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Guest Blog – Catching: Partly Physical, but Mostly Mental

Monday, April 13th, 2009

This is a guest blog entry - Admin.

Have you ever wondered why some teams keep week-hitting catchers in the lineup and yet these teams seem to win the majority of their games. The answer is not found in batting statistics nor in throwing out base runners nor in preventing wild pitches and passed balls. The answer is in the way these “good” catchers develop and use game strategy and tactics.

Preparing for a game begins long before the first batter stands in the box. It begins by studying what your opponent has done in the past. A catcher should review the scorebook of what each opponent player did against his team. Because teams within a league play each other several times, the best intelligence is the past. The good catchers keep book on every player in the league. Collecting and filing this information is vitally important. Recalling it is a must. It’s the difference between winning and losing. Start by using a small 3″x5″ spiral notebook, even one with a little loop to hold a stubby pencil. Divide the notebook into as many teams as there are in your league plus one extra for general information; a small tab can separate each team. Keep this notebook tucked within your chest protector or your back pocket when you’re playing your position. Refer to it between batters if necessary, but work hard to recall the details without having to “thumb through your guide.” Bench time, when the other team is out on the field, is great for reviewing the upcoming batters information.

Calling a Game

Some catchers are allowed to do this while others await the coaches signals. Calling your own game begins with understanding the batters and the game situation tactics. Calling your own game requires you to pay attention to details. Keep notes on hitters, runners, pitchers, as well as opposing team tendencies. Before attempting to call your own game, pay attention to how your pitching coach calls pitches during other games. Why is he calling for certain pitches in certain counts? What is he trying to accomplish? What is the game situation? If you don’t understand something, ask the coach after the inning why he is calling that pitch in that situation. Once, you understand the reasoning for calling certain pitches; incorporate this knowledge into your Catcher’s Notebook.

After your defensive half-inning is over enter data on each player that just came to bat. What stance did each use. What was the position of his hands or what were his warm-up swings like. Did he chase certain “bad” pitches or ignore others? Did he get fooled by certain set-up pitches? Was he bothered by base runners seemingly about to steal? Has he changed anything since the last time you met or when runners are on or off base? All of these things should be noted in the Catcher’s Notebook.

A batter with an open stance will probably be strong on inside pitches (his hips are already pointing toward the pitch and he will tend to be weaker on outside pitches). From a closed stance, the batter will probably hit the ball well into right field because he hits the outside pitch well. So, the pitcher should throw inside to him so he can jam him with good fastballs. A batter with a straightaway stance is capable of hitting to all fields. So, you should pitch to him low and favor the inside of the strike zone until you know more about him.

Besides the stance there are many other mannerisms used by the batter that might reveal his weaknesses. The position of his hands will often expose his weaknesses and his strengths. For example, if he holds his hands high with the bat in a perpendicular position, the batter seems to be indicating that he prefers low pitches. One who holds the bat in a horizontal position shows that he favors high pitches. If he holds his hands tight against the knob he probably is trying to reach out for those outside pitches, usually down low, that he can punch into right-center over the second baseman. Verify these tendencies by noting what he did on a pitch.

Warm-up swings can tell a lot. A level swing may indicate that the batter’s best zone is the one that he is practicing. Practice swings in the high part of the strike zone show a preference for high pitches while swings in the low strike zone may reveal low pitch preferences. But, observations during each pitch will reveal more pertinent information that these general warm-up swing tendencies.

Going after out of the strike zone or bad pitches, especially those that the batter misses or hardly makes contact with, are one of the most important notes that a catcher can keep. This little fact can turn a bad Catcher’s Notebook pitch into a strikeout pitch if the batter has been setup right. If, on the other hand, the batter simply ignores a certain pitch out of the strike zone (i.e. a low outside fastball near the plate) then it probably can’t be used for a strikeout pitch down the road. Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important in knowing what works for each batter to your advantage.

Knowing Your Pitchers

Working with every pitcher on your team, over and over during practice and in games, will let the catcher learn all of their strengths and weaknesses. All game strategies must be based on the pitcher’s abilities and strengths. The one cardinal rule for catchers game calling is that pitcher’s strengths must be exploited rather than a batter’s weaknesses. It does no good to know that a specific batter will chase an outside sinker ball for a strikeout if the pitcher can’t throw one or is not in good enough control that day.

If the catcher is faced with a crucial situation he must rely on the pitcher’s strength, even if it means putting this strength against the batter’s strength. If your hurler’s best pitch is a low fastball and one that he has the most confidence with, then go with the fastball even if that’s the batter’s best pitch to hit. If the pitcher’s best pitch fails, then know that the battery put forth their best effort.

When the pitcher and catcher disagree on what to throw and where, then the catcher should go with the pitcher’s desires. After all, the pitcher has to have confidence that what he wants to throw will succeed. If the pitcher agrees to the catcher’s call but doesn’t feel good about it because he doesn’t want to irritate the catcher, then the two should have a mound conference to discuss why each feels the way that they do. Confidence in getting the job done is key to success. Usually good catchers have their notebook that reveals all of the little facts that works to the pitcher’s advantage. Sometimes the pitchers forget or never learned what tendencies or preferences that certain batters have. But, the Catcher’s Notebook will quite often convince the pitcher that he can be confident in what the catcher called and what the pitcher can throw in these situations. The “notebook” becomes the key in crucial situations more often than not.

Know the pitcher and his capabilities. What are his strengths and weaknesses? What is his best pitch? Is he having trouble throwing a certain pitch for a strike? Is he locating his pitches? Has he faced this team or these hitters before? How did he do and what did he do to get each hitter out? Does he get more ground ball outs than fly outs? How fast is your pitcher to the plate with runners on base? Does he hold the runners well? Does he have an out pitch and is it on today? How does he field his position? All of these things should be a part of the Catcher’s Notebook.

Physical or Mental Notebook

In time the Catcher’s Notebook is something that is referred to only in pre-game discussions between the catcher and the pitcher. The good catchers develop their memory recall and it becomes one of their invaluable assets. Later in their progression from Little League through High School through College and into the Professional Leagues, backstops file the Catcher’s Notebook entries entirely in their heads and there is no need to keep an actual little spiral-bound book.

So, now that you have purchased your mask, chest protector, shin guards and mitt from Baseball Rampage and you have practiced, through extensive drills, all of skills required of the job and you have conditioned yourself to the rigors of the position, it’s time to go out and buy that little notebook and stubby pencil. Having done that you’re ready to start the long journey of becoming a “good catcher.”

Chuck Rosciam
Encyclopedia of Baseball Catchers

Guest Blogger – Evolution of Catcher’s Equipment

Monday, January 19th, 2009

This is a guest blog entry about the Evolution of Catchers Equipment – Admin.

The field position denoted on your scorecard as “2″ has never been an easy job. Errant balls, foul tips and flying bats are all a source of pain for catchers. The backstops from baseball’s first fifty years endured daily physical punishment, all without the luxury of today’s protective equipment.

Catchers are expected to take their lumps without grumbling. But the early efforts of catchers to protect themselves met with a lot of flak. A typical reaction came from the crowd at the Polo Grounds when baseball’s New York Giants opened the 1907 season against the Philadelphia Phillies. As the Giants took the field, star catcher and Hall-of-Famer, Roger Bresnahan looked more like a goaltender than a backstop when he squatted behind the plate in a pair of thickly upholstered shin guards.

Bresnahan’s shin guards were the final pieces of the catcher’s armor, following the mask, glove, and chest protector. This armor kit was lovingly dubbed “the tools of ignorance” by Herold “Muddy” Ruel, a lawyer turned backstop.

The first piece of protection for catchers, a rubber mouth protector, dates to the 1870s era, purloined perhaps from the sport of bare knuckles boxing. Masks were more obviously a protective device. The first was invented by an Ivy League man, Fred Thayer, who in 1876 adapted a fencing mask for Alexander Tyng, then for the Harvard Nine. Thayer’s patented mask went into the Spalding catalog for the 1878 season and adaptations followed quickly. Its simple forehead- and chin-rests were embellished with padding, made from “imported dog skin” according to one Spalding catalog, to insulate the steel-mesh frame from the catcher’s face. Better visibility was always a goal in catcher’s masks. Wire-basket cages worn by players like Roger Bresnahan gave way to the greatly improved peripheral vision of so-called “Open Vision” and “Wide Sight” masks by the 1911 season. The “platform mask”, a one-piece aluminum casting with horizontal crossbars instead of soldered mesh, was patented by umpire James E. Johnstone in 1921. A White Sox and Twins catcher from 1955 to 1967, Earl Battey, notes that a change in pitching and catching styles is the reason why today’s catchers are wearing masks with throat protectors, popularized by Dodger catcher Steve Yeager in the 1970s. The end of the 20th Century has seen the mask evolve into something resembling what Darth Vader would wear. It’s genesis sprung from hockey’s goalie mask and introduced by Catcher Charlie O’Brien on May 13, 1997 (Friday the 13th).

Mitts were a taken-for-granted part of catching. The earliest documented use of a glove by any player occurred on June 28, 1870 and that was by a catcher. A sportswriter for the Cincinnati Commercial cabled his office, [Doug] Allison caught today in a pair of buckskin mittens, to protect his hands. Historians quibble over whether Harry Decker or Joe Gunson first used the padded catcher’s mitt in the 1880′sThe “Decker Safety Catcher’s Mitt,” a contraption that was basically a glove stitched to the back of a round pad that covered the palm of the hand. These gloves were literally flat pillows that got their pockets broken in on the job at the expense of the catcher’s palm. The early gloves, lacking webbing and lacing, merely provided protection for the hands. “Mitts were still pretty small, flat and had no shape when I came into the big leagues in 1937,” recalls former Brooklyn Dodger catcher Mickey Owen. Catcher Earl Battey, a 3-time Gold Glove winner, notes that mitts have changed substantially even since he was battery mate with Gold Glove pitcher Jim Kaat on the Minnesota Twins in the 1960s. “Today’s mitts have multiple breaks and a long oval pocket, more like a first baseman’s,” says Battey. “When I played, we had a pocket but no breaks, and we caught two-handed so the ball wouldn’t pop out.” One-handed catching became possible with the hinged mitt, popularized by Johnny Bench and Randy Hundley in the late 1960s. With these, a spring-action hinge snaps the mitt closed on contact with the ball.

Women got into the act of making catching a safer profession. Legend has it that the wife of Detroit Tigers catcher Charles Bennett devised a chest pad to protect her hubby during games. He wore the creation outside his jersey in 1886. James “Deacon” White, a 9-year catcher in the 1870s who switched to 3rd base for 6 more years, supposedly created the first chest protector in the early 1880s. His design included a canvas-covered rubber bladder pumped full of air. Padding eventually replaced the air tubes. Today’s chest protectors, although ribbed with light but shock-absorbing poly foam, have come full circle from the original fur-stuffed sheepskin “breast protectors” worn under the uniform until 1884.

Among the tools of ignorance, the designs of masks and mitts have evolved the most, in response to the way baseball is played. By contrast, shin guards and chest protectors haven’t changed as much. The curiosities that Roger Bresnahan wore 102 years ago actually were a modified version of the leg guards worn by cricket players. Rods of light cane encased in padded fabric covered the shins, and padding protected the knees. Over time, padded leather covered the kneecaps, insteps and ankles. Hard, heavy fiberboard appeared in Rawling’s guards in 1916 and during the 1920s and ’30s it supplanted cane. The hinged Shin Guard was developed by the Dodgers in the late 1950′s. By the 1960s, light but tough molded plastics replaced fiber.

Today the well-protected warrior behind home plate has taken advantage of modern technology, especially that developed for law enforcement. Body armor, for the catcher in the 21st Century, might well be identical to the light weight kevlar vests worn under shirts by police officers today. So perhaps chest protection will come full circle and the catchers of tomorrow will be wearing their armor beneath their jerseys just like the players in the 1880′s.

Baseball, though it sometimes seems the most tradition-bound of sports, has always shown that All-American penchant for tinkering and innovation. This quest for the better mousetrap has been amply applied to catcher’s gear. The evolution of the equipment corresponds to actual changes in the tactics and rules of the game. The tinkering continues.

- Guest blog by Chuck Rosciam,, Member of SABR (The Society For American Baseball Research).

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