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September 13, 2012

Head Games

Salvador Perez and the Art of Setting Up

by Will Woods

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Jeff Zimmerman wrote an interesting post on Wednesday morning over at Royals Review, in which he claimed that Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez was tipping Will Smith’s pitches during his start on Tuesday night against the Twins. Zimmerman shows Perez, preparing to receive a breaking ball, remaining in his rest position until Smith lifts his leg, rather than giving his pitcher a firm target. Zimmerman’s interpretation was that the Twins noticed this and used it to try to steal on Smith’s breaking ball.

My first impression was that it would be awfully difficult for a baserunner to ascertain the catcher’s posture and try to get the jump necessary to steal third at the same time. I went back and looked at some of the footage, and although I believe Perez is hurting is team in a rather subtle way—as we’ll examine later—I have something of a different take on how and why. Here’s one of the examples Zimmerman cited, a curveball to Pedro Florimon in the fifth with men at first and second and none out. Note the change in Perez’s stance as Smith goes through his motion:

Perez isn’t tipping pitches—he’s disguising them. A runner at second probably can’t read the catcher and pitcher simultaneously and then steal third, but he can see what side of the plate the catcher has signaled for and communicate that to the batter. Perez wants to wait as long as he can before making that information public, so he remains at rest until the last possible moment. Different teams handle this transition differently—you’ve probably seen many versions of this move from various catchers over the years—but that’s the thinking behind it.

In Zimmerman’s defense, Perez generally gives away the location a little more for the fastball, but he still begins in his rest position before establishing a firm target only after his pitcher has started his delivery. Here’s a first-inning 0-1 fastball to Josh Willingham with a runner on second:

And now the next pitch, a slider on 0-2:

Would you want to be the man at second responsible for deciding which would be which, all while reading Smith well enough to get a good jump toward third?

That said, there are two ways in which Perez is doing his team a disservice with his receiving style, and they lie not in his approach but in its execution. The first issue isn’t so much a flaw as a little trick Perez might do well to mix in during these types of situations. Take a look at that last pitch to Willingham, the slider. Perez probably received this ball—and numerous other inside breaking balls from the same game—the way he did out of sheer force of habit, but think about it: If you’re going to throw a breaking ball on the inside corner, wouldn’t you want the entire ballpark to know you were going inside?

Imagine the man at second, Ben Revere, communicating to Willingham that the catcher has set up inside, as runners often do; neither Revere nor Willingham would know the pitch type, only that Perez is headed inside. If you were armed with that information, what would you think was coming? You’d be geared up for 90 mph in your kitchen. Hell, Perez should really ham it up back there—I’d show Smith my best “Come on!” gesture, begging him to give me his best heater. (Perez has a fun one, too; he likes to violently snap both arms at his pitcher to demand a good fastball.) If Willingham fell for it, he’d be caught off balance when Smith dropped the slider on him instead—which he was anyway, in this instance, despite the lack of deception on Perez’s part. (It would have helped this example if Willingham had hit that slider about 500 feet instead of taking it for a called strike three. In my last article, I urged readers to refrain from using the “small sample size” rebuttal; I see now this was a double-edged sword.) Still, although Perez isn’t necessarily hurting his team by doing it his way, the benefits of being quicker to set up inside are threefold: A) it gives his pitcher a better target, which, as we’ll see later, should not be taken for granted; B) by making the runner at second anticipate a fastball, Perez could dissuade him from trying to steal third; and C) it could convince the batter that a fastball is coming, leaving him less prepared to see something else.

The second problem with Perez’s receiving is far more severe, and it could be costing the Royals runs. We’ll start with a positive con: in the fifth inning, after catching Darin Mastroianni stealing third, Perez returned to his normal men-on-base receiving mode with a runner on first. Here’s the first pitch following the caught stealing:

Good target, good frame, no complaints. Now contrast that with his man-on-second receiving position. Remember that 0-1 fastball to Willingham? Take another look at Perez on that pitch—notice any differences with and without a man at second?

Let’s look at two more examples of what I’m talking about. Here’s Perez receiving Smith’s first pitch to Florimon in the fifth inning, with men on first and second:

And here’s the first pitch to Ryan Doumit in the eighth inning, with Aaron Crow on the mound:

In all three examples—and many others from this game, including a game-ending fly out that Jamey Carroll hit about as far as Jamey Carroll can hit a ball, as well as a bunch without runners at second—Perez is lining up right down the middle to receive a fastball. Waiting in his rest position for his pitcher to begin his motion, Perez is supposed to pick a side, but he’s developed a nasty habit of settling lazily in the middle. To put it bluntly, barring the occasional 3-0, bases-loaded emergency, this shouldn’t happen at the major-league level. Will Smith and Aaron Crow are not Justin Verlander, or even Ronald Belisario, whom I examined last time: they can’t challenge hitters with their best heat and expect to get away with it, and for Perez to set a target over the heart of the plate is setting them up to fail. The game was out of hand by the eighth inning, and you could argue that most of the parties involved had lost a little motivation, but you can bet Crow cared when, two pitches later, he threw a 2-0 fastball right to Perez’s glove—which happened to be no more than a few inches outside of the middle of the plate—and Doumit ripped an RBI single.

Let’s address the obvious rebuttal here: that these are major-league pitchers (all jokes about the Royals’ staff aside) who shouldn’t necessarily need a proper target from their catcher to execute pitches. To this I say, not so fast—this may be the rare instance in which we might give some pitchers a little too much credit. For one notable counterexample, here’s an excerpt from a 2004 New York Times article on former big leaguer and archery hobbyist Matt Ginter:

Ginter told [then-Mets pitching coach Rick] Peterson that when shooting an arrow, he always focuses on a spot no larger than a nickel. But when throwing a baseball, he aims at a much larger target.

Ever since, Peterson has instructed Ginter to treat the mound like his farm and the baseball like his arrows, aiming at a small circle. Whether a coincidence or a consequence, Ginter's control has been uncanny, with 7 walks, 15 strikeouts and 30 hits in 33 1/3 innings.

''That was my whole problem,'' he said. ''I was focusing on a spot way too big. Now I'm narrowing my focus. I'm making my target just as small as I do with my bows.''

It’s easy for us to assume the best players have at some point had the best training and have been taught every trick in the book. But as sociology 101 says, “common sense” isn’t common to everyone. When I was in college, our coach told our pitchers to aim for a scratch on the catcher’s shin guard, but some players rise up the ranks without ever receiving the same message. And if they’ve got big-league stuff, it probably won’t come back to bite them until they’re, you know, in the big leagues.

A catcher can never assume a pitcher knows it all, so Perez should provide a better target. His sloppiness in setting up is a blemish on the résumé of an otherwise talented defensive catcher, and his batterymates deserve better. Fortunately, at age 22, Perez has plenty of time to improve.

*Update* According to Max Marchi, Perez has been 17 runs worse than average in framing this season, which makes him the second-worst framing catcher in terms of total runs and the third-worst on a per-pitch basis. It’s important to note here that a poor target begets a poor frame; if Perez is setting up over the middle of the plate, he’ll have to reach for the balls at the corners. In other words, when he doesn’t square his body up to one corner, he sacrifices borderline pitches on both sides. If Perez’s sloppy receiving costs his pitchers that many strikes, deceiving opposing baserunners might be the least of his problems.

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

Related Content:  Defense,  Salvador Perez,  Royals,  Catching

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