A few weeks ago, I wrote a feature on framing for Grantland. I also spoke to Pirates catcher Russell Martin and Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan for a pair of Q&A companion pieces in which I showed the two catchers GIFs of borderline pitches that they'd caught over the past few years, and they explained their strategy for getting extra strikes. Martin's is here, and Hanigan's is here. The conversations ran so long that much of the text was left on the editing room floor. Rather than let it remain unread, I've collected the best previously unpublished excerpts below, omitting any material that appeared at Grantland.
BL: It seems like you show the target for a second and then put your glove back down before the pitch.
RM: To relax, yeah. I’m trying to get underneath the strike zone to where, when I do catch it, I can kind of bring it back up. Because if I give the target and leave the target here, and then the ball is down, if I go down to catch it, it looks like a ball. If I’m giving a target at the bottom of the zone, and I leave it there and I go down, it looks like a ball. If I give the target, relax my glove, come back and catch it up, it just gives the illusion of a strike.
RM: Right here the umpire’s all the way across, so he has a hard time finding out where exactly that corner is. Maybe it made a nice sound. The sound, if you make the glove pop, they’re more apt to call strikes.
BL: Is that something you can control?
RM: Not really. It’s tough to do. But that ball, it looks like it’s like a hair outside, but it’s wanting to come back. And I bring it back just a hair. As an umpire, right there, it’s tough to tell.
BL: In most of these clips, it seems like your head is barely moving. Are you just trying to track the pitch with your eyes?
RM: I don’t really think about my head doing too much. I know that my eyes are following the ball. And really, I’m just trying to catch the ball and trying not to let it—like, if the ball’s coming back this way, I try to catch it while it’s coming back to the strike zone. But I’m not thinking about moving my body too much. Maybe just a little bit sometimes, to get around the baseball. But it’s very subtle. I’m not trying to move too much. I’m just going with the rhythm.
BL: So he’s aiming for the outside corner, you’re setting up there, and it kind of floats back over the plate and high. How do you adjust to that and make it try to look good at the same time?
RM: It’s hard to tell. It’s at the top of the zone, you just rarely get those high strikes. You get them sometimes when they’re right down the middle. If that ball’s away or in, we’re not getting that call. It’s just right down the middle, and it looks good. The umpire is right there, it’s right in front of his face, and he didn’t feel like it was high. And I’m sure he’s judging it like, anything under his mask is probably going to be close to a strike. I don’t know how they’re thinking. But right there it’s just, the glove is right in front of his face, so I didn’t try to do anything, really, I just caught it and maybe pulled it down just a hair.
BL: So it’s harder to go up for a high pitch and bring it back down than to go down and bring it back up?
RM: For fastballs it’s hard to get the fastball up and show the umpire that it’s actually lower than what it is. That’s at his eyesight, he sees that ball pretty good. Curveballs are balls that, if they’re up, you can catch them a bit deeper, and when you catch them, you can give the feel that it looks more like a strike if you catch it deeper. If they’re low curveballs, you catch the pitch out in front and try to make it look like a strike by catching it further out in front. So the high curveball you catch it deeper, low curveball I try to catch it as far out as possible. I see Molina, a lot the guys, when it’s sliders or breaking balls, they’re on one knee, trying to get there as far as possible to catch it before it gets too far out of the zone.
BL: This is another low one, but this is a 3-0 count. Do you feel like the zone is expanded a lot on 3-0? Do you feel like you can get strikes?
RM: You get some more strikes. You get more strikes 3-0. There’s no question, yeah.
BL: Do you feel like receiving has just been a strength of yours from the start? Do you feel like you’re still getting better at it?
RM: There’s only so far you can take it. There’s only so much you can do. I guess it’s more of a consistency thing. The more comfortable you are with a pitcher, the more you know what he has, the better you can get at it. When you go to a new team—like at first in spring training, when I’m catching new guys, I don’t look quite as crisp and as good, just because I don’t know exactly how their breaking ball moves, what does their changeup do, do they ever pull the changeup.
So it really depends on the command of your pitcher as well. When a pitcher’s got great command, I’m telling you, you can make wonders with that. But when guys are all over the place, you’re just trying to catch the ball. You don’t really get the same looks, you’re not really worried as much about making the pitch look nice, you’re just worried about catching it.
That actually was okay, that wasn’t a great job. But he’s got a real big curveball, so being able to drop my knee allowed me to get under it. If I couldn’t—see how low I am right there? My ass and my leg is almost on the ground. That’s the only way to get under that ball. If I stand tall and just let it go and do one of those [reaches down], it’s probably not going to look as good to the umpire.
RH: That one’s just about not moving too much. It’s very standard. When it gets to my glove, I just don’t move any which way. I just don’t want to catch it real hard, because it’s high. I definitely know it’s high, so my first move is to catch it down into the strike zone. Not pull it, but as I catch, my hand moves, not my whole arm. So it’s really only an inch or two, but that kind of brings it right into the strike zone. Because I can tell it’s going to be borderline high.
BL: Do you feel like there’s an area of the zone where you’re best at expanding and getting those borderline pitches?
RH: I haven’t thought about it. All pitches, it’s all about the pitcher and the way they deliver the ball. Because you have to set up differently, like for [Aroldis] Chapman, for instance, or for different guys, because of the way they throw. Just the way they throw and what they see with the way I set up helps them throw more strikes. If I set up certain ways to certain guys I get better results. So I’m always thinking about, okay, [Sam] LeCure likes me to be real smooth and slow and methodical. Chapman likes a good target and a real aggressive type of angled look.
Bronson, if you see here, I set up kind of late, my glove’s not—I don’t need to just sit there like this [demonstrates a stationary target]. Because he’s not doing that, he’s not trying to throw to a pinpoint spot, he’s just trying to throw to a speed. So he doesn’t really care where the ball goes as long as it’s in the strike zone, he’s throwing to a speed. So you see how late I am, boom boom, I’m just real casual.
For a call like that, if I had gone—see how I caught it way over here? If I had gone like this [holds hand with wrist up and fingers down, as if scooping a low pitch], that would’ve been a ball for sure. So the fact that I allowed my thumb—it’s not really what you’re supposed to do, but I was here [mimics position of hand when he caught the ball in the video]. So it still looked close enough. That helped on that one.
But if I had gone like this [flips hand again so that the wrist is pointing up], it would’ve been a ball. So anything on that side of the plate, I always try to catch this way [as in the video], because you’ll get a call. As soon as you turn your glove, you’re screwed. For some reason [the umpires] don’t see it the same way.
BL: So was it possible to do that just because that was a slower pitch?
RH: Yeah. Yeah, that was a splitty.
BL: So if it’s a faster pitch, do you have no choice but to roll your glove over just to get there?
RH: Well, I do it with Chapman. I notice some of my stuff with Chapman, I’m still like [orients hand as it is in the video again], pulling it. If it’s anywhere within three or four inches of the corner, I can do that. But if it’s further, then you have to drop and turn. But that one, I got the call because I didn’t just sit there and hold a target and wait. I gave a target and then I relaxed completely, and then I went and got it. If I had just stuck that, held that, and then went over here, he would’ve seen that movement.
So a lot of times, especially with off-speed pitches where they’re not going to be able to dot a spot necessarily, they’ll just be in the area—maybe they will—I give an area, and then I wait, and I can try and snag it and hopefully pull it to a point where it looks like it’s a better pitch than it was.
BL: Is that something that you just picked up naturally from the time you started catching?
RH: Yeah, you can get a feel for what the umpires are seeing and calling, and when they’re missing pitches and why, and what you think they’re seeing when they’re missing them. So, yeah, I definitely know the angles that they see, especially where they’re calling balls, where I feel like they’re expanding the zone. You know, I’m not trying to, like—I mean, I am, but I’m more trying to make sure strikes get called strikes and we get maybe an inch or two, I’m not trying to steal pitches like that. Because most umpires, they’re going to know when you’re yanking shit around. You don’t want to pull it. If you can catch it and stick it like that, like, I didn’t really move. I just, little of that [makes slight tugging motion], and that’s it. And I got a call. It was definitely a ball, and I was probably like, ‘What the hell? I should probably call another one right there.’
May 23, 2012: Bronson Arroyo pitching to Eric Hinske. 0-2 count, 72-mph curveball. Home plate umpire: Angel Hernandez.
RH: See, that’s typical me, right there. I really want to be outside. I want to be very far outside the zone with my body, but keep my glove, and I angle a lot—I get a ton of calls doing this.
BL: You’re crab-walking outside the zone.
RH: Yeah. And the pitcher almost never misses middle when I set up like that. And this is probably, yeah, it’s 0-2, I don’t want a strike. But what guys end up doing is, they try and throw it outside and they end up hitting that corner or getting an inch or two. And I do this a lot, the crab-crawl. And I try to get low, right under it, the umpire’s got a lot of space between me and him, so he’s not exactly sure where that corner is, it’s a floating corner. That’s probably two inches, an inch and a half off. He can’t hit it either way, and we get a call and he’s done.
So I do that with all my guys very consistently. And I’ll stick it and hold it, and what’ll happen is sometimes, even if it’s a ball and I stick it and hold it, I’ll throw the same pitch maybe one or two more times, and it’ll be the same pitch, but they’ll end up calling it eventually because it just looks too good to sit there and ball it every time. But I mean, that’s a ball. I do that a lot. We get a lot of those.
BL: So would you set up like that and do the side-crawl with any pitcher, if you want the pitch there? It’s not just an Arroyo-specific thing?
RH: No, no. A lot of guys.
BL: Do any pitchers object to it, just because they’re not used to it?
RH: No, they all love it. They know what’s up.
RH: That’s the same type of pitch. But that’s a 1-0 count. That’s the same way, I got that call because I didn’t turn my glove over it. I got around it and stopped it from going any further away, so he gave it to us. It’s the same type of pitch as that other one. It’s a split or a changeup, like the other one we were looking at, so I give the target and then I relax completely, because I want to be able to get it and make it—if I just sit there and then I go [holds glove hand rigid], then it doesn’t look as good as if I relax and pull it in. The umpire doesn’t see the glove until the last second. Boom, there it is. He’s like, ‘Okay.’ And that’s a ball.
BL: Do you feel like you can get extra space outside to a lefty more than a righty? Do you feel like the zone is shifted at all?
RH: He’s over my right shoulder, so yeah. He’s going to see that other corner a lot more, it’s a longer distance to tell where that corner is. Plus, that ball is moving away.
July 21, 2012: Bronson Arroyo pitching to Ryan Braun. 0-0 count, 88-mph sinker. Home plate umpire: Angel Hernandez.
BL: So this is one where it doesn’t work out. You’re setting up inside, it goes outside. It looks like it’s maybe over the plate, and maybe if you’d been expecting it to be there, you could’ve—
RH: Yeah, maybe. If I had been set up away, I would’ve had a better chance of getting the call. But when you have to reach and they see the long arm, especially that way, it’s hardly ever you get the call. That’s why what you really need to do is ankle sway and catch it in the middle of your body. But that’s a ball. It doesn’t look like it is from here, but it is. If you set the camera right behind Bronson, I guarantee that’s outside. It’s too far, and I caught it right at the end of my glove. It’s one that I tried to pull it and stick it and hold it, but I didn’t think we were going to get that call, I’m sure.
BH: So if you’re catching someone who you can’t trust to hit his spots—not Bronson, but just anyone—are you just worrying about catching the ball first and framing it second?
RH: Well, framing just comes so natural, I don’t think about it. I don’t have to consciously. If it’s in the zone or it’s on the corner, I know which corner it’s going to be on, I know if it’s going to be borderline low or borderline out, and I know which way to catch it. And if it’s out of the zone, then I just catch it and throw it back. I don’t worry about it. You know, I don’t know how to describe it. I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t even think about it. Nor do I worry about catching the ball. I have enough confidence in myself that that’s going to happen.
BL: But it’s easier with a guy who hits the target every time or almost every time?
RH: Oh yeah. When a guy’s got good command, you can start expanding the zone and trying to get calls off the plate, working corners, and see where your strike zone’s going to be that day and what the guy’s going to give you. If you don’t have to throw strikes and you still get calls, I mean… it’s a fine line. You don’t want guys to be too corner happy, but in the big leagues, you have to hit corners or you’re going to be getting hammered. There’s no other way around it. So I make my guys, I really ask a lot of them. I really want them to have fastball command, first and foremost. And then we’ll do different things with the off-speed pitches, I don’t expect them to be so fine. But I expect their fastball command to be fairly consistent so we know what we can do, and we need to do it.
BL: Do you feel that by the time most guys get to the big leagues, they’ve improved most of the way that they’re going to improve? Do guys get dramatically better at this after they get to this level, or does most of the improvement come in the minors?
RH: It just depends. A lot of catchers are in the big leagues because they can hit. So those guys are still working. Can they get dramatically better? I don’t think so. I think they can get some better. And some guys are in the big leagues because they can catch, and some guys are in the big leagues for both. But the difference between catching the ball the right way and not is noticeable by your pitchers in about a week of them playing with you. They’re going to see. Because the pitchers don’t miss a damn thing. They see every pitch, they see every pitch they’ve thrown, they go and watch video, and they know if you’re blowing it and you’re boxing shit up on them. That makes a big difference in terms of their confidence in you.
BL: Do you feel like if you start working with a guy young, you can improve this aspect of your game more than, say, something like your arm strength, where there’s kind of a limit on how strong your arm is ever going to get?
RH: Yeah, I think you can improve this. It’s something that isn’t as based on strength or natural ability. But you have to have the—I don’t know how else to say it. You have to have the confidence, the comfort. You have to be able to be relaxed all the time. Because if you’re worried—what I see is, guys are worried about catching the ball. Just catching it. And when you see that, then there’s no point in worrying about framing. You’re just trying to do your best back there.
Some guys are going to be better than others, it’s just like any aspect of the game. But I do think guys can improve. There’s ways to improve this. And if you’re consciously aware of it, you can improve. I don’t know if enough guys pay attention to what they’re doing, actually how they’re receiving the ball, what they look like. And if it’s made a point with the organization, I’m sure guys can improve if they work.
There’s definitely something to making sure your glove doesn’t move very far at all as soon as it hits your glove, whether it’s a low pitch or on the corner or whatever. You can’t let the ball take your glove out of the zone, that’s the main thing. It’s a timing thing, as soon as it hits your glove you have to be ready to stick it and hold, pull. But there’s different techniques. A lot of guys will funnel, they’ll be funnel guys, which I don’t like at all. But they’ll do that. [motions pulling the glove in toward the body and up] And then there’ll be guys like I do, that’ll get low and stick it and hold it. They teach different things, and guys do different things better.
But the main thing is trying to get under the ball with your thumb or your body, or whatever you can do, to make it look like it’s [a strike], and then never let it get below the zone or move your glove out of the zone any which way at all. The more you can limit that, the better you’re going to be. That’s what I always think. I always think, ‘Don’t let my glove move.’ As soon as it hits my glove, I should be—it’s really just a, I don’t know what you’d call it, but like a pull with your hand, your wrist. It’s a timing thing.
BL: And you’re trying to keep the rest of your body still, too, I guess. Not just your hand.
RH: Yeah, rest of your body still. Give it like a second—boom, one, not too much, sometimes one-two—and that’s all. That’s it.