Baseball offseasons present an opportunity to get better. While many players focus on sharpening their skills, others are learning new positions. Such was the case with infielder Justin Atkinson. The Canadian-born prospect has transitioned to the catching position this past offseason and will most likely be playing there for one of the Blue Jays minor league affiliates this season.
It shows the kind of faith the Blue Jays organization have in Atkinson’s defensive ability, as catching is quite arguably the toughest position in the game. The young prospect already knows how to play the other four infield positions. Growing up a shortstop and learning the three bases at the professional level, Atkinson has maintained a .982 fielding percentage throughout his four year professional career.
Approached by the Toronto Blue Jays organization in August about learning how to play behind the dish, Atkinson admits he was both excited and nervous at the same time.
“I was shaky about the thought of catching at first, but then I thought about it and figured this could be a good thing for my career,” stated Atkinson. “Catching might be my fastest path to the major leagues. If the Blue Jays believe in me then I believe in myself, the organization thinks I’ll be a good catcher, so I’ll put the work in and I’m looking forward to it.”
“I’ve never caught in a game. I never had catching lessons either,” he added. “In Lansing, I joked around with it in the bullpen and they said if they needed me to go down there and catch they would have me do that. But that never happened.”
Obviously catching will require Atkinson to learn some new responsibilities, including monitoring the base paths and throwing out potential base stealers, which is a big one for signal callers. Another challenge will be calling good games for the pitchers. These skills were a few of the many areas the 21-year old worked on in the instructional league and will put to test this month in spring training.
The most important factor is that catching will give Atkinson a better opportunity to move up the ladder. Being relegated to a backup role in 2014 with a Lansing Lugnuts infield that featured Matt Dean, Dickie Joe Thon, Dawel Lugo, and Mitch Nay, the former infielder is looking to jumpstart his career at a position with less depth in the Blue Jays system.
The catching position is also a great fit for Atkinson’s bat. With catching known more as a defense-first position, Atkinson has an advantage as he hits well for that position. Carrying a .291/.336/.355 slash line while playing in Lansing, Atkinson registered eight doubles, three triples, a home run, and 29 RBI in 265 Midwest League at-bats.
Learning new positions hasn’t been a problem in the past for Atkinson. Giving up shortstop at the professional level to focus on the base positions shows the kind of versatility and work ethic the British Columbia native has in him, and hopefully these skills will transfer to catching as well.
“Playing the three different bases has been a different experience for me. I played shortstop all through high school and gave that up to focus on the bases,” said Atkinson. “I came to Lansing knowing that’s what I was going to do. At the beginning of the year I was playing first and DHing. Then I went to third which I enjoyed and then I got a chance at second which was my favorite of the three positions. Once Mitch Nay was promoted to Dunedin, I feel I filled in nicely at third. It doesn’t really matter to me where I’m playing, as long as I’m in the lineup.”
Be sure to follow Justin Atkinson in 2015 as he puts his off-season work on display with one of the Blue Jays minor league affiliates.