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For now, Korey Lee focused on developing his defense

Jared Wyllys Avatar
September 3, 2023

In the fifth inning of Friday night’s game against the Tigers, Korey Lee hit a ball just about perfectly. He squared up Eduardo Rodriguez’s 2-2 fastball and sent it almost 260 feet into deep right field. It checked all the right metrics: a good exit velocity, launch angle, and distance. Those added together for a .940 expected batting average. And for the ball to sail right into Detroit right fielder Kerry Carpenter’s glove.

That has been the story of Lee’s tenure with the White Sox so far. He came over in a swap with the Astros for Kendall Graveman on July 28 and got the call to Chicago just over a week ago. Through six games in a White Sox uniform, Lee has one hit.

But what he has done at the plate is not the whole story, and it’s not even the most important part of the story, according to his manager.

“When I look at a catcher and a catcher’s development, I don’t even think about his hitting,” Pedro Grifol said. “I really don’t. Obviously there’s an offensive side where you have to do some things offensively. But there’s so much I ask catchers to do that he has to work on and develop. Hitting has become secondary for me.”

Lee played in only 12 games with the Astros in 2022, and he still has less than 50 career plate appearances. It’s early, and right now, Grifol’s focus for his young catcher is on how he handles himself when he’s not at the plate. His overall defense, of course, but even down to details like how he’s setting up behind the plate, managing a game, and working with his pitching staff.

On that front, Lee is succeeding plenty, according to Grifol and the pitchers he works with. Despite not hitting yet, Lee has made seven starts since being called up on August 24. He’s rested only twice, both times because a day game followed a night game. Traditionally, catchers won’t start the following day after catching nine innings the night before.

In other words, Lee is being treated like the starting catcher. He’s worked with every starter on the Sox staff, and Dylan Cease and Touki Toussaint twice. 

“You can tell he’s advanced. Good game-caller,” Toussaint told CHGO. “We sit there and talk between games, before the game, in the game. Kind of get to know each other. His game speaks for itself. He’s selfless, he’s all about us and what we want to do. I like that about him.”

Oftentimes, a rookie catcher will have to lean on a more experienced pitcher to handle the game calling and pitch selection. Eventually, those roles might reverse, but Toussaint said Lee already has a good balance in that respect. He might need an occasional reminder about Toussaint’s preferences in different situations, he said, but by and large, Lee is good at reading the nuance of a game and helping his pitchers in situational approaches. 

For example, during Friday’s game against Detroit, Toussaint said Lee came to the mound to remind him during an early at-bat against Spencer Torkelson that, with first base open, Toussaint could afford to be fine with his pitches.

“He gets it,” Toussaint said.

Lee doesn’t use the word selfless to his philosophy as a catcher, but given all the facets of the game involved in that position, the way he characterizes his first priority would qualify as selflessness.

“I’m there for them, that’s my job,” he told CHGO. “You kind of have to put yourself second as a catcher, and I think that’s what I prioritize. They come first, and then I worry about myself.”

Sep 1, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Detroit Tigers designated hitter Miguel Cabrera (24) is tagged out at home by Chicago White Sox catcher Korey Lee (26) during the sixth inning at Guaranteed Rate Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Lee has sort of informally been assigned Yasmani Grandal as a mentor. The two spend a lot of time together doing pregame work and and during games reviewing in-game situations in the dugout. Grandal’s contract with the White Sox expires at the end of this season, and the 34-year-old will be an unrestricted free agent. His performance has declined since posting a .939 OPS in 93 games in 2021, and it is not clear whether Grandal plans to continue his playing career.

In the meantime, Grandal is embracing the role of taking the 25-year-old Lee under his wing. On Thursday, the team’s off day after returning from a road trip to Baltimore, Grandal and Lee were the only players at the ballpark, there at 9:45 in the morning, getting work in. 

Before Saturday’s game against the Tigers, Lee didn’t linger in the locker room, where many of his teammates were watching college football. He chatted for a few minutes, grabbed his catching gear and headed out. After taking batting practice, Lee had a few minutes to grab water in the dugout until Grandal was there to summon him back into the clubhouse for a pregame meeting.

The work is there, and he’s earning the respect of his manager and his pitching staff. Lee’s demeanor has earned him a healthy leash to remain in the lineup despite his .053/.182/.053 slash line. He’s produced some hard contact, and Grifol is confident the hits will start to follow and not worried about when. Lee was a first-round draft pick for the Astros in 2019, and he’s listed as the number 14 prospect in the White Sox system. Buried so deep in the standings, it doesn’t hurt to give him time to figure things out at the plate. Especially since Lee is making such a strong impression with the other aspects of his game.

“A young guy, sometimes [bad at-bats] can trickle into behind the plate, but he separates the two,” Toussaint said. “It’s neat to see that he’s able to do that and has the capacity to do that. You don’t really see that in young guys. Young guys just care about their hitting. He’s more worried about us and how we perform, and then he’s worried about his hitting.”

Grifol is unmistakably clear in his priorities for Lee. Because of Grandal’s contract status, it’s possible that Lee becomes the White Sox full-time catcher in the near future. That means Grifol is going to focus on developing Lee’s non-offensive skills first. That’s part of his general philosophy toward young catchers, so much so that Grifol hasn’t asked Lee about his hitting. 

Grifol’s patience with Lee’s offensive struggles may wane eventually. But he says Lee has checked every other box as a catcher, so Grifol can feel comfortable remaining unconcerned about the aforementioned stat line. There are other lessons. Lee was removed from Saturday’s 10-0 loss after he didn’t leave the box on a third inning pop-out that sliced over by the Tigers dugout.

Lee said he hadn’t followed the ball off of his bat, so remaining in the box wasn’t for lack of hustle. In Grifol’s mind, it still reflected a type of play that he doesn’t want to see, especially not in a young catcher who he seems to think highly of. Grifol said Lee would be back in the lineup Sunday.

These kinds of situations might make things tougher for a young catcher who is already struggling at the plate, but Lee is not all that concerned about his offense, either. Probably with some degree of good reason. We’re talking about a hitting sample size of 19 at-bats this season. That’s part of why he doesn’t sweat a frustrating lineout to right field. It’s also more important to him right now to get to know his pitching staff and make sure they’re succeeding.

“You gotta turn the page, you gotta get out there and prioritize catching,” Lee said. “I can go 0-5, but if we win the game, that’s a win in my book. That’s what you’ve got to carry, especially as a catcher.”

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