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May 5, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Catchers on Catching

by Eric Seidman

Let me start out by saying that I am fascinated by catchers, players who garner a great deal of value simply by playing a certain position. One of the major spurs of my interest is the lack of a definitive measure quantifying their defensive contributions. It might be on the easy side of the spectrum to note which catchers excel at their position as well as which could use some work, but those are vague and qualitative attributes. There have certainly been attempts to quantify what a catcher adds or subtracts with his non-offensive responsibilities but nothing has really caught on with any force, concretely convincing fans through points of difference, or by being offered on a website.

A major reason for this lack of catching on, pun completely intended, is that in the back of our minds we as fans grasp that there is much unknown regarding the daily duties of a catcher. Or, for that matter, how important those duties are; inaccurate measures would surface without a realization of these facts. In other words, it isn’t wrong to measure wild pitches and passed balls or success at slowing the running game, but those aren’t the sole characteristics of catcher defense. Thinking about the topic amidst the hoopla surrounding Victor Martinez and his supposed poor throwing mechanics, I realized how easy it would have been to begin my foray into catcher defense quantification by discussing what I think they do. I decided to go a different route, however, and thanks to Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic and John Perrotto of The Sexy Man Times our very own site, I was able to get in touch with a few people whose opinions on the subject matter more than mine does – actual major league catchers.

I was able to speak to three different generations of catchers: Jason Jaramillo of the Pirates (youngin), Gregg Zaun of the Brewers (veteran, and proprietor of one of the coolest websites around), and A.J. Hinch of the Diamondbacks (catcher-turned-manager). All three agreed to answer a few questions regarding their jobs and what they felt were the most important responsibilities. Now, this is not an appeal to authority in any sense of the phrase, as the rule of thumb here should be to trust but verify as opposed to blindly accepting their input, but as a fan and analyst I know that I would weight their opinions heavier than mine or those of other analysts.

On Their Main Responsibilities:

Jaramillo: “To take care of your pitchers. You have to be everything to them: friend, confidant, psychologist, you name it. That's the most important thing you do as a catcher, make sure you are there for your pitchers and do everything you can to make them successful and help them through the game.”

Zaun: “The catching side of it is your total responsibility. It's the first and foremost thing you worry about. The hitting is extra. The defensive side of it, working with your pitcher, calling a game, catching all the pitches, even the tough ones in the dirt, trying to control the running game, is why you are there. Anything you provide beyond defense is a bonus, in my opinion.”

Hinch: “I would put the No. 1 priority on implementing the game plan against the opponent. So much of our game is built on the pitcher/hitter confrontation. It starts with both the pitcher and the catcher. Being able to instill that game plan in the pitcher’s mind, develop the confidence to use it and then adjust as the game goes along. It’s not as simple as this is the script and we’re just following the script. That would be priority No. 1 for me because that’s where the competition begins. And the execution of that game plan. Provided the game plan is right—and that’s where the adjustments come in. So understanding how to call a game, the strengths and weaknesses of the pitcher matched up with the strengths and weaknesses of the hitter and adjusting with a lot of factors. How well is the guy swinging the bat? Does he make an adjustment and move up on the plate or move back on the plate? Choking up on the bat with two strikes? All sorts of scenarios of that could adjust that game plan and be able to react accordingly.”

How do they weight these responsibilities?

Jaramillo:“Everything after taking care of your pitcher is No. 2. I'm not trying to avoid the question but that is so much more important than anything else you do as a catcher, including hitting, that it's hard to rank the rest.”

Zaun:“Actually catching the ball. I know that sounds pretty simple but the most important job you have is to make sure you catch every pitch, use soft hands and frame it well for the umpire to see, and give your pitcher confidence that he can throw any pitch in any situation without fear that it's going to wind up going to the backstop. After that is building a relationship with the pitcher, having him gain your trust and knowing that you're totally there to help him and 100 percent committed to doing that. Of course, a lot of that entails calling a game, being as prepared as you can possible be to make sure you're always ready to call the best pitch for each situation. The throwing comes last. It's not that it's not important to try to stop the running game and keep guys honest but that takes a back seat to catching and calling a game.”

Catchers Become Analysts: What Goes Into Their Ideal Defensive Metric?

Jaramillo:“Again, it all goes back to handling your pitchers. That's not the easiest thing to tell about a catcher until you see him work with different guys on his staff. It's also why framing pitches is more important than blocking balls or throwing out runners because you want to give your pitcher every chance to get the calls go his way.”

Zaun: “The first thing I would look for is durability and toughness. It's not an easy position to play. You're squatting behind the plate for around 150 pitches a lot of nights and you're also challenged with catching pitches that can be traveling 95 mph or breaking sharply and quickly. It takes someone who can withstand bumps and bruises and is willing to get dinged up because catching is hard on your body. After that, I'd like to see his hands. You want someone with soft hands, who catches everything and frames the pitch to make sure the umpire gets a good look at it. It's very important. Again, I realize that caught stealing is one of the stats you see often with catchers but it doesn't tell you everything about a catcher. It's how he handles himself behind the plate and how he handles his pitching staff that makes the biggest difference over the course of a long season.”

Hinch: “Obviously the defensive fundamentals. Blocking balls saves bases and saves runs and is very important. Being able to control the running game doesn’t always equate in throwing runners out. But maybe it stops the opposing manager from running. Someone like Yadier Molina does an uncanny job of stopping the running game without even having to throw because of his reputation, because of the statistics that he’s put up in the past and his actions impact the game. It’s nothing that he’s really doing. It’s a lot of what he’s done. Those are important. I’d say one of the more overrated things—a catcher doesn’t really frame. He doesn’t dictate strike/ball as much as people think, in my opinion. It’s important that you be able to receive a ball, give a good target, give a clean look for the umpire. And you do some subtle things that might make it a little more comfortable for the umpire, but more times than not a ball is a ball and a strike is a strike.

One of the best compliments you can give a catcher is that he’s unnoticeable. That encompasses a lot of the qualities of a good catcher. One, he’s not dropping a lot of balls. He’s not jerking the ball that’s a ball off the plate and trying to make it a strike. He’s not letting a ball get to the backstop. He’s not grabbing a ball that’s in the zone and taking it out of the zone. He’s just unnoticeable. That’s a compliment. A lot of balls in the dirt aren’t getting by. There are not a lot of delays in the game by him trying to pick balls. Those are the signs of good catchers. They’re very efficient and clean, catch clean games. More times than not, they’re noticed by people who either played the position or by their pitching staff and not so much by what they’re not doing.”

Just How Important Is Calling A Game?

Jaramillo: It's a major part of the job because, again, it goes back to taking care of your pitcher. You want the pitcher to have the utmost confidence in your ability to call a game because that makes it easier for him. If he believes in what you're calling then he has to think a lot less and just worry about executing pitches, which a tough enough job when you're facing major-league hitters.

Zaun: It's everything. If you don't call a good game then you're not giving your pitcher a chance to be successful. It's really important to build that trust with your pitchers and get in synch with them, so you can think along with them. I'm not saying you're never gotten to get shaken off by a pitcher but when you see a pitcher continually looking in for the sign then making the pitch, you know the pitcher and catcher are on the same wavelength and chances are good that it's going to be a good game.

Until Next Time

One of my goals for the last year has been to delve into catching metrics, dissect what has been done and potentially propose a new way of quantifying the very important aspect of the game. In talking to the catchers, some of the assumptions already implemented in prior methods are, in fact, considered to be important, but an awful lot of weight seems to be placed on the more qualitative facets of crouching behind the plate. Does it mean we should cease activity because we cannot measure what is qualitative? No, because being 65 percent of the way there is better than nothing, so long as we don’t act like we are 100 percent of the way there, and the more data compiled through avenues like Pitchf/x, the more we can eventually examine what they bring to the plate—I’m on a pun-roll.

Next week, I will look at a slew of catcher-oriented articles written over the last few years and the methods employed, with the ultimate goal of walking before running; or, in this case, walking before getting caught stealing.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

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