Yankees catcher Chris Stewart has never had the bat to be a first-stringer, though until a recent groin injury, he was getting the bulk of the playing time behind the plate for the Bombers with Francisco Cervelli out with a fractured hand. But when Stewart does start, he adds value on defense, combining a strong arm with excellent receiving skills. According to Max Marchi, Stewart’s framing over the past five-plus seasons has been worth nearly 20 runs, an impressive total considering his sporadic playing time. Stewart stopped reading A Storm of Swords on a couch in the Yankees clubhouse long enough to answer some questions about how he receives so well.
On how he tries to frame pitches: “Stay soft and make my glove get to a certain spot without moving too quickly, or the umpire may see too much movement and just assume it’s going to be a ball, or assume that I’m doing something that’s trying to make it look like a strike. In my mind, it’s kind of like you’re trying to be a ninja back there and trying to do all these quick, related things but not be seen doing it.”
“That’s the key word, is ‘be quiet’, but you still want to be able to get the pitch. You’ve got to get to the pitch, but you’ve got to get to it without the umpire seeing you get to it. So it’s a lot of trickery involved, and I call it stealing strikes. You’re making balls look like strikes, trying to get the umpire to call them, trying to expand the strike zone to make your pitcher feel like he could throw it a little bit off and still get the call. So when you’re doing that it’s going to frustrate the hitter, it’s going to make him expand his zone, which is what you ultimately want to be doing. Make him a little uncomfortable up there, get him out of his comfort zone.”
“I don’t try to move my body, I try to move my eyes. I’ve been taught in the past, and I didn’t like it, to move my whole body behind the ball, to try to theoretically catch everything in your chest, so, sway your body so that you get in a position so you catch it in the middle of your chest. But to my mind that’s too much body movement for the umpire to see, so I don’t do that. I don’t try to move my head, either. I try to get my head in a good position and just track it really well with my eyes and let my hands do the work. I don’t think the umpire can see my eyes moving, so as long as I can keep it to that…”
On common receiving mistakes: “Too much movement. It’s funny, I used to do it too, you see a lot of guys that will catch the ball, then they’ll bring it back into the strike zone, so it’s almost two different moves, whereas now you’re staying softer and making it just one movement. Trying to make it seem like you’re catching it where it came across, whereas you’re catching it and moving it at the same time.”
On being 6’4” and trying to frame low pitches: “Sinkers are pretty tough to get to, just because, you know, they’re boring down and they’re really tough, especially me being so big. I try to get down as low as possible. [Tall catchers] are up there more, so it’s kind of tough for some of us to get down, but it’s still a pitch that that’s where we want our pitchers to throw, so we’ve got to be good at making those look like strikes.”
On how many pitches it takes to evaluate a catcher’s receiving skill: “Pretty easy, it’s five or 10. But it depends on also where the pitches are. If the pitcher’s hitting the guy square on the chest, you see a lot of guys catch that pitch really easy, whereas when you see them moving side to side, that’s when you can evaluate how good they are at receiving and framing. See, I don’t even like to say ‘framing.’ I just like to call it ‘pitch stealing’, because that’s what it is.”
Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero has been one of the better offensive backstops in baseball over the past couple seasons, but his defensive value was instrumental in helping him land the five-year, $60 million extension he signed with Arizona last May. According to Max Marchi’s model, Montero’s framing ability has saved the Diamondbacks roughly 32 runs since the start of the 2008 season; earlier this spring, Diamondbacks starter Brandon McCarthy called Montero “as good or better than anybody I’ve pitched to.” Here’s what Montero had to say about his technique behind the plate.
On how he tries to receive pitches: “I just try to be nice and soft, nice and quiet. And I never try to pull any pitches. I never try to make every pitch a strike. I just receive the ball and try to be quiet as possible, you know? If they call it a strike, it’s a strike. Your main goal is to make the pitches look good. And how do I do that? It’s simple, I try to stay soft, relax, and if the pitches are a ball, a ball’s a ball. I don’t try to bring it back and make it a strike. Sometimes I try to, sometimes when I’m not that soft it looks like I’m bringing the pitch back and I really don’t mean to, and actually I would tell the umpire that I’m not trying to bring any pitch back and if you see me bring it back, just let me know because I’m really not trying.”
“Keep breathing when you receive the ball. Don’t try to hold your breath, because that gets you tight.”
On the biggest receiving mistake catchers make: “Trying to bring every pitch a strike, because it creates that reputation with the umpires. And probably a pitch is right in the middle and the whole game he’s bringing pitches and pulling pitches, and probably the umpire’s thinking, ‘Well, he probably pulled that pitch’ and they call it a ball because he probably thought he just pulled it back. And something that I recommend to young catchers is not, you know, just catch the ball. If it’s a strike it’s a strike, if it’s a ball it’s a ball, you know, don’t try to make every pitch a strike.
On how quickly you can assess a catcher’s receiving skills: “You look at the hands and, you know, if you’re nice and quiet, then you know. Sometimes it’s boxing a little bit back there, punching pitches.”
On the best way to get better at receiving: “Just catch the ball barehanded. That way if you’re too rough with the ball, it’s going to hurt your hand, and if you’re soft, it’s not going to hurt you. If you’re too rough, the ball’s going to bounce out of your hand, and if you’re soft you’re going to be able to catch it.”
On the value of framing pitches: “If you’re good at this, pitchers are going to like the way you catch. And they’re going to ask your manager to catch you more, or you’re going catch a lot more. If you’re not good at this, and you keep boxing pitches, and they’re good pitches and you make them look bad, the pitcher’s not going to like that.”
“When you look for a catcher as a manager, it’s a guy that can catch, and he can handle the pitcher’s stuff. If he hits, it’s a plus. Because, you know, how do you win a ball game? With the pitching. Pitch a good game, you’ve got a good chance to win a ballgame. If you don’t pitch a good game, and you don’t have anybody to help you to call a good game and receive a good ball, it’s tough to win a ballgame.”