Catchers: A View from the Mound
posted at 9/24/2011 2:33 AM EDT
Some pitchers wouldn't know or care whether the object behind the plate is a person or a robot. Some are co-dependent with a particular catcher. Most fall somewhere in the middle. ( When I was the pitching coach at USC, one guy even complained that his troubles on the mound could be traced to our failure to recruit his HS catcher. )
I once had a catcher whom pitchers would die for. But he couldn't hit a lick, did not have a good throwing arm, and was not a tough guy on plays at the plate. He was a perennial backup, even from his first minute as a pro.
Here's what he did bring. He set up low and sturdy. For some reason he was able to make his glove seem twice as large as it was. He had such quick easy hands that his framing could steal strike calls. Given a chance to observe during BP or actually behind the plate, he came up with a reliable book on every batter. If they adjusted, he spotted it at once, and he adjusted. Needless to say he called a great game. ( I shook him off once when he wanted a change up, and he let me try to sneak a FB by a lefty power hitter. Our rightfielder later admitted that he kept saying "stay up" as the ball zoomed over his head, over the fence, and halfway across a parking lot. Lesson learned. ) He had the knack of saying the right thing at the right time to each pitcher, before the game, on the field, and between innings. Sometimes what he said had a little mustard on it.
Here's the topper, IMO. On another thread someone introduced the question of a catcher's knowledge of pitching mechanics. My friend made it his business to learn everything he could about pitching mechanics and grips. He and I talked the subject for hours.
As a result, he not only could see that a shoulder was flying open and then tap his as a signal, but he could pick up problems with the stride to the plate, with a lagging or hurried arm, with an elbow in the wrong place during delivery, and so on. Pitchers didn't have to wait for the pitching coach to visit in order to get a correction. They got the word right away from the battery mate.
This man played only a couple of years of pro ball, got drafted, was sent to Japan, where mostly he played baseball, and became a teacher after the service. One scout, not from my friend's organization, said that HE would have put my friend behind the plate even if he hit only .190 -- which was about it.
Even with advanced video technology, the catcher's perspective in live time is probably the best from which to view action on the mound. ( Video cameras are not God. They too have a perspective, and, I'm told, even the best optics are liable to distortion, however slight. )
The best pitching coach for a long time, almost by common consent, is Dave Duncan. He paid attention behind the plate. Maybe, with this example in mind, it's a little surprising that more catchers are not hired as pitching coaches.
I have no first-hand knowledge of how much, say, Berra and Bench knew about pitching mechanics. But I would guess that they knew quite a bit and put it to use one way or the other -- even if only to adjust their pitch-calling when they noticed even the smallest thing. (Ted Williams was once asked the difference between the Sox and Yanks during those years. He did not answer "pitching," as was expected. He said, "That Dago behind the plate." )
I use my friend as an example obviously because I'm familiar up close with the that situation, but also because I think that the case does line up most or all of the variables that bear on the assessment of catching -- and thus for purposes of discussion, should anyone wish to chime in on this topic.
How much of a difference does catching make? It may not make a critical difference in every case every time or for all pitchers equally. But, IMO, it can and often does make a big difference, even if that difference cannot be indisputably quantified.