Like a five-star chef walking into a fast-food kitchen, Henry Blanco didn't have to exert himself to improve the catching in Milwaukee. Last season every game was a track meet for Brewers' opponents—Milwaukee allowed 177 stolen bases, by far the most in the majors. More alarming was how feeble a fight Milwaukee put up: Opponents had an 80% success rate. The Brewers might have caught more runners by installing a pitch-back screen behind the plate and letting balls ricochet down to second base.
Blanco, meanwhile, gunned down 37 of 96 base stealers in 86 games with the Rockies in 1999, his first season as a major league catcher. "As soon as I saw him, I felt like he was one of the better defensive catchers in the league," says Milwaukee general manager Dean Taylor, who acquired Blanco as part of a four-team, nine-player trade last winter. "I knew he was the guy I wanted."
Despite his tepid offensive production (a .226 average with 21 RBIs at week's end), Blanco, 28, has more than rewarded Taylor's faith. Base runners—of which there have been many, as no team has allowed as many walks as the Brewers—no longer romp around like caffeinated rabbits against Milwaukee. At week's end Blanco had thrown out 19 of 31 runners attempting to steal, a major-league-leading 613%. "We're at the point that we want teams to run" says Brewers manager Davey Lopes. "Good base stealers will get theirs occasionally, but a catcher like Henry eliminates everyone else."
The thieves Blanco has nailed would never guess that he took up catching only four years ago. Signed by the Dodgers as an 18-year-old third baseman in 1989, Blanco's progression through the organization was slowed by his less-than-intimidating bat. He hit a combined .247 with 61 home runs in 10 minor league seasons, and before the '96 season LA approached him about becoming a catcher. "It was a lot of work," says Blanco, who grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, "but it turned out great. Now I love to catch."
In his first season behind the plate, at Double A San Antonio, Blanco cut down 38 of 92 (41.3%) base stealers. He kicked around in the Dodgers' system for two more years, missing much of 1998 recovering from shoulder surgery and a broken right hand, then signed with the Rockies as a minor league free agent. By mid-season last year Blanco had become Colorado's every-day backstop. "Blocking balls, throwing, handling pitchers—he does all that well," says Lopes. "And he's fearless at [blocking] the plate."
That fearlessness cost him in April, when he was spiked by the Braves' Quilvio Veras. Blanco spent two weeks on the DL with a lacerated index finger on his throwing hand; in his first game back he nailed Arizona's Tony Womack, last season's National League steals champ.
An average major league catcher takes about two seconds to catch the ball and get it to second base; the Brewers' staff regularly clocks Blanco at around 1.85 seconds. "Henry's got an incredible arm," says Brewers coach Gary Allenson, "but his footwork toward the bag is the best I've ever seen." When Blanco nabbed Houston's Roger Cedeno on May 16, he was timed at a stunning 1.75 seconds. "Pudge [Rodriguez] is the guy all catchers measure themselves against, and rightly so," says Lopes. "Let's just say Henry is the best in the National League."