A friend recently asked me how I covered games on TV and whether I found it frustrating; you don’t get to choose what you watch. I said there were advantages to live games—you can see infield and outfield positioning whenever you like—but there were also advantages to watching televised baseball.
You get a much better view of the catcher when you watch a game on TV. The press box at Kauffman Stadium is on the sixth floor so we’re looking down at the catcher’s back—we can’t see the catcher’s glove and where it’s positioned.
If you’re watching on TV, focus on the catcher’s mitt and focus on how much it moves to catch a pitch. If it moves a few inches, that’s OK—the pitcher’s in the general vicinity of the target. But if you see the glove move from the outside corner of the plate to the inside corner, that’s way too much—the pitcher missed location badly.
If that continues—if the pitcher keeps missing his spots—that means the defense will have to give up any extreme positioning; the pitcher doesn’t know where the ball is going and the defense will need to play straight up. But if the pitcher is hitting his spots, now the batter is the one in trouble.
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You can also see how good the catcher is at receiving the ball; does he catch it and stick it in place or does he let the ball’s momentum carry the glove out of the zone? A catcher who can stick it gets calls for his pitcher; a catcher who lets the glove move too much takes calls away.
Does the catcher keep the ball between his knees? Catch the ball outside the shin guards and it doesn’t look much like a strike. Some catcher are adept at swaying or twisting their bodies to stay in front of the ball; the umpire is watching the ball’s flight and when the catcher receives it the umpire looks down and the ball is square in the middle of the chest protector. It wasn’t headed there when the pitch was released, but by the time the ball got to the plate the catcher moved in front of it.
And watch the catcher’s signs: does the pitcher shake him off constantly?
That means they’re not on the same page and the game will drag. Are there a lot of mound visits? If things are going smoothly the catcher will drop a sign, the pitcher will nod his head and go into his motion. If the pitcher shakes off and the catcher just runs through a sequence of signs, the pitcher is calling the game. If the catcher drops the same sign after the pitcher shook him off, the catcher is insisting that his call is the right pitch.
When big league catchers look toward the dugout they’re not getting pitches called, they’re getting signs for the running game. If the catcher slides his hand down his thigh he’s asking the pitcher to deliver the next pitch using a slide step. If the catcher makes a flicking motion with his thumb, he’s asking the pitcher to try a pickoff.
Timeout for a story: When Jason Kendall was still catching he thought it was funny to make the pitcher attempt pickoff after pickoff. They’d be on the road and Kendall would make the pitcher go over five or six times while the crowd booed the pitcher—they didn’t know Jason was the one behind all the throws over to first base.
Here’s one more thing to watch for: does the catcher have to go out to the mound the first time there’s a runner on second base? That means the catcher didn’t do his homework and find out what sign sequence they’d use with a runner on second base.
Same thing if the catcher has to wait on the mound for a reliever; he’s probably asking what signs they’ll use with a runner on second. That bit of business could have been done long before the game ever started. Making everyone wait around while you go over signs during the game indicates bad planning—and it also puts the defense on its heels.
TV coverage tends to concentrate on the pitcher and catcher, so when you watch a televised game, you can do the same.