NEW BRITAIN - James Skelton is known for his ability to handle a pitching staff.
Ask any pitcher in the New Britain Bees clubhouse about him and they will tell you the same thing - the catcher is one of the best, if not the best, in the Atlantic League. He knows how to call games and how to best utilize a pitcher’s strengths to attack opposing hitters.
“Skelton’s fantastic,” starting pitcher Brian Dupra said. “He makes things easy. He’s got a great mind for the game. He retains a lot of information. He’s a smart guy, so he’s a true ballplayer. It’s great to have him back this season.”
In 2016, Skelton helped four members of the Bees’ starting rotation get signed by Major League organizations. And one of the things that, in part, makes Skelton so successful is how he works differently with each one.
This season, the Bees have five pitchers - Joe Beimel, Brandon League, Jonathan Pettibone, Casey Coleman and Eric Fornataro - that have Major League experience as well as three others in Dupra, Kyle Simon and Chris Hayes that have reached Triple-A. The rest have been only to Double-A or lower.
Such a diverse group requires Skelton to tailor his approach behind the plate based upon who is on the mound.
The more veteran players know the routine and more often than not work with the catcher to refine the little things, such as mechanics or the location of a pitch, while with the younger pitchers Skelton often takes the lead to help make them as successful as possible.
“There’s really not much I can do for guys like Beimel,” Skelton said. “He’s gonna know how to get ready, what he’s doing wrong. He’s going to be asking me questions as far as look for this, look for that to get him back. He’s going to basically give me a game plan for him.
“The other guys that have time, Pettibone, he’s coming back from an injury so he’s going to want the basics, staying closed longer or not flying open, things like that, staying on top of or behind the ball.
“Those are going to be things I’m going to have to look for for those guys. And for the younger guys, just be the captain or the so-called the man on the field, putting down the right signs and then having them trust how I call a game.”
In the beginning of the season, Skelton will divert slightly from that philosophy, allowing each pitcher to get comfortable in their first few outings due to the limited spring training before getting into the mid-season routine.
At this stage, most hitters are behind in their timing at the plate, meaning pitchers are able to work on or adjust their pitches before the schedule gets going.
“I kinda just let the guys do what they want to do,” Skelton said. “They’re going to pitch to their strengths first and then we can go into the hitter’s weaknesses. I think that’s a better way to go. It’ll get them comfortable on the mound as soon as possible and then we can go into a game plan.
“From the beginning, I do know a lot of guys that are coming back to the league from all the teams and there will be a lot of guys that I don’t know that I’m going to have to figure out. We’re probably going to have a meeting on the hitters and go from there.”
Over the first four games, the Bees have seen some positive results, similar to those that ranked the pitching staff among the top in the league in almost every pitching category in 2016.
So far this season, Beimel, Pettibone, League and three others have yet to allow a run. Dupra, having gone the longest in an outing for the Bees at this point, gave up just one run in five innings in his start on Sunday, while the team ERA is just 3.33 with 21 strikeouts to eight walks.
“The guys that [Bees manager] Stan [Cliburn] brought in, he brought in some really good arms,” Skelton said. “It’s going to be exciting this season.”
If the Bees’ pitching staff performs like it did last season, whether veteran or younger pitcher, it should be an exciting season indeed, all with some help from Skelton.
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @DavidGlovach