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Mudville: April 13, 2024 10:25 am PDT

JD Closser

"It’s been a crazy ride coming from Indiana to the big leagues and now working in professional baseball still.”

Remember when the Atlanta Braves won 11 straight National League East Division? They dominated the sport with Hall of Fame pitching, proven winners and a brain trust that was as good as anybody.

That wall began in 1995 and resulted in six NLCS appearances, three World Series berths and one title.

As we gear up for 2024 Spring Training, the Braves are on another one of those runs. They’re more than half way to matching their previous dynasty and have racked up six straight National League East titles with one World Series along the way.

In many ways, the Braves are the model franchise for all of Major League Baseball. They have young dynamic superstars locked up in long-term contracts and are led by a who’s-who coaching staff of legitimate baseball men. Baseball lifer Brian Snitker is going into his ninth year as manager and he will have men like Kevin Seitzer, Rick Kranitz, Walt Weiss, Sal Fasano, Chipper Jones, Tom Goodwin and others along with him on his staff.

Another former big leaguer, JD Closser, is going into his fifth season as the Braves catching coordinator and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Closser! Looking forward to talking about your work with the Braves in your current role as the organization’s Catching Coordinator, but let’s start with your playing career first. Take us back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid?

I grew up in a small town in Indiana. I always wanted to be a baseball player as far back as I can remember. Growing up, I was a Cincinnati Reds fan. I liked a lot of the players from the 1990 team. Guys like Barry Larkin, Chris Sabo, Todd Benzinger and Eric Davis. From a catching standpoint, I really liked watching Benito Santiago. He was doing things nobody else was doing. I grew up listening to so many games on 700WLW with Marty Brenneman and Joe Nuxhall. I had the chance to go to the World Series in 1990. I just always knew that I wanted to be a professional baseball player and as time went on, I just kept working towards that and finally reached my goal of playing in the major leagues.

Were you always a catcher growing up? Was there a time in your development when you really started studying the position and seeing that as your future?

Playing Little League when you’re a kid if you have some arm strength and athleticism as a kid, they put you at shortstop and let you pitch. Growing up, I was told that the fastest way to make it to the big leagues was to be a switch hitting catcher, so once I turned 13 and started playing on a full field, I kind of migrated behind the plate which was what I wanted to do.

You were drafted out of high school in the 5th round in 1998. Was there a time when you started to notice scouts coming around and that you thought being drafted was a possibility?

At that time, travel ball was quite different. There weren’t so many teams around to play on. I was playing for the Indiana Bulls, the top travel team in the state of Indiana. When you start to go out and play against guys whose names appear in different publications then you start doing well against them, you start to think you have a chance to do this. Then between my junior and senior years of high school, I got a chance to play for the US Junior National Team in Canada. They had tryouts in Missouri and I made the team there. On that team we had guys like Michael Cuddyer, Austin Kearns, Matt Holliday and Koyie Hill. Once you’re around some of those guys and you’re playing at their level, you say to yourself, “Yea, I have a chance to do this.”

As a catcher, the one thing you’re looking for is for the pitchers to believe in you and trust you and that can be a difficult task as a young player.

That’s some team you were on! What was your experience like representing your country and playing on the US Junior National Team?

It was really incredible and probably one of the best weeks of baseball I ever played in my life just to make that team. They would tell me they need to see me come up left-handed and go the other way and I’d hit a couple doubles to left center. Then they would tell me they need to see some right-handed power and I’d hit a ball off the wall. Then they’d say they need to see me throw some guys out and I would. Anything I needed to have happen was happening. Then getting to be with them and travel from Toronto to Boston for games. We played against the Canadian National Team and then Cuba, Korea and Taiwan. The Junior National Tournament was amazing to be in and play against such talent on the world’s stage. It was incredible.

That leads to the 1998 Draft. What were your thoughts going into the draft and what did you think when your name was finally called?

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I had talked to scouts and cross-checkers, but I wasn’t sure who would pick me and when. I thought maybe the Blue Jays or Diamondbacks might take me. There was never a definitive thought about who was going to take me and when, so I just had to let it play out. Then I got a phone call from the Diamondbacks saying they took me in the fifth round. That was a really cool experience to go through.

After four really good minor league seasons, the Diamondbacks traded you to the Rockies in 2002 and you made your debut two years later. What was it like getting that call to the majors?

It was a dream come true. We were in Colorado Springs and my manager Marv Foley called me into the office around 4:30 in the afternoon. We had already done batting practice and he just told me that the team needed me in Denver that night. It was a straight panic rush to get all my stuff together. Colorado Springs is about an hour and a half from Denver when there’s no traffic, but it was already 4:30, so traffic had already started. There was panic about getting to the stadium on time. I had to talk to my wife and get her and my baby daughter in the car to get to Denver. I probably got there around 6:30 for a 7:00 game. I didn’t think I would be there very long because the reason I was there was that Charles Johnson took a pitch to the elbow and it had swollen up on him. It was just a whirlwind of emotions.

JD Closser of the Colorado Rockies in the dugout during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri on June, 2006. (Photo by John Grieshop/MLB via Getty Images)

It’s tough for someone in any position to get thrust into a big league debut with little notice, but I figure it has to be especially tough with catchers because of the amount of preparation you have to do learning new batters and working with different new pitchers. How do you handle all of that on such short notice?

It was maybe the third day I was in the big leagues and I walked by the lineup card and glanced at the bottom where they list the extra players. I didn’t see my name down there, so I had to do a double take and I saw my name in the lineup. It actually worked out well because I ended up catching Aaron Cook that day, who I caught multiple times in the minor leagues, so that made things more comfortable. When it came to the game, we were playing against Scott Podsednik, who was leading the major leagues in stolen bases. He got on base and tried [unsuccessfully] to steal second base within the first two batters, so I didn’t have a lot of time for the nerves to settle in. The Brewers had Ben Sheets starting that day, who was considered one of the elite starters in the league at the time.

That’s why I think it’s so hard to debut as a catcher. You have to worry about so much defensively, then go and face someone like Ben Sheets. How did you do against him that game?

He threw me a breaking ball which was his signature pitch. I lined it off Lyle Overbay’s glove at first base and got my first big league hit. Then he decided not to mess with me the next time and threw 96, 97 and 98 and I went straight back to the dugout. What an experience though!

You came back up for about the last 50 games of the season and played in 36 games. That pitching staff had a lot of veterans like Shawn Estes, Jamey Wright, Shawn Chacon and other guys who had been there for three or four years. As a new, young catcher, how do you make that adjustment to working with established pitchers that late in the season?

It is a difficult task as a young player. As a catcher, the one thing you’re looking for is for the pitchers to believe in you and trust you and that can be a difficult task as a young player. These guys are established and doing their thing. But if they see you putting the work in, they would be more apt to working with you. In the big leagues, you have so much more information than you do in the minor leagues. In the minors, it’s all based on past history and talking with your teammates about what these guys do.

At the big league level you have video and advanced scouting. There is so much more information and it makes it a little easier to get on the same page. When you look at guys like Shawn Estes or Steve Reed, or even Jason Jennings who was younger, but was already established, there’s a lot of stuff that goes into getting them to believe in what you’re doing. But I was fortunate that Charles Johnson helped me when I was there and Todd Greene was a huge mentor to me.

JD Closser of the Colorado Rockies prepares to for a collision with Orlando Cabrera of the the Los Angeles Angels in the second inning of their interleague contest at Angels Stadium on June 28, 2006. (Photo by Steve Grayson/WireImage)

Those are a couple of good guys to learn from. I wanted to ask about another of your teammates too, Todd Helton. Of course he was just elected to the Hall of Fame. What was it like playing with him? Did you view him as a Hall of Famer when you were teammates?

I was super pumped that Todd finally got into the Hall of Fame. Much of the knock on him was that he played in Colorado and that helped his numbers, but if you look at his road numbers too, they were right there as well. He was a Hall of Fame caliber player. Some of the things you saw him do on a day-to-day basis let you know he was different. When you start looking at some of the names that he put himself next to on some of those lists as far as accomplishments, it’s a no-brainer that he should be in the Hall of Fame. It took longer than it should have, but he’s in now and that’s all that matters.

I totally agree with all of that. I had some questions about your coaching career too. First, how did you transition from a player into becoming a coach? Was that something you always wanted to do?

I wanted to get into coaching because baseball was all I did my whole life. My last few years in AAA that was a lot of the things I was doing. I was helping to bring along some of the younger players, so it felt like a natural progression to me. It took a couple of years in between though, so during that time I opened a facility in the Raleigh, North Carolina area and did some lessons and ran some teams. That whole time, I was getting in touch with farm directors and sending out resumes and emails, hoping somebody would have something come available. I was fortunate enough that after a couple of years of trying, the Yankees called and had a position available, so I started my coaching career with them in 2014.

That’s a pretty good place to start! And you’re now with the Braves, who I really do believe is the model organization in the sport right now. Could you tell our readers what you are doing with the Braves?

I’m going into my fifth year as the catching coordinator with the Braves after doing four years with the Yankees as an affiliate coach. My last two years in New York, I was the catching coordinator there and after I was let go, Atlanta reached out and offered me the catching coordinator position. I’ve been here since 2020. As the catching coordinator, my job is to develop our catching philosophy in our catching department as a whole. Then I oversee our coaches and players that are in the catching side of the game. I oversee all of the catching in the minor leagues and the development of catchers for the Braves. Obviously, I talk with Sal [Fasano], our major league catching coach, to try to streamline the transition of minor leaguers into the big leagues, so we’re on the same page with the things they’re doing as well. I work in unison with him to develop the program we’re going to run in the minor leagues to get our coaches and players ready to compete at the major league level and help the Atlanta Braves win another World Series.

That’s great. I think the Braves has such a fantastic coaching staff, so to be a big part of that is pretty impressive for sure. It seems to me that many things about the catching position have changed dramatically in recent years. I am sure it’s much different from when your playing days too. What are your thoughts around the way the catching position has evolved?

Part of our job as coaches in general is to be open-minded to new ways of doing things. The old way a lot of times is a good way, but it’s not always the best way so you have to be willing to try new things. The availability of information at your fingertips makes it easier to transition into different ways of doing things. You have objective information in front of you to make decisions, so you’re not making decisions on what you feel or think or see. You have the physical ability to assess what’s going on. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride and transition into a new way of doing things and I think that’s where we are. That’s one of the reasons why the catching position has changed the past eight-to-ten years, because there’s so much information available. Before it was how a catcher throws or how he manages his staff. Now we can objectify how well of a receiver he is, how well he blocks, and all of these things. So now catching evaluation has evolved from just asking how well he throws guys out to the other areas of the game which we can quantify now.

As the Braves catching coordinator, you oversee so many different catchers throughout all of the minor league levels. I am sure they’re all different individually. How do you balance organizational philosophy with catchers’ individual styles or preferences?

There’s absolutely no doubt about that. My biggest thing is that you have to have your core principles, but you have to allow your coaches and players the freedom to explore how they’re going to meet those core principles. There’s not one particular way to get to the core principles. I think giving the freedom within the boundaries of what we believe in as an organization makes it easy for these guys to follow the path that’s laid out in front of them. We found through our data and research things that we find to be important and things that we think can help us win a World Series. However you get there, you get there. It doesn’t matter what it looks like or what the path is, the ultimate goal is to get to that point. I think that’s how you navigate the different personalities within your philosophy and overarching ideas of what should happen.

That’s really well said and with the success the Braves have had, it’s hard to argue against any of that. This has been really educational and I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us and share your story. Last question for you. You’re still active in the game, so this is ongoing, but when you take a minute to look back and reflect on what you have done in the game as a player and a coach, what are some thoughts that come to mind?

I think amazement is what comes into my mind. It’s such a small number of who have been able to play at the major league level. We tend to forget that sometimes, especially guys who are still in the fight. We’re around guys who are at the major league level quite frequently and it doesn’t seem to be as prestigious as it does to those outside of the professional game. When you put it into perspective that there have only been slightly more than 23,000 guys who have ever put on a major league uniform in 150 years, it becomes amazing. To be a guy from a small town in a basketball state like Indiana, a lot of people didn’t think it was a possibility that I could make it. But when you’re in the fight and you’re playing, there’s an expectation that you’re gonna do it. It’s been a crazy ride coming from Indiana to the big leagues and now working in professional baseball still. It’s a whirlwind and it’s amazing to have the opportunity to help the game grow and put it in a better place.      

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

Comments
  • Sandy DuBois

    Thank you for a great interview with my favorite, J.D. Closser from Alexandria, Indiana. Sandy (Hocker) Updegraff DuBois. sbdubois16@gmail.com

    February 18, 2024
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