LAKELAND, Fla. — Just prior to some spring-training happenings somewhat lowering high odds of a Yankees non-roster catcher with no major league time starting the season with the big club, Max McDowell’s elite catching skills became a hit on the internet.
The video of McDowell catching a pitch with his bare hand during a minor-league minicamp live batting practice wasn’t on par with Will Smith flipping out on Chris Rock during the Oscars, but 834,000 views qualifies as going viral.
Check out the seven-second clip. It’s amazing.
McDowell still can’t fathom how the swing-and-miss strike popped into his catcher’s mitt and then in a split second ended up in his bare right hand, which was near the ground and a foot to the right of his mitt.
“I call it a strike-of-lightning play,” McDowell said Monday before contributing two hits out of the nine hole in the Yankees’ 11-7 win over the Detroit Tigers. “It happened, then I looked around and said, ‘Did anyone see that?’ I don’t think it’ll ever happen again. I’ve caught a lot of pitches in my life and it’s not something you want to happen. You don’t want your hand getting hit. I got lucky. It kind of snuggled in there and nothing serious happened.
“People always ask me if I practice that. No, but it’s one of those cool baseball moments!”
A not-so-cool moment from last season brought McDowell unwanted attention. He became enraged during a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at Lehigh Valley game last Aug. 20 when Phillies minor league pitcher David Paulino hit him in the head with a 95-mph fastball after nearly beaning him in a previous game. McDowell charged the mound looking for a fight and ignited a benches-clearing incident, but he was tackled by the opposing catcher before getting to Paulino. McDowell was fortunate that he only suffered minor injuries and wasn’t concussed, but his actions led a three-game suspension.
McDowell was still angry after the game when he explained his behavior in an Instagram post in which he accused Paulino of having “malicious intent” without mentioning him by name because he has “no interest in saying his name or ever seeing him again”
“It just happened in the moment,” McDowell said on Monday. “You get smoked in the head and it’s one of those things like Mike Tyson. No one knows what happens until you get punched in the face. I got hit and I just popped up and what happened, happened. It’s part of being in the game. Never lose your fight of competing every day, your fight of defending your teammates or yourself. I don’t want to be remembered for that, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Yes, McDowell has some old-school catcher toughness in him even though the 6-foot-1, 208 pounder probably could pass for an Alabama quarterback with his All-American looks and cannon for a right arm.
His Opening Day chances aren’t impossible due in part to the Yankees’ early spring blockbuster trade that sent catcher Gary Sanchez to the Minnesota Twins and brought back a package that included Ben Rortvedt, a highly-regarded, defense-first receiver who gained some big-league experience last season.
Ever since dumping Sanchez, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has been on the lookout for a veteran catcher to bring in before Opening Day to team with Kyle Higashioka, who makes up for hitting for a low average with his receiving and power. The big-name catcher that’s out there is Cubs two-time All-Star Willson Contreras, who is available but at a steep price. All the while, the Yankees haven’t yet given up on Rortvedt getting into spring games later this week and logging enough reps by next Tuesday’s Grapefruit League finale to avoid starting the season on the injured list due to an oblique strain that is about fully healed.
And if all else fails, then the Yankees will go to their backup plan, which would be starting the season on April 7 with one of their four non-roster catchers. Rob Brantly and David Freitas have major league experience, but the best of the small bunch might be McDowell, who offers big-league catching, throwing and game-calling skills but not much offense from an average or power standpoint.
“The receiving certainly stands out,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of McDowell, who is entering his eighth professional season. “Defensively, just all around … whether it’s receiving or blocking or his ability to throw, he does everything really well.”
McDowell, 28, has been in the Yankees’ organization since June 28, 2020, when he was signed just before the start of summer camp in the COVID season. Ever since, he’s blown the Yankees away with his receiving skills, which include throwing out 40% of base stealers for his career.
“It’s a selfless position,” McDowell said. “I’m going to pour everything I can into that guy’s every pitch. I’m in the trenches with him in my mind. If he gives up a homer, I give up the homer. I dive into everything I can with that staff.”
McDowell’s bat is coming around, too. He’s just a .230 hitter with 15 homers in 1,337 at-bats over 421 career minor-league games, but he’s known for running deep counts and taking his walks. This spring, he’s 2-for-8 with two walks for a .250 average and .400 on-base percentage in five games, the last two as a starter.
“I feel like I’ve really grown into what kind of hitter I want to be and can add value,” McDowell said. “That’s doing the little things, controlling the zone, seeing pitches. And I’m not going to strike out much. I’m going to put the ball in play. There’s value in that.”
Boone has noticed growth, saying McDowell’s “worked hard offensively to make strides. He’s a guy that doesn’t chase a lot. That gives him a little bit more of a chance at the plate. But he can really catch.”
Receiving always been McDowell’s forte since he was converted from center field to catcher in high school.
“I feel like it’s been my calling, my place where I feel really comfortable,” he said.
McDowell was a Milwaukee Brewers’ farmhand from the time he was drafted in the 13th round in 2015 out of UConn until May 31, 2020, when he was released at his request. By then, he’d made a couple of minor-league All-Star teams, but was stuck behind other prospects and not slated to be part of the Brewers’ summer camp.
At that point, McDowell returned to his suburban Pittsburgh home in North Huntington, Pa., to run a baseball academy in nearby Irwin that he co-owns. Was his professional baseball career over before age 30? He was ready to settle down with his high school sweetheart, but longed for another shot with an MLB organization that believed in his ability.
After six weeks of running The Baseball Academy of Norwin, the Yankees called to offer a minor-league contract.
Suddenly, McDowell was headed to New York and catching the likes of Gerrit Cole and Aroldis Chapman at summer camp. Word is a lot of their pitchers liked throwing to McDowell, who quickly showed his new coaching staff that his reputation as a very solid all-around receiver was legit.
McDowell didn’t make the Yankees’ club in 2020, but his catching at the alternate camp provided organizational depth at an important position. The Yankees continued to be impressed seeing McDowell skillfully catch all different types of pitchers, so they brought him back last season and he provided the same thing while he spent the season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre minus five games with Double-A Somerset.
The 2022 season may be more of the same for McDowell … or perhaps a first shot at living his dream. Higashioka is a posterboard for what can happen to a very good defensive catcher who is stuck in the minors for a long time. He was drafted by the Yankees in 2008, then didn’t debut in the majors until 2017 and he wasn’t in the big leagues for good until 2020.
Life already is fulfilling for McDowell, who was married on New Year’s Day 2021 in Key Largo, Fla. He will be a first-time father this summer when expecting wife Emily gives birth. He’s loved his time in the Yankees organization, too, but there’s one more hurdle to cross that he hopes comes at some point this year. He has big-league catching skills that he wants to use in big-league games.
“The mountain you’re climbing is the minor leagues,” McDowell said. “Right now., I’m just focusing on what I’m doing. If that opportunity comes, I’m ready.”
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Randy Miller may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.