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September 14, 2012

Raising Aces

The Man in the Ironic Mask

by Doug Thorburn

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If there is one thing I’ve learned to appreciate through my study of pitching, it is the value of a great catcher. Backstops are the rock drummers of baseball, hiding behind a mountain of equipment while physically working harder than their teammates and functioning as the glue that holds the group together. Catchers are also invaluable in pitching evaluation, as their actions provide deep insight into the skills of the pitchers they serve.

One of the greatest epiphanies of my career occurred the first time that I focused all of my attention on the catcher for an entire ballgame and discovered the amount of information that can be gleaned about a pitcher by observing the actions of his batterymate. That was the day that I finally understood the distinction between pitch command and control on my own terms, as I watched dozens of pitches that found the strike zone yet strayed far from their intended locations. Observing the catcher is now a standard part of my baseball experience, providing a channel through which to view a pitcher's in-game ability.

The “tools of ignorance” moniker was originally intended as an ironic label, given the advanced baseball intelligence that was required for the position against the backdrop of willingly putting oneself into a risky position that requires such excessive equipment. Some of the best pitching coaches I’ve known were former catchers who had spent most of their lives diagnosing pitchers from behind the mask. Catchers eat, breathe, and spit baseball, and modern statistical analysis has allowed us to finally appreciate some of the specific skills that these baseball rats bring to the table. The research of BP brethren Mike Fast and Max Marchi has allowed the baseball-consuming public to better appreciate under-the-radar skills such as pitch-framing and game-calling, as well as to put the overall contributions of catchers into proper context.

The occupation of catcher requires the skillset to handle several different roles, and in the never-ending quest to understand the world of pitching, let's explore the elements that make the pitcher-catcher interaction so critical to success on the field.

Strategist
Catchers have the most homework on the team, having to study not only the nuances of the pitching staff but also the strengths and weaknesses of opposing batters throughout the league. It's no wonder that so many former catchers go into scouting, because player evaluation is already part of the job. The receiver must be able to adjust strategy on the fly in order to account for a pitcher who has lost the feel for one of his weapons, or whose mechanics have fallen off track.

In one of my first articles for BP, I noted that Buster Posey was forced to adapt to the limited effectiveness of nominal ace Tim Lincecum, with Posey eventually settling on the low-away quadrant of the strike zone for the vast majority of his targets. The strategy was a reflection of the dwindling options that were available for Lincecum with respect to pitch type and location, with Posey choosing to stay within his pitcher's comfort zone in order to minimize the damage. Posey is highly ranked in Max Marchi's advanced catching metrics, and Buster's talents are put on display when working with a commanding officer such as Matt Cain. With Cain's pinpoint location and his exceptional velocity spread, Posey is able to play the repertoire like a chessboard by exploiting the rules of effective velocity (EV). Consider the following four-pitch sequence versus Juan Rivera, taken from last week's grudge match with the Dodgers:

The first pitch was a fastball thrown low and away to Rivera, with a radar-gun reading of 91.6 mph, according to Brooks Baseball. The location down and off the plate means that Rivera would have had more time to square up the pitch had he chosen to swing, and the EV would register in the vicinity of 88 mph. Posey demonstrated a perfect frame of the pitch, but after an extra second of consideration, the umpire relaxed his shoulders for ball one.

The Giants tandem went right back to the same location with a curveball on the second pitch, and this time the ump was convinced to throw a finger for the called strike. The pitch missed its mark by a few inches, but Posey kept his body still and adjusted his target with a subtle move of the glove that sold the strike to the umpire. The pair stayed away from Rivera while subtracting velo at 79 mph, with an EV of approximately 76 mph.

The low-outside corner was working thus far, so Posey decided to try a third pitch in the same location, this time a slider that hit 87 mph on the PITCHf/x gun. Growing impatient, Rivera extended a late swing to foul off the slide-piece for a 1-2 count. 

Cain had produced EV readings in sequence at 88, 76, and 84 miles per hour, effectively lulling Rivera into an attention zone in the mid-80s. The fastball that Cain threw past Rivera for strike three matched the first-pitch heater at 91.6 mph, but the effective velocity on the pitch was closer to 93, and the nine-mph jump in EV caught Rivera napping.

A catcher's ability to exploit the rules of effective velocity is dependent on the pitch selection and command of the pitcher on the mound. When catching an artist like Cain, the backstop can trust that a pitch will have the appropriate speed and location necessary to execute the chosen plan of attack. On the other side of the coin are catchers who must maintain a more limited setup due to the unpredictability of incoming pitches. Consider the case of R.A. Dickey, the remarkable knuckleballer whose success is defined largely by the unpredictable flight path.

Catcher Josh Thole has little incentive to set up the glove in a precise location and instead prepares himself for a large zone of potential pitch destinations. Thole doesn't bother to open his mitt for a target with Dickey on the mound, instead keeping his wrist limp with the glove hanging below the strike zone until the baseball is halfway to the plate, at which point the wrist snaps into position and Thole maneuvers to receive the pitch. Whereas Cain’s command allows Posey to set up the target in any one of nine sectors within the strike zone, using a three-by-three matrix with numbered zones like the keypad on a telephone, Thole is stuck with reading and reacting to the whims of Dickey's butterfly pitches.

Target
The most fundamental aspect of a catcher's job is fielding his position, a task that requires the handling of 100-plus pitches per game. A signal-caller's workload also includes responsibilities for bunts, stolen-base attempts, and crucial plays at the plate. The best catchers in the business are able to simultaneously provide a target for the baseball and a barrier to errant throws, handling the tough pitches and effectively blocking dirty baseballs from escaping to the backstop. 

Yadier Molina is a classic example of a lockdown receiver whose pitch-handling skills earn the trust of every hurler on his team. Molina ranks near the top regardless of catching metric, and his well-rounded game earned him a third-place ranking on Marchi's catcher evaluations this season. Yadier calls a great game, he frames pitches exceptionally well, and his ability to block balls in the dirt is impeccable.

In the above video, Yadier creates a vortex from which there is no escape, absorbing the impact and cradling the misguided baseball in front of him. He is ready to sling the ball at a moment's notice, and the reputation of his cannon arm has earned the respect of base runners throughout the National League.

In the same at-bat versus Bryce Harper, Molina showed off the same type of moves behind the plate that recently caught our own Will Woods' attention. In the article, Will pointed to the exaggerated movements that Salvador Perez utilizes with a runner on second base, as the Royal catcher waits until partway through the pitcher's delivery before settling into a set-up position, a strategy that keeps the baserunner in the dark with respect to tipping pitches. The excessive movements of Perez appear to be a detriment, but Yadier Molina demonstrates how to use stealth moves to accomplish the desired effect without the extra-curricular activity.

Wingman
The greatest nuance to the art of catching is one's ability to convince an umpire to call extra strikes. Otherwise known as pitch framing, the ability to coax a strike call from an ump on a pitch that missed the mark is one of the greatest triumphs of the catching profession. Like a good poker bluff, a well-framed pitch directly adds to the team's win expectancy while at the same time psychologically torturing the opponent. The pendulum can swing in favor of the pitcher-catcher battery as they expand the zone with a slow progression of pitches aimed at gaining the umpire's trust. The catcher is the only thing standing between an umpire and physical harm, and a sure-handed receiver with stability behind the plate is going to earn brownie points with the game's arbiters.

Brian McCann has consistently ranked among the top catchers for pitch-framing, including first-place finishes in 2008 and 2009. His standing has slipped a bit in 2012, but Marchi's current totals have McCann adding 11 runs worth of value with his framing skills through August of this year.

That talent comes in handy for the young pitchers on the Atlanta staff, and the recent streaks of Kris Medlen and Mike Minor are supported by the influence of their Brave catcher. The above video demonstrates some of McCann's wingman skills, converting a pitch that missed well outside the zone into a called strike for Minor's seventh K of the game. Once again, an umpire is fooled by the catcher's ability to remain rock solid while adjusting the glove just enough to receive the pitch.

Veteran backstop Jose Molina is a legend in the art of pitch-framing, and Marchi informs me that the venerable catcher has added 33 runs worth of value this season through pitch-framing alone. On September 9th against Texas, Rays starter James Shields was treated to six different pitches that were called strikes despite having final destinations that PITCHf/x determined were outside the zone. Molina may not have been fully responsible for all six of those balls-turned-strikes, but the following pitch exemplifies the considerable power of his strike-inducing abilities.

Therapist
The final item on a catcher's job description is to be the on-field therapist for all of the pitchers on his staff. Tensions run high for the men on the mound, and stress can disrupt a fragile delivery, such that a catcher's role is to counsel his fellow soldiers on the field of battle. He may have to calm down a pitcher who is riding excessive adrenaline, or pump up a player who is rattled by rough calls.

Geovany Soto is a catcher with great passion for the game, but who does not fare well according to many metrics. A couple of GIFs can go a long way toward understanding the differences in technique between Soto and a more accomplished signal-caller. 

Soto exhibits a lot of movement behind the dish. He has a tendency to stab at pitches, jutting the glove out in a late attempt to snare a pitch that is off-line. The aggressive movement gives the impression of wildness, such that he may have been fortunate to get a strike call on the above pitch from Darvish. Such sloppy glove-work is part of the reason behind Soto's 2012 pitch-framing score of two runs below average, and the increased odds of a passed ball or a wild pitch will do little to endear him to umpires. Further, the tactic of standing partway through the pitcher's delivery creates a visual distraction for Darvish, and Soto's glove movements are probably not helping the pitcher with command. 

Soto's high-energy approach might work for some players, but one gets the impression that the stoic Darvish is not very motivated by his catcher's body language. Soto's style offers a stark contrast to a catcher such as Jose Molina, whose unflappable demeanor and calming presence bring stability to the battery.

Understanding the psychology of pitching is part of the housework for the Molina clan of catchers, and brother Yadier exemplifies a sound strategy when one of his aces loses his touch. 

The first GIF shows a much more relaxed version of the glove-pump that Soto used to get Darvish's attention, as Yadier makes the motion without the need for exaggeration. There is a subtle difference between Molina's head-shrug to the side and Soto's forward nod, the latter of which invokes a greater sense of urgency. When Adam Wainwright ends up walking a batter on four consecutive under-rotated pitches, Molina slowly gets out of the crouch and calmly approaches his pitcher, conveying mutual respect with a steadfast approach that will ensure a productive meeting on the mound.

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

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