It’s essential for pitchers and catchers to get their signals straight and find that spark
The call was for a fastball away. Bob Tewksbury shook it off. He looked in at the new catcher, who had recently signed with the Cardinals, and waited for the new sign. The call came for a fastball in. Tewksbury shook. For a curveball. He shook. For a slider. He shook. For a changeup. He shook. For a fastball in, again. He shook.
“So,’’ as Tewksbury said, “he put down his middle finger.’’
The starter stepped off the mound, laughing. The spring training crowd hadn’t seen the gesture, and didn’t care. All they saw was the result — the fastball away that Tewksbury wanted Rich Gedman to call again.
“He still gets the final say, but I felt like I went through every pitch that I had and it was like, ‘Why did we take so long to get to this?’ ’’ said Gedman, who was working with Tewksbury for the first time in that 1991 game. “So just out of frustration it was like, ‘Screw you. I have a say, too.’ ’’
It was a unique beginning to a relationship that would last all of seven starts over two seasons. Gedman needed his pitcher to feel comfortable, to believe in himself and his pitches. He wanted him to dictate the game and listen to suggestions, to believe in their partnership.
It’s what every starting pitcher needs from his catcher: support and understanding, the perfect visual target. It takes time to develop, and it doesn’t always work.
“It’s a really subtle relationship that I think people take for granted, but it’s so powerful,’’ said Tewksbury, who is now the Red Sox sports psychology coach. “It’s the biggest part of the game, the pitcher-catcher relationship, because everything happens off of that — that pitch, that selection, that execution, that trust.’’
Sometimes it just clicks. Sometimes it doesn’t.
“The thing that will affect a game more than anything is going to be the talent that’s on the pitching mound,’’ said Angels manager and former catcher Mike Scioscia. “And the person that can influence that talent most in a positive or negative way during the game is going to be the catcher.
“So that pitcher-catcher relationship is absolutely the biggest bond that you’re trying to formulate.’’
That relationship is built on three things, according to Tewksbury. The pitcher and catcher have to be of one mind. The pitcher has to know that the catcher is there for him, that he’s not focused on his hitting when he’s in his crouch. And the pitcher has to get a good visual from his batterymate.
“It’s probably the most important relationship on the field, just for the fact that it all starts with the starting pitcher,’’ said Mariners manager Eric Wedge, also a former catcher. “They’re the ones that give you a chance to win the game or not.
“That catcher, that pitcher have got to be on the same page. There has to be that connection.’’
In the end, the pitcher is in control. Or, at least, he should be. It’s something the Sox organization tries to instill in its pitchers as they come up, making them responsible for their own games.
The young pitcher can’t leave it all to the catcher, the way Clay Buchholz did as a rookie. According to a member of the Sox staff, Buchholz didn’t shake off Jason Varitek once during his first year in the majors because of his veneration for the catcher.
He needs to follow his own instincts, especially when there’s a lack of experience together. Essentially, it’s fine not to shake off a sign out of trust. It’s not OK if the motivation is blind faith. Or fear.
“I’ll make the final call,’’ said Tewksbury. “I teased the catchers that they’re just putting down suggestions. And it’s really true.
“The pitchers should dictate the calling of the game and that’s why they should be watching swings and hitter tendencies and reading the report and how that matches up for them.
“But I remember telling them, ‘Look, you put down suggestions, and if I’m not happy with it, I’ll shake to the pitch that I want.’ ’’
Like that fastball away.
Different feel to it Ultimately, though, the shaking is something they try to avoid — White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski speaks with pride of how rarely Mark Buehrle shakes — since it takes a pitcher out of his rhythm, interrupts his flow, and sometimes brings the catcher to the mound. They’d much rather have the easy back-and-forth.
That doesn’t always happen.
“It’s like saying any baseball that we put in your hand, you should be able to throw it the same,’’ said sports psychology consultant Don Kalkstein, who has worked with the Sox and Rangers.
“Well, baseballs have a different feel. They weigh the same, they’re supposed to be made the same and made out of the same material, yet they feel different in a player’s hand. Some feel more comfortable with a particular baseball and they’ll throw it back.
“I think players are the same way with other players and they’re the same way with equipment. There is a level of comfort.’’
If they had the option, which they rarely do, most pitchers would select a particular catcher. Tewksbury can list the ones he’s worked with, whether he liked them, whether they clicked.
Todd Zeile, with whom he had a 2.86 ERA in 26 games, clicked. Ivan Rodriguez, with whom he had a 4.99 ERA in 18 games, didn’t.
“Pudge would throw everybody out and he certainly was a good hitter, but I didn’t like throwing to him because we were never on the same page and he had no interest in going over scouting reports,’’ Tewksbury said. “I really felt like it was kind of lip service for him at a pregame meeting to go over things, and I put a lot of stock into that.’’
Tewksbury was so frustrated with Rodriguez that he began wiping his glove on his thigh or chest to change pitches so he could stay on rhythm. He made the adjustment, compensated for the parts of their relationship that didn’t work.
Still, there wasn’t comfort, or trust. And that is the ultimate goal.
“You’ve got to peel that onion, get through those layers,’’ Scioscia said. “You just don’t sit and say this [pitcher] doesn’t work with a [catcher]. Peel those layers as to why he doesn’t.
“And if a pitcher says I’m more comfortable with this catcher, I’m going to peel that pitcher down to say, ‘What is it? Why are you?’ and see if we can’t put that tool in this other catcher.’’
Growing pains There were moments this season when it appeared it would never work out for the Sox. One catcher was aging. One catcher wasn’t working. The combination didn’t seem to fit. Much of that was blamed on Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who, it seemed, wasn’t forming the right relationships or making the right calls with his pitchers.
“I think early in the season I tried to put down what I thought they wanted to throw,’’ said Saltalamacchia. “I knew what the right pitch was in my head because I do a lot of stuff that Tek does with the studying. We go over hitters. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what we can go with.
“I just wanted them to feel comfortable with me, so I started putting down stuff they wanted to do. It took a couple of games of that and then I was just like, ‘You know what? Let’s just pitch.’ ’’
Things changed. Relationships evolved. Progress happened. And now, even though Varitek remains Josh Beckett’s personal catcher — a partnership that has resulted in a 1.66 ERA — Saltalamacchia has gained more trust from his pitchers and had more success.
Still, it remains difficult to compare the two catchers. Varitek, after all, has caught Beckett 124 times. Saltalamacchia has caught him twice. Saltalamacchia said he doesn’t take it personally; he understands that time and experience are required. And he knows that sometimes the need for victories trumps development.
“I know the Boston guys love throwing to Varitek just because he’s on top of his game,’’ said Yankees catcher Russell Martin. “He does all his homework. I think he sleeps with his reports right under the pillow.
“And I think that’s where a lot of confidence comes from, from your pitchers. If they know you’re doing your homework, they have that trust in you.’’
Martin is not the only one who admires Varitek’s relationships with his starters, around the league and around the staff. The Boston veteran has built his reputation on such partnerships, with aces, journeymen, and pitchers just passing through.
It’s what any successful catcher has to do.
“It’s a relationship that is critical, at times it can be fragile,’’ said Scioscia. “But I don’t think there’s a more important aspect of our game than what that pitcher and catcher do out there on a nightly basis.’’