He dons what have been called “the tools of ignorance,” but Josh Paul knows his stuff. A big league catcher for the past nine seasons, the last two with Tampa Bay, the veteran backstop understands the nuances of his job well enough to write a book about it. David talked to Paul about the mental game of catching, including the importance of knowing your pitching staff and how to work some of the best hitters in the game.
David Laurila: I understand that you’re writing a book. What will it be about?
Josh Paul: The book is about the mental game of catching. It’s not about throwing and blocking, or anything like that. Mostly it’s about handling a pitching staff. It’s about leadership and what it takes to communicate, and interact, with those guys, and how to get the best out of them.
DL: Do you approach all pitchers the same way, or is it more on an individual basis?
JP: There’s no one way. Obviously, you are who you are, as a catcher, and you bring whatever personality traits you have to the table. I believe that you have to deal with all of the guys on your staff differently, because they’re all different human beings themselves. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and as a catcher it’s your job to know what they are and to be able to incorporate them into his game.
DL: How do you positively impact a pitcher’s psyche?
JP: The first thing you need to do is know the pitcher–physically, emotionally, and mentally. You need to know what they can do on the field. For instance, some guys react differently to pressure than others, and you have to understand how to work with that. You also have to be able to recognize when someone is losing his focus, and you need strategies for helping him to get focused again. And it’s different for different guys. For one, it might be a joke to get him to lighten up, and with another it might be, “Hey, you need to do this”–it might be a firmer approach. It varies from pitcher to pitcher.
DL: Do you feel that consistency within the catching staff is crucial? In other words, do both you and Dioner Navarro need to approach individual pitchers on the Rays’ staff the same way?
JP: Yes, and we do communicate with each other. We talk about things like how guys are looking, and how they’re feeling. For the most part, there are two catchers per team, and they need to be on the same page. They’re kind of a team within the team, and they need to be working in the same direction with the pitching staff.
DL: Where does the pitching coach fit into the equation?
JP: The pitcher, the catcher, and the pitching coach all need to work together as a unit and kind of feed off of each other. A catcher may see something that a pitching coach doesn’t, because we’re right there in the action and he’s not seeing exactly how the ball is moving, or how the hitters are reacting to it, in the same way that we are. And there are other things he picks up, mechanically, that we don’t see, because we’re more focused on catching the ball and running the defense. And the pitcher needs to know himself, not just rely on us, so it’s not like a one-directional thing. There has to be give-and-take from all three parties.
DL: What is your approach to working hitters?
JP: When it comes to calling a game, the most important thing is what a pitcher can do. After that it’s the hitter’s strengths and weaknesses. The situation of the game also comes into play, but it’s primarily about the pitcher. Say I have a right-handed sinkerball pitcher, and the hitter is a guy who hits fastballs down and in pretty well. I’m not going to call a game where I have my guy throwing all four-seamers away, or sliders away, simply because that hitter does well against fastballs down and in. Sometimes it’s a matter of saying, “You know what, I’ve got to go with my pitcher’s strengths.” If he does that, and gets ahead in the count, we can work from there. But if we get him working away from his strengths, and his game plan, it might hurt him, and that’s the last thing we want.
DL: If you have a pitcher who shakes you off a lot, how do you react?
JP: It depends. I caught Paul Byrd for awhile, and he likes to call his own game. He has a great approach, he knows the hitters, and he knows himself, and it’s the catcher’s job to be on his page. In that circumstance, you need to know what the pitcher wants to do, and you anticipate that. It took Paul and me a little time to get on the same page, but we once did, we did very well together. And there are other reasons pitchers shake. Are they scared or not confident in one of their pitches? That goes back to knowing the pitcher. You need to have conversations about what you want to do, and how you want to approach certain guys. Communication is a big factor.
DL: Have you ever had a pitcher shake you off because he felt that if you were thinking a certain way, the hitter probably was too?
JP: I don’t know. But Jim Palmer said to me once–and it’s not just him, it’s the truth–that any pitch in a good location is a good pitch. If you watch SportsCenter, you’ll see that almost all of the pitches that get hit out are in the middle of the plate. Every once in a while you’ll see someone like a Vlad Guerrero hit one out of the dirt that goes four miles, but that’s pretty rare. The balls that get hit hard are mistakes in location, not necessarily pitch selection. So I’m not really big on second-guessing pitch-selection, because if the ball is down, if it’s where it should be, it’s usually an out anyway.
DL: When you’re hitting, how much are you thinking like a catcher?
JP: I’m not. The difference between me and say, Jason Varitek, is that he plays every day. So he’s getting over 400 at-bats a year, and I’m maybe getting 100. For the most part, pitchers just come right after me, so I’m mostly just looking for a fastball to hit hard. That’s about it. I’m not really anticipating much, because the approach pitchers take with me doesn’t vary too much. With a starting catcher who gets a lot more at-bats, that’s a little different.
DL: If you’re behind the plate–say you have Scott Kazmir on the mound–are you working the other team’s Josh Paul the same way?
JP: Not really, but then again, it goes back to the pitcher’s strengths. That’s really the basis from which I call a game. If Kaz has his thing going on, I’m going to go with his thing. That’s the beauty of it. When it comes down to matching strength against strength, a lot of times it’s “OK, let’s see who wins today.” That’s what competition is all about. It’s not always dancing around each other. Sometimes it’s going toe-to-toe and seeing who comes out on top.
DL: You’ve caught Casey Fossum, who throws what is essentially an eephus pitch. What is your opinion of his “Fossum Flip,” and how did you approach when–and how often–he threw it?
JP: The “Fossum Flip” is one of the most unusual pitches in the game today. I’ve seen him throw it in the 50-mph range. It is simply too slow to hit. But at the same time, you can’t throw it too often because you don’t want the hitters to get the timing. It was usually good for a free strike because the hitters would simply watch it go by early in the count. And it was usually good for a groundball or pop up with two strikes because they have to swing at it then, but are way out front of it. It was so slow that it made his fastball look like a hundred (mph).
DL: Keith Foulke had limited velocity but one of the best change-ups in the game. What was your thought process when calling pitches with him on the mound?
JP: Keith Foulke’s changeup was outstanding because, like any good change-up, he threw it with the same arm action as his fastball. It doesn’t matter how hard a guy’s fastball is. The effectiveness of the change-up lies in the delivery. As long as it’s 10-15 mph slower than the fastball, and looks like a fastball coming out of his hand, it will be effective. What makes his great is that he throws it inside to right-handers. That goes against “the book” of pitching. It is preached to pitch hard inside and soft away. Hitters are taught this approach as well. If it is coming inside, they react as if it’s a fastball and open up their hips to get the barrel to it. Well, Foulke throws a change-up in there to them. They see a straight pitch coming inside, so they react to it as if it’s a fastball. They are often way out in front of it and either swing and miss or top it foul. If they square it up, on the barrel, the fans are diving out of the way to avoid a screaming line drive foul. The hitters simply can’t keep it fair, when they hit it well, if Foulke gets it in there.
DL: Sal Fasano reportedly gave Roy Halliday a tip that helped him to improve his cutter earlier this season. Do you ever do anything similar?
JP: Sometimes. It kind of depends on the guy, or if I see something that’s glaring. But usually, for me–sometimes you’ll see a guy starting to lose it, and it’s his mechanics. Maybe they’ve sped up, or they’re out of rhythm, so the first thing I go to trying to get him back on track mechanically is to check his rhythm to see if he’s staying within himself. Sometimes guys get nervous, for whatever reason, and their pressure gets going, so they speed up their body. Maybe they get a little herky-jerky. If you can get them to kind of smooth things out, it comes back to them and they’re fine from there.
DL: If you become a coach some day, what will be the first thing you work on with young catchers?
JP: The very first thing I’d want them to know–the first thing I’d ask them–is “Do you know your pitching staff? What can Joe Schmo do better than John Smith?” And how will those approaches be different, because you can’t go after every hitter the same way with every different pitcher. I really think that’s the most important part of calling a game: knowing what a guy can do. Why would I call for breaking balls when the guy has a lousy breaking ball? It just doesn’t make any sense.
DL: Do you think that most big league catchers do a good job of knowing their pitchers?
JP: I think, for the most part, yeah. Still, at times you’ll see offensive-minded catchers where that’s not the case. Sometimes I’ll have conversations with pitchers on another team, and they’ll be frustrated because one of their catchers is maybe concentrating a little too much on his hitting, and not enough on them. When that happens, you’re doing a disservice to your pitching staff. There are usually 11 or 12 pitchers on your staff, and that’s almost half your team. It’s also the most important part of your team. If you have good pitching, you’re going to go somewhere. So it’s really important to pay attention to and support those guys, and help them get through their season.
DL: Besides knowing your pitching staff, what else is important when calling a game?
JP: After that, you have to know the hitters. Up here we have scouting reports, and film; a lot of that, as a catcher, you have to kind of digest yourself and turn it into a plan. Sometimes if you overload a pitcher with information you can kind of paralyze him out on the mound. That’s the very last thing you want to have happen. You want them free and easy out there, just hitting the glove. What I want most out of my pitchers is focus. I don’t want them to think about anything else besides hitting the glove with the pitch that’s been selected. That’s it. I don’t want them thinking about balls and strikes, or about the hitter, or errors, or hits or runs. Not even necessarily whether the pitch is over the plate, because sometimes you’re calling something off the plate. I want them to hit my glove, and whatever we can do to get them thinking that, and only that, then we’re doing our job. And if you can prove to your pitchers that you know the lineup, then they’re going to trust you and go with the game plan.
DL: Trust is important.
JP: It’s very important. And trust is earned. You can’t just show up and expect it to happen. That’s where leadership comes in. When everyone is tired, and it’s hot, you’re down there blocking balls and hustling everything out; you’re keeping good body language all the time. There’s no room for hanging your head, or slumping your shoulders, when you’re a catcher–especially when that guy on the mound is looking at you all the time. He’s looking at you on every pitch. If you’re back there slouching, he might start doing the same thing, whether consciously or unconsciously.
DL: You’re saying that you want to stay the same regardless of the situation.
JP: The same, every single day. Your chin is up; your chest is out. Without saying a word, you’re showing him that we’re out there to compete and it doesn’t matter what happens. If you give up five runs, we still have the rest of the game to score six, so we need to stop them at five. Whatever the case may be, you want the same body language: confident and aggressive. You’re showing him that, “Hey, let’s go; keep going, keep going.” There are seven guys in the field behind him, and they’re all looking at him and seeing how to react, just like he’s looking at me to see how to react. If you’ve got a guy hanging his head and walking around the mound like it’s the end of the world, if he’s being a baby–you can’t have that. It’s our job to go out there and correct it if that happens. You need to tell him, “Hey, you need to pick your head up, because all of those guys behind you are starting to drop theirs.”
DL: Is a catcher better served by having a big ego or a small ego?
JP: I think he needs a properly placed ego. It’s okay to have a big ego if it means taking pride in doing your job–there’s nothing wrong with having pride in doing your job the right way and taking care of your pitching staff. If you mean a big ego like, “Hey, look at me; my (stuff) doesn’t stink,” that’s something else.
DL: I’m thinking primarily of something you touched upon earlier: a pitcher shaking you off when you’re absolutely positive that the pitch you called is the right one.
JP: There are different times for different strategies. Early in the game, maybe you just need to let him throw what he wants to throw. If it’s late in the game, and you have a situation where maybe the tying run is on second base–it’s coming down to that time–you might want to call time out, go to the mound, and talk it over. But basically, the catcher doesn’t call a game. Essentially, we’re giving suggestions, because the guy throwing the ball makes the final decision. He’s the guy who gets the win or the loss. But in crunch time it might be best to go out there and discuss it. You do your best and maybe say that this guy doesn’t hit a certain pitch well, but if the pitcher says he’s feeling good and wants to go with something else–if he’s a hundred percent confident in something–that’s what he should go with.
DL: Can you give an example of how you’ve worked a specific hitter, and what you’ve communicated to your pitchers in wanting to do so?
JP: When I caught for the White Sox, I always had trouble with Edgar Martinez, as I’m sure a lot of people did. He was a hell of a hitter. He seemed to be looking for every pitch that I called, and he usually smoked it into the gap. One day I noticed something in the way he took a slider off the plate. He made an aggressive move with his stride toward it, but held his swing at the last moment. It dawned on me that he was looking for that slider. I called for a fastball on the next pitch, and he took it right down the middle without so much as flinching. He took the next one the same way. We got him to pop up the next fastball. He couldn’t take it with two strikes. From that point on I told the pitchers to throw him a ball on the first pitch. They thought I was crazy. They didn’t want to get behind in the count, especially to Edgar. But I persuaded them to sacrifice just that one pitch so we could see, by his stride, what he was looking for. Just like a pitcher can tip what pitch is coming by the way his body moves, so too can a hitter when he is sitting on a certain pitch. The next game I caught against the Mariners, Edgar was 0 for 5, and we continued to have more success with him after that. The reason this approach worked so well for Edgar is that he didn’t swing at a pitch he wasn’t looking for before two strikes. He took those two fastballs right down the middle because he was looking for the slider. His approach was geared for the off-speed pitch. He knew that a swing in that situation, at a fastball, even one that was over the heart of the plate, would not produce the result he was looking for. The fun part about catching is finding ways to get guys out, even if it means using their strengths against them.
DL: Can you give another example?
JP: We noticed that Cal Ripken tipped his approach as well. He was a hitter who used a lot of different stances in his career. Sometimes he would switch stances in the middle of an at-bat, and if you paid attention you could see what he was trying to do to you. Usually, if he was standing straight up he was trying to juice the ball–pull it for power. We would throw him soft stuff away when he stood like that. If he crouched down, he was trying to take you to right field, and he became vulnerable to fastballs inside. Of course, these weren’t automatic ways to get these guys out. Hell, they were Hall of Fame caliber players, but they were intelligent approaches that increased our chances of getting them out.
DL: David Ortiz is an example of someone who went from being just another hitter to one of the best in the game. Can you talk a little about how you adjust when hitters adjust?
JP: I think that David Ortiz has become such a great hitter because he exercises the same type of discipline that Edgar Martinez had. He doesn’t swing at pitches that he can’t drive very often. With him, a lot of it rests on the pitcher executing the pitch. They need to keep the ball down on him. We want ground balls when he hits, because he is scary when he gets the ball in the air.
DL: You mentioned Jason Varitek earlier, who is one of the most respected backstops in the game. Do catchers study other catchers?
JP: I don’t know that I study him, but I respect the way he goes about his job. He’s definitely one catcher I’d pay the admission price to come watch. For one thing, you can always tell that he’s in charge. He’s out front, he’s directing traffic; he’s always backing up bases and running hard. He does a great job back there. He’s also one of the rare catchers that is good both offensively and defensively. Usually it’s one way or the other, and if a guy can really hit, as a catcher, he has a really hard time defensively, and it shows. And vice-versa. Other guys focus a lot on their defense, and their offense slacks. For me, if I was going to err on one side, I would take the defensive side, because like I said earlier, you’re kind of in charge of handling half the team. If you need to sacrifice a little offense to do that, so be it.