September 14, 2012
The Man in the Ironic Mask
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.
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: