Talking baseball: What’s up with those catchers’ wristbands?

Royals’ Jorge Soler set to break Kansas City home run record

Kansas City Royals slugger Jorge Soler will soon break the club home run record set not long ago by former third baseman Mike Moustakas. After that, the team must make a decision on Soler’s future.
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Kansas City Royals slugger Jorge Soler will soon break the club home run record set not long ago by former third baseman Mike Moustakas. After that, the team must make a decision on Soler’s future.

If you’ve recently watched a big-league baseball game, seen the catcher check his wristband between pitches and wondered what the heck he was looking at, congratulations: You’ve come to the right place.

Those catchers’ wristbands have plastic sleeves for cards, and those cards list the opposing hitters and how well they handle certain pitches; the cards are color-coded.

Here’s an example of how one system works:

Green is for a good pitch to throw.

White is for a good pitch to throw if it’s well-executed.

Red is for a pitch to be careful with; the hitter handles it well.

Now here’s what all that might mean during a game.

Let’s say slider is listed in white next to a hitter’s name — indicating that it’s a good pitch to throw if it’s well executed.

The catcher then has to decide just how good the pitcher’s slider is that night before he chooses whether or not to call one. A slider might be a good pitch to this hitter Tuesday and an awful pitch to this hitter Wednesday.

So it’s not just what you throw; it’s who’s throwing it.

Right pitch in the right count

So far so good, but now let’s make things a bit more complicated. Just like a pitch can be the right one tonight and the wrong one tomorrow, the same thing is true of counts.

For instance, some pitchers have the velocity and life on their high fastball to throw it first pitch and get away with it. Other pitchers might need to work down in the zone first — get the hitter to lower his sights — and then throw that letter-high heater.

Same with in and out — some pitchers need to work away first, then come in. Or fastball and off-speed — get the hitter trying to catch up with the fastball first, then throw the change-up.

So a pitch that was a bad idea in a 0-0 count might be a good pitch at 1-0, and catchers need to know which pitchers have to set up which pitches before throwing them.

It’s not just what you throw, it’s when you throw it.

Hitter tendencies

Next time you see a batter hitting with two strikes, check his hands.

Some hitters make no two-strike adjustment; they keep their hands down on the knob of the bat and just keep swinging for the fences. Power hitters tend to do this and it’s one of the reasons power guys are easier to strike out.

Jorge Soler leads the Royals in home runs and strikeouts, and that’s not a coincidence.

Guys who hit for average tend to make two-strike adjustments. And once they’re down in the count are usually more willing to settle for an opposite-field single.

Whit Merrifield entered the weekend hitting .305 for a reason. And despite having 71 more at-bats at that point than Soler, Merrifield had 41 fewer strikeouts. At the time this was written, Soler had gone to the opposite field in 51 at-bats; Merrifield had done it 88 times.

So if Merrifield tends to look the other way with two strikes, an inside fastball might jam him, while the same pitch to Soler might get hit halfway to I-70.

If Soler starts his swing early to pull the ball into the cheap seats, he might chase a curve in the dirt while Merrifield spits on the same pitch.

It’s not just what you throw; it’s who you throw it to.

Present over the past

So you can’t just look up numbers and know what pitch to throw and what pitch to avoid without considering the circumstances: who’s throwing the pitches, who are they’re throwing them to and when do they throw them?

And remember:

The numbers tell you what happened in the past and players are more concerned with what’s happening in the present.

Maybe a great fastball hitter had one too many the night before — it’s been known to happen — and he isn’t a great fastball hitter tonight. If he’s late on the fastball and fouling them off to the opposite field, he’s got a slow bat tonight. So matter what the numbers say about the past, light him up.

Or maybe the pitcher has a devastating slider going and that hitter who has a history of handling sliders well isn’t going to handle this slider well tonight. If the hitter is out on his front foot too soon and swinging at sliders in the dirt, no matter what the numbers say about the past — keep throwing sliders.

Bottom line: The wrong pitch well-executed can work, but the right pitch gives the pitcher margin for error and those wristband cards increase the catcher’s chances of calling the right pitch.

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