Exploring the Intangibles of Catching
Baseball and statistics go together like peanut butter and jelly. The fact is, just about every position on the field can be successfully evaluated with numbers. But, in my opinion, the catching position is one spot that requires closer inspection. Rating receivers is hard to quantify because this position relies so heavily on intangibles.
Allow me to explain and show you how I see it from a catcher’s perspective. For every pitch, you’ve got about eight million variables coming at you. Who is the hitter and how have I attacked him in the past? What is the game situation? What are your pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses? What is the game plan/scouting report? Who is the umpire and what is his strike zone today? What does your manager want? The list goes on and on. And you need to process all this information and put down the correct number...right now.
Because for me, calling a game and having a good relationship with your pitchers and the umpire may have more of an effect on your team than anything else you might do. These intangibles aren’t flashy and won’t put butts in the seats like a home run hitting catcher can, but it might translate to more wins for your team.
I also believe good receivers must be good psychologists. You’ve got to know every individual on the staff and know whether they need to be kicked in the ass or patted on the back. The same applies for the umpire behind you. You’ve got to figure out what makes these guys tick and how to get results. Whether it’s playing the tough guy, the smart guy, or just offering words of encouragement, a good catcher knows how to get the most out the people he works with.
In this essay, I’d like to briefly cover some of these intangibles—communicating with pitchers, pitch selection and pitch counts, and controlling the pace of game. Before I get into that though, I hope you’ll indulge me as I go off on a little jag about coaches calling pitches. One last note, forgive me if I come off like I’m teaching. I’m a coach’s son and have a lot of that blood in me!
Coaches, Please Don’t Call the Game
Hear me out as I get something off of my chest. It concerns the epidemic I see of coaches calling pitches from the dugout. This bothers me on so many different levels I don’t even know where to start. Honestly, I think it should be outlawed and banished from the game. To begin with, how about the time it takes for the catcher to look over every single time to get a pitch selection? It drives me nuts to watch games that drag on forever as the coach satisfies his ego. I mean, what is the upside? Shouldn’t the kid be learning his craft? What good are you doing as a coach if you are turning out pitchers and catchers who cannot think and make quality decisions for themselves? It’s like graduating from school and not knowing how to read. Trust me—coaches don’t call pitches in pro ball. And the way things are going, amateur baseball is unleashing heaps of brain-dead players into the professional ranks. Yes, kids are going to make mistakes; yes, they are going to make stupid decisions. But that is how they learn. As pitching great Christy Mathewson wisely stated, “you can learn little from victory. you can learn everything from defeat.” Calling a game is a huge part of a catcher’s and pitcher’s development. Having a coach call the games stunts growth.
The bottom line, anyway, is: the best pitch a kid can throw is the one he can un-leash with conviction, even if it’s not the perfect choice. There is no way he can do that if the pitch is coming from the dugout. Talk about handcuffs. How about the little subtleties and changes only the catcher can notice in a hitter’s stance? The coach can’t possibly see that from his perch. How can a receiver anticipate and plan ahead when he is just robotically putting down signals? None of it makes any sense, and it drives me crazy. You may see pro catchers glancing into the dugout to get signs and think that if it’s good for them, it’s good for you. Let me tell you that except for rare instances, these glances have nothing to do with pitch selection. they almost always deal with controlling the running game—when to pitch out, throw over, slide step, and so forth. If you pay close attention, you will notice that pro catchers rarely look over when no one is on base. To be honest, if I were the manager, I would let the battery control the running game, too. But that is a whole different subject. Don’t get me started!
I was very fortunate to play for coaches and managers who never put the hand-cuffs on me. They would make corrections when I was wrong and suggestions when appropriate; however, they never stunted my growth by taking away the reins. As a result, the ability to call a good game and the subsequent trust that developed with my staff turned out to be my strong points. They kept me in baseball a long time and made the house payments. I am very grateful to my coaches for trusting me and seeing me through the learning curve.
I’ll finish this little rant with a plea to amateur coaches everywhere. Please take your hands off the steering wheel and let go of some of the control. Teach your players well, and then unleash them on the game to do what they will. A smarter, better developed athlete will emerge, the pace of the game will improve, and, trust me, the decisions won’t be half bad—maybe even better than yours.
Communicating with Pitchers
Now let’s switch gears and focus on the importance of the pitcher and catcher being on the same page. A good receiver takes the time to know his pitcher’s likes and dislikes and finds out where he (the pitcher) feels his limits are. He’s a good communicator and asks questions. Questions like: Do you like to throw the fastball up when ahead in the count? Do you like to bounce your breaking ball in the dirt? If we are in a strikeout situation, what is your best “out” pitch? Ask him to list his pitches in order of his confidence level. As a catcher, you want to get to the point where you and the pitcher are of the same mind. Your pitch choices are the same as his. As he stands on the rubber and decides on the next pitch, you want your signal to more or less take the words right out of his mouth. Nothing is better than when a pitcher and catcher are on the same wavelength and together slice through the opposing lineup.
Taking the time to communicate and learning how to call a good game helps a catcher earn the trust of his staff. Most great receivers aren’t remembered as box of rocks. Having the ability to put down the right signs takes a huge load off the pitcher’s shoulders by letting him focus on execution rather than choices. Yogi Berra summed it up nicely when he wisely stated, “Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit [or pitch] at the same time?” Helping shoulder the mental load of pitch calling can help your staff concentrate on what’s important: throwing strikes.
Pitch Selection and Pitch Counts
I don’t have an enormous amount of information regarding proper pitch selection because what might be right for one situation won’t fit another situation. A huge list of variables must be filtered through the mind of the catcher, and they are constantly in flux. Some of the components affecting the decision-making process are the strengths of the particular pitcher, the weaknesses of the hitter, the game situation, and the umpire, to name just a few. Like I said, the list goes on and on and is rarely the same twice. Even though there is nothing written in stone, here are a few of the guidelines I followed.
The catcher’s primary focus should be to help the pitcher get outs as quickly and efficiently as possible. Keep your pitcher focused, and don’t let him get caught up in the thrill of making hitters look bad or the trap of trying to make a perfect pitch. Realize that the idea is not so much to “trick” hitters but rather to pound the strike zone in good locations, resulting in quick outs. Keep the pitch count down. Make the opposition swing the bat often and early by keeping your pitcher around the strike zone. I’ll take a first pitch ground out over a strikeout any day of the week. Both scenarios result in an out; however, the ground out requires only one pitch whereas the strikeout takes at least three. Over the course of a game, those numbers can really add up. Keep the pitcher focused on being efficient rather than wasting energy on something else.
Along those same lines, it’s important for the catcher, coach, and pitcher to realize that there’s rarely a pitch you just can’t throw to someone. Usually, even a “bad” pitch selection thrown in the right spot will work. From years of experience seeing thousands of outs, I can tell you that more often than not success or failure depends on the location of the pitch. I will say that again: location, location, location. It’s like real estate. that being said, don’t fall into the trap of setting up on the corners too much or letting the pitcher get too “fine.” If he is obsessed with throwing the ball in the perfect location (i.e., down and right on the corner), then unless his name is Greg Maddux, he is not going to be throwing a lot of strikes. You don’t want to put the hitter in the driver’s seat by getting yourself in counts where you have to pipe a fastball. Again, make hitters swing the bat and get quick outs by pounding the strike zone early with quality pitches.
The last thing to mention on the subject of what pitch to call is always to go with your pitcher’s strength. For example, if confusion arises because a certain hitter is known as a great change-up hitter but that is also your pitcher’s best pitch, go with the change-up. Again, if that is the pitcher’s best chance of throwing a strike in a good location and he can do it with conviction, then that is the best choice no matter what the scouting report says. Always call the game according to your pitcher’s strength instead of the hitter’s weakness.
Pace of Game
As a catcher, you also control the pace of the game. You’re kind of like a point guard in basketball. You can push the ball up the court and play the fast break game or you can slow it down and stall. The speed pedal is under your foot, and by toying with it you can control momentum shifts. I’m not going to lie—as a general rule, I have a heavy bias for pushing the action. I love quick play and recommend it for a number of reasons. That being said, when the offense was rolling and crushing my pitcher, I definitely tried to break the opposing team’s momentum by slowing down the action. Outside of that situation, though, I tried to put the signs down quickly and confidently and felt that doing so positively impacted my team. How so? Well, for one thing, I liked to get my pitcher in the groove of getting the ball, getting on the rubber, and letting it go. Like I’ve said before, the less time a pitcher has to think, the better. Pushing the action also keeps your defense on its toes. I know from playing middle infield that there is nothing worse than a pitcher who takes a minute in between every pitch. How about this reason—fans love quick games. But probably the biggest and best reason for speeding up play is that you take the opposition out of its comfort zone. In general, ballplayers know how to play the game at one speed—slow. Most have no idea how to compete at a quick pace. Pushing the issue by getting the ball back to the pitcher right away and quickly putting down the signal makes good sense if for no other reason than it makes the opposition uncomfortable.
Brent Mayne was a major league catcher from 1989 to 2004. He played most of his career with the Kansas City Royals but also spent time with the Mets, A's, Giants, Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers. He ranks 75th in the history of baseball with 1,143 pro games caught, and his .993 career fielding percentage is 4th all-time. Brent also has the distinction of being the only catcher in the twentieth century to have won a game as a pitcher. He caught Bret Saberhagenʼs no-hitter in 1991. An All-American in college, Brent was drafted in the first round (13th pick overall) and inducted into the Orange Coast College Hall of Fame in 2006. Mayne was a decent hitter with occasional power and compiled a career high .301 batting average in consecutive seasons (1999-2000).
In retirement, Mayne has gone on to serve on the board of directors of the Braille Institute and the Center for Hope and Healing. He is also the author of a book titled "The Art of Catching" and creator of a website, blog and podcast series at www.brentmayne.com.