By Nick Patterson Herald writer
Marcus Littlewood is all in.
For most of his 20 years, Littlewood trained to be a shortstop. All of his baseball focus was put toward mastering the art of fielding ground balls and captaining the infield. His abilities as a shortstop are what prompted the Seattle Mariners to select him in the second round of the 2010 amateur draft.
But the Mariners envisioned a different future for Littlewood, and the baseball path Littlewood has followed his entire life was diverted. Now, less than a year later, Littlewood is fully committed to this new path. In his heart, mind and soul, he’s now a catcher.
“I don’t even have an infielder’s glove anymore,” Littlewood said. “I’m a full-time catcher now and I’m happy with it.”
Littlewood is back for his second stint with the Everett AquaSox, who begin their Northwest League season tonight at Tri-City. But this time the circumstances are different. Instead of an infielder’s glove, he’s toting a mask and a chest protector as he learns his new position on the job.
A year ago Littlewood was one of the brightest prospects on Everett’s opening-day roster, a teenage switch-hitting shortstop who was the highest draft pick on the team. He had his ups and downs with the bat, showing power and plate discipline (eight homers and 45 walks in 62 games) but inconsistent contact (81 strikeouts, .206 average).
Defensively he spent most of the season at short, showing good hands and a good arm. However, at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds and still filling out, questions lingered about whether his range would play at the major-league level.
Then, as the season wound down, he was approached about converting to catcher. All his life had been spent learning the nuances of playing shortstop. Now he was being asked to forget all he’d learned and start over from scratch. But being a team player, Littlewood was willing to give it a try. He finished out Everett’s season at short, then headed into the offseason dedicated to making the switch.
“He’s definitely been coachable about it,” said Everett coach Scott Steinmann, who’s assisted Littlewood with the conversion. “Once we started it in instructional league full time, he really took to it, he really enjoyed it. He had a lot of life he brought to the field every day because he was really enjoying it.”
Littlewood’s first lessons didn’t even involve a ball. They were spent getting his body physically prepared for the unique rigors of catching.
“For the first two months all we did was stretch,” Littlewood said. “That was the big thing. I didn’t even catch a bullpen for probably a month-and-a-half after I started getting down in my squat, because if you go into something like that you’re going to get hurt.
“(The stretching routine) is not really that different, you just have to take it a lot more serious,” Littlewood added, mentioning that the hips were where most of the work went. “I’ve gotten a lot more flexible, that’s for sure.”
Littlewood played sparingly during the instructional league, which took place last fall in Arizona. Then during the offseason he returned home to St. George, Utah, and worked extensively on his catching with the Dixie State College team, which is coached by his father Mike. Then he spent the past four months at the Mariners’ complex in Peoria, Ariz., further tuning his new craft
“He’s improving a lot,” Steinmann said. “He’s really improving at a good pace. I expect him to be a good, solid catcher and potentially one of the better catchers in this league.”
The technical aspects of catching, such as blocking pitches in the dirt and learning when to throw to the bases, are the areas Littlewood is still trying to master. He’s adjusted his throwing motion to be shorter so he can get rid of the ball quicker, and the footwork he learned at shortstop has translated well behind the plate.
But the mental transition has been the most intriguing. Littlewood has found that aspect the most challenging, but it may also be the area of catching that best suits the baseball-savvy Littlewood’s qualities.
“The biggest difference is definitely the mental aspect, even more so than the physical toll of catching,” Littlewood said. “When I started catching it was a challenge just slowing the game down. There’s a lot of stuff that goes through your head during a game: who’s on deck, thinking two pitches ahead, guys on base, looking at two-strike stances. There’s so many things you need to think about, and that’s probably been the No. 1 adjustment.”
Littlewood the catcher is still a work in progress, and this season is sure to be a learning one. But the deeper Littlewood gets into the position, the more he’s liking it.
“I love the transition,” Littlewood said. “I’m loving catching because you can control the game, you’re in every single pitch. At shortstop you might not get a ground ball the whole game, but at catcher you have to be dialed in the whole game. You have to take care of the pitching staff and be a leader on the field. I like that.
“Everything’s still challenging for me, I’m still learning a lot. But I love the move, it’s going to be great for me in the long run.”