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Calling Pitches

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Let’s explore the catcher’s role in pitch calling.

Carson Kelly and Riley Smith after successful pitch calling.
Carson Kelly and Riley Smith after successful pitch calling.
Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Catchers have many responsibilities. One responsibility is calling each pitch. That process includes communication between the pitcher and catcher about which pitch to throw.

As a fan, measures of how well pitches are called do not seem to exist. Exploring pitch calling was like exploring a foreign country. Although I didn’t know the territory, there were several prominent landmarks. Let’s visit three landmarks!

League-wide, catchers are worse batters than every position except pitchers.

Looking at the Depth Charts projected OPS shows the relative batting skills of catchers:

Projected OPS by Position (excluding pitchers)

Projected OPS rank Catchers 1B 2B SS 3B RF CF LF
Projected OPS rank Catchers 1B 2B SS 3B RF CF LF
1st 0.806 0.933 0.832 0.905 0.908 0.944 1.007 1.017
30th 0.701 0.769 0.733 0.708 0.743 0.744 0.726 0.762
Data from FanGraphs.

Three possible explanations are:

  • In the field, playing catcher is strenuous and arduous. Therefore, you could argue that when catchers are at-bat they are spent and their hitting is degraded. This explanation is mistaken for two reasons: 1) players are world class athletes, and 2) In 2020 Daulton Varsho hit much better when playing catcher (an overall wOBA of .287 vs .406 when playing as catcher).
  • Players who can hit well want a long career with more free agent years, so they sometimes avoid playing catcher, which has a reputation for being “notoriously hard on the body”. This logic is mistaken. In 2014 Robert Arthur presented statistics that showed that catchers and shortstops had the lowest chances of an injury prematurely ending their career.
  • The defensive skills, including pitch calling, required by a catcher are rare. Therefore, the population of potential catchers is smaller than for other positions. With a smaller population to choose from, catchers who excel in hitting are relatively rare.

The last explanation seems the most simple, so I like it. It speaks well of the Diamondbacks that despite the rarity they have two catchers (Daulton Varsho and Carson Kelly) who are projected to have an OPS in the top 30 catchers league-wide.

Pitch calling involves preparation by many participants – what is the role of catcher?

Many interconnected statistics are available to provide insight on pitchers, batters, and expected results for pitcher-batter matchups. Those insights can reveal situations that expose a weakness, a strength, or a predictable action. In addition, many teams have a team-approach that makes them more predictable.

Pre-game preparation includes analysis of data to find nuggets of gold (ways to succeed that apply to each pitcher, batter, and game situation). Vitally important is melding the nuggets into a winning game-plan that pitchers/catchers can easily grasp.

In 2020, the Diamondback gold miners and refiners were Jeff Gardner, video/advance scout, Mike Fitzgerald, VP of R&D, Dan Haren, pitching strategist, Alex Cultice, run prevention coordinator, and Drew Hedman, run production coordinator (source: Zack Buchanan article).

One role of the catcher is to thoroughly know and master each day’s game plan. Knowing the game plan will make it easier for the catcher to increase the probability of winning.

“Our pitching has done a lot better since he’s [Dan Haren] been doing stuff. Sometimes our pitchers don’t pay too much attention to it, but then our catchers can learn from it.” — Zack Greinke, 2018

“The first day of every series, I’m in 3 or 4 meetings that are probably 45 minutes apiece. We’re talking scouting reports, we’re talking just a ton of stuff, a ton of information...” — Carson Kelly in Doug and Wolf interview 2021.

Given a great game plan, how does the catcher add value? His awareness of the players and his pitcher allows him to make in-game adjustments to the pitch calling.

  • Batter. He notices the batter’s stance for clues of batter intentions. He notices if the batter made in-game adjustments in the previous at-bat that suggest a different pitching approach.
  • Pitcher. If the pitcher is thrown off his game, he knows how to get the pitcher’s mind back in-the-zone. He knows how well the pitcher is hitting his spots. Often, he notices if the pitcher is tiring before the pitcher does. He knows how to adjust his pitch calling in those situations.
  • Game Situation. Sometimes, the game situation will be more important than rigidly following the game plan. It’s a judgement call the catcher must make.

How does the catcher make adjustments? He prepares a plan B for many in-game situations. Most interestingly, in 2018 R.J.Anderson wrote an article that included comments about using virtual reality for a catcher to develop his awareness and practice when & how to implement a plan B for game calling.

When a pitcher ‘shakes off’ the catcher’s sign, the catcher must quickly put down another sign. For each catcher, is there a statistic that tracks frequency of ‘shake offs’? Perhaps that frequency would indicate the pitcher’s confidence in the catcher’s game calling. And what are the batter’s results on that next pitch after a ‘shake off’? I did not find those statistics.

In April 2020, Grant Rhines of Off The Wall Analytics wrote an article that included an observation about former Diamondback catcher Jeff Mathis, “Yet, when using ShK% [shake-off strike percentage], he is THE highest ranked catcher I have analyzed over the past two years.”

Words and awards painted a picture of great defense by catchers in the NL West.

Based on several factors, I divided the catchers into three groups:

All-Star level.

Austin Barnes’ (Dodgers) Defensive Runs Saved (per The Fielding Bible) ranked in the top 10 catchers for the last three seasons.

In 2015, Carson Kelly won the Minor League Gold Glove Award for catcher. In 2016, MiLB Pipeline of top-10 catching prospects included Carson Kelly at #6 and Austin Barnes at #8.

“Defense is something that I’ve always taken pride in. It was a bigger focal point as a kid with my coaches and my dad, so as a kid, I paid attention to the Gold Glove award as much as any. So it’s pretty cool to be recognized in this way with this honor [Gold Glove award in 2016].” — Buster Posey, 6-time All Star, Giants

Stephen Vogt is a 2-time All-Star (2015 and 2016).

Rising Stars.

“This [Daulton Varsho] is a kid that is well wise beyond his years. I’m blown away by his baseball IQ and his self-evaluation skills. He knows what his strengths are, he knows where he needs to get better and he’s working towards those.” — Stephen Vogt

Will Smith [Dodgers] has proven that he is one of the best young catchers in the game. Losing the growth of a full and real Spring Training might have played some role in his defensive decline [from 4 DRS to -2 DRS in 2020 per The Fielding Bible].” — Tim Rogers

Noteworthy.

“Baseball America named him [Elias Diaz, Rockies] the best defensive catcher in the Florida State League in 2013, and the best defensive catcher in the Eastern League in 2014.” — Tim Williams

“… [In 2019] Dom Nuñez [Rockies] was a 24-year-old defense-first catcher getting his first taste of major league pitching.” —Jeff Aberle

Curt Casali’s [Giants] defense was solid again in 2020. While a lot of fans tend to focus on the offensive numbers, most front offices and managers are quite content if their catchers call a good game and are stalwart defenders behind the plate.” — Drew Koch

“Behind the dish, Victor Caratini [Padres] was noticeably effective as a catcher and meshed well with some of the pitchers…Caratini can play multiple spots on the infield.” — Alexander Patt

“That’s the beauty of catching. There’s so much to be learned. You never stop learning behind the dish.” — Austin Nola, Padres