Jorge Alfaro was still at his locker, still stewing.
Alfaro didn't throw the back-to-back pitches that landed in the bleachers in the ninth inning May 11 at Citizens Bank Park, but he did call them. In his mind, then, he was every bit as complicit as embattled reliever Nector Neris in the gut punch of a 3-1 Phillies loss to the New York Mets.
Neris didn't see the point of waiting around after the game to answer reporters' questions, but Alfaro realized an explanation was required. So, the catcher said he called for a fastball rather than Neris' signature splitter on the go-ahead homer and claimed he would do it again, too, believing it was the right pitch for the situation. Then, he stood by Neris, expressing confidence in the closer despite two blown saves in the span of six days.
The scene didn't go unnoticed. Of all the pleasant developments from the Phillies' strong first quarter — Odubel Herrera's leading the league in hitting, the rotation's piling up superb starts, Aaron Nola's turning into an ace — Alfaro's emergence as a steady hand to the pitching staff and an overall team leader stands out. He describes himself as the pitchers' "bodyguard." He conducts interviews mostly in English, enlisting a team translator only for occasional assistance. And his leadership has been so evident that, without prompting, general manager Matt Klentak recently mentioned the 24-year-old's "presence behind the plate."
"Alfaro's always demonstrated that he has the components to be that type of leader, but it's different at the major-league level, and players have to develop some confidence before they take on that role," Klentak said. "I think we're watching it happen right before our very eyes. We can look around baseball history, and when you have a catcher who is one of your team leaders and exudes that confidence, it's often the case that the rest of your team will follow."
The Phillies' trip to St. Louis this weekend is a convenient reminder. For 15 years, Yadier Molina has been the rock for Cardinals teams that won seven division titles and two World Series. On the other side of Missouri, Salvador Perez is the indispensable leader of the Kansas City Royals. Jason Varitek captained the Boston Red Sox to two World Series championships. Carlos Ruiz was the Krazy Glue of the Phillies' run of five consecutive National League East crowns.
"[Ruiz's] name has been brought up a lot," said Phillies coach Dusty Wathan, for whom Alfaro has been a pet project. "Jorge has the physical ability to be there one day. It's going to be all up to his preparation. We've seen him get a lot better at it, and he continues to get better at it every day."
It has been a three-year process.
When the Phillies acquired Alfaro from the Texas Rangers as part of the Cole Hamels blockbuster at the 2015 trade deadline, there were signs that he was attentive to his catching duties. Klentak recalls Alfaro's jotting notes on a pad in spring-training meetings with pitchers in 2016, a memorable detail because Alfaro was the only catcher who did it.
"I still do it," said Alfaro, who credits Rangers coach Hector Ortiz for the note-taking tip. "It helps me be a better catcher. Whenever I have something that can help me later on in the season or in my career, I always take notes just so I don't forget it."
But Alfaro was also typical of young catchers in that he derived more satisfaction from offensive production than from learning to call a game.
It all began to change in 2016 at double-A Reading. Alfaro played for Wathan, a longtime minor-league catcher and son of former Royals catcher John Wathan, and was schooled on the importance of mastering his defense and communicating with pitchers.
"If you want to be an elite guy, that's a big part of it," Wathan said. "You can hit 20 home runs every year, but if you don't get it done behind the plate, they're going to move you somewhere else. He really realized that, to be a major-league catcher, you're going to have to really put an emphasis on defense."
It helps that, over the past year, the Phillies have poured resources into improving their catchers' defense. In addition to Wathan, manager Gabe Kapler's staff includes catching coaches Bob Stumpo and Craig Driver, both of whom are only a few years older than Alfaro. Stumpo, a 30-year-old former Phillies farmhand, drills the catchers on blocking, and Driver, 29, is an expert on receiving and pitch framing.
Alfaro takes instruction from each of them, and his progress is supported by advanced metrics. He has always had a rocket arm, but his pitch presentation has gotten better. According to the data at Stat Corner, he has gotten strike calls on 7.7 percent of pitches out of the zone, an improvement over his 5.6 percent rate last season. Equally telling, 11.9 percent of pitches Alfaro has caught in the strike zone have been called a ball, down from 17.7 percent last year.
"In the past, the knock on Jorge was a little bit that he might've lost some strikes," Wathan said. "He's not really losing strikes this year on a consistent basis, and he's pitching up some balls called strikes. He's only getting better."
It's probably because Alfaro is taking his defense personally. He's happier about the rotation's 3.37 ERA, third best in the league through Thursday, than his .340 batting average over his last 13 games.
"I see myself as a bodyguard to the pitchers, just to be there for them all the time," Alfaro said. "Maybe I didn't do well in my at-bats, but if I was good at calling the game and helping the pitchers out, it's like going 4 for 4. It's a win for me."