Versatility, Play Making Joey Paciorek Indispensable Piece for St. Paul Saints
As the St. Paul Saints roll toward the playoffs many are talking about which players on the team are worthy of winning post-season awards. Will it be Angelo Songco or Vinny DiFazio who wins the MVP? Which one of the three outstanding starters on this team is most noteworthy as the American Association’s top pitcher, Dustin Crenshaw, Kramer Sneed, or Jeff Shields? With the run that Robert Coe is making of late should his name be in the mix as well? Will Alonzo Harris grab the stolen base crown? Is Ryan Rodebaugh the league’s top reliever?
There are so many names on this team that people around the league are talking about, and understandably so. However, if you asked many of the players on the St. Paul Saints who is a guy that they view as one of the most essential pieces to the success of this team, they will look no further than Joey Paciorek.
James Joseph Paciorek has been one of the key components this season for a team that has needed a guy that will do whatever it takes, whenever it takes it to help his team win. Paciorek was signed to backup catcher Vinny DiFazio, but found himself moving all over the diamond to keep his bat in the lineup. That meant playing left field and third, as well as catching, and doing it with excellence no matter where he has been positioned. In 63 games this season he has made just four errors, giving Saints manager George Tsamis confidence that putting Joey in the field will not be a defensive liability whatsoever.
Joey is the kind of player that makes it hard to keep off the field. He delivers big hits and his willingness to do whatever the team asks has made him an invaluable ingredient to the Saints success. This has allowed his manager to move him to a few different positions in order to give players a day off while still benefiting from the solid hitting he provides.
“Coming in George was really honest with me that he didn’t know exactly what the catching situation was going to be like. Right out of the chute, I was backing up Vinny and I was also taking ground balls. George was always asking me what other positions I could play, and I told him I could play just about anywhere, I don’t care where I am playing as long as I am in the lineup every day.”
This has been the attitude of Joey ever since he first started playing baseball. Born in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Paciorek was born into a baseball family. His father, Jim, played with the Milwaukee Brewers, and his uncle, Tom, was a Major Leaguer as well, and a long time broadcaster as well. Baseball was in the family’s blood and Joey was infected with it as much as anyone in the clan.
“I came from a baseball family. My dad played baseball. I had uncles who played baseball and so I was always around it. When I was born my dad was playing in Japan, so from the time I was born I have always been around it. I always had a ball in my hand. My dad was throwing BP to me from the time I could remember.”
Joey had success from the start, and in high school scouts began to take notice of his skills. It seemed inevitable to him that playing baseball professionally was not just a dream – it was going to be a reality.
“In high school I started talking to some teams, starting talking to some colleges. In summer ball I had a Brewers scout who was actually my coach and in my sophomore and junior years in high school he started telling me that it was time to start cleaning it up, I was starting to become a prospect.”
In 2007 the Milwaukee Brewers selected Joey in the 15th round of the Major League Baseball amateur draft and off to the Brewers rookie league club he went. He was drafted as a third baseman, and his first two seasons with the organization that is the position he played.
In 2009 the Brewers organization wanted him to try a new position, and Joey was not averse to the idea at all. In fact, he embraced it as another chance to continue his dream while also doing something that helped the club out.
“I was drafted as a third baseman. Spent the first couple of seasons playing primarily third, with a little bit of first base. A couple of years in they started moving me around a bit. I started playing some second base, and then in 2011 they brought me into spring training early and started working me at catcher because they liked me back there. Then I became a catcher full-time, and after I was full-time catcher for a time they started moving me around again, so I was playing a little bit of everywhere.”
Joey believes the move was pivotal to his career extending as long as it has. “I was open to playing catcher. I think that kind of saved my career to be honest. It started out as kind of an emergency catcher thing, but I really think I took to the position that kept me around for a lot longer.”
Paciorek reached as high as AA-Huntsville, but after eight seasons his contract was not renewed and Joey was free to find a new place to call his home. He had many options, but one seemed like a natural fit for him.
“My contract run out with the Brewers, and I still wanted to play and I just wanted an opportunity to play. I sent out some emails, and the Brewers might have still wanted me back, but I was probably not going to play a lot, and I just wanted to play. I got a text from George telling me he had an opening, and I told him my situation that I just wanted to get an opportunity to play somewhere. I knew they had this beautiful new field and I thought this would be a great place for me.”
Coming to St. Paul, Paciorek understood that he would be backing up Vinny DiFazio behind the plate, but he also got that this was a great opportunity for him. He was not only going to get to share his expertise and aid his club to win, but his versatility made him a perfect fit for the Saints.
Joey played intermittently at first, primarily giving DiFazio some rest early on in the year. However, he excelled when given the opportunity. After going 0-4 in his first start of the season, he rattled off a nine game hitting streak that occurred over 18 days. That made an impression on the Saints Manager, who felt he needed to make a place for Paciorek in the lineup.
“Ya, he got a lot of big hits early on and could play a few different positions for us. When you have a guy like that who wants to help the team and will do what he can to help the team win, it is not hard to get him on the field. The great thing was that he played well no matter where we put him and our defense didn’t suffer one bit with him in the lineup.”
While playing third base a lot early on, there was a stretch where he was the club’s primary catcher as DiFazio was nursing some injuries. During one stretch the Saints starters threw two consecutive shutouts and had a third going until Joey came out of the game. It demonstrated what a great game he calls, something that many of the starters tout.
“It is easy to get on the same page with Joey,” starter Kramer Sneed explains. “He calls a great game and really knows how to set guys up so that I can pitch to my strengths.”
Starter Robert Coe echoes those sentiments. “Joey is so smart about the way he works the plate and keeps hitters off balance. He makes you feel really comfortable as a starter with him behind the plate.”
Paciorek has built a great rapport with his pitchers and it is his ability to learn what they want to do when they take the mound that has garnered their confidence and respect. He gets that they have their idiosyncrasies and he needs to work with their talents and oddities to make the two click well.
“Pitchers are weirdos. You have to work with that,” he explains with a laugh. “The biggest thing is talking to them about the pitches and ranking them. Finding out what they like to use in certain situations and making sure that I understand what they like to do on the field.”
He also gets that being a catcher is far more than just calling fastballs and sliders. He has to be an advisor and maybe even part therapist at times.
“One of the biggest parts about catching is knowing what to say when your pitcher is struggling. I mean, you’re part psychologist and so when a pitcher is getting himself into trouble you have to know what to say to get him refocused. Sometimes they just need a breather, to tell them they need to take a deep breathe. Sometimes I go out to talk to them about lunch. Sometimes it may be a mechanical thing that I have noticed from behind the plate. You just have to know when to go out and what to say at that moment.”
He has also developed a strategy in the way that he calls each at-bat so that he is building toward the strengths of his pitchers. It is a scheme that seems simple on its face, but requires a great deal of precision and thought to make it work.
“The most important things to me are the first pitch you throw to a guy, how you start him off, and then how you put him away. So first and last pitch of the at-bat are the most important. This not only sets up the hitter during that at-bat, but for later in the game as well.”
So far Joey has not reached the Major Leagues, but he is proud of what he has done so far. His ultimate highlight was the day that he was drafted, because it meant that he had kept the family institution alive.
“Just getting drafted out of high school was the biggest highlight for me. I was keeping the family tradition going and that was a personal highlight for me.”
In fact much of the credit for his success he places on the things that his dad taught him. Not as much on building his skills, but instead on how to act as player and as a man.
“My dad played in the big leagues with the Brewers and then went and played in Japan. The biggest influence he had on me was how to carry myself off the field. Those are the things that I have carried the longest with me. He taught me to carry myself properly; to be a good player on the field, but a better man off of it.”
If Jim Paciorek was looking to mold his son into a guy that his teammates trust and respect as much as anyone on the team, then he has been quite successful. Joey has become a leader on the field and in the clubhouse, while doing nothing more than being himself. He is not yelling in the dugout and hyping his team up. He is just doing what is asked of him day in and day out, and he has been a key reason why the St. Paul Saints will be playing in the post-season this year.
The St. Paul Saints have a star-studded lineup with as many recognizable names in the American Association as one will find. The unsung hero of that lineup is a guy that was added late to the team and who really didn’t even have a position when he was signed. Now he has made his talents and his presence almost indispensable this season.
Joey Paciorek won’t be in the discussion for American Association MVP, but he will be in the discussion for the team’s most honored. With the injuries this club has suffered this season, Joey has filled in and simply kept this team rolling. That just goes to prove that there is one other Paciorek tradition – being able to depend upon them to excel when they are needed most.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA