While working on a feature on catcher framing for Grantland, I spoke to many catching instructors and coordinators about what makes a good receiver, what receiving skills are worth, and to what extent they can be improved. Many of their most interesting insights didn't make it into that story, so I've collected them here.
On what a good framer is worth: “It’s awful hard to say, to give you a number on that. But I just know that when you have a catcher like [Miguel] Montero, it’s difficult to take him out of the lineup because of the job he does with our pitching staff and how he catches the ball.”
On whether receiving can still be improved after a player makes the majors: “Absolutely. I think just because they get to the major leagues, obviously they’re good players, but there’s still a lot of development that takes place at the major-league level.”
On whether there’s been more emphasis on framing in recent years: “It seems like an area that is definitely being explored right now. It’s such a big part of the game, and such an important part of the game. So trying to get the most out of our pitching staff and keeping the ball in the strike zone, catching more strikes, would be huge.”
Jim Lett, Washington Nationals bullpen coach and catching instructor.
On what distinguishes a good receiver: “I think guys that are real quiet back there, that don’t do a lot of movements, doesn’t jerk pitches. That kind of alerts the umpire. Guys that are really subtle, that helps a lot.”
On whether every catcher can become a good receiver: “Oh, I think so. Yeah. Very good. I think that comes with experience, too. The more you get back there, get a feel for it. Like with throwing, some guy have arm strength, some guys rely on mechanics. But they get the job done.”
On the value of a good receiver: “Very productive. Very productive. [The pitchers] have confidence in the guy back there. They know if they can make the pitch close, this guy might get that strike for them.”
On spotting good receivers: “Whenever they send a target to a pitcher, you can see how well this guy is going to catch the ball. I like myself to present the target to the pitcher early, and then relax myself. That gives me the time to soften my hands up and try to get area. The more area you cover, that will be better for you as a catcher.”
“It’s a combination between handling pitchers and handling pitches. You have to be able to know, where is this guy going to throw, what does the ball do. Handling pitches, this means being in the position that you can catch all those pitches. If you cannot catch those pitches, you must stop those pitches.”
On the importance of framing: “One pitch means a lot. One pitch can turn the game around. If you can make that pitch a strike—it’s not like you try to fool the umpire, because you cannot fool the umpire. But if you catch the ball properly, and you get that pitch—it might be two outs with the bases loaded, and you get that pitch, it’s strike three. Now the inning’s over. Now, if you give the hitter one more pitch, the pitcher might make a mistake, and it might cost you the ballgame. This is why I’m saying it’s very important for a guy to take pride in that.”
On how much receivers can improve: “You don’t say that you’re going to stop working with anybody. I think there will be a point where they will get whatever they want. The more they catch, the better they will get. But you cannot teach anybody to throw like Pudge Rodriguez, and you cannot teach anybody to go out and do things like somebody else does. You have to be able to do yourself whatever works for you. And as an instructor, you need to try to find what are the things that work for this catcher.”
“I’m a big believer that if you take pride in it, you can become good at it…I believe in guys that can go out and work at it and get better at what they do.”
On the keys to getting a borderline strike: “If you receive the ball properly, and your body’s quiet, your arm in receiving the ball is pretty straight and pretty steady, and you receive the ball out there, you’re going to get more strikes. Because pulling your glove and bouncing around, the umpire gets distracted, so you interfere with his view of the pitch. And I’ve always told the catchers, the one guy that you have to make look good is the guy behind you. So if you make him look good by the way you receive the ball, then you keep the hitter happy, you keep the pitcher happy, you keep the benches happy because nobody’s yelling and screaming at the umpire. And to me it’s all a technique of being able to smooth it out and be really smooth and not be herky-jerky. You see some catchers are herky-jerky. And they catch the ball, and they pull it back over the plate, or they pull it up, or they pull it down. For me, I’ve always felt that if I receive the ball properly, and I receive the ball there and I give the umpire a good view and I catch it correctly, I’m going to get a lot of strikes.”
On the secret to good receiving: “The biggest thing with catchers is, if they’re relaxed and they’re confident in their abilities, they can make things look a lot easier and make things look a lot better. But when they’re not, they get stiff and catch the ball real stiff and real abrupt, and it doesn’t look smooth… For the most part, the good receivers are the guys that are real confident back there, and you can tell because they’re soft in their movements.”
“You want to make sure that the umpire’s got a good view. And just the catcher being a good guy…if a guy’s back there and he’s constantly questioning the umpire and he's constantly nagging, I don’t think those guys get as much, or the close pitches, as the other guys that work with the umpires.”
“You give your target, and then you give yourself a quarter turn so you can catch the ball, say, like a left-handed slider, you can catch it to the side and not catch it square to where your glove is getting pushed down out of the zone. You catch it in a strong position. If your hand is in a good position to catch the ball, not so much going side to side and trying to be square, but if you catch the ball in your glove solid. And your eyes can go to it, you can make things look a little bit better by just a little bit of a shift of the weight. Not quick, but just real gradual, like you’re moving with it and you get it right there.
“Subtle, very subtle movements, not the quick, jerky, catch it and try to jerk it back into the zone. It’s almost like you’re getting it out front of you and you funnel it back toward the middle a little bit.”
On whether receiving skills ever stop improving: “The second somebody says that they don’t need any help, then you can’t help them. Hitters are still working hard every day, big-league hitters that have been in the league 10 years, they’re still working on their hitting. They’re still taking groundballs, they’re still working on fly balls, still doing the stuff they need to do to make themselves better. So if a catcher feels that there’s nothing more than he can do, that he’s got it all figured out, then I don’t think he’s a very solid player.”
On whether there’s a downside to focusing too much on framing: “I believe there’s a risk when you’re trying to make things look too perfect behind the plate, that you can get a little lackadaisical and forget when you’ve got a runner on. And it’s a guy that you should throw out, or a ball that’s in the dirt that you should block instead of trying to make something look so good that you get caught up in it.”
“I’ve seen some guys, like Javy Lopez back in the day with the Braves, he used to turn, he used to bring his right side forward and drop his left side when he was on the outside part of the plate. And he said it gave the umpire… the illusion [that the pitch was a strike]. And Mike Matheny tried it, he goes, ‘I can’t catch like that.’ And that’s what Jose Molina does. I’ve watched him. He turns his body a little bit. Some guys just can’t do that and feel comfortable. Now what happens if you’ve got a guy who’s out there and you’re set up that way and now the guy yanks the ball and it goes to your opposite side? You’re not in a position to catch that ball. Now the ball gets by you or hits off your glove.”
Mark Bailey, Houston Astros roving catching instructor.
On bad receiving: “You see some guys that they think they’re framing the ball when they jab out there, when they bar out their arm. And they have a lot of head movement, and they scrunch down, they really follow the ball all the way in and give you that big lunge forward to try to stick it, if you will. I think that’s been kind of a common problem for years, not just recently. My belief is you want to let the ball get to you, to a certain extent, and catch the ball on the way up and in. But I think a lot of guys, they do the, ‘Hey, you’ve got to jab it and you’ve got to stick it and let the umpire see it.’ And of course, a lot of the umpires don’t appreciate that too much.”
On good receiving: “Back in the day, Charlie O’Brien, guys like that, real, real quiet, and it almost looks like they didn’t even move. And just kind of stuck the glove out there, and it just went in their glove..And you see that when you see Molina catch, and you see Lucroy and those other guys doing that. That’s something that’s very impressive, for baseball people.”
On improving receivers: “I think you can fix a guy that does tend to stab at the ball and has a lot of body movement and is not as quiet as some of those guys that I previously mentioned. You can teach that. Now, how far they can take it, I’m not real sure on that yet…I don’t know if they’re all going to be a Johnny Bench or a Jose Molina back there catching. Time will tell.”
On good receiving: “You want to give a good target, but also, you want to give the umpire a good view, too. You don’t want to be moving around too much once the pitch is [coming], once you give the sign and get ready to receive the pitch.”
“The main thing is, you’ve got to trust your eyes. If you trust your eyes, you’re going to be able to receive the ball. But if you start moving, and you’re turning to the side, and the pitch is coming and you kind of spin off or whatever…you want to be as quite as you can back there and keep your head as still as possible. Because the ball’s already moving anyway, and you don’t want to be moving as the ball’s moving.”
On evaluating framing at the lower levels: “When you get to the big-league level, the pitchers [are] a lot easier to handle, because they’re around the plate more and they’re more consistent with all their pitches. You see guys in the minor leagues, especially the low levels… these kids have got great arms, but they they’re just throwing. They’re not pitchers yet, they don’t know how to really command their fastballs, their changeups, breaking balls. That’s actually harder…at the lower levels, to catch some of these guys, because…they’re just raring back and they’re not trying to throw to a specific spot.”