March 25, 2015
Painting the Black
It was a good week for personal catcher lobbyists. First, Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw experienced a rough virginal voyage with Yasmani Grandal, encouraging A.J. Ellis champions and arousing the kind of spring training beat writer-fan turmoil that's often reserved for lineup tweets. Then, a few days later, Blue Jay skipper John Gibbons insinuated he would leverage Russell Martin's defensive talents by pairing him with traditional pitchers, possibly leaving Josh Thole the chore of capturing R.A. Dickey's knuckleball. Again.
The concept of a personal catcher is nothing new, of course. Doug Mirabelli proved so important to Tim Wakefield's success that the Red Sox reacquired him in May 2006, not even five months after trading him to the Padres. Throughout the 1990s, Damon Berryhill, Eddie Perez, and Paul Bako became more famous than their talents merited thanks to Greg Maddux's insistence on having his own guy. Light-hitting Alex Trevino caught all Cy Young runner-up Mario Soto's 1983 starts, and would later serve as personal-catcher-cum-interpreter in the minors. J.C. Martin became Hoyt Wilhelm's right-hand man during the '60s, a relationship profiled in Mark Armour's Paths to Glory: "[On] the ninety-one occasions Wilhelm entered a game and Martin was not already catching, Martin entered with Wilhelm fifty-nine times. ... [On] the seventeen such occasions when Wilhelm came in with runners on base without Martin catching, Martin was brought in fourteen times." And so on.
The Most Personal Catchers (min. 50 starts), 1980-2014
A wisely deployed personal catcher is more than a status symbol, the equivalent of a police escort for a front-of-the-rotation starter. It's another way to comfort a pitcher, usually through improved receiving, blocking, or rapport. Obviously that doesn't mean personal catchers are of great value ("Maddux could pitch with Bozo the Clown behind the plate and finish with five strikeouts and seven shutout innings," to quote Lang Whitaker), but for as antiquated and arbitrary as the process seems, teams persist in using them, and that counts for something.
Last season teams employed five personal catchers, according to our definition—a catcher with 50-plus starts who had more than 30 percent of those come alongside an individual pitcher. Here's a look at each couple, and an attempt to explain the relationship. (Note: Players are ordered based on the average percentage of represented starts of the catcher and pitcher.)
5. Nick Hundley, Orioles
Who: Chris Tillman
How personal: 40 percent of Hundley's starts (Baltimore only), 52.9 percent of Tillman's
Why they were paired: Matt Wieters was unavailable and Caleb Joseph couldn't play everyday. Okay, maybe that's too simplistic. Buck Showalter suggested he picked the day's starting catcher based on who the opposition had on the mound that day. A valid explanation, at least until it became clear Hundley would catch Tillman regardless of other variables. Tillman's numbers improved across the board with Hundley behind the plate. The cause is a mystery; Tillman didn't change his pitch selection in a noticeable manner, nor did Hundley give Tillman some huge receiving boost (the aforementioned Joseph passes the eye and numbers test). Whatever the catalyst for Tillman's betterment—perhaps just good timing on Hundley's part—the Orioles benefited.
What they said: In late August, Tillman praised Hundley by saying he was “right on with every pitch.” At the same time, Showalter did his best to downplay the arrangement, citing his leeriness about personal catcher arrangements. “I want everybody to be comfortable with everybody, and sometimes it’s used as an excuse,” Showalter told Dan Connolly. Even so, Hundley would remain the only one comfortable with Tillman by catching all his remaining starts.
4. Rene Rivera, Padres
Who: Tyson Ross
How personal: 30.6 percent of Rivera's starts, 83.9 percent of Ross'
Why they were paired: Before joining the Orioles, Hundley was part of a three-catcher arrangement in San Diego. Rivera was another piece of that trio, and was clearly the best overall defender of the group. Bud Black praised Rivera's defensive efforts throughout the year, including his ability to stick pitches low in the zone and on the corners—pluses for any pitcher, but especially a historically wild sinkerballer like Ross.
What they said: Ross doesn't appear to have said much about his partnership with Rivera, perhaps because he discovered Rivera maintained a similar relationship with Andrew Cashner. Luckily, Cashner gabbed, stating Rivera "makes me the best I can be." Cashner cited Rivera's tendency to be on the same page, as well as his willingness to hold Cashner accountable. “When I don’t execute, he lets me know. I like it. A catcher should be pissed when you don’t execute what he knows you should.” Rivera has since moved on to the Rays, replacing another member of this list.
3. John Baker, Cubs
Who: Jason Hammel
How personal: 31.4 percent of Baker's starts, 94.1 percent of Hammel's (Chicago only)
Why they were paired: Due to his leadership abilities and intelligence, Baker is viewed as a plausible future manager. You might suspect then that the Cubs did something clever in pairing him with a trade chit as a means to improve Hammel's performance and stock. But that wasn't the case. Rather, the Baker-Hammel arrangement seemingly came into existence as a means to give Welington Castillo a scheduled rest day. Once Hammel was traded, Baker wouldn't work with a designated partner.
What they said: "[We've] developed a really good relationship. I have caught all but one of his starts. And it is a lot of fun for me to know that regardless of who is pitching for the other team, I get to be out there when he pitches," Baker said in late June. Hammel added, "Three big hits and he put some good fingers down for me. That's pretty much all I needed." This winter the Cubs decided they needed more than some good fingers, however, and shooed Baker away. In his place, they brought in David Ross, who ought to serve as Jon Lester's personal catcher.
2. Dioner Navarro, Blue Jays
Who: Mark Buehrle
How personal: 31.1 percent of Navarro's starts, 100 percent of Buehrle's
Why they were paired: Navarro joined the Blue Jays last season with a reputation for being good at handling a pitching staff—even if his other defensive attributes left much to be desired. Sure enough, Navarro and Buehrle hit it off when it came to game-calling.
What they said: “There’s a joke we share, he just doesn’t want to get blamed for anything bad that happens,” Navarro said. “They come to the plate thinking they can take this guy who only throws 83," Navarro explained about Buehrle. "And you should hear all the F-bombs some of the hitters drop after they ground out." The Jays hope Russell Martin can form the same relationship with Buehrle.
1. Jose Molina, Rays
Who: David Price
How personal: 31.9 percent of Molina's starts, 100 percent of Price's (Tampa Bay only)
Why they were paired: As part of a larger conspiracy to ensure Molina would rank at the top of every catcher-related measure published by Baseball Prospectus. That or the Rays liked Molina's rapport with Price, and his ability to frame fastballs on the black, enough to start him over offseason addition and overall upgrade Ryan Hanigan. Whatever the case, the pair were inseparable until July 31st, when Price was traded to Detroit.
What they said: To borrow a quip about the USSR, even the roster is classified information in St. Petersburg. Unsurprisingly, the Rays were quick to shut down reporters who dared ask Molina about his defense. Price was kind enough to fill in the blanks: "It just seems like every pitch you throw, he's able to catch it clean, frame it and make it look like a strike," he told Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal. "We love him for it."
Special thanks to Rob McQuown, Ben Lindbergh, and Jeff Long for research assistance.
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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