By: Brian Frank
Rob Brantly is entering his first season in the Blue Jays organization, but his new manager has known the veteran backstop for some time. Bisons manager Casey Candaele met Brantly in the spring of 2016, when Candaele was Seattle’s first-base coach and Brantly was a catcher in the Mariners system.
“He’s passionate about the game and about how he goes about his business,” Candaele said recently of his new catcher. “He really takes pride in his catching and working with pitchers – and that’s big. It makes a big difference. He’s a good leader in the clubhouse. He keeps people on the right track as to what we’re here for and what we’re trying to accomplish. He gets his work in and he’s a pleasure to be around.”
“I knew him from Seattle when he was there, and he’s still the same guy,” the manager continued. “That’s why he’s been in the game for as long as he has been, and why he gets opportunities, because he’s a quality player and he’s a quality individual. It’s good to have him.”
Brantly brings a wealth of experience to the Herd. He began catching at a young age in Temecula, California, located about 85 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
“I got my first set of catcher’s gear, I think it was my fifth birthday party,” Brantly said in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “When I played in youth baseball, my dad made sure to play me everywhere so I’d learn the game really well and be a well-rounded athlete. But once high school hit, I was pretty much a catcher.”
Brantly brings a wealth of experience to the Herd. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
After starring at Chaparral High School, Brantly was drafted by the Washington Nationals. However, he made the decision to attend the University of California, Riverside rather than turn professional out of high school. He had two tremendous seasons for the Highlanders, slashing .316/.344/.454 during his freshman season and .373/.440/.569 and earning first team All-Big West Conference honors his sophomore season.
“Playing Division I Baseball was definitely a culture shock and a challenge,” he said. “Coming from high school, just getting to compete in the Big West League in itself, that whole time was a challenge for me because there was a lot of growth for me there.”
He was drafted once again in the 2010 MLB June Amateur Draft by the Detroit Tigers – and this time decided to pursue a professional career.
“I was sitting on my couch at my parents and I had a final that day,” he said of the day the Tigers selected him. “I remember how excited I was and how excited my family was when they called my name in the third round, the 100th pick.”
He continued with a chuckle: “I remember that overwhelming feeling of like – man I’d better pass my final.”
“But it was definitely a celebratory time for me and my family for all the work that we had put in because it wasn’t just me, it was my dad and everybody working with me that make opportunities like that possible. Both my mom and my dad were working and supporting me. So it was a pretty special moment.”
After working his way up to Triple-A Toledo, Brantly was traded by the Tigers along with pitching prospects Jacob Turner and Brian Flynn to the Miami Marlins organization for Aníbal Sánchez and Omar Infante. Later that season, while he was with Triple-A New Orleans, he realized a life-long dream when he was called up to the big leagues for the first time.
“I was stretching in the gym getting ready for the lineup,” he remembered. “Then I got scratched from the lineup and I was kind of thinking in my head – What’d I do? Why am I in trouble? So I was pretty nervous walking around the clubhouse. I was waiting for one of the coaches to call me into the office and tell me what I did wrong. For some reason I thought that was the reason why I was scratched. Ron Hassey was my manager, which was really cool because he was a great manager and he was a great catcher in his day. I remember him so nonchalantly looking at me and smiling and telling me I’m going to the big leagues. It was a whirlwind moment and a special moment.”
Brantly recorded his first major-league hit in the sixth inning of a game at Colorado’s Coors Field. After Giancarlo Stanton homered earlier in the inning to give the Marlins a 2-1 lead, Brantly stepped to the plate to face reliever Adam Ottavino with two outs and the bases empty. He promptly lined a double down the right-field line for his first big-league hit.
“In my previous at-bats I’d been getting into the hole, getting into two strike counts,” he recalled. “I was thinking I need to be more aggressive. I hit a first pitch heater and I was so excited that I was asking for the baseball before I reached second base. I hadn’t finished yet and I was yelling ‘I need the ball!’ (Jonathan) Herrera was the shortstop and he was laughing and looking at me by the time I got to second base because I was so excited.”
Things were about to get even more special for the then twenty-three year old catcher. After a series in Arizona, the Marlins headed to Southern California to take on the Dodgers in a three-game series.
“We went to L.A. which is home for me,” he smiled. “So in front of my high school classmates, in front of my college team and coaches, in front of all my family that came to the game – I was able to hit my first home run in front of them.”
“Moments are quick and when it happens, it happens. You’re taking it in really fast and it usually doesn’t set in until after – but I’ll never forget my high school pitching coach Mike Zides – he made it all the way down to field level almost in the stands. I could see him losing his mind with excitement as I crossed home plate, looking at me and giving the double bicep flex and screaming. I’ll never forget that. It was really cool to see everybody there and being able to share that moment with me.”
Brantly has now played for eleven organizations in a fourteen year career, including time in the majors with the Miami Marlins, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, and most recently the New York Yankees. During last offseason, he signed a minor-league deal with the Blue Jays organization.
“I’ve had my eye on the Blue Jays organization for some time – years really,” he said. “There’d been some interest in the past in me coming over here from them. But my interest in the team had always been really high because I’ve seen the transformation that they’ve had over time, especially with the development of their young talent that’s now in the big leagues reaching superstardom. You see the potential of a team that could be World Series champions multiple years in a row. So, of course, when you see something like that, you want to be a part of it. I’m excited to get the chance to be here and to perhaps maybe help them reach that goal.”
He's now reunited with his former coach from his Mariners days – Casey Candaele.
“Casey even back then when I was with him in camp, he’s just such a good personality in baseball, such a good influence on all of us here,” Brantly said. “He’s just incredible. He knows how to navigate the players’ emotions at this level and everything like that. Obviously, he’s a legend.”
Brantly at the plate at Sahlen Field. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Brantly was in big league camp with the Blue Jays throughout the spring and quickly made a positive impression on his new organization. In thirty-five plate appearances this spring in the Grapefruit League, he slashed .438/.486/.625.
“I was just so grateful for the amount of opportunities they gave me to go out there and to play,” he said. “I was glad to be able to do something with that opportunity because when you come to a new organization, the first thing you want to establish with your coaches, your teammates, and the front office is that – hey, you can trust this guy, and when the opportunity comes, this guy can do his job. So I’m thankful they gave me that opportunity in the spring to show what I can do.”
Coming to a new organization also presents the challenge of learning lots of new pitchers – both the Blue Jays staff in the spring, and the Bisons staff now. But the veteran catcher is up to the task.
“I would say that it’s something I’m acquainted with,” he said. “This is my fourteenth season, but my eleventh organization. So it’s been a lot of turnaround as far as learning new pitchers. Shortening that learning curve has really helped me in that process. The guys were so awesome to work with both at the major league and the Triple-A level. These guys really know themselves well and are able to communicate that with me, which has helped me in that regard.”
He's impressed with his new organization – both in their drive to win a World Series championship and to have every player in the system ready to contribute when their time comes at the big league level.
“Teams that are competing at this level are constantly pushing you to get better. It doesn’t matter what age you are because if you’re here, you’re a potential piece to help the big league team – who are competing for a World Series. They are steadfast in getting us better and making sure that when we get our opportunities that we’re ready.”
Even in his fourteenth professional season, Brantly is still striving to improve all aspects of his game.
“For me at this point, I have to be trying to improve every facet of my game every single day,” he explained. “It’s great to make major strides, but at this point in my career, if I can have consistent growth, whether it’s incremental growth or sometimes bigger. For me, it’s important to just push the envelope forward a little bit, whether it be my receiving, my throwing, my blocking, my offensive approach – it’s just constantly refining. Refining is incremental. Having that approach has, I think, helped me over the years and keeps me in a growth mindset. That’s typically where my head is at as far as improvement goes.”
He's excited for the upcoming season and likes what he’s seen from this Bisons team.
“I love the energy here,” he beamed. “It’s really great. The guys seem really grounded with what their goals are and what their process is. It was cool to see our bats come alive yesterday. Our pitching has been awesome the first few days. It’s about progress right now. Sticking with our process and making it more efficient and building that consistency in our day-to-day performances, and we’re just going to go from there.”