Before this year’s ALDS Game 3 between the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers, I was running errands and listening to the local Orioles radio network pregame coverage between stops. They were doing a typical interview with manager Buck Showalter, but one segment in particular caught my attention. As transcribed by asapsports.com:
Q. Can a guy like Caleb [Joseph], he’s had a long career to get to this point and he struggled offensively September into now. What do you do with a guy like that to keep him centered? And how important is it to have Nick Hundley around?
BUCK SHOWALTER: They both had their periods. I think they understand that we’re not just lip service about where their priorities are. You’re going to take four at bats a game and you’re going to make 100 and 200 decisions behind the plate.
The math is real easy on that, how do you impact the game more?
What we get from them offensively is just a luxury. It’s still one of the amazing things to me in baseball, a quality offensive catcher that is an offensive force in today’s game.
The way it is played it is so challenging for catchers physically, mentally, and emotionally because all this information now about pitch sequence, stuff that they have to constantly be rebooting the computer in their mind.
I think they know, would we like for them to crutch in an RBI or hit here and then? Sure, but that’s a luxury the way we look at it, and I think they know that. And they’ve both brought that very consistently.
Fortunately for Caleb, he showed us glimpses of why he should have won the Eastern MVP last year and almost drove in over 100 runs.
He’s a better offensive player than he’s shown us here lately, which he’s shown us at times this year. He got going there and helped us offensively for a while, but it wasn’t his priority.
This really made me think about catchers – what their role is for the team and just how much is required of them. At about this same time, the Yankees season had ended and the debate on whether or not Brian McCann had met expectations for his $17million/year salary. The general opinion was that he had not lived up to his potential as a Yankee, especially considering the short distance from home plate to the right field wall. He managed to finish 2014 with 23 homeruns and 75 RBI in 140 games, both improvements from his 2013 numbers with the Atlanta Braves (20 homeruns and 75 RBIs in 102 games). In my opinion, not bad numbers – but when I thought about those numbers compared to the 2014 season as a whole, it took on a new perspective.
Yankees pitching in 2014 turned out to be a strength, but was somewhat of a revolving door of uncertainty throughout the season. Only four out of the five starters lasted the entire season. New pitchers – both starters and relievers – were brought on by trades, waivers, and the minor leagues. I don’t know how many pitchers actually wore pinstripes this season, and frankly I haven’t counted. What I do know is that there were just four catchers for all season long – usually McCann and occasionally Francisco Cervelli, with John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine filling in for injuries to either of the catchers – or when a catcher floated over to first base to fill in for an injured Mark Teixeira.
I’ve often said that catchers have to be tough players. Anyone behind home plate has to be prepared to take a beating; there is a reason they wear so much protective gear. Not only do you have to remain in a squatting position for nine innings (assuming you don’t go into extra innings), but you have to be prepared to be hit by balls and by bats, and you might even wind up in a collision at home plate (although that is less likely due to the change in rules for plays at home). And don’t forget about that special glove. We as baseball fans love to see the pitch tracker counting into the 90-100mph zone – but someone’s got to catch that fireball being thrown. During an ALCS game, Royals’ catcher Salvador Perez actually switched out his glove in the middle of an inning, likely because it was no longer giving his hand enough protection.
During my short time as a softball player in my youth, I was catcher for exactly one game – and hated it. It was the middle of summer in northeast Ohio, and even though home plate was shaded by a big tree and summers in Ohio are not that humid, the whole game felt like torture. I hated the weight of the protective gear, I hated squatting for the whole game, and I played the whole game with a constant fear of being hit in the head with a wild pitch – or a wild bat from the girl on the other team. My catching hand was sore at the end of the game, and I walked away wondering how did professional players do this – willingly – for a paycheck. At the time, Sandy Alomar, Jr was my favorite player, but after a day “in his shoes” I figured he had to be a little stupid to be 6’5” and crouching for 9 innings to catch a baseball.
The catchers Buck Showalter made reference too aren’t small guys either. Caleb Joseph is 6’3” and 180lbs, while Nick Hundley is a little smaller at 6’1” and 200lbs. The Orioles regular catcher Matt Wieters (on the disabled list following Tommy John surgery) is as big as Alomar – 6’5” and 240lbs. Brian McCann is 6’3” and 230lbs. Salvador Perez is 6’3” and 240lbs. On average, catchers are the second largest players, behind only first basemen.
It’s important to mention the size of catchers, because agility is a huge part of their defense. A large stature is beneficial to block pitches that miss a catcher’s target, but is can be a challenge if a pitch goes wild. Assuming there is at least one runner on base and a pitch goes wild, a catcher has an extremely short period of time to jump up from the plate, grab the ball, and (hopefully) hold or throw out the runner. The same agility and quick movement is required when attempting to throw out a base stealer, making a play on a bunt, or when a runner advances from third to home. Maybe a catcher even sees a gutsy player like Jacoby Ellsbury who actually stole home in 2009 as a member of the Red Sox.
Going back to the point Showalter made, any player is going to have four or five at bats per game, depending on the length of the game and batting order. Compare those few at bats to the number of pitches a catcher sees during a game, which can vary a lot. Starters are frequently throwing around 100 pitches in a game before the call to the bullpen. Let’s say each game totals approximately 150 pitches, give or take. As Buck said, even for a poor math student like myself, the math is simple. There are roughly 5 at bats and roughly 150 pitches in every game (again, those numbers can vary). Which number has more value to a team and the outcome of a game? I would say the 150 pitch count.
When considering the number of pitchers the Yankees had this season, and even if all the pitchers stayed healthy and lasted the entire season, it’s also important to remember that each pitcher is different. They have different pitches, some stronger than others, and they all have a slightly different throwing style. For position players, whoever is on the mound doesn’t change how you play your position a whole lot. You may expect more ground balls or fly balls depending on who is pitching, but the fielding doesn’t change much. However, with every pitcher who steps on the mound, the catcher has to adjust to that pitcher. The pitcher-catcher battery is incredibly impressive to me, and just think for a minute how much it requires mentally – on both sides – for every pitch. Together, they’re not just playing catch between pitcher’s mound and home plate. They’re making logical decisions for each pitch based on each batter’s strengths and weaknesses, and considering any other batters who have reached base. If that’s not one of the most impressive aspects of baseball, I don’t know what is.
Catchers a big guys, and their job is tough physically and mentally. Would I love to see catchers, especially Brian McCann, be offensive monsters? Absolutely – it makes for exciting baseball. But if given the choice, I’m inclined to take a strong defensive catcher with average offense versus a strong offensive catcher with average defense.
All things considered, I am content with Brian McCann’s first season in the Bronx. He’s had a full year to settle in to New York. With a (hopefully) more consistent starting rotation and bullpen roster next season, I am optimistic McCann’s offense will pick up for next season. Above all, I have incredible respect for everything required of a catcher during each game and throughout the season.