Many thanks to Matt Kramer, Michael's rep from his website Barrett Baseball, for helping to make this interview possible. Thanks too to all the BCB readers who submitted questions for Michael, making this a true community interview.
BCB: In calling a game, how much work do you do with video to study batters and prepare a game plan for attacking opposing hitters and (2) do you do most of this or does Larry Rothschild help and (3) how much does the starting pitcher collaborate with you on a game plan? Finally, if the game starts and the starter's curve is hanging, or the fastball is flat, do you have multiple "what if..." plans?
MB: We do a lot of film study. I think that part of the game is something that not everyone has the opportunity to see. Our coaches do a great job of not only helping us break down film, but also help us come up with a strategy to go after hitters with.
The starting pitcher and I do collaborate quite a bit on a game plan, and it's my job to make sure that we have a strategy ready. There are always going to be "what if" plans associated with how a specific pitcher is throwing, but the pitcher - more times than not - is going to start out a game by throwing to his strengths, as opposed to a hitter's weakness.
BCB: As a catcher, you have a unique perspective on the coaching staff, as you work with both the hitting and pitching coaches. What are the major differences in the team's approach to hitting now that Lou Piniella has taken over the team? Has Larry Rothschild changed any of his advice to you or the pitching staff, now that he has a new manager?
MB: It's probably too early right now to characterize the specific differences of the coaching staffs. Both Dusty and Lou are great managers. As far as the approach to hitting goes, it's important for me to work hard every single day to make sure that I'm maximizing my potential. I spent a lot of time this off season working in the cage, and getting ready for this season.
BCB: Last year, there were quite a few injuries to Cubs pitchers and thus quite a few rookie pitchers started. Rarely, though, do we hear about how you and Henry Blanco deal with it. How hard is it to handle so many different pitchers in a year, particularly young ones? And which of the Cubs' young pitchers do you feel is the most promising?
MB: Certainly last year was a difficult season for everyone who follows the Cubs, but I think one of things that I noticed is that there is some real promise with some of our younger pitchers: guys like Juan Mateo, Carlos Marmol, etc.
As with any new pitcher, young or old, it takes a little while to get to know their stuff, but there is a lot of promise with our younger guys. Even a guy like Ted Lilly should be considered "young." He's just over 30 years old, and he's coming into a new league, so I see a lot of promise from him as well.
BCB: When do you decide you need to go out and talk to pitchers? Do you avoid doing this if they are doing badly, or going well in a particular game?
MB: It varies. If I see one of our pitchers struggling out there with his emotions I will go out and talk to him. If one of our guys is really pitching well, then I'll tend to make sure he stays in his groove. I don't think catchers need to necessarily say a lot, but if we can help to keep a pitcher focused and keep his emotions in check then I think a trip to the mound is worth it.
BCB: Does the grind get to you? Along the lines of fatigue for you, pitchers sometimes have problems with control after long rain delays - does a rain delay ever bother your knees/shins?
MB: The grind of a season is very difficult for any ball player, catchers included. That's why it's so important to make sure you maximize my work that's done before games, after games, and during off days. When teams are traveling on the road in the heat of the summer for extended period of time it wears on anyone.
BCB: Regarding your success last year's offensively, was there anything that you changed at the plate, stance or cocking of the wrists, picking a certain pitch and location, or do you think you just seeing the ball better than years past?
MB: I just worked really hard on my approach at the plate. Just being in the Majors for a few years now, I've worked hard this off season on understanding how to prepare everyday to maintain my focus.
BCB: Do you have any preferences as to your slot in the batting order? Do you think you hit better in certain slots as opposed to others?
MB: I really don't. Wherever Lou wants to put me I'm okay with. If there is a spot in the lineup where I am helpnig the team, then I want to hit there.
BCB: Do you think that the responsibilities of catching has ever hurt your development as a hitter? It's sometimes said that catchers develop late because "they've got so many other things to worry about, they can't concentrate on their hitting as much." Do you think that's true and if so, is your recent development as a great hitter in part related to being more comfortable behind the plate?
MB: Sometimes it affects me. At times last season it was difficult to separate my catching responsibilities from my hitting responsibilities. I actually started as a SS/3B coming up through the Montreal Expos system, so I probably went through that transition later than most catchers out there today. I think it is true that catching is a really tough position out there, but I look at the fact that I need to be great at both catching and hitting as a great challenge that I want to face.
BCB: Do you have a book on the umpires? Just how much will the pitching game plan depend on the guy standing behind you? Just how much talking do you do behind the plate? Do you feel you can get into either the hitter's or umpire's head by talking with them?
MB: I think that I've got a pretty good relationship with the umpires out there. You really do have to have some sort of communication out there with the home plate umpire throughout the game. I don't talk to the hitters when they are up at the plate, but I'll say hello to them in other ways (throwing some dirt on their shoes, etc). The biggest thing for young catchers to realize is that I think it is smart for you to have some dialogue with the umpire, because you each have your own set of eyes and you aren't necessarily going to agree with where a pitch came in.
BCB: What are the pros and cons of today's catchers masks - hockey style, coated wire frame, etc. Which one do you prefer?
MB: I've worn both, and I prefer to wear the mask with the coated wire frames. It's a combination of a couple of different reasons, but it's important for me to feel like I'm as comfortable as I can possibly be during the game.
BCB: Growing up, which major league player or players did you try to emulate? And now, as a major league player yourself, who is your favorite current player to watch? Assuming that's a Cub, who is your favorite non-Cub to watch?
MB: Growing up in Georgia, I was a big fan of the way Dale Murphy played. He was with the Braves when I was growing up so he was probably my favorite major leaguer growing up. Also, my cousin, Scott Fletcher, was in the big leagues and I loved to watch him.
Watching some of the young catchers has been very enjoyable. Joe Mauer has really impressed me. I saw him last year when we played the Twins in Minnesota.
BCB: What aspect of the life of a major league baseball player is least well understood by the serious fan?
MB: I think the biggest aspect of life that well educated fans don't understand is truly the lack of privacy that not only we face - but that our families face.