SEATTLE – Cal Raleigh knew he was thinking too much about his swing. He knew he was thinking too much about baseball, about failed at-bats, about things he could no longer control. And he knew he was going to get sent down to the minor leagues.
It was late April, and Raleigh’s dad, Todd Raleigh, said he’d never seen his 25-year-old son “press like that.” Todd said the Mariners catcher was trying so hard to snap out of his slump that he was going to “internally blow up.” He had a .083/.214/.208 slash line through his first nine games of the season. Then the inevitable arrived when the Mariners demoted Raleigh to the Tacoma Rainiers (Triple-A) on April 28.
It was a wake-up call. He worked with his dad to shift his outlook, creating a plan that centered on the family’s motto: “What’s Important Now?” or “WIN” for short. Todd, a former baseball coach, has the phrase hanging on a board in the Raleigh family’s home in Cullowhee, North Carolina. He’s been saying it since Raleigh was 5, and it’s applied to everything from doing chores and homework to his next at-bat.
“Not worrying about things you can’t control, or the past or the future,” Raleigh told The Seattle Times. “Just focusing on the present, getting better (and) doing what’s important in that moment, at that time.”
Raleigh put that plan into place when he arrived in Tacoma, and just seven games later, he was called back up on May 7. He wasn’t quite ready, but catcher Tom Murphy dislocated his left shoulder. The Mariners needed Raleigh back.
What they got was an improved version of the second-year MLB player. Raleigh has the most RBIs (31) in baseball by a catcher since May 15. He’s hit 11 out of 12 of his home runs this year during that stretch. His slash line has improved drastically to .218/.278/.506 since his return in May. And now that he’s in a groove, that rhythm just seems to continue.
“We see more of what he’s doing over the course of the last five or six weeks as the real Cal Raleigh,” Mariners president and general manager Jerry Dipoto said on his July 7 radio show.
Those seven games with Tacoma weren’t enough to execute the full plan, but it started to take shape. Ninety percent of the plan wasn’t about baseball, Todd said. It was process-oriented, focused on the mechanics and not the outcomes. They talked about dealing with failure and success by controlling two things: focus and energy. Of course, they talked about WIN.
“ ‘Am I ready to hit in this at-bat? Am I ready when I show up to the ballpark to handle my pitcher?’ ” Todd said of the plan.
The plan included more tangible baseball adjustments, too. Raleigh started hunting fastballs, mainly down the middle because those were the ones he could handle, a piece of advice he also got from outfielder Mitch Haniger.
“Look for it, and you’re a little bit more ready when you’re able to anticipate that this is going to be a fastball, and then you’re able to jump on it. Make a downtown swing, get your money’s worth,” said Dave Bristol, a former manager and member of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, who’s known Raleigh since he was little.
Raleigh knew right away his swing was too long, so he made a conscious decision to shorten it. Todd said he knows Raleigh’s swing better than anybody – he joked that he’s thrown 7 million pitches to him on each side – and he could tell his son needed to adjust his approach.
“Cal took it to heart and put it in play, and it’s paying off for him,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said of Raleigh’s adjustments in June.
Todd said that Raleigh’s outlook has been a complete turnaround compared to a month prior. All the arrows are pointing “upward” for a young catcher like Raleigh because he’s made the necessary changes and he’s got a ton of confidence now, Servais said.
“Nobody likes to struggle, but you’ve just got to chug through it,” Raleigh said. “This game will humble you real quick. … I’m gonna keep going, keep doing what I’ve been doing and just keep my head down and at the end of the year I look up and hopefully be in the right spot.”
Still, Raleigh is relatively young and inexperienced. His rise was rapid, Todd said, referencing how Raleigh “had to kind of jump right into the fire” after the minors.
After the Mariners drafted him in the third round of 2018 out of Florida State, he only played one full season in the minors in 2019 with the Modesto Nuts (High-A) and then the Arkansas Travelers (Double-A). Arkansas was challenging because the heat wore Raleigh down and he was catching often due to injuries, Todd said. It was the only time Todd said his son really “stuttered,” a good lesson.
Besides that, Raleigh was consistently successful in the minors. Even though he missed out on 500 at-bats when the 2020 season was canceled, he leapt to Triple-A and still produced a strong 2021 season in Tacoma. By July 2021, Raleigh was called up to make his MLB debut.
This year, he took just 23 at-bats during spring training, too few to get him ready, Todd said. He did what he could to get more live reps, standing in to take pitches. For the most part, he learned on the fly, working his way through the ebbs and flows of the game just like he’s done for his whole career, said Jack Leggett, a friend of the Raleigh family’s and the former Clemson baseball head coach.
But there’s no substitute for experience, Leggett said, and eventually that showed at the start of the 2022 season.
This time when Raleigh stuttered, the stakes were much higher. He lost confidence, trying to get three hits in one at-bat when that’s not possible, Leggett said. He lost the patience to wait for certain pitches, swinging for quantity instead of quality. Raleigh knew he had to go down and “get himself right.”
“That’s when a lot of things came to light for him about, ‘OK, if I’m gonna do this for a long period of time, I got to make some changes,’ ” Todd said. “Most of it was internally, trying to just be too perfect, all the time, trying to please everybody.”
Raleigh was visibly frustrated when he was sent down, Murphy said. But he soon began to work on a plan with his dad. Raleigh can be a perfectionist, his mom, Stephanie, said, since he’s constantly pushing himself harder.
In the past, when Raleigh used to drive himself crazy trying to solve a problem with his game, Todd would help him simplify things by getting back to the basics – and by getting to “what is important now,” Stephanie said. This time was no different.
After the seven-game stint in Tacoma, where he hit .286 (8 for 28) with two doubles, a home run, four RBIs and two walks, Raleigh turned his season around in Seattle. Just over a week after his return, he grounded into a double play in the third inning, and then smashed a sixth-inning home run over the right-center field wall against the Mets.
He homered three times in six days in early June, and had a Little-League home run (triple-throwing error from the A’s) to close out the month.
“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I want to be the starting catcher for a big league team and I’m getting a chance to do that right now and it’s everything I hoped for,” Raleigh said. “I love it.”
Moving forward, Bristol expects Raleigh’s production to continue cranking up. A player who has the power to homer once can do it repeatedly if they’re good enough, Bristol said, and Raleigh has shown there’s more to come.
Bristol called him the “best receiver in the big leagues right now.” Raleigh is the complete package, he said. Leggett said Raleigh’s a valuable asset to the Mariners because of his longevity, anticipating that Raleigh would be an integral part of the lineup in the long term.
But for Raleigh, his future is just about staying focused on the current moment.
A lot of people overcomplicate baseball, but the reality is simple, just like Todd always tells him:
“What’s important now? What’s important now is for you to be ready for this game tonight, like it’s your last game. Energy, focus, and we can take our chances from there.”