This Friday edition of Baseball and Brews is pleased to welcome back guest columnist Aaditaya V., who wrote last week’s great article on the art of the trade. This week, Adi is delving into the catcher position, and the ever-important relationship between pitchers and their battery-mates. Take it away, Adi!
Cash Me On The Outside Corner, Low And Away, Howbowdah
Friday, June 23, 2017
by Aaditya V.
One of the most interesting relationships in baseball is that between a pitcher and catcher. They have the awe-inspiring ability to communicate nonverbally and seamlessly. Much like Dr. Phil struggles to understand exactly what’s being “cashed outside,” I struggle to understand the communication between a pitcher and catcher. But with a little bit of work, Dr. Phil can decipher teenagers and so too can we decipher baseball’s best battery-mates. So let’s take a look into signaling basics, famous pitcher-catcher relationships, pitch framing, which catchers have been playing well, and of course a beer! Let’s go.
During a typical game the pitcher and catcher must communicate to deliver and receive over 100 pitches. Prior to the start of each game the pitching staff, which includes all of the starters, catchers, pitching coaches and the general manager, creates a strategy to defeat each batter a pitcher may face. Before understanding the way pitchers and catchers signal to one another you must understand why signaling is necessary in the first place.
The main purpose of a developing a hitting strategy is to keep the opposing team’s hitters off balance. What does that mean? Hitting is all based on timing. The batter has only a few seconds from when the pitcher starts their wind up to when the ball is in the backstop’s mitt. In those split seconds the batter must decide:
- Whether the pitch is hittable, aka in the strike zone, before the ball arrives at the plate.
- If the ball is hittable, where in the strike zone that ball is going to go through.
A lot of those judgements are based on the batter’s expectations. For example, when reading a pitch type and location, the batter must think “I expect the pitcher to throw a fastball, because the count is 3-1 and its pitcher’s best pitch. I also expect him to throw it away because I heard the catcher shift outside, and lastly, I expect the pitch be in the strike zone because the count is in my favor and the pitcher does not want to walk me.”
When judging when to start his swing as a hitter, he needs know how long the pitcher takes from starting position to wind-up, from wind-up to release, and from release to catch. Per Gerrit Maus, a reseacher at UC Berkley: “a fastball takes 0.4 seconds to reach home plate after it leaves a pitcher’s hand, but a hitter needs a full 0.25 seconds to see the ball and react…the brain compensates for that lag time. Based on the movement of the object and the background behind it, the brain makes a projection of where the object will be.” As 17-time All-Star pitcher Warren Spahn famously said, “hitting is timing and pitching is upsetting timing.”
Part of upsetting that timing is calling a variety of different pitches and exploiting a hitter’s weaknesses. Calling pitches is a crucial part of a backstop’s responsibility. Included in that responsibility is remembering the overall game strategy, deciding individual pitches, remembering the results of previous pitches and at-bats, adjusting pitches and signals for a given situation and understanding a pitcher’s capability on a given night. Once a pitch is signaled the pitcher must agree by shaking his head yes or no. Pitches are typically signaled as follows:
One Finger = Fast Ball
Two Fingers = Curve Ball
Three Fingers = Slider
Four Fingers and/or Wiggle Fingers = Change Up
In addition to signaling pitch type, a catcher must signal the location of a pitch. Often, location is communicated through the location of the glove or through a second number. For example pitch location can be enumerated as follows:
Where the first row is high in the strike zone (shoulder level), second row is in the strike zone (knee to elbow) and the third row is low in the strike zone (knee down).
The simplest way to for a backstop to indicate the location of a pitch is to position his glove where he expects the pitch to land and tapping his left or right thigh to indicate if he wants a pitch inside or outside. In addition to all of the communication that takes place between the catcher and a pitcher, the manager may indicate a deviation in strategy to the catcher. Occasionally, a coach or manager will call for specific pitches or indicate whether to walk a batter or how to handle a base runner. The complexity of a catchers signals increases when there is a runner on base. In this video, John Madden explains how to keep a baserunner on second out of the loop when signaling pitchers.
Famous catcher & pitcher relationships
Often, a poor relationship between a pitcher and a catcher can significantly impact their on-field success. For example, Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux and Braves catcher Javy Lopez had notoriously terrible chemistry. So much so that manager Bobby Cox benched Lopez in Game 3 of the 2002 NLDS in favor of second-string catcher Henry Blanco. Maddux typically pitched to Charlie O’Brian but later pitched Eddie Perez, with whom he was much more comfortable. To really highlight this disparity, when Maddux was caught by Lopez, Maddux had had a 3.44 ERA in 131 IP. When Maddux was caught by Perez however, he had a 1.89 ERA over 114 IP. More recently, Jon Lester in the 2016 World Series was caught by the older and more experienced David Ross even though rookie catcher Wilson Contreras had the better post-season batting average, and was a better hitter than Ross.
So why do some pitchers need a personal catcher? It mostly boils down to trust and having a good rapport. Brandon Webb, the 2006 NL Cy Young Award winner, put 100% trust in his catcher Chris Synder; whatever sign Synder put down was the pitch Webb threw. But it isn’t just about pitch-calling. Other pitchers, like Lester, are stubborn and wont throw to 1st base for pickoffs, so you as a catcher need to do all the work defensively. And for some pitchers, you need to make the target of their pitch unwaiveringly clear. In an interview with ESPN in 2016, Jon Lester said that David Ross “knew how to push his buttons”, I can only hope that David teased Jon about moving home plate to first. “Over time [David] has understood how to push my buttons, making sure I’m locked in and everything. At the same time I know how to do the same to him. We check our feelings at the door when we go out and play, and when we’re done we can sit back and kind of laugh at some of the things we’ve said to each other over the last few years.”
Framing a pitch
Once a pitcher and catcher have decided on the pitch that is going to be thrown, the pitcher winds up, delivers the pitch, and the catcher receives it. How that catcher receives the ball is an integral to how the umpire rules the pitch. Framing is the art of making a pitch that is near (borderline strike/ball) the zone appear to be a strike when in fact it may not be. Its almost like slight-of-hand magic. In this video veteran catcher Rick Dempsey explains how simply positioning your wrist outside the strike zone makes the pitch seem more strike worthy.
This leads us to the Fantasy Impact. As every fantasy player will tell you, the hitting depth at catcher is ankle deep at best. Here is the current leader board for catchers:
So why is it important to know which catchers are good defensively vs offensively? In the vast majority of fantasy leagues, defense is not a counting stat. The answer is that defensive ability figures largely into a catcher’s playing time. If you know which catchers are good at framing, then you can asses the waiver wire market and know that even though Tyler Flowers and Robinson Chirinos are playing well, they don’t play often. Like every other day at best.
Russell Martin (TOR) – 48% Owned
Currently only owned in 48% of leagues, a top catcher may still be available in your league! Playing one of the most explosive line-ups in baseball, Martin may add a needed oompf to your team. Martin is currently hitting .222 but he is a career .254 hitter so you can at least expect him to hit the Mendoza line. Additionally, he still has a Hard Hit rate of 35% and is walking at a 16% clip.
Alex Avila (DET) – 47 % Owned
Alex Avila has gone through an almost-renaissance. “Alex Avila, among major league hitters with at least 150 plate appearances, has the highest hard-contact rate (57.5 percent, according to FanGraphs.com). Chasing him on that list are Miguel Sano, Nick Castellanos, Paul Goldschmidt, Aaron Judge and Miguel Cabrera. Furthermore, Avila’s wRC-plus (adjusted runs created) of 176 ranks fifth. He ranks eighth in on-base percentage (.430), ninth in slugging (.611) and has an offensive WAR of 14.6. More traditionally, he is hitting .311 with 10 home runs, 27 RBIs and a 17.1 percent walk rate (which is third in baseball).” Detroit News.
Tom Murphy (COL) – 15% Owned
The Rockies re-instated catcher Tom Murphy from the DL. Murphy absolutely tore up AAA pitching hitting .414 in 29 at-bats. Even though Murphy may have to compete with Tony Wolters for playing time you are more than assured to see big numbers from Tom. Rated the number 7 catching prospect and hitting in one of the friendliest parks we’re pretty excited to see what this young man can do!
Sun Crusher IPA – Revolution Brewing Co.
When a pitcher and a catcher can’t communicate properly you know what happens to the ball? It gets crushed!
This is a fantastic, dare I say crushable, beer out of Chicago, Illinois. It pours out of the can with a beautiful golden orange color. The head is a about an inch thick and the beer is a bit hazy.
A very crisp, citrusy smell with grassy hop notes. The beer has an incredible taste, perfect for a hot summer day. The taste, as with the smell, is very citrus forward, with a zesty dry finish. Though there are many beers within this hoppy, American Pale Ale category, and I am a huge fan.