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San Diego Padres

Padres prospect AJ Kennedy knows defense, and people, come first

Photo by Bobby Demuro

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — AJ Kennedy is a people person.

You sort of have to be when you do what he does, catching in the San Diego Padres organization. A day in his life involves pre-game meetings (with coaches, and pitchers), scouting report breakdowns (same coaches, same pitchers), mound visits (ditto), the occasional lobbied call (umpires), small talk (any opposing batters that dig in the box), and occasionally some post-game chaos (a media member seeking a quote, or a fan seeking an autograph).

“You have to be a people person, and you have to make sure you’re friends with everybody, honestly,” Kennedy told Today’s Knuckleball before a recent game for his Lake Elsinore Storm in the California League. “I have to have the pitchers’ trust in me, and the first step to getting them to trust in me is to be their friend, you know? Treat all people with respect. If I want people to respect me, I have to respect them, too.”

That may sound simple and obvious—Kennedy’s parents would likely be pleased to know they’ve taught him well—but relationships, respect, and team-building get muddied in pro ball. Not only is this a high-stress environment, let’s look at Kennedy’s case just this year as evidence:

Entering Thursday, he has shuffled between Low-A Fort Wayne (16 games), High-A Lake Elsinore (39 games), and Double-A San Antonio (10 games). A week or two here, a month there, and a work flow that doesn’t lend itself to building relationships with pitchers that are merely temporary teammates. Therein lies the challenge of having to learn three different pitching staffs.

“I sit down with each pitcher personally, and I make a point to learn how they are, and whether I can get in their face, or if I need to take them more gently,” he said, noting the need to develop nuance in how he handles each separate pitcher. “I get to know them as a person. That’s the first thing. I’ll sit in the locker room and observe, see what kind of people they are, see how they react to the stuff around them. If they’re quiet, that might be somebody to be more gentle with, and if they are loud, it might be a guy to get in their face and get them fired up.

“And then I catch as many bullpens as I can when I’m first [with a new team],” he continued. “I’ll see how their stuff works, what their basic mixes are, and I write it all down in a booklet that I have.”

That Kennedy has a booklet full of personality traits and on-field information about every pitcher he’s caught ought to tell you about his commitment to being a defensive catching option for the Padres. The club’s 30th-round draft pick from Cal State Fullerton last summer, Kennedy knows defense is his path forward. Sure, that’s true of most catchers, but here’s something about AJ: He only hit .187/.273/.237 in his 110-game college career. To say he’s light-hitting would be, uh, putting it lightly.

“I was mad [about my batting average in college], but my catching, that had me behind the plate almost every game my junior year,” Kennedy said. “Catching is my biggest priority, making sure I’m flexible back there and calling the right pitches, because I can catch a long time in this game if I’m just solid back there.”

An exceptionally athletic catcher with a good arm, Kennedy can catch a long time if he’s solid behind the plate. There’s no question he wants to hit, though, and a .242/.304/.305 slash line through his first 89 career pro games is already a marked improvement over his metal-bat days at Fullerton, if you can believe it. That’s likely best exemplified by Kennedy’s biggest moment: On August 3, on the road in Lancaster, he slugged a solo home run. It wasn’t just his first homer of the season, or of his pro career—it was his first since high school.

“I hit a homer, yeah! I actually hit a homer,” Kennedy exclaimed, laughing, when asked about the big fly. “Man, I needed that. But it just shows what I can do, it’s a little glimpse. It shows I’m doing well here, and that my hitting is coming along too.

“But honestly,” he continued, always turning back to his primary focus, “some of my at-bats, I’ll be thinking about what I want to pitch to their leadoff hitter.”

 

Kennedy isn’t alone among catchers in how he prioritizes his glove work over the bat. In it, though, there’s an understanding here about what the Padres are prioritizing in him. After failing to crack .200 in college, why change his game in pro ball, where the pitchers are better and the at-bats more treacherous? Why not double down on the traits that make him exceptional already, as opposed to trying to be something he’s not?

That’s how it comes full circle for Kennedy, who finds his pride and purpose in building the careers of his pitchers. There’s a complete lack of ego in his personality, and his calming presence is refreshing. Then again, he’s a people person; he intuitively understands how to bring out the best from the pitchers around him, even sometimes to his own detriment at the plate, and he knows how to navigate tough situations.

“I really get my first good read on a pitcher when they hit adversity,” Kennedy said. “I like to see how they react to it, because baseball is a game of adversity. If they can overcome it, that’ll show what kind of person they are, and if they crumble from it, that’ll show what kind of person they are, too. You want to see them triumph over it, but whatever happens, you can really tell from cues like that.”

An uncanny ability to read people—especially in high-stress situations—is perhaps Kennedy’s most exceptional trait. It’ll never show up in a box score, and no statistical reading of his game will ever account for it. And yet, it’s also his most viable path forward.

“The offensive timetable for me is different, because [the Padres] want me to catch as well as I can, and they want my pitchers to trust me,” he said. “I know hitting is second to catching. I want to hit, obviously, and it would certainly help my career more, but my pride is behind the dish, calling pitches, blocking, and throwing.

“If the pitcher likes me, perfect, and if the pitcher doesn’t like me, I have to adjust to them,” Kennedy continued. “I’m only there for them. I’ll adjust to how the pitcher wants me back there, and do whatever they need.”

Spoken like a true people person.

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