Sun, May 19, 2024

Finding and Being a Great Employee/Leader: Traits of the Backup Catcher

As many of my regular readers know, I am an avid sports fan and baseball is one of my favorite sports. As the 2024 Major League Baseball (MLB) season approaches, I have been fortunate to have discovered an MLB-related podcast entitled, “Foul Territory,” which has become a personal favorite. The podcast is regularly hosted by a professional broadcaster and three former MLB players (when one or more of the regular ex-player hosts are unavailable, they are replaced by other former MLB players).

One of the regular ex-player hosts is Erik Kratz, who had retired from MLB following the 2020 season after a 19-year professional baseball career, which included parts of 10 seasons in the MLB, mostly sitting on the bench as a backup catcher. While listening to the podcast, I learned that Kratz is the main subject/secondary author of a non-fiction book entitled, “The Tao of the Backup Catcher” in which the primary author, Tim Brown, chronicles what makes the backup catcher an important contributor to a MLB team’s success and how those who have the traits of the backup catcher are valuable and integral to their organizations’ success.

In today’s column, I will discuss those traits, how you should look for those traits in your current and prospective employees, and how you should embody these traits to be a better “player” and leader in your organization.

As presented by Brown, through the career of Kratz and anecdotes from the careers of many other present and former backup catchers (for example, current Braves coach, Eddie Perez, who many of you may remember as Greg Maddux’s personal catcher), we see what stands out most about the backup catcher is his ability as an informal and servant leader.

Since the backup catcher is often found at the end of the team’s roster, you might wonder how such a role player might be able to lead. The backup catcher is able to lead by doing the things no one else is willing to do without complaining and also getting the most out of his limited (relative to the teams’ stars) ability. The backup catcher has a willingness to “grind,” demonstrating a work ethic second to none. He is the first to arrive to catch bullpen work for all of the pitchers who need the work and the last the leave as he only gets to batting practice after having taken care of his teammates first. He is selfless and ready to do whatever the team needs, whenever it needs it. It is easy to be ready when you are in the starting lineup every day, but it takes commitment to always be ready “just in case.”

Backup catchers are known for their outstanding “soft skills.” These skills include having the knack for saying the right thing at the right time. They include empathy and being a good teammate. It means letting go of your ego to better your team. That is, being aware of what you do well and supporting those who do other things better. In business school, we find soft skills are much harder to teach than analytic and critical thinking skills. Therefore, when you find people who have them, you need to retain them, as they will make your organization better. MLB provides great examples of how backup catchers with these attributes help bring success to their teams and often end up in positions where leadership skills are paramount.

A great example of a backup catcher whose leadership and other traits helped lead to team success is David Ross, who some of you might remember as Brian McCann’s backup for the Braves from 2009 to 2012. He was recognized for those traits by Theo Epstein, an MLB executive with the Red Sox and Cubs for many years. His successor brought Ross to the Red Sox in 2013 and Epstein brought Ross to the Cubs in 2016, helping lead those teams to World Series titles in those years. Ross later went on to be the manager of the Cubs for four seasons from 2020 to 2023.

Interestingly, if you look at the 30 MLB managers starting the 2024 season, at least one-third of them have been backup catchers in either the major or minor leagues. This includes some of the most very successful, particularly Bruce Bochy, who has won three World Series titles with the San Francisco Giants and last year with the Texas Rangers, Kevin Cash, who has led the Tampa Bay Rays to the playoffs each of the past five years, and Brian Snitker, who has led the Braves to six straight division titles and a World Series title in 2021.  It is clear that MLB has realized that backup catchers have the skill set to be successful leaders.

Therefore, as a leader of your organization, you would be wise to identify your “backup catchers,” those servant leaders with strong soft skills, and do your best to retain them and provide them opportunities to lead. Additionally, you can help your career by embodying the mentality of the backup catcher, being willing to grind, willing to be selfless, being empathetic, and asking yourself, “What can I do to help?” and “What kind of a teammate am I?” Become a good backup catcher and you and your organization will be better for it! For more information, I urge you to read “The Tao of the Backup Catcher” by Tim Brown.

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