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May 30, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

U Got the Look: Fielding, Part II

by Jason Parks

When it comes to evaluating low-level talent behind the plate backbone of the process is formed from observing the body and the natural movement(s) of the body—just like all other position evaluation. Baseball isn’t black and white, and players don’t always arrive wrapped in prototypical packages. This is especially true for catchers. When you think of a catcher’s build, what body type comes to mind? Let me guess: Shortish, with bulbous aspects of the frame (stocky); thick wrists; fullback body. Sound about right? You might think this represents the ideal, but ultimately it comes down to how the body works rather than how it measures out.

When evaluating a catcher, I care more about the athleticism, coordination, and strength involved than the inherent physical characteristics [read: height/weight]. Not every player carries weight well, or projects to carry weight well, while others inhabit bad bodies that somehow allow the requisite quickness and agility for the position to shine through. You can’t judge the body in isolation; you need to see the body walk the runway to see how it moves. Basic point: Just because the body doesn’t look the part doesn’t mean the body can’t perform the role. Basic Point #2 (which is really Basic Point #1 repackaged): Catchers can be fat.

In my opinion, the most important component of the body evaluation is determining how well the feet work. As I mentioned, just because the body isn’t a chiseled work of art doesn’t preclude the possibility of athleticism and/or agility. When watching the feet (footwork), I want to see the same sort of fluidity and coordination you would expect to see from a middle infielder. Again, I’m a man who loves witnessing grace on the field. Give me on-the-field elegance over workout warriors any day of the week.

Because of the nature of the beast, the crux of the overall functionality of the position starts with the feet. Slow, clumsy feet limit the range of success a catcher can have, and the chain of physical events start at the base of the body. When evaluating a catcher’s body, pay close attention to the agility and coordination as it stems from feet. Ask yourself: Do those feet look heavy and slow? From the balls of the feet, does the catcher have spring or are the feet cemented in the ground? Six months ago, this would have been a sweet spot for a Rex Ryan joke.

After the body/agility components are documented and used to build the skeleton, I look to see how those physical traits translate to the position’s defensive demands. Obviously, good defense behind the plate is a recipe made up of several ingredients, and the ability to block balls in the dirt, position oneself to make throws, and field the position are direct byproducts of those physical functions. Catchers don’t need average speed, but what they lack in straight-line speed they need to make up for in quickness and agility. Fundamentals can be taught, but without the necessary physical characteristics, those fundamentals are merely academic. This is where my evaluation tends to get monochromatic, as the basics of the defensive skill set are either present (or projectable) or they aren’t. I believe that if the athleticism is there, the basic fundamentals can be taught. (By basic, I mean: how to block balls, how to block the plate, how to field a bunt, etc.)  

As is often the case, the premium physical weapon of a catcher is the arm, or more specifically, the ability to combine the arm’s raw physical strength with the necessary fundamentals (throwing mechanics, footwork) to assist in controlling the running game. I use the word “assist” with clear intent, as a catcher can’t control the running game on his own merits. Pitchers set the tone. With a runner on first base, a pitcher needs to deliver the ball to the plate in a timely manner, preferably under 1.5 seconds. The clock on this process starts when he makes his first movement to the plate (front leg lift) and stops when the ball reaches the catcher’s mitt. A catcher could possess an 80-grade arm with an ultra-fast release, but even an elite skill set would be rendered obsolete if a pitcher is leisurely to the plate. The running game is actually controlled by the men on the mound, not the men behind it. Catchers are the executioners, but pitchers have to create the environment for the execution.

Determining the raw strength of the arm shouldn’t require many viewings; in many cases, you can grade the arm (strength) from watching pregame infield drills. It gets more complicated when you attempt to grade the overall functionality of that arm, which is an amalgam of the raw strength, the body movements leading up to the throw, the hand actually releasing the ball, and the overall accuracy of the arm.  The body movements in question are as such: From the balls of the feet, a catcher is required to quickly reach a throwing position, which requires spring in the legs and the footwork to form a solid base to throw from. Again, having a strong arm is only one part of the equation. Sloppy footwork and a slow release will negate the quality of the raw arm strength, therefore limiting the overall effectiveness of the arm itself.

You have no doubt heard the term “pop time,” which is the time (in seconds) applied to the action of receiving the ball, transferring the ball from the glove to the hand, and delivering the ball to second base. The stopwatch starts on first contact (or perceived first contact) with the catcher’s glove and stops when the ball reaches the glove covering second. An average major-league pop time is in the 1.9-2.00 range, with plus times coming in under 1.85 seconds. To achieve above-average pop times, a catcher needs to possess a strong arm with a quick release, and his footwork and glove-to-hand transfer needs to be fluid and smooth. I hold fluidity in high regard.

Over the years, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking to pitchers about the pitching process, and as a result, I’ve accumulated numerous opinions about the relationship between a pitcher and his batterymate. Before I jump into the deep psychological waters of the relationship itself, I want to touch on a specific component of catching: receiving the ball.

The most common complaint I’ve heard from a pitcher, as it pertains to his catcher, is the ability (inability) to catch/frame the pitch. One of the prerequisite physical characteristics I mentioned was having strength, particularly in the wrists. A good catcher (strong catcher) should receive a pitch without allowing the pitch to carry his glove to an undesirable location. You want to see a catcher who can frame a pitch, to cement the existence of the ball in a particular position or to quickly adjust the glove so that the desired position is achieved. The movement that occurs when a ball pushes the glove to an unfavorable location in the zone is often referred to as drift. It pisses pitchers off when a catcher allows his glove to drift, especially when the glove drifts out of what could be classified as the strike zone. Drifting normally stems from a combination of strength (or lack thereof) and inexperience at the position. If drifting is still occurring deep into the developmental journey, something is amiss, and probably not directly tied to inexperience.

It’s reductive, but the primary role of a catcher is to catch, and when evaluating the position, you want to see this ability. More on this in the next section, but a catcher’s job is to do everything in his power to influence the outcome of a pitch. Properly framing a received ball is just one quality incorporated in the overall process.

Game-calling and the Psychology of the Position: What is it, How Can I See it, and Why Does it Matter?

It’s impossible to quantify, but the emotional relationship between a pitcher and the catcher he is pitching to is arguably the most important (and fragile) in the game. If I can use this platform to rant for a bit, this relationship is the most underappreciated aspect of the game itself, and one that often gets disregarded because it lives in the abstract, free from the boundaries and definitions of value. It’s emotional and specific, and absolutely at the core of what makes baseball beautiful and unique.

Game-calling, for lack of a better definition, is simply one of the methods a catcher uses to guide a pitcher through the pitching process, with a specific focus on the qualities of the pitch itself, rather than the ancillary emotional components involved. Getting the sign from the dugout and placing digits just south of the agape crotch is not game-calling. Fingers just south of the agape crotch are vehicles for the delivery of a message, but the gathering of intelligence and the guidance involved to persuade a response to this message is what I consider game-calling.

A good game-caller acts as a proxy for the braintrust in the dugout, relaying the call (assuming the call originates from the dugout) and setting up the environment to properly execute said call. A good game-caller will help define the parameters of the present strike zone. A good game-caller can assess the strengths and weaknesses of a pitcher’s present arsenal and assist in the adjustment process to maximize effectiveness. A good game-caller will observe the hitters’ tendencies in the box, and relay this intelligence through private discussion or through the setup itself. A good game-caller knows everything the pitcher knows (and more), taking mental notes on how to go about crafting the plan to exploit the opponent’s weaknesses. It’s a cerebral quality to possess, and one that can facilitate the physical action(s) taking place, but it’s also a quality we can’t quantify, and therefore it’s a quality that is often endowed with a clouded significance.

Beyond the observational intelligence involved with game-calling, a catcher must also take on a more personal role with a pitcher, one that could best be described as part coach, part best friend, and part psychologist. As I mentioned, a catcher’s job is to guide a pitcher through the process of pitching, and the emotional components involved with the execution of this guidance can’t be overlooked.

Not every pitcher requires or accepts the intrusive aspects of this particular emotional component; every player is unique, and therefore every player requires a unique approach to encouragement and/or criticism. But regardless of the specific methods deployed, a catcher needs to understand the emotional state of his pitcher and help shape those emotions to produce a positive result. I could spend 2,000 words on the psychological aspects of the relationship and not even begin to scratch the surface of what is going on. It’s often dysfunctional and schizophrenic (like any relationship), but it’s also personal and privileged, and you (me) aren’t involved and thus aren’t invested enough to assign proper significance.

We can speculate based on our own observations or on the outcome of specific events, but it’s simply not possible to accurately scout the intangible qualities of the position based solely on personal observation. It’s too deep. It’s too complex. It’s also presumptuous and arrogant to make a relational determination based on superficial evidence. It’s not always possible, but when it is, I ask the participants involved. When this particular source isn’t available to me, well, I’m not against being presumptuous and arrogant (obviously), but I’ll weigh the significance of the conjecture accordingly. Regardless of what I’m able to extract (or believe I have extracted) I will not conclude that the intangible aspects of the relationship are insignificant based on insufficient evidence. Call me a fool, or call me cool, but I’ve spoken to too many pitchers about this specific topic and I’ve yet to hear one downplay the importance of the connection.

Evaluating catchers is extremely complicated; you need to see the necessary physical components to execute at the position, as well as the cerebral and emotional elements that help form the guidance system of the battery. When you find a player that marries the physical gifts with the intellectual and emotional characteristics, you might just have a player that can reach the highest level of baseball on the merits of positional ability alone. Good catchers take time to develop, as their skills need refinement through repetition and situational experience. But a mature [read: developed] catcher represents an invaluable resource to a pitcher, despite the fact that the intangible qualities of their skill set might go unnoticed or even get disparaged by those who can’t accurately quantify it.

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 Up next: The final chapter in this contrived exercise in solipsism will briefly touch on the often overvalued tool (speed), and then follow with lengthy essays on player makeup and the dangerous world of scouting parlance, the latter of which will feature an awesome display of hypocrisy on my part. Stay tuned.  

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

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