SAN FRANCISCO — Knowing that a concussion would keep Brandon Belt out of Saturday’s lineup, Bruce Bochy tried to give Trevor Brown a heads up. As the rookie walked past Bochy’s office and out of the clubhouse late Friday night, Bochy tried to tell him he would be making his MLB debut Saturday.
“I yelled his name and he didn’t hear me,” Bochy said. “I said, maybe that’s a good thing. He would get a good night of sleep.”
Brown, who spent most of the last two weeks at home in Valencia, found out he would be making his first MLB appearance when he walked in and saw his name on the lineup board. He was 0 for 3 in a loss to the Diamondbacks, but that couldn’t wipe the big smile off his face.
“It was exactly what I thought it would be,” Brown said. “That first inning, getting behind the plate and looking out, looking at the fans — it was exactly how I pictured it.”
You only have one first start in the big leagues, and Brown soaked it in. He had woken up his parents at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday to tell them he had finally gotten the call to the big leagues, and they made the trip to sit in the stands at AT&T Park. From the moment Brown walked into the park Saturday morning, he put his energy toward making sure he was ready to catch veteran Mike Leake.
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At 10:30 a.m., Brown walked across the clubhouse and talked Ryan Vogelsong and Jake Peavy. The two veterans spent about 10 minutes giving Brown advice, telling him all he needed to know about the Diamondbacks lineup.
“You don’t want to overload him, but you arm him with as much ammo as you can,” Vogelsong said before the game. “You’re trying to arm him with what you think is right, but ultimately you can tell him to do something but they’ve still got to execute pitches after that. Us talking to him is us trying to give him a better idea of what to call. He’ll sit down and talk to Mike and Rags, but we can put some ideas in his head.”
Brown did end up meeting with Dave Righetti and Leake, and also with Buster Posey. During that earlier meeting, Vogelsong’s focus was trying to tell Brown about the tendencies certain Diamondbacks have with runners in scoring position. Are they aggressive? Are they patient? Are they just trying to move the runner over?
Then there are the harder questions to answer: How exactly do you prepare a rookie to call pitches against Paul Goldschmidt?
“Obviously Jake and I have faced him a lot,” Vogelsong said. “We don’t have the answer, but you have an idea of what to do.”
At some point, Vogelsong gave way to just Peavy. Brown had caught most of Peavy’s rehab starts in Sacramento this season.
“I walked away because with both of us, I felt he was getting too much,” Vogelsong said. “How much is overload?”
Vogelsong, 38, hasn’t pitched much lately, but he smiled when talking about a moment when he could help a 23-year-old prepare for his first game.
“He seemed excited, and that’s a good thing,” Vogelsong said.
Vogelsong hoped the conversation had helped Brown in some way.
“Either that or he’s just going to forget everything once he gets out there,” he said, smiling.
Brown said the talk “absolutely” helped him on the field. A half hour after that meeting, Brown walked over to talk to Matt Duffy for a couple minutes. When Duffy made his debut, veterans told him not to look up at the third deck of the stadium. Did Duffy’s talk with Brown include that message?
“Nah,” Duffy said. “I’m pretty sure he’s looked up already.”
Brown — seemingly overcome by nervous energy — then made several laps around the clubhouse. One time he just stared down at clips on his iPad, doing some last-second studying. Later he walked over to some of his former River Cats teammates, who were confident he would succeed at this level.
“He’s a catcher I want behind the plate,” fellow rookie Cody Hall said Saturday morning. “He calls a really good game, he sticks the ball well, and he’s got a cannon. He’s a workhorse back there and he’s a tough guy. He studies a ton — I never had to shake. And he can run, he’s athletic.”
That’s a big part of what drew the Giants to Brown, who was selected out of UCLA in the 10th round of the 2012 Draft. The organization’s scouts saw Brown play first base, second base and catcher, and there was confidence that Brown could make the transition to being a professional catcher.
“More than anything with him, it’s how agile he is,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “You look at his build and the fact that this gives him a little more flexibility and a possibility to get to the majors. It’s always nice to have a catcher who can play different positions.”
Bochy, a former catcher, said he “takes it personally” sometimes when scouts say they’ll just move a guy behind the plate.
“A lot of times you see a guy and say, ‘Let’s make him a catcher,’” Bochy said. “It’s not that easy. The guys that do it, it’s impressive.”
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General manager Bobby Evans said Brown played 14 games behind the plate in his first year of pro ball, but the next year he played 76 games at second and caught just 12. In 2014 he caught 61 games but also saw time at first and second. Brown was just a catcher at Triple-A this year, but the Giants believe he can still handle the right side of the infield at this level. For a team that carried eight relievers most of this season, that versatility could be a huge boost. Brown has spent a lifetime preparing for the unique role.
He grew up a shortstop but played all over the field in high school, including games in the outfield and on the mound. Brown said he was “six-feet-two, about a buck-fifty,” and he wasn’t on Division I radars. But he grew up with current Indians starter Trevor Bauer, and the two played together at every level before joining forces at William S. Hart High in Santa Clarita. UCLA baseball coach John Savage came to see Bauer (later the third pick in the 2011 draft) pitch one day and Brown had a good game. The UCLA coaches took note of the unknown high schooler and less than a week later Brown was on a recruiting trip to UCLA.
“Trevor Bauer is the only reason I went there,” he said, smiling.
Brown went into every season at UCLA thinking he would transition to catching full time, but injuries at other positions kept moving him back to the infield. He played first, second and third, but still got about a quarter of his starts behind the plate.
The Giants saw enough to draft him, and they’re eager to see what he can do in a cameo role this month. Can Brown one day stick up here as a versatile utility guy/backup catcher?
“It’s going to be up to the bat,” Evans said. “But he’s a baseball player in a good way — in every sense of the word.”
Brown hit .261 in Triple-A this season with two homers and 17 doubles. The line doesn’t scream “big leaguer,” but if Brown — who coaches say has a “line drive swing” — can find the same incremental improvements that guys like Duffy, Kelby Tomlinson and Joe Panik have at this level, he could eventually grow into a larger role. The offensive standard for a versatile backup catcher wouldn’t be high, and Bochy and Leake liked what they saw defensively Saturday. The Diamondbacks stole three bases but two were taken with huge jumps off Matt Cain. Brown made a strong throw to second on the third one but it was low and skipped into the outfield. He showed an aptitude for framing pitches and Bochy thought he “received the ball well” and “looked calm.”
“He gave a pretty good target,” Leake said. “It would be nice to work with him more.”
After not swinging a bat for nearly two weeks, Brown grounded out, lined a shot to second and flied out. He’s hopeful he gets another shot at his first hit.
“I thought I was going to be a little more nervous,” he said. “I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be. It felt pretty good.”