There is no more important “call” in baseball than that of the pitch.
A single one can affect the flow and structure of an at-bat, and a single at-bat can affect the flow and structure of the entire game. Pitch-calling is more about conviction than trickery, that the pitcher is comfortable and convicted in throwing a pitch is more important than how the pitch fits in the hitter’s strengths and weaknesses.
Where does that pitch call come from, though?
It depends on the level. In pro ball, it generally comes from the catcher. The best defensive catchers in the game—Jonathan Lucroy, Yadier Molina, etc.—often draw plaudits for their game calling as much as for their blocking and throws to second. Long Beach State head coach Troy Buckley, who used to be the Pirates’ minor league pitching coordinator, occasionally gave general directives to the teams’ pitchers, like to go with a fastball when at 0-0 or behind in the count, but he found out that opposing teams soon wised up to those patterns.
Coaches sometimes helped batteries work through tough spots, but apart from that they were on their own, figuring out the art of pitch sequencing through trial and error.
“If we’re going to make successful baseball players at both the minor league and the major league level, we have to be able to teach them to think for themselves,” said Cubs minor league pitching coordinator and former Vanderbilt assistant Derek Johnson when I talked to him back in June.
“(In college) we wanted to call pitches and make sure that we controlled every part of the game,” Johnson went on to say. “And the problem with that is that your pitcher’s out there not learning how, and once he gets into professional baseball, he has to learn how pretty quickly. Catchers are the same: they’re asked to call a game and understand how to, and I think it slows down their learning process, just from what I can see at the lower levels.”
Buckley has experience with those issues from his time in the pro game, but now that he’s back with the Dirtbags, he’s reverted to the status quo for the college game—calling pitches from the dugout.
There are two ways of doing it: The traditional signals of touching various body parts, or the number system. With the latter, coaches input the distribution of pitches for a game into a computer program—Never Miss A Sign and Catch the Sign are two possibilities—and the computer spits out a series of randomly generated numbers. The coach has a sheet on a clipboard and the catcher has a card in his wristband, and he simply looks down for the three numbers that the coach flashes from the dugout.
The drawback of this system is how long it takes. Catchers have to look at the coach, maybe get him to run through the sign again, look down at his wristband for the number, find the number, signal the pitch to the pitcher, and eventually set up the receive the pitch. Unless the pitcher shakes him off, that is.
Giving traditional signs can slow down the game as well. And when the game slows down, fielders get on their heels and can zone out between pitches.
“Sometimes I’ll watch video, and the catcher’s looking over, and I’m like ‘Jesus Christ, I’m taking so damn long to get that sign in,’” Buckley said.
Simpler is better, but you don’t want to get your signs stolen. Therein lies the benefit of the number system.
Calling pitches from the dugout is simply a better fit for the nuances for the nuances of the college game. College players typically only see a team once a year, so they don’t have the opportunity to develop the internal scouting report that multiple looks at the minor league level would give them. Coaches, on the other hand, know a program and a particular coach’s tendencies.
College catchers and pitchers also don’t have the time or resources to watch a ton of video or talk to advance scouts or anything like that because, well, they’re college students. Their coaches, on the other hand, can dedicate their days to that and bring comprehensive scouting reports into the dugout with them.
In college ball, calling pitches from the dugout is the easier, more convenient option and the one most conducive to a team’s success. Coaches give pitchers freedom to shake off and go with what they feel most comfortable with, and by incorporating the dugout, coaches can feel more involved and connected with the game plan.
If anything, Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco is curious why pro ball doesn’t follow the cue of him and his peers. He seems to reject Johnson’s argument, saying instead that calling a game for a catcher and pitcher gives them a future framework to use.
“They’re learning a system,” Bianco said. “So when they leave and they go to pro ball, they have a philosophy rather than what they usually come here with, which is ‘Hey, what’s the hitter thinking, let me call the opposite.’ That’s not really a good system. That’s just guessing.”
Occasionally, there are batteries that can get by on their own. With Josh Frye, who was briefly a farmhand in the Angels organization, Buckley saw that he was basically a two-pitch pitcher with a fastball that moved enough to make it basically impossible to spot consistently. For a series against UCLA, Buckley gave Frye and catcher Eric Hutting a few important points — keep the ball down, expand the plate, get ahead — but left the sequencing up to them.
Most of the time, however, coaches call pitches because they have to. They need to win to keep their jobs, and they just don’t have the resources to teach pitchers and catchers sequencing like they’d learn it in the minors.
“One of the most difficult things to do, which requires experience and time, is to teach a pitcher how to use his stuff,” Buckley said. “That can take a long time to be able to do that, and one thing that we don’t have the luxury of having is time.”
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