though. Getting a chance to play in a postseason setting in Fenway Park was unbelievable. Getting some hits to help out was amazing too. There was so much riding on every pitch. It’s hard to describe, but it was just so electrifying. Coming out on the wrong end of it was a downer, but the experience was unforgettable.
Adam Melhuse of the Oakland A's hits a line drive against the Los Angeles Angels at Angels Stadium Anaheim, California on September 29, 2006. (Photo by Steve Grayson/WireImage)
The postseason at Fenway Park is about as intense as it gets! Having spent eight seasons in the majors as a good defensive catcher, who were some of the pitchers you enjoyed working with?
In Colorado, Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton were great. What a great career Pedro Astacio had too. Then in Oakland obviously there was the big three with Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson. They had different ways of going about their game. Joe Blanton and Rich Harden were some of the best young arms in the game at that time too. They were unique in their own way. Catching any of those guys that I mentioned, I always felt to an extent, “Oh crap, don’t mess this up.” If it wasn’t a good game, it was probably my fault. That might be drastic, but that’s how I envisioned it because that’s how good their game was.
I took a lot of pride in trying to be a good catcher, even though I was converted to the position in pro ball. I came to the position late but felt like I was an adequate defensive catcher with a solid arm and quick release from being an infielder. Being on the A’s was where I found myself and blended in. Oddly enough, growing up in Stockton, California, we liked to go to A’s games instead of Giants games because Candlestick was windy and cold. Getting a chance to play for the A’s was really cool. That was the team I rooted for. I graduated high school in 1990, so the 1980’s A’s were the teams I went to see.
You’ve done so much in baseball between playing, coaching and scouting and have been so involved from the 1990s through today. The game has changed so much through those decades. How have you been able to adapt yourself along with the game?
It’s been a challenge with the analytics and now biomechanics have entered into the game. It’s a much different style than I was ever used to as a player; it was a bit of a learning curve. But my best asset as a coach is being able to look a player in the eye and say, “I know what you’re going through.” I spent six years in the minor leagues and six years in the major leagues. I can’t say I’ve seen it all and done it all, but I’ve experienced a lot of success and plenty of failure. I can empathize with a player. With that, you gain their trust. I could be a coach with all the answers, but they aren’t going to believe what I say if they don’t believe in me. There was a saying when I first started coaching, “They don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.”
There’s definitely a spot for analytics, but early on the pendulum swung too far that way because it was the new latest, greatest thing. A couple teams started doing it, then everyone jumped into it because they didn’t want to be the ones left behind. There’s value there, but there’s also value in having done it before. You can have all the great data, but if you can’t communicate it to the player and help them make the changes, it’s not as effective.
Texas Rangers catcher Adam Melhuse (right) warms up for a round in the batting cage during spring training practice on Tuesday, February 26, 2008, in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Lauer/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
That’s a great point and I always think that’s the best use of analytics. Coaches who have playing experience taking that data and applying it with players. It seems to me where things don’t make sense is where you have the analytic guys with little to no high-level playing experience trying to be the analytics guy as well as the coach.
Well, take for instance someone who has their fly ball percentage go up and their vertical bat angle going down. As a player, I’d say, “OK, that’s good to know. I realized that I was hitting a lot more pop ups, but why am I doing that and how can I fix this?” That’s the biggest part of it. You and I can go to a game and see when a guy is popping the ball up a lot. That doesn’t make us good coaches. We just identified the obvious.
That’s the perfect way to put it. This has been great, I really enjoyed talking baseball with you and hearing your insight on the game. I can tell you have a real analytic mind for baseball as a catcher and coach. Last question to end on here. You’ve been in baseball for about three decades. What do you think about when you look back and reflect on what you have been able to accomplish in the sport?
My first couple of years in pro ball, I thought that if I could even get one year or even just one week in the major leagues, I would be so excited and proud. I was able to do significantly more than I ever thought possible. I dreamt about it but didn’t know how much of a reality it could be. I was in the right spot at the right time and played against guys who were far more talented than me that never did get a chance at the big leagues for whatever reason. For that, I’ll be forever grateful. It’s something that will always be etched in my memory. I have a son and daughter now, 12 and 11. They weren’t born when I was playing, but they have seen some highlights here or there. They’re familiar with my career, but not too familiar with it. I think it’s a curse and a blessing, but they just know me as “dad.” Being a major leaguer isn’t who I am, it’s something I did. There’s more to me than that, but I will be forever grateful that I was able to have that experience and meet the teammates and coaches that I did along the way.