Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com.
Much has been written about the ability of a catcher to “handle pitchers.” If a catcher cannot relate well to his pitching staff and does not have their confidence, he cannot help them to maximize their performance and his value to the team is diminished substantially. Generally accepted notions are that “calling a good game” is the main component of being a “good handler of pitchers” and that calling pitches is what makes a catcher valuable to a team and its pitchers. Although it is true that the catcher-pitcher relationship is important to a pitcher’s success, calling pitches rarely is a significant aspect of a catcher’s game. The purpose of this article is to examine the attributes that contribute to a successful relationship between batterymates. Many of the skills which endear a catcher to his pitching staff may go unnoticed by the casual fan, and if a great catcher is not a run-producing hitter, many fans may not appreciate his worth to the team and may not consider him to be great at all.
Knowing the Pitchers
Perhaps the most overlooked attribute of any outstanding catcher is a comprehensive knowledge of his pitchers. The upper echelon catcher is part psychologist. The catcher must know the best pitch of each pitcher and, more important, he must know the pitch that each pitcher likes, or wants, to throw in any given situation. When a pitcher says about a catcher that “he calls a great game,” he really means that “he calls what I want to throw when I want to throw it.” All but the most inexperienced pitchers will call their own game by shaking off signs until the catcher calls the pitch they want, and a catcher and a pitcher are in synch primarily because the catcher calls for the pitch he knows the pitcher believes in and wants to throw. Occasionally, a catcher will insist on a specific pitch because of something he has seen or because the manager wants it thrown, but as a general rule, the catcher only suggests pitches and the pitcher accepts or rejects these suggestions.
The catcher must know his pitchers’ individual psyches so that he can motivate each pitcher most effectively. There are several times in any game in which a catcher can provide a pitcher an emotional boost to his physical performance. He must know which pitchers require a pat on the back and which require a kick in the backside. The catcher who understands how to motivate each pitcher on his staff will not behave the same on each trip to the mound during times of trouble; his words of wisdom will be delivered in a soothing, encouraging tone to those who need stroking and in an in-your-face, challenging manner to those who need stronger handling. Knowing the precise motivational technique to use for each pitcher separates the Brad Ausmuses of the game from the Mitch Meluskeys.
A catcher must know pitching mechanics and must immediately be able to recognize flaws in his hurlers’ deliveries. In many games, observant fans can see a catcher reminding his pitcher to keep his elbow up or to keep his front shoulder closed or to use a lower release point. He does so with gestures that every pitcher recognizes. Not only does the outstanding catcher focus on the pitch but also he focuses on the mechanics of each delivery. The best catchers are pitching coaches on the field and can prevent the necessity of a trip to the mound by a manager or coach. All a pitcher may need is a reminder to concentrate or a mention of a flaw in his mechanics, and the catcher who knows his pitchers and watches them closely can coach them between pitches.
Pitchers appreciate most a catcher’s ability to block balls in the dirt. An obvious result of this skill is that baserunners will not move up if the catcher saves a wild pitch. In some situations, in the dirt is exactly where the pitcher wants to throw the ball. A catcher who blocks the low pitch with regularity instills tremendous confidence in his pitcher and makes him a much more effective competitor, especially with two strikes on the hitter. A pitcher whose out pitch is a curve or slider will not hesitate to throw it in the dirt, even with an important run on third. This is a tremendous advantage for the pitcher that his catcher enables him to have.
A catcher acquires this skill only through hard, dirty, and sometimes painful work, and he receives no statistical accolades or awards for his effort. Only constant practice blocking ball after ball, usually thrown hard at close range by a coach, enables a catcher to become proficient at blocking the ball in the dirt with his body. A player’s instinctive move is to try to catch the ball, and the catcher must overcome his natural desire to avoid being hit. Blocking the pitch that bounces results from a catcher’s pure selfless effort which helps a pitcher and his team, and this gritty talent separates the great catcher from one who merely looks pretty catching the ball.
Knowing the Hitters
To be outstanding, a catcher must do much more to help his pitcher than put down signs and catch the ball. He also must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each opposing hitter, and he must watch the hitter carefully between pitches for any subtle clue that will show him what pitch and location the hitter is looking for. Among the clues he will watch for are: whether the hitter is up in the box anticipating a breaking pitch or back in the box expecting hard stuff; whether the hitter’s stance is open or closed; whether the hitter is close to the plate or far away; whether the position of the hitters’ hands will make him vulnerable to a particular location; whether the hitter is pulling off of or diving into the pitch; and whether the hitter is trying to make adjustments with his stance or hands to the way he is being pitched.
All of these clues, some of which the hitter does not know he is giving, together with the catcher’s knowledge of the hitter and the scouting report, will enable the observant catcher to suggest the next pitch and its location. The ordinary catcher merely puts fingers down and catches the ball with no thought of adjusting to what the hitter is showing him. The outstanding catcher does as much or more with his eyes and his brain as he does with his mitt. Pitchers must hit spots, but the catcher must choose the correct spots for him to hit. The catcher who does not think or watch for clues from the hitter cannot help the pitcher locate his pitches in the hitter’s weakness and will not help him adjust to what the hitter is doing. If the catcher does not know the hitters and does not observe their every move, he is a breathing backstop and nothing more.
A catcher who throws well can restrict the opponent’s running game, either by his arm or by the threat of his arm. Catchers can help pitchers merely by having a reputation for making a strong accurate throw with a quick release. Having this reputation as a strong thrower often is almost as effective as actually throwing a runner out. A catcher should try to throw his best during infield practice and between innings. Opposing coaches and managers are influenced by what they see during practice, and they may be reluctant to call for a steal, especially in a crucial situation, if they believe the catcher has a good chance to throw out the runner. The great catcher helps his pitcher by throwing base stealers out, of course, but he helps almost as much by keeping that runner at first, and the double play in order, by the threat of his arm.
Receiving the Ball
Great catchers receive the ball softly; poor catchers box the ball, or snatch at it, and often bobble the ball or miss it entirely. The catcher who receives the ball gently, always catching the ball smoothly and fluidly toward the middle of his body and the strike zone, will help his pitcher get close calls for strikes. A good catcher will never push the ball away from the strike zone; he will catch the low pitch coming up, the high pitch coming down, and he will bring every pitch toward the strike zone as he catches it. Framing a pitch is not grabbing the pitch and jerking it into the zone. The superlative catcher will receive the ball by catching it softly, moving it into his body with the catch, and through good footwork, he will immediately be in position to throw as he catches the ball. The casual fan may never be aware that the catcher has moved the ball as he caught it.
A lost art for many modern catchers is providing the pitcher a strong and steady target with the mitt. Too many catchers today never give a target until the pitcher is well into the windup or never give a target at all. Worse still, many catchers have their arms and hands constantly moving throughout the windup and delivery. The lack of a clear target is annoying to a pitcher at best, and at worst this gives the pitcher no spot to focus on and harms his ability to locate his pitches well. A catcher can help his pitcher by giving the widest possible target with his open mitt immediately after the pitcher takes the sign. The target should be held steady until the pitcher releases the ball. If a catcher never puts his mitt up as a target or keeps the mitt or his hands moving, there is no constant spot for the pitcher’s focus, and the moving or nonexistent target can distract the pitcher. Most pitchers appreciate a catcher who gives a good, solid target; all pitchers should demand it.
Baseball history is replete with names and records of catchers who were high average hitters and run producers; Berra, Campanella, Bench, Dickey, Fisk and others were very good hitters. Ivan Rodriguez certainly is in that category today. Offense was important for them, but they were excellent defensive players, too. Rarely – Piazza comes to mind – will a catcher’s production on offense overcome his lack of defensive skills at his position. If a catcher cannot handle his staff and throw, his batting average and RBI will help the team more at another position.
A catcher must provide many intangible benefits to his pitching staff and must be able to master the difficult technical skills the position requires or he is of no real use to the pitchers who depend on him on every pitch. Being able to drive in 100 runs is of no immediate help to the pitcher who is in a jam and needs his catcher’s help to work his way out of it. A strong offensive game is a wonderful attribute for a catcher to have, but it is a luxury, not a necessity.
Earning Teammates’ Confidence
Perhaps the most important intangible characteristic of an outstanding catcher is the confidence that his pitchers and other teammates have in him. A catcher must be a leader, and he must have the respect of his teammates, especially the pitching staff. An infielder or outfielder can be a self-centered jerk without having much effect on the team’s success, but the catcher cannot. The catcher must be tough on his pitcher when the situation warrants, and the pitcher who is being upbraided for a lack of concentration or poor location must respect the person lecturing him. If the pitcher does not respect his catcher, nothing positive will result from the catcher’s visit to the mound. In addition, the catcher may ask a pitcher to throw a pitch that is not his best because he has seen something in the hitter’s approach that convinced him that going away from the normal pattern will be successful. Only the pitcher with absolute confidence in his catcher’s knowledge and judgment can do this and, more important, avoid destructive second-guessing if the catcher’s choice of pitches gets hit hard. Finally, only the catcher faces the other eight players, and he must take charge of the game by constantly reminding his teammates of situations and plays to be made. By virtue of his position, the catcher is the team’s leader on the field, and he must be willing and able to lead.
The saga of Mitch Meluskey is an excellent example of the importance of a catcher’s having the confidence and respect of his teammates. Meluskey, a brash, loud rookie, and a talented hitter, got nowhere in his efforts to motivate pitchers because they did not respect him and did not want to listen to him berate them. A catcher does not have to be a veteran to earn confidence from his pitching staff, but he does have to work hard at defense and at learning the game. Meluskey, however, appeared to care little about defense or about handling pitchers. He was a hitter whose defense seemed to be little more than an afterthought. He missed his opportunity, or did not want it, to win the respect of his peers by supporting his pitchers with strong, intelligent defense. After just one year with Meluskey behind the plate, the Astros shipped him to Detroit and obscurity and brought back Brad Ausmus. The team’s pitchers unanimously applauded this trade and, to a man, exuded confidence in Ausmus, his defense and his ability to handle pitchers. There is no doubt that Meluskey was far superior to Ausmus as a hitter, but offense, without more, simply is not enough at the catcher position.
The time-honored formula for a successful baseball team, even today, is pitching and defense, and no position player is more important than the catcher when building a team. A great catcher will make his pitching staff better and will prevent opponents’ runs with his glove, his arm and his head. If he also can hit, that is a bonus, but offensive statistics are not the measure of a catcher’s worth to his team. Watch him play the position or, better yet, ask his pitchers.