'He will improve': Cubs bullish on Amaya turnaround

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CINCINNATI — Cubs catcher Miguel Amaya called for a Justin Steele slider with two strikes against Spencer Steer in the fourth inning on Friday night. The lefty agreed with the pitch selection and fired a breaking ball that enticed the type of swing both were looking for in that situation.

Steer swung over the slider, which broke down and met the dirt behind the plate. Amaya, who has excelled in the blocking department this season, could not corral the baseball. It skipped away and an inning-ending strikeout suddenly morphed into a two-out jam with runners on the corners for the Reds.

“That was a mistake on my end,” Amaya said via translator Fredy Quevedo Jr. following the Cubs’ 3-2 loss to the Reds. “It was just one of those things that happens, one of those details that made an impact on the game. The pitch broke pretty fast. I was trying to catch it. That’s when I lost it.”

On a night when Steele featured some of his best stuff of the season, it was an ill-timed gaffe (one deemed a wild pitch) that loomed large in the game’s outcome. Tyler Stephenson followed with a two-run double and Cincinnati added a third run in the fifth that held up en route to Chicago’s second defeat in a row.

Then again, when the offensive output consists of only two runs, the magnifying glass hovers over the in-game minutiae that swings the win probability. Amaya accounted for one of the runs, launching a run-scoring double off the left-field wall against closer Alexis Díaz in the ninth, but the earlier mistake behind the plate lingered in the catcher’s mind.

Steele did his part in trying to help Amaya brush off the costly play.

“It’ll probably be the last time it ever happens,” Steele said. “He’s such a good kid, such a good player behind the plate. This team needs him. He’s going to be so special for us, not just in the near future, but in the long haul.”

The Cubs have committed to the 25-year-old Amaya as their No. 1 catcher this season, with veteran Yan Gomes shifting to the backup role after being the first option last year. Pitchers around the room continue to rave about working with both catchers, even as the statistics do not paint a pretty picture.

Entering Friday, the Cubs’ catchers had combined for a 38 wRC+, indicating they were hitting 62% below MLB average. They had a .176/.222/.259 slash line as a unit. As the Cubs’ lineup has worked to move beyond its collective May struggles, the catching situation has created an extra hurdle for the team.

“It certainly has not been a strength for us so far,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said recently. “Yan had so many big hits for us last year and he hasn’t gotten going offensively. And I think Miguel will. He’s been cold.”

Amaya, who has been working through some swing tweaks with his setup during the season, has hit .195/.255/.281 with two homers, three doubles and 14 RBIs in 44 games for the Cubs. In his last eight games, Amaya’s production has ticked up with a 7-for-26 (.269 average) showing.

“Miggy’s gone through a couple of different phases here,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said recently. “He’s gone through an unlucky phase. He’s gone through a chasing phase. Missing pitches to hit. … We’re just going to keep going. I think big league at-bats for Miguel is a great teacher right now and, at his experience level, he will improve.”

While playing in his first season as the primary catcher, Amaya has also shown plenty of room for growth defensively.

Amaya has performed well with blocking, posting +2 Blocks Above Average, per Statcast, entering Friday’s game. The catcher was below average in Framing Runs (-1), Caught Stealing Above Average (-4) and Pop Time (2.03 seconds).

Steele said Amaya has a presence and desire for growth and improvement that does now show up on any leaderboards.

“There’s not a stat on Baseball Reference that somebody can look at for those kinds of numbers,” Steele said. “But when you’re around the guy every single day in the locker room — especially to be as young as he is and have the presence that he does and the personality, the work ethic — it’s all the makings of a future catcher for many, many years in the big leagues. It’s gonna turn around.”