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A.J. Pierzynski has mastered the Sox mind game

A.J. Pierzynski said he was doing too much thinking when he struggled first half 2010.  |  tom cruze~sun-times

A.J. Pierzynski said he was doing too much thinking when he struggled in the first half in 2010. | tom cruze~sun-times

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stat pack

A.J. Pierzynski’s stats in his six seasons with the Sox:


’05 128 18 56 .257 .308 .420

’06 140 16 64 .295 .333 .436

’07 136 14 50 .263 .309 .403

’08 134 13 60 .281 .312 .416

’09 134 13 49 .300 .331 .425

’10 128 9 56 .270 .300 .388

Updated: June 26, 2011 12:18AM

GLENDALE, Ariz. — A.J. Pierzynski is the first to admit it: He didn’t handle his contract year well at all.

He let it get in his head. Tried too hard and tried to do too much. Instead of adding some sparkle to his resumé going into free agency, Pierzynski let all the wrong worries, anxieties and vendettas filter through his mind.

You name it, the White Sox catcher thought about it, and it affected the way he performed on the field.

“You want to do well, and I didn’t handle it the right way,’’ Pierzynski said. “And it was my fault. I went into the season with the wrong mind-set, and I’ve learned from it. Next year when it comes up again I will have a much better understanding of what I need to do.’’

Pierzynski entered the season knowing he would become a 10-and-5 guy if he stuck around, and observers say he relaxed more in June when he achieved 10 years of major-league service time and five years with the same team, giving him the power to veto trades. After hitting .247 with 25 RBI in the first half, he hit .299 with 31 RBI in the second. He finished at .270 with 29 doubles.

“I was like, ‘I gotta do that, I gotta do this’ instead of going out there and saying, ‘Screw it, let’s just play and see what happens,’  ’’ Pierzynski said. “That’s what happens when you want to win and do well for yourself, to prove some people wrong for things they’ve said. You do worse because you’re trying to do too much instead of doing what you can do.’’

It’s hard to fathom Anthony John Pierzynski feeling a need to prove much at this point in his career. He ranks 14th since 1974 among catchers with 1,359 hits, has a .284 career batting average and is 25th all-time with 11,088 innings caught. He and the Royals’ Jason Kendall are the only active catchers to have worked 1,000 innings in each of the last nine seasons. He never has been on the disabled list.

He is not among baseball’s best throwing catchers, but Pierzynski was the American League’s top fielding receiver with a .995 percentage (five errors, three passed balls) last season. Opponents stole 75 bases on Pierzynski last year, down 14 from 2009 thanks in part to Sox pitchers’ closer attention to holding runners.

“Last year, defensively, I thought I was better,’’ Pierzynski said.

“I just think we did a better job holding runners. The pitching staff did a great job, a better job of holding runners. We didn’t give up as many stolen bases, but it was a team effort. It wasn’t just me. It’s something you have to take pride in as a catcher.’’

Pierzynski is on the bigger side (6-3, 225), which works to his advantage as a target for pitchers, starter Gavin Floyd said. His size probably slows his pop time (the time it takes a catcher to get the ball to second base on a steal).

“I don’t think people care about pop times when you throw guys out,’’ Pierzynski said. “It’s nice to talk about if you’re in college, but when people ask me, I’m like, ‘I don’t know’ because nobody cares. The bottom line is you get the guy out or you don’t. It’s like pitchers and velocity. What matters is if they get hitters out.’’

To that end, Sox pitchers got hitters out to the tune of a 3.95 ERA with Pierzynski catching.

“He’s seen all the hitters, in our division and out,’’ Floyd said. “With his experience, you trust a catcher like that.’’

“I’ve had games where I didn’t shake him off once,’’ starter John Danks said.

His is a stabilizing presence behind the plate.

“His strengths are knowing the hitters, knowing the game plan, knowing the league, being back there every day, playing to win, blocking balls,’’ Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. “I am always on him to move and get lower .  .  . when we want pitches in, get in there. Get down lower, as low as you can go, because the lower we can put ball in the zone the better. Those are the things we’re constantly trying to get him to do more. But I am happy to have him back.’’

Pierzynski, 34, signed a two-year, $8 million deal to stay with the Sox during the offseason after coming so close to signing with the Dodgers that he told his mother he was headed to Los Angeles.

Most Sox fans were glad it didn’t work out. Pierzynski has always been a fan favorite.

“It was huge for me not having to start over with another team, not only with the players but in life,’’ Pierzynski said. “I have family and friends in Chicago I almost consider family. It was a huge relief for me and my wife and kids, everybody.’’

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