The Forgotten Man

The catcher is the most important position on the field hands down. Some might argue the common saying that pitching wins championships, but a good pitcher is merely that, a good pitcher. A good catcher on the other hand turns average pitchers into good pitchers and good pitchers into great pitchers. Not only does a catcher handle the pitching staff, but they handle the rest of the team too. They are the on field general, they see every play developing in front of them and know what to do in every situation. This is why catchers often make the best managers for example, Joe Torre, Joe Girardi, Mike Matheny, Mike Sciosia, the list goes on and on.

My question is if catching is the most important position in baseball why is it the one that is ignored the most? Growing up as a catcher your main practice duties are catching bullpens, so many that you often miss out on swings in batting practice. Additionally there is never any skill work done with the catchers. The infielders get extra ground balls, the outfielders get their fly balls, you never see catchers doing blocking drills off to the side at a high school practice, it just doesn’t happen. But why?

The answer is that coaches just don’t know enough about it. Most youth baseball coaches and high school coaches don’t know enough about the position to effectively better their players and its a shame. It really isn’t that hard either to better the catchers. A coach can teach the catchers a very short list of drills and send them off on their own, here are just a few as an example. Have them pair up with a tennis ball being held in their hand with their pinky and ring finger and just have them lightly toss a ball back and forth to develop the proper catching technique. Have two people stand down the lines and spike fastballs in the ground to a catcher to have him work on blocking balls to his left and right. My favorite drills are simple receiving drills off a machine. Some machines can be cranked up to almost 100 and throw filthy breaking pitches, every high school program should invest in a machine like this it really is priceless. It can be used not only as a pitching machine, but for ground balls and flyballs as well. We all know that one coach who can’t hit a fungo to save his life and this machine is for him.

The missed batting practice is just something you are going to have to handle on your own time. Unfortunately catching bullpens is almost always going to trump you getting your swings in. When I was in high school I decided to build a batting cage in my backyard. Boy was that a headache, looking back it would have been easier and cheaper to just buy one. This batting cage will do the job. It’s big enough for front toss and tee work and will fit in most residential back yards. Just make sure not to hit too early or late to wake the neighbors.

As a catcher we are often left to ourselves to hone and perfect our craft. What you put into it is what you will take away. Catchers are born, not bred, it takes a certain set of skills and instincts that are very hard to teach. But if you are one of the lucky ones born with them it is up to you to polish them and perfect them for we are the forgotten men.

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10 signs that you are a catcher

1. You are low maintenance.

You show up to the park with your floppy glove that looks like left over roast beef, a shinguard missing some straps, a chest protector held together with tape, and a mask with so much pine tar on it you can’t read the team logo anymore, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.  You don’t complain about the conditions behind the plate whether its a sandbox or a swamp and even though every joint in your body is screaming at you to stop, especially your knees, you will never admit to being hurt.

2. You are the smartest guy on the field.

You know the situation and how to execute every play from every position on the field.  You are anticipating the play not only the pitch before, but pitches before, maybe even innings before.  You see the big picture.  You remember a swing a kid took on a certain pitch two weeks ago and call the same pitch.  You’ve picked up the opposing coaches signs and its not even the second inning.  And you definitely have spotted that kids hot sister on the other team without letting your coach notice sitting in the bleachers behind third base.

3. You are a people person.

You and the umpire are exchanging phone numbers before the end of the third inning so you can figure out your Thanksgiving plans together.  The opposing batters hate you because you distract them talking about total nonsense and using corny jokes so they go back to the bench trash talking you but deep down saying damn, that kids the man.  Your first base coach yells at you to pay attention to the pitcher and stop talking to the first basemen, but you already peeked in and saw a curveball is coming so you take a little extra on your lead and swipe second, but because you’re a catcher and probably run a 7.5 60yd dash you need the element of surprise and to appear as not a base stealing threat.

4.  You are a badass.

You don’t pop 10 ibuprofen before the game like the pitcher, you deal with a little uncomfort in your elbow.  Hell you might even need Tommy John, but there is no way that baserunner is getting to second.  The pitcher spikes 96 and you block it with your bare forearm, you didn’t even notice the compound fracture coming out of your arm.  YOU NEVER WEAR KNEE SAVERS.  The 250lb left fielder who is really an all-state linebacker verbally committed to play at Florida State who has been arrested for assault and genuinely enjoys inflicting pain on others and is just playing baseball for fun railroads you at home but you hold on for the tag and walk back to the dugout without even acknowledging the fact that you just experienced something similar to being hit by a Mack truck doing 65 on the highway.

5. If you were a pitcher you swear you’d throw 94.

Everyone always asks how hard you think you’d throw off a mound and every time the answer is the same, you’d sit 94.  The good news is you will never actually get on a mound so there is no evidence you actually throw 86 and you just have incredible footwork and a quick transfer when you throw down to second.

6. All the girls want you.

When you walk out to take your position all the girls go crazy.  You’ve got the swag turned up with some wrist tape just high enough up the forearm to get the vascularity popping, some type of native american war design drawn on your face in eye black, and the custom oakley radars with fire iridium lenses under a two piece skull cap and mask.  Your jersey is a size too small so your biceps are looking good and when you squat the girls get their money’s worth because we all know the only reason girls come to see a baseball game is for the guys butts in baseball pants.  You act like the enforcer when someone exchanges words with your pitcher and you jump right in between them and the girls imagine you fighting for them.  They know how you handle the emotionally fragile pitchers and pretend to relate to their problems to get them to throw 93 on the black at the knees and imagine you listening to all their bullshit problems and pretending like you relate.

7. Your bag smells like there is a dead animal inside.

Catching doubleheaders in the hot summer sun of Texas makes you sweat a bit.  All that sweat is absorbed into your gear and there really isn’t a way to clean it so when you unzip that catchers bag its like you are hit in the face by a mix of roadkill and rotten eggs.  You are so use to it though you don’t even smell it anymore, but when you walk down the dugout you leave a trail of unconscious teammates behind you.

8. You have mastered how to catch a bullpen without a cup.

Coach asks you to catch a quick bullpen, but you forgot your cup.  You obviously aren’t going to tell him that, but you certainly have to protect the family jewels.  What do you do?  You work on your “Yadi stance.”  This is that awkward position where you face your body to a 90 degree angle with the mound and just turn your head and glove toward the pitcher.  Its just something that goes unspoken between you and your coach.  He knows why you are doing it, but knows he needs you to catch the pen so he doesn’t say anything.

9. You really were never that strong of a hitter.

You know that catching is the quickest way to the big leagues and most big league catchers can hit .260 and be considered a good player.  You have some power potential and are really good at lifting a fly ball to right to get the runner in from third, but you never are going to win a batting title.  But when people ask if you can hit, you say you are going to be the next guy to hit .400 in the big leagues.

10. You are like the bridge between the pitchers and position players.

You know all your pitchers weird tendencies and rituals.  You listen to them complain about how they don’t get enough run support from the offense and how they wish they didn’t have to show up to games when they weren’t scheduled to pitch.  You also listen to the position players complain about how pitchers spend so much time on PFP’s and still mess them up and how you don’t understand how someone can’t throw a bp fastball on command and walk three guys in a row.  You are like a foster child, you just can’t seem to find a home.  You’re like the Swiss, when ever there is a world war you try and remain neutral.

We all know that guy who thinks he is the next Molina brother but really…

We all know that guy who has the fancy helmet with the custom paint job, the customized rawlings chest protector with the golden logo, kneesavers, don’t forget the kneesavers, and white cleats you can’t step on because you’ll get them dirty, but the irony is baseball is usually played on dirt so they are going to get dirty anyway.  He thinks he is a projected 3rd to 5th round draft pick but in reality he looks like this when he is behind the plate.

The Hardest Pitch to Catch

Most young catchers think the hardest pitch to catch is something that breaks, whether it be a curveball, slider, or something in between.  But the opposite is actually true.  The hardest pitch to catch in baseball is the fastball.  Not just any fastball.  The low fastball.  It is the hardest pitch to catch and present in the zone without looking like an idiot moving your glove up 8 inches after you catch it.  This makes you like you’ve never caught a day in your life and implies you think the ump is stupid enough not to realize you moved your glove.

The most effective way I have found to catch the low fastball or a sinker is to simply turn your glove down and bring your thumb up as you catch the baseball.  Just put your glove on and do this motion and you will see the glove moves several inches up into the zone without moving your whole arm.  If you are having trouble visioning this motion picture moving your wrist the opposite way to engage the throttle on a motorcycle.  On a motorcycle you pull your wrist towards you, to catch a low fastball you push the throttle away from your body.

Catching 101

My entire life I have been a catcher and almost my entire life I have been doing it wrong.  Growing up the only things I cared about were backhanding spiked fastballs and throwing out runners, basically I wanted to be a white Yadier Molina.  I even contemplated a neck tattoo for a while.  Anyway, I was ignoring the most fundamental aspect of catching.  Get out a piece of paper and pen to write down what I am about to tell you because this is groundbreaking stuff.  Coaches charge hundreds and thousands of dollars for training and teaching what I am about to share for free.  Are you ready?  To be a good catcher you have to CATCH THE BASEBALL.  I know its crazy.  Who would of thought a catcher would have to be able to catch?  Yea a 1.8 pop time is like bragging you throw 96 or have a 300lb bench press.  But coaches want catchers who can catch.  You can make it all the way to the big leagues with only the ability to catch and not being able to hit your way out of a wet paper bag, just look at almost every backup big league catcher.  Organizations need guys who can handle the 17 year old Dominican who throws 103mph during a flat ground with no idea where its going and there are only a handful out there.  By being that guy you will continue to move up the ranks and play baseball at a high level.

One of the best receivers in the game hands down is Jose Molina.  My favorite thing about Jose is how he catches an inside fastball running off the plate.  He anticipates where the pitch will end up, something I have already talked about, and beats the pitch to the spot, extends through the pitch, and presents it still in the strike zone (I know this video isn’t an inside fastball running off the plate but you get the idea).  This is different than “framing” a pitch which is an awful term I wish was banned from baseball.  The difference is that imagine catching the pitch at two points, point A and point B.  At point A the pitch is still in the zone and at point B the pitch has ran off the plate, where do you want to catch it?  I hope all of you said point A, if not I don’t think you’ll get picked up by any big league teams to catch their Dominicans anytime soon.  Nevertheless learn to properly catch and receive pitches.  It is by far the most important part of the job and is the number one thing college coaches are looking for.

Anticipation and Catching

I know in high school it seems like everyone you talk to throws 87-90, but in reality they’re lucky if they throw 82.  When you make the jump to college and everyone is throwing 87-90 you realize wow this is a little different trying to catch, but still not difficult if you have decent hand eye coordination and motor skills.  But once you catch a guy throwing 94+ with arm side run and sink you realize you need to be on a whole other level to catch them effectively.  What’s the secret?  How do big leaguers catch Aroldis Chapman throwing over 100 and make it look like they’re having a picnic behind the plate?  The secret is anticipation.

One of my biggest pet peeves is watching skittish catchers.  Everyone knows what I’m talking about.  The guys that flinch just before every pitch comes in.  It’s like they don’t know what pitch is coming.  It looks like they’re getting crossed up every pitch.  But why?  Are you not calling the pitches?  You should know your pitcher and how all his pitches move so what’s the problem?

By anticipating the pitch you can react before the pitcher even releases the baseball.  For example, if your pitcher has a wipe out slider and its an 0-2 count he is probably going to bounce it.  Don’t be surprised.  Be in a good position to block the baseball.  If you call for a two seam fastball beat the pitch to the spot and work it back over the plate, don’t let the force of impact carry your glove off the plate.  Little things like this make you look better behind the plate which in turn gets you more confidence from the pitching staff, your coach, and the umpire thus getting you more strike calls.