The Fire to Win: An Interview with Sam Huff
In writing the feature for the Hickory Daily Record, I had a bit of a writer’s block. I found the subject of this interview, Sam Huff, to be a multi-faceted person and there were so many directions in which I could’ve steered the article.
For the HDR writeup, I chose to go the route of the guy that had his baseball fire sparked at the age of five. As I mentioned in the article, there is a fire there that burns in the baseball soul. This kid wants to win and he wants to win however necessary.
I interviewed Huff a day after a game against Rome during which he and pitcher Jean Casanova put together a clinic on how to change the plan of attack against a lineup when the original plan didn’t work.
The night before, I had talked to the two of them about the game. A minor blip on Huff’s night was getting the golden sombrero (4 strikeouts in a game at the plate, for those that don’t know). When I asked him about that, while he wasn’t happy about the strikeouts, in the grand scheme of the game itself, he didn’t care. His team won. He had a part of that win because of the work as a catcher and that’s all that mattered to him. He repeated the mantra over and over, “I just want to win.” I left without the expletive that was a part of one of those statements.
So, inside of a measured speaker, that fire is there and the more it smolders.
There were other areas we touched on in this interview: his development, his leadership, and his curiosity for learning. I think readers will see that curiosity when reading through the interview and how he seeks to soak up information.
Both Huff and catching coordinator mentioned the influence of former Crawdads catcher Jose Trevino on Huff. So, I tracked down Trevino to get his perspective on Huff and what stands out to him.
Said Trevino about Huff:
“He’s different. Swings different. Throws different. He’s a special kid.
“He doesn’t know how dangerous he is yet though and I think being in his first full season, he will start to figure it out. He’s like that baby snake that doesn’t know how poisonous it is, yet. But sooner or later he will know when to strike and how much he needs to take down someone.
“He always wants to learn and he’s always picking my brain about everything! I like being around the kid because he still needs that person to check him back into place at times. It looks funny, a 5’8” dude telling a 6’8” dude something that will help him.
“But yes, a very special kid with a lot of talent. I don’t really compare him to a player in the big leagues right now cause I don’t think you can. Sam Huff is Sam Huff. He’s going to keep getting better and he’s always going to want to learn. Great ballplayer and a better person!”
However, Huff is not just a student for the sake of being a student. He wants to lead. He wants to lead his team. He wants to lead his pitchers. Huff doesn’t appear to be a person to lead in such a way that gives the feeling he that wants the world to revolve around him; he wants to figure out how to make his teammates better—so they can win.
Here is the interview with Sam Huff:
First of all, your three-headed monster at catcher, I guess, is now down to two with you and Pozo. How did the three of you work together where you’re not getting total playing time behind the plate but you’re having to figure that out?
Huff: At the start it was kind of different because we’d play like Melvin, me, Pozo, Melvin, me, Pozo and we kind of had to work off of that. It was kind of hard to get into a rhythm and a groove. Then we’d finally start to get the hang of it and we were like, “Okay, this is our day.”
The day before that we’d get focused on watching and studying. Then the day of, we’d talk to each other. Melvin would say, “Hey, this team is good at hitting fastballs” or “This team likes to hit offspeeds and the fastball away” or “They’re a fast team, so then like to bunt or run.” We just had to almost give each other reports to keep us in the game and to help our pitchers.
Because, our goal is to help our pitchers. Us three together, we knew we all had to come together and help each other, because overall, we want to be good and we like to see each other do good because we’re winning. What I said last night, we like to win and have us three catchers calling good games and our pitchers in the strike zone and keeping them in good rhythm. It helps a lot to talk to each other.
Was it hard to get the pitchers into any kind of consistency, though, when you have three different voices coming at them?
Huff: Yeah, because pitchers will want to throw to a different guy, or to one or the other, but we just had to work with it. We had to learn our pitchers by talking, then catching the bullpens, catching the sides and getting an idea of what they like to do. So, every day I didn’t catch, and it was my off day, I would go to the bullpen and catch all the relievers. That’s the biggest part is every night, you’ve got a new guy coming in. You’ve haven’t caught them in two weeks and you don’t remember the ball movements. My biggest thing is I can remember my pitchers.
I live with four: Tyler Phillips, Joe Barlow, Josh Advocate and Noah (Bremer) – he’s coming back from the rehab. I talk to them. I always work with them. I know them like the back of my hand. I love them and it’s just good to talk to pitchers because then they tell you what pitchers think like from a perspective of what they want to do, how they want to do it. What’s their strengths and what’s their weaknesses. How they rank their pitches. That comes into play because you’ve got to know, if he doesn’t have his fastball, what’s his second best and go off that. You can’t just say, “Okay, we’re going to go to his third best,” and that’s not his strength. You got to work to the strengths of the pitcher and understand them.
There’s so much that goes into catching, not just handling the pitching staff, obviously the defense, then you’ve got to come out and bring a stick to the plate and hit. Then, there’s so many intangibles. What’s the biggest thing you are working on right now, at this level?
Huff: The biggest thing is being consistent behind the plate, catching, calling the game, maintaining a good pitching staff and how I want to approach hitters. Last night was a really good thing for me as a catcher to learn. If a plan doesn’t work, we can work off of it where we can modify it a little bit. We don’t have to flip the script and get a whole new plan. We just build off of it. It was really cool to understand that. Here’s a team that’s a fastball hitting team. They don’t like curveballs, so, okay, we’ll pitch backwards now. As a catcher, when I see that, it’s going to be easier to call because you understand, because I’m right here and the hitter’s standing right there. So, it’s easier for me, but it has to come from the pitcher, too.
Learning that as a player and hitting and just being consistent. I’m just working on some stuff. Overall, I don’t try to focus too much about hitting, because the biggest thing for me is to become the best catcher and I want to be the best.
What made you decide you wanted to be a catcher in the first place? You guys take a beating and there’s so much going into what you do at the position.
Huff: I didn’t catch my whole life. I played short when I was little, third, first, the outfield and pitched. I didn’t pitch in high school. I played first base my freshman year.
I watched a guy named Tommy Joseph and Matt Wieters and Joe Mauer. I liked the way they did their catching. I just kind of said, I want to be a catcher. I went to a guy in Arizona – he was Tommy Joseph’s catching coach. Tommy was in the (Arizona) fall league at the time with the Giants, so he’d come and watch and hang out. It kind of got me triggered there. I was in my sophomore year. In my junior and senior year, I caught.
It’s been different. I didn’t think I was ever going to be a catcher when I was younger. I thought I was going to be a third baseman or a first baseman, or the outfield type. It stuck with me. I liked the way it is, that you’re in every pitch. You’re not just standing there, but you’re doing something to help the team win.
What is the thing you think you bring to the position? You were playing other positions and now you’re fresh behind the plate. What did you bring to the position that you thought would make it work?
Huff: I thought I received well. I caught the ball. I threw the ball good and I could throw guys out. Blocking, I had to work at it and I’m still working at it, but it’s becoming one of my strengths. I just felt like I could catch and throw really well. I felt like I could bring energy as a player and being able to control my team and help my teammates out, because I want other guys to be good.
To be able to see a catcher, even though he’s down, but he’s still up and going, that’s a leader. I’m just trying to fill the role, because it’s something I want to be, but it’s something I’ve got to work at. Every day I’m working and I’m talking to guys that I feel like are leaders to me and they tell me how they do it and I try to copy that.
Who are the leaders to you?
Huff: I feel like Clay Middleton. He’s a really good guy to look after. Tyree Thompson, Tyler Phillips, I could go on. I feel like everybody, in some aspect of the way, is a leader to me. They show me things that I can do different, and they tell me things that I can do different, and I show them things that I’ve improved on that they could do different. So, it’s really cool. As a team, I try and incorporate everybody as a leader. It doesn’t matter how you lead, if you’re just a quiet guy or if you like to talk a lot. If you’re a leader, you’re a leader.
You mentioned some guys that got you interested in catching like Mauer and Tommy Joseph. At this stage of you career, who are you looking at as someone you’d like to model your game after?
Huff: I’d like to model my game after Mike Piazza. He wasn’t the best catcher, but he could hit. He’s a Hall-of-Famer, so you can’t say that he’s not that bad of a catcher. But, I really like to model my game after him, because watching video, he had the mentality of, he’s going to beat you. He doesn’t care about you. He doesn’t give, you know what, about you.
He plays hard. He wasn’t given the opportunity, he had to work for it. I like watching him as a player, because he had the flow. He had the mentality to just go out there and play to show everyone that he was better than they thought he would be.
(Rangers catching coordinator) Chris (Briones) will come in and say, “it’s time to fill my guys up.” What does a guy like Chris bring to you when he comes on a visit?
Huff: We talk about what I can do different and what I’m doing good at. What things he’s seen that I’ve improved on, or I need to improve on. Lately, we’ve just talked about being consistent behind the plate and getting wins, being consistent with the blocking, the throwing, the receiving, calling. I love Chris and love when he comes here and we talk.
We always bring up Trevino because we’re in the same agency and we always talk. I always talk to Jose, so I ask him little things and he just tells me what’s the deal and how to do it. It’s really awesome to have a guy like that talk to me. It’s really cool.
What are you looking at as the next step of development for you?
Huff: Just getting better every day at everything. I feel like I can get better at everything. There’s always something I want to improve on. I feel like once I start to get the hang of hitting, then everything will come together. Overall, I want to get better at everything. I’m always anxious to learn. Briones, he knows that and I’m always talking to him about stuff. So, it’s always cool to have him here and pick his brain a little more.
You get a call that says you’re going to the major leagues? Who’s the first person you call?
Huff: My parents. My dad first. He’s been there since the start, so he would get the first call. Then my grandma and grandpa, and then my whole family members and my coaches and friends.
Who is the biggest factor in your career that is not a family member?
Huff: As crazy as it sounds, my dad’s best friend, Marty Maier, a pitching coach at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. We talk all the time and he’s been playing for a while.
He was kind of the first guy I talked to in baseball when I was a five-year-old kid. He’s a pretty funny guy, but he told me, “This game ain’t easy, but you can do a lot if you just apply yourself. Play every game like it’s your last. Never, ever take anything for granted.” I took that to heart and I really love this game and I like to play.
I thank myself every day and I thank my parents. I thank everybody that’s helped me along this journey. Even though I’m in the ups and downs, I still remember what would I rather be doing: going to school or playing baseball for a living? When you tell yourself that, you really take it to heart. I’m playing a game that’s a kid’s game and I’m having fun with it. So, I try not to take anything for granted. For him doing that and telling me that at a young age, that was really cool and I thank him for that every day.