One of the chief pleasures of my job — besides the free ice cream in the press box — is wandering around, talking baseball and learning something new. And most of the time, when you learn something new, you hit yourself in the forehead because it’s so obvious and logical that you’re embarrassed you didn’t figure it out on your own.
We were talking about backup catchers and why they need to be good catch-and-throw guys (the other theory is a backup catcher should be a good offensive guy, but if you’re a good offensive guy, you’re probably not a backup).
Anyway, one of the reasons your backup catcher should be good behind the plate is that if you give your starting catcher a day off, then you don’t have to bring your starter in to handle the backend of the bullpen late in a game. I asked why you’d need to bring your starting catcher back in the game to handle the set-up man and closer and the answer was obvious:
If pitchers are hard to hit, they’re hard to catch.
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Pitches with a lot of movement make guys swing and miss — they can also make a catcher look bad. Catchers want to set up in their stance, give the pitcher a target and receive the ball quietly and without much movement. If the pitcher hits the mitt, the umpire is more likely to call that pitch a strike — even if it’s off the plate.
If the catcher has to jerk his mitt around and stab at the ball — which can happen on pitches with late movement — the umpire is less likely to see that pitch as a strike.
How that affects framing reports
A while back I wrote a piece about “framing reports” on catchers; which receivers get balls called strikes and which receivers get strikes called balls — and now seems like a good time to revisit some of what I wrote back then.
Learning about any complex subject is like peeling an onion; remove one layer and you find another one underneath. Ask players and coaches about “framing reports” and pitch-tracking technology and you hear why we shouldn’t take this stuff as gospel.
If an umpire doesn’t like a pitcher, that pitcher might not get the borderline pitches called strikes. That will make the catcher look bad, but it actually has nothing to do with his receiving skills.
And it also works the same way in reverse: if a pitcher bound for the Hall of Fame keeps hitting the mitt four inches off the plate, he might start getting that call. The catcher will look good, but he really didn’t have anything to do with it.
The guy at the plate also matters. As one big-league coach asked me, “If Miguel Cabrera turns around and glares at a rookie umpire for calling a borderline pitch a strike, do you think that pitch will be a strike after that? Will a rookie umpire ring up David Ortiz on a 3-2 pitch if the game’s in Fenway?”
So pitch-tracking technology might help us understand some things, but it doesn’t reveal everything — there’s always more to be learned. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions and think we might have been wrong before, but now we know. New information might change our thinking.
And here’s some of that new information:
If a catcher is handling a pitcher without great stuff — straight 4-seam fastballs and big, looping curves — that catcher will tend to look better than a catcher who is handling a pitcher with “nasty-nasty” stuff.
If a pitcher has a nasty slider, a splitter that dives in the dirt or a sinker with great action on it, the catcher is going to tend to look worse as he fights to receive that pitch and keep the ball in front of him.
Catching sleight of hand — swaying the knees to keep the pitch between the shin guards, angling the glove to keep most of the mitt in the strike zone — tricks that make pitches look more like strikes, might go out the window; the pitcher’s stuff is so nasty the catcher has to put all his focus on just making sure the ball doesn’t wind up at the backstop.
This is just one more example of why it’s impossible to look at numbers and understand everything that happened in a game. Learning and writing about this kind of stuff has been a pleasure for me.
And the free ice cream ain’t bad either.