It has been more than 16 years since Erik Kratz attended classes at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., but he has been doing plenty of studying over the past week or so.
When you’re a catcher acquired during the season, with an entire pitching staff to learn on the fly, you don’t have a lot of free time. That’s the situation in which Kratz found himself on May 25 when the Milwaukee Brewers acquired him from the New York Yankees.
Kratz, who will be 38 on June 15, hit the ground with his feet running, but that wasn’t a new experience for a well-traveled veteran who has played for seven organizations, including two stops in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
“It’s going really well,” Kratz said of the learning curve with his new pitching staff. “The coaches have done a good job of telling me, ‘This guys does this real well.’ And the pitchers have done a good job of communicating to me, ‘This is what I like to do.’ Things like that.
“Everybody here has been so helpful and open in that sense. It has been really good.”
As an indication of how quickly Kratz adjusted to his new environment, he was on the receiving end of a combined shutout Saturday in Chicago, where the Brewers captured their lone victory, 5-0, of a weekend series against the White Sox. Jhoulys Chacín was the starter that day, and Kratz said he was a pleasure to catch.
“He was great that day,” Kratz said. “With the stuff he had, I actually felt we fell short a little bit. It could have been even better. But no runs is no runs. His stuff was really good. It was tremendous.”
Making the game even more pleasing for Kratz, he chipped in with two hits, including his second home run in three starts behind the plate with the Brewers. For a player who hadn’t hit more than one homer in a major-league season since 2014, it was a noteworthy achievement.
Beyond the two homers, Kratz has six hits in 12 at-bats, getting off to a strong start at the plate.
The Brewers decided to go after Kratz because Jett Bandy was contributing next to nothing offensively (.188, one RBI in 24 games) as the backup to catcher Manny Piña. Kratz was playing at Class AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre at the time, hitting .269 with four homers, six RBI and a .894 OPS in 17 games.
“My stats might not have shown it but I felt I was swinging the bat well there,” said Kratz, who got his professional start in 2002 when Toronto selected him in the 29th round of the draft. “I was hitting a lot of balls hard. I’ve taken that same approach and confidence to the plate here. I just have to keep doing my work and staying ready.”
The way the Brewers’ decision-makers see it, any contributions Kratz makes offensively are a bonus. They knew from his long résumé that he could handle the work defensively, and figured he’d be a quick study in getting on the same page with pitchers.
“Defensively, it has been what we expected,” manager Craig Counsell said. “He’s prepared; he’s not surprised by anything. He has been able to get up to speed with our pitchers very quickly. That’s what we expected. That was his reputation and what we knew about him. … Offensively, he has been incredible. He has done more than just hold his own offensively. He has been productive.”
At this late stage of his career, Kratz said his primary goal is not to overthink things at the plate. Basically, see the ball, hit the ball. He is facing many of these pitchers for the first time after spending most of the past few seasons in the minors.
“My goal is to barrel the ball up every time I go up there,” he said. “It sounds simple but that’s what I want to do. I’ve been fortunate so far to barrel the ball up and it’s found holes. Some, I haven’t hit particularly well and they’ve still found holes. I just hope to keep doing that.”
As for this unexpected opportunity to play for a contending team, Kratz said, “That’s great that they saw or heard something about me they liked. For this team, it’s time to win. It’s not just about development. They expect to win here. I want to be part of that. You want to win.
“First impressions are huge but it’s a long season so I have to continue working. But it has been great so far.”