Adelanto, Calif. -- Dom Nunez really doesn't like to lose, as I learn after batting practice at Heritage Stadium on the outskirts of the tiny, wind-swept desert town of Adelanto, California. Nunez (No. 13 PuRP), the starting catcher for the Colorado Rockies' High-A affiliate Modesto Nuts, is telling me all the shortcomings of the club thus far this year ahead of their Friday night game against the High Desert Mavericks, trying to account for why his team finds themselves a few dozen games below .500 in early June.
And while his frankness to answer questions about losing is appreciated, it's his willingness to take personal responsibility for poor play that is most endearing. Talk is cheap, of course—Nunez himself knows as much—but the 21-year-old refuses to shy away from shouldering blame for why the Nuts haven't played up to their potential despite a very talented starting rotation.
"It's all on me behind the plate, and there are too many passed balls from me right now," Nunez offers, standing alone in front of the first base dugout fielding questions after his team has wrapped up their pre-game routines.
Entering Monday night's game, his 40th, the catcher has allowed 11 passed balls—the exact same total he gave up in 99 games with Low-A Asheville last season. But what should we make of the sudden increase in passed balls from a catcher who came into the season with the reputation of being something of a defensive whiz?
"It’s completely a focus thing," he sums up quickly. "It’s one hundred percent my fault and I have to get better at it, and that’s the only thing to really say about it."
A converted infielder—like his friend and organizational counterpart Tony Wolters—Nunez only knows one way to get better on the defensive side of the ball, even with something as difficult to quantify as mental focus: hard work.
"I need to work more, watch more video, catch on the machine every single day," Nunez offers. "I catch on the machine every game for two rounds of batting practice, and it's stuff like that. I've gotta put in the work every day, and I've gotta anticipate balls in the dirt, or balls cutting, and anticipate the bad pitch rather than the good pitch, you know?"
"For me, it’s trying to work below the ball and using my hands as much as possible," he continues, "and when the ball’s in the dirt, I have to put some type of body on it, and then the run won’t move or score."
That all sounds well and good, and being a consummate professional, Nunez already knows enough to say all the right things. But lest this is your first exposure to the Rockies' prospect, let's correct a potential misunderstanding right away: for as inwardly critical as he is about his own defense, Nunez comes as a highly-respected defensive catcher. But don't take my word for it—just ask his teammates and opponents.
Talk to Sam Howard (No. 34 PuRP); the left-handed pitcher's perspective on Nunez from the outside allows him to approach the catcher's strengths and weaknesses from a slightly more level-headed place than the catcher himself.
"Dom’s doing very well, I’ve got a lot of confidence in Dom," Howard says outside the visiting clubhouse in Adelanto, just minutes after tossing eight innings of one-run ball to give the Nuts their only win of the week. "He’ll steal you a lot of strikes down low in the zone and he’s a good guy receiving and framing, but I’d say the biggest thing is his arm. He’s very quick throwing runners out, and that helps a lot, whether he’s throwing to second, or third, or on a back pick."
"He’s doing very well," Howard adds, now echoing a familiar refrain. "He’s just gotta keep working."
Or talk to Josh Fuentes, the Nuts' newest corner infielder recently promoted from Asheville. Fuentes played with Nunez last summer with the Tourists, and though he's two years older than the catcher, he's impressed enough by Nunez's intangibles to encourage the youngster to lead the entire team.
"He’s awesome and he’s still pretty young, but he takes control back there," Fuentes says. "Last year in the first half he kind of struggled, and the second half he came out guns blazing. And if you ask him, he’s not happy with his performance right now, but everyone knows he’s a great catcher, and he leads the pitching staff very well. He’ll figure it out."
"We got some guys here like me and Shane [Hoelscher, the Nuts' third baseman]," Fuentes continues, "who are a little older, and we see right away a young guy who wants to take control of the infield, and take control in the clubhouse off the field. That’s a good sign."
Or if hearing from Nunez's teammates isn't your thing, talk to an opponent; the enemy is bound to have all the intel, right? Nunez's counterpart (and friend) in the opposite dugout, High Desert's Jose Trevino—whom Nunez believes is the best catcher in the California League—offers a succinct summation of what he sees in Dom.
"He’s a great player, man," says Trevino, who texts with Nunez routinely. "I love watching him play. He’s athletic, having made the transition from an infielder the way that I did. I like the way he plays, and I like how he catches. I see a really big future for him."
"He’s a really good guy on top of that, too," Trevino adds. "I like Dom a lot. He’s a good dude."
That last part I can confirm, but increasingly I get the sense there's a fire in Nunez's belly, another gear that drives him internally, even distinct from the intense motivation common to other professional baseball players. I get the feeling his own skill level will never be perfect enough for his liking; that there will always be a way to improve himself, whether with passed balls, or at the plate, or anything else.
That desire to improve regardless of outcome is a double-edged sword, of course; work hard, and Nunez will very soon find himself in the big leagues. Work too hard, and the law of diminishing returns is bound to apply at some point. But with maturity off the charts considering the Rockies plucked him straight out of high school, there's far more positive than negative here for the young catcher, who is slashing .252/.358/.299 through his first 147 at-bats entering Monday night's game. In short, he already understands his role, and that bodes well for his future.
"I don’t feel like I’m slumping, but look around at all the catchers in the league, I don’t really think any catcher is making that his priority," Nunez offers about being focused on his catching, rather than his bat. "I talked to Trevino last night and he’s like ‘I’m the same way, I worry about pitching number one.’ And that’s what’s important. You can’t do anything without that guy in front of you, being locked in to him. That’s it."
That is it. For now, at least.
Nunez's story is far from being told, and chances are countless others will write countless pieces focusing on the catcher as he ascends the Rockies' affiliate tree and reaches his ultimate goal. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, though; later today, Nunez will be crouched in front of the pitching machine, catching ball after ball after ball, improving rep after rep, working bit by bit to develop the skills he demands of himself. He's just gotta keep working, after all.