JOLIET, Ill. – Before the Slammers’ Casey Fletcher decided to go to the California Winter League to learn how to catch, he needed a reason.
His father Darrin, a former major league catcher for the Dodgers, Phillies, Expos and Blue Jays, gave him one.
“He’s the one who threw me the glove,” Casey Fletcher said. “I was thinking, how am I going to prolong my career?
“He said, ‘Why don’t you try catching? You’ve got the arm for it. You’ve got the knowledge. You’re not the biggest, but as long as you block the ball and call a good game, you can do it.’ ”
The former Illinois outfielder has started 26 games behind the plate this season for the Slammers, who led the Frontier League East Division by four games going into Tuesday’s series opener against Normal at Silver Cross Field.
“I just try and do as much as I can,” Fletcher said. “Going to the California Winter League really helped me.
“It’s not only getting reps. It’s talking to people, talking to catchers who have been there, done that. It’s talking to (Slammers catcher) Joe (Staley) every day, especially in spring training.”
Fletcher hit .226 in 40 games with Joliet last season. The 23-year-old from Newtown was listed among seven outfielders on the 2016 spring training roster.
Two catchers, including 2012 White Sox 13th round draft pick Sammy Ayala, didn’t pan out in spring training and were released before the opener.
“I had never seen Casey catch,” Slammers manager Jeff Isom said. “I never heard him even talk about catching. He said, ‘I want to have a chance to catch for you.’ I’m thinking, ‘All right, that’s a very tough position. How good is he going to be?’
“He comes into spring training and looked OK. Now we’re 60-plus games in and he’s looking good behind the plate. He receives very well, he’s blocking the ball and he’s got a very good arm.”
The 6-foot, 180-pound Fletcher threw out River City runners trying to steal third base in the first and eighth innings of Sunday’s 6-5 win over River City.
Fletcher has had a bigger role lately with Staley on the seven-day injured list. Fletcher started eight of the past nine games, including Tuesday night.
“I felt more comfortable in the past couple of weeks, especially getting more game reps, getting more consistent playing time,” Fletcher said. “That’s been a big thing for me. It’s tough right now that we’ve got Joe out of the lineup.”
Fletcher has raised his average from .224 on July 9 to .253. He knocked in runs on Saturday and Sunday in a pair of wins. He has played in 37 games, with seven starts in the outfield.
Fletcher was the third-leading hitter (.326) for the 2015 Illinois team that won the Big Ten regular-season title and finished 50-10-1. He had an RBI single in his first pro at-bat last year against the now-defunct Rockford Aviators.
A left-handed batter, Fletcher believes he improved his chances to advance beyond independent baseball.
“It looks good, especially for scouts as it goes on later in the year,” he said. “I wanted to make myself more valuable as a player, being able to catch and do multiple things.”
Isom said every year there are a couple surprises, and Fletcher is “definitely one of them.”
“I wanted to go out and show I can do this,” Fletcher said.