I know I’ve been wandering around lately on some random subjects (barefoot running, albums, etc.) so how about today we get into some of the nuts and bolts of baseball? You can do me a favor and let me know if you like the random wanderings or want a more specific focus on baseball. Not that I’ll do it, but I do aim to please and would greatly appreciate your feedback/suggestions. Today let’s talk about calling a game. I want to preface it by saying that my book “The Art of Catching” will go into the subject in more detail (buy the book, buy the book, buy the book), but here’s a quick overview of how I approached this facet of the game.
First off, let me establish what the goal is. The goal in my mind is to get as many outs as quickly and efficiently as possible. In other words, I want 27 outs with as few pitches as I can manage. That means convincing the pitcher to pitch to contact. I would much rather have 10 outs on 10 pitches rather than 10 outs and 30 plus pitches. Put another way, it only takes one pitch to get a ground out and at least 3 to get a strike out. As a catcher, it’s very important to keep the pitcher in this mind state and not let him fall into the trap of getting too fine, trying to fool everyone, and always going for the strike out. Pound the strike zone early in good spots and make the opposition swing the bat.
Secondly, always go with the pitcher’s strength. The very best pitch that can be thrown is the pitch that the pitcher can throw with conviction. Period. If I’ve got the greatest change up hitter of all time at bat but my hurler’s best pitch (meaning his best choice for throwing a strike in a good location) is a change, I go with the change up. Of all of the rockets I’ve seen hit in my day, 99% of them have come from problems with location. Even the “wrong” call in the right location is successful most of the time. The “right” call in a bad location is most often a failure. Location, location, location.
Ride the fastball as long as you can. There are no hard and fast rules on calling a game because the variables are always shifting and it’s impossible to say you have to do this in this situation. One thing is pretty true though – of all the guys I’ve caught, and that’s quite a few – I’ve only encountered a couple that could throw another pitch other than a fastball most consistently for a strike. Since we’re trying to get outs as efficiently as possible, my GENERAL guideline was to establish the fastball and see how deep into the game I could ride it (not neglecting or losing touch of the pitcher’s other pitches, of course). In other words, I would predominately use the heater to get outs as long as I could, sprinkling in the pitcher’s other pitches along the way to keep them available and sharp if needed. If I could make it through the batting order one time using mostly heat, I would. If that meant going through twice, great. If it lasted the whole game, all the better. For me this accomplished a couple things. One, it’s efficient and simple. Two, it allows me some cards to play later in the game when I need some help. Put another way, if I haven’t showed a hitter all of my pitcher’s offerings in earlier at bats (but have kept them sharp but using them here and there throughout the game) I’ve got an ace in the hole to get an out with a pitch the hitter hasn’t seen yet.
Do your work before the game. Establish a game plan with your coach, make sure you’re on the same page with the pitcher, make sure you know your staff’s capabilities and limitations. Be aware of game situations and maybe most importantly, get a feel for when to push your luck with the limits of what your pitcher can do and when to give in to the hitter. Put another way, walks suck. There comes a point where you’ve got to give in to the hitter and just hope the pitcher can locate a strike. The old 3 and 1 trick pitch to the number nine hitter is a beautiful thing when it works… the problem is it doesn’t work the majority of the time. In that situation, most of the time it’s best to avoid the walk and take your chance throwing the obvious. Again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. I’m just saying try to play the odds and avoid walks, and many times that means admitting that the hitter has done a good job to get himself into an offensive count and he’s got the upper hand. Pitch to contact.
Put the sign down quickly and intuitively. There are so many different variables going on in between pitches and the catcher needs to process all of this information and put down a finger quickly and correctly. The game situation, the psyche of the pitcher (does he need to be patted in the back or kicked in the ass), the hitter and how you’ve approached him in the past, the umpire and his particular zone and temperament, to just name a few. Don’t over think it and lock up. Trust the work that you’ve done in the bullpen (you have been paying attention to your staff’s tendencies haven’t you?) and establishing a game plan with your coach and pitcher BEFORE the game. Understand that location, not the perfect choice is most important. Then just get back there and get into that groove with the man on the mound. When it happens – when the both of you are on the same wavelength and you’re putting down what he’s thinking – that is one of the coolest things in sports.
Greg Maddux says that if you can throw a fastball where you want to and can sprinkle in another pitch, you can win 10 games in the Big Leagues. If you can throw two pitches where you want to, you can win the Cy Young award. That is a pretty amazing thing to say. As a catcher, if you can just convince your staff to locate the fastball….I’ll leave you with this great and telling quote by arguably the greatest pitcher of all time.
“I try to do two things: locate my fastball and change speeds. That’s it. I try to keep as simple as possible. I just throw my fastball (to) both sides of the plate and change speed every now and then. There is no special food or anything like that, I just try to make quality pitches and try to be prepared each time I go out there.” – Greg Maddux