Imagine traveling over 8,000 miles away from home for your career. Beyond the distance, you learn a new language, you must become exceptionally proficient at your job, and when the journey began, you were only 18 years old.
This is the odyssey of High-A Lynchburg Hillcats catcher Li-Jen Chu. A native of Taichung, Taiwan, he has been playing baseball as a professional since signing with the Cleveland Indians organization in 2012. Now 24 years old, Chu shows signs that his performance is catching up with his talent.
In Taiwan, baseball is a serious business. There is a more professional style of expectation for players at all levels. Baseball is not for fun, it is a serious activity that demands respect and commitment. The slower speed of the Taiwanese game, and its regimentation, compared to similar levels in the United States makes it a similar but familiar game.
“We got up at six in the morning, running and hitting, and then we’d go to school,” said Chu about his baseball experience prior to high school. “When we got to school, everyone was tired, so we always slept in class.”
Originally a third baseman, it was not long before scouts identified Chu as a player with potential. In order to reach that potential, though, he would need to change positions and learn to be a catcher.
“At the beginning it was so hard,” shared Chu about the position switch. “Your legs get tired having to squat, and you never know what happens in that inning, maybe it goes longer or shorter.”
He has continued to learn ways to develop his lower body strength, building his legs and getting the endurance he needs to sit behind home plate day after day, and still have enough energy to become a decent hitter.
After signing with the Indians, he went to Australia to learn to speak English and to begin his training in the art of being a catcher. Of course, language, especially communicating with the pitchers and coaches, is a key element for every catcher. The different accent down under made it more of a challenge for Chu, but he succeeded and made it to Arizona in the following year, where he played for Cleveland’s entry in the rookie-level Arizona league.
“In Australia they speak English too, but a different English. It’s hard to understand sometimes. In Arizona, it was much easier to understand English because I think American people speak English better,” said Chu about learning the vagaries of the English language with different accents.
Chu works hard to communicate with his pitchers, and takes pride in the relationships he has developed. Getting to know the pitchers he works with and becoming friends speeds their communication as they work on game plans and pitch selection. The challenge comes when Chu gets tired.
“Sometimes I want to speak Taiwanese,” he said about tiring late in games, “but then I think I play here [the U.S.] so I need to speak English.”
With the step up to High-A Lynchburg from Low-A Lake County, Chu is learning the league, working on his hitting, developing his game calling skills behind the plate, and continuing to learn a second language. After only donning the tools of ignorance for ten games in 2016, he had 50 games in the gear in 2017, and has suited up 53 times at catcher for the Hillcats.
“Anytime you’re the catcher, trying to handle a pitching staff, I think that presents challenges,” said Hillcats hitting coach Justin Toole. “You’re going to have to handle better pitching and deal with better hitters as the catcher.”
You can make the case that Chu, and fellow Lynchburg catchers Logan Ice and Gavin Collins have met the challenges of catching in the Carolina League. Hillcats pitching ranks second in the league in strikeouts, with 897, second in fewest home runs allowed at 58, and third in team shutouts with ten. This is at least circumstantial evidence that Chu and his fellow catchers are helping their battery mates on the mound.
In the last several weeks, Chu’s batting has also seen marked improvement. For the week ending July 22, he was named the Carolina League Player of the Week. Chu was the first Hillcats hitter to claim this award during the current season. Playing in six games for the week, four at catcher and two as the designated hitter, Chu hit at a .600 clip with two home runs, six RBI, two doubles, and five walks.
His most impressive game in that stretch was July 20 against the visiting Wilmington Blue Rocks. Batting in the clean-up spot, Chu faced off against Wilmington’s Ofreidy Gomez and three relievers. Solid hits in the second, fourth, and seventh innings produced singles, and he doubled down the left field line in the fifth inning. Chu scored three times on the night, including the game-tying run in the ninth inning following a walk. Unfortunately, Lynchburg lost when Wilmington’s free runner that starts on second base in extra innings of all minor league games scored due to a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly. Lynchburg could not bring their own free runner home in the bottom of the tenth to prolong the game. On an individual basis, his perfect night at the plate demonstrated his level of improvement.
As the weather has warmed up over the course of the season, Chu’s batting has followed the same upward trend. Through April and May, he hit .230. June saw him tally a .277 batting average, while in July he has elevated his performance, batting at a .400 clip. This level of performance mirrors his success in the previous season.
In 2017, Chu was a post-season All-Star for Lake County of the Midwest League. He tallied 17 homers and 68 RBI while playing in 125 games for the Captains. Through 76 games this season, about 60% of last year’s total, he has eight home runs and 40 RBI. He may not be on the same pace for counting stats, but he has learned how to handle himself and his pitching staff over the course of a long season.
“To have this job [catching] it was to get my legs stronger,” he said about the learning to catch and handle the length of full-season baseball. “After the season my training is a lot of lifting with my legs. Something you can do every day and every season.”
Chu is still learning the finer, more nuanced, elements of baseball, and more specifically catching, along with English as his second language. When he is not at the ballpark, he enjoys singing and playing the guitar. He learned the beginnings about playing the guitar from his father, and as a boy sang along when he played.
“I learned myself a little bit on YouTube,” Chu said about continuing to learn how to play the guitar. “Now I can sing along when I play the guitar.”
With Chu’s season on the rise, he will keep following the rhythm of the season and make every effort to maintain the upward progression in his on-field performance, his improving capability in English, and his recreational guitar playing and singing. With every success comes improved opportunities to continue in his chosen career on the opposite side of the planet from where he was born.
Photo: Lindsay Carico/MiLB.com