Catcher’s Call

If your athlete behind the plate is more of a translator of signals than a leader on the field, it may be time to rethink your strategies. This article explains the why and how of teaching your catchers to call the day’s pitches.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management.

Coaching Management, 11.7, October 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1107/catcherscall.htm

Ask a casual observer how a softball pitch starts, and they will most likely point to the windup. Coaches and players, however, know that the play actually begins moments earlier, with a decision that combines experience, observation, and instinct: calling the pitch. But many people are asking whose experience, observation, and instinct should rule.

At all levels of play, a dwindling number of catchers are learning how to call pitches, as more decisions are made by coaches in dugouts. In the following, we’ll examine why some coaches believe it’s time to put the responsibility for calling pitches back into the catcher’s hands, and we’ll offer ways to break down this complicated skill one step at a time.

A Troubling Trend
The trend toward coaches calling pitches starts before high school and fuels a cycle: The youngest catchers aren’t learning to call pitches, so by the time they get to high school, coaches feel they have no choice but to control that aspect of the game. When players reach college, the stakes are even higher and there’s less time to backtrack and teach a missed skill, so many coaches continue to call the shots. Then their catchers go on to become coaches who call pitches, and the trend perpetuates itself.

Many believe the trend is a side effect of the increasingly competitive nature of softball for very young players. “The focus at the lowest levels is on winning every game, not teaching the game,” says Georgia College and State University Head Coach Windy Thees, whose team placed second in the 2003 NCAA Division II College World Series. “Catchers learning to call pitches are bound to make some mistakes along the way, so coaches call the pitches, hoping to produce a win. Catchers grow up not calling, and over time, we’ve created a generation of catchers who largely don’t know how to call pitches.”

UCLA Head Coach Sue Enquist agrees. “The catchers we see in college today never had the opportunity to learn to call pitches,” she says. “What they learned was to simply communicate a signal from the dugout.”

Teaching players to perform a skill without really understanding what they’re doing goes against the coach’s true mission of teaching the game, Thees believes. “If we’re not teaching the catcher how to select pitches—to look at the batter’s hands, see where she’s standing, how the ball is moving, what else is happening in the game—she’s not really doing the job she was meant to do,” she says. “She’s simply catching a ball and throwing it back.”

“We’re doing a real disservice to the catchers who aren’t being taught to call their games,” says Jay Miller, Head Coach at Mississippi State University. “The game is for the players and we should allow them to play the game. That means making their own decisions about which pitches to throw, not constantly looking over their shoulder for a coach to tell them what to do.”

Along with philosophical and educational arguments for catchers calling games, there’s a pragmatic one: Many coaches simply believe that a properly prepared catcher can do a better job calling pitches than the coach. “The catcher is in the best position to call the pitches,” Thees says. “She has the best view of the batter, the pitcher, and all of the other variables that go into selecting the pitch.”

“It’s very difficult to call a game from the dugout,” Enquist agrees. “You can’t really see how much the pitch is moving, whether the pitcher is missing the spot or the umpire is missing the call, whether the batter is bailing out. You’re relying on a line of vision from the side.”

Need another reason? In the long run, teaching your catcher to call pitches can help her career far more than winning a game today. “I can find a good pitcher to come and pitch for me. I can find a good infielder,” Thees says. “But the one position that stays on my recruiting board month after month is catcher. It’s difficult to find smart, young catchers who have been given the chance to learn to call games. So when a catcher like that gets here, she’s 20 steps ahead of the other catchers.”

Knowing The Pitcher
When an experienced catcher calls a pitch, the number of factors she takes into account is almost mind-boggling: What are the pitcher’s best pitches? What pitches are working well on this particular day? What pitches has she called for this batter before, and what were the outcomes? What weaknesses in the batter’s swing can be exploited? Is this umpire’s strike zone excluding her pitcher’s favorite low-and-inside pitch? Who is on deck? Where are the runners? How strong is the infield? What is the count? The score? The inning?

All this information has to be processed in seconds and communicated to the pitcher. Even the best catchers can’t learn it all at once. “The most successful way to teach a catcher to call pitches is by introducing one factor at a time,” says Linda Wells, Head Coach at Arizona State University. “Let the catcher get comfortable with one factor, and then add the next.”

Most coaches agree the first factor the catcher needs to become very familiar with is the strengths and weaknesses of her pitchers. “Everything keys off what the pitcher has at her disposal to get a particular hitter out,” says Miller.

Time and communication are the best tools for developing that familiarity. “Our catchers catch our pitchers every day, five days a week, for the entire school year,” Thees says, “and there is no substitute for that time. As the season progresses, our catchers have caught our pitchers for so many hours that they know exactly what works and doesn’t work for each one.”

East Paulding (Ga.) High School Head Coach Audra Thomas, a four-time All-America catcher at Kennesaw State University, puts the catcher and the pitcher in the bullpen together every day. “While they’re in there, I tell my catcher that she needs to be asking the pitcher a lot of questions,” Thomas says. “Such as: ‘What do you feel comfortable throwing? What do you not like to throw? And in what situations?’ Afterwards, I sit down with both of them and talk about the pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

At UCLA, Enquist takes the communication process a step further. Each pitcher is required to fill out a questionnaire that profiles her abilities and preferences. The questionnaire asks the pitcher to rate how comfortable she is with each pitch, and then asks a specific set of questions about her strongest pitch. It also asks what she prefers to throw when ahead or behind in the count and breaks down her success throwing change-ups in various situations.

“Each pitcher completes the questionnaire with the pitching coach, because her perceptions may not match up with her actual success rate,” Enquist says. “Once the pitchers have their profiles on paper, the catchers study the questionnaires to learn as much as they can about each pitcher.”

Another strategy? Send the catcher to the pitchers’ pitching lessons. Watching the pitching coach in action can help a catcher understand the strengths and weaknesses of the various pitches she’ll be choosing from in a game, and can even help her learn to correct problems as they occur. “The pitcher is going to have a lot more confidence in her catcher calling pitches if she knows that catcher has learned the same things she has from her pitching coach,” Thomas says.

If you have more than one pitcher and catcher on staff, it’s important to make sure each catcher knows each pitcher, even when certain pairs work together better than others. “As the catchers get to know the pitchers, you’ll find times when a catcher and a pitcher pair up really well,” Enquist says. “This is good, because you’re really striving to have a catcher who knows the pitcher inside out.

“But it’s also important to make sure they know the other pitchers in case there’s an injury and they can’t pair up with the pitcher they’re used to,” she continues. “Once we get a feel for who’s really connecting, we run a 2:1 ratio—we let the pairs stay together for two games, and then we put another catcher in for a game just to make sure that they know each other and we won’t miss a beat if there’s an injury.”

Sizing Up The Batter
Once the catcher learns her pitcher’s arsenal, she can begin to learn to size up opposing batters. With so many variables to consider, the key is starting simply and then gradually adding on.

“Start easy,” Wells suggests. “Have the catcher notice whether the batter is tall or short.” Next, Wells teaches the catcher to pay attention to the batter’s stance (open or closed) and hand position (high or low).

Observing the batter’s actual swing is the next step, with special attention on stride. “Sometimes the batter will stride differently than their stance,” Wells says. “Maybe they start in an open stance, but they stride to a closed stance. A catcher who only knows to look at the stance will call an outside pitch, but one who also pays attention to the stride won’t get fooled—she’ll call them inside.” The catcher can take advantage of the opposing team’s batting practice before a game to watch batters’ strides, and can also keep an eye on the on-deck hitter while she takes practice swings.

Next, coach the catcher to pay attention to the timing of the batter’s swing. “If the hitter is swinging early, she might want to slip in a change-up,” Wells says, “but not if she has really slow hands and she’s swinging behind the pitch. Knowing when not to call a change-up is very different from not knowing whether to call it or not. All of a sudden, the factors she knows to consider are adding up, and she’s begun using the kind of reasoning she’ll need to get really good at calling pitches.”

Helping catchers translate what they know as hitters can be another powerful learning tool. “If your catcher knows that when she’s in the box with a runner on second, she’s going to want to hit the ball to the right side of the field, it’s a short step to encouraging her to reverse that thinking when she’s calling pitches and call a pitch to be hit to the left side,” says Deb Hartwig, former Assistant Coach at San Diego State University and Cal-State Fullerton and author of a new video on teaching catchers to call pitches.

Teaching Tools
A catcher who is new to calling pitches and gradually adding factors to her skill set probably won’t be ready to select pitches on her own during the team’s big games. Yet she still needs to hone her skills. “The best thing a coach can do is put the catcher through mock situations in practices so that the coach and catcher can slow down and talk about what’s happening,” Enquist says.

Thomas helps her players learn to recognize different hitting styles by stepping up to the plate herself. “Since I’m in control, I can do different things with my swing each time and see if the catcher picks up on them,” she says. “For example, I’ll take a swing and bail out with my front side to see if she calls an outside or inside pitch. I’ll let my hands get way ahead of the ball on a swing and see if she calls a change-up. Afterward, I always make sure to give her feedback about what I was thinking, and ask why she called what she did.”

Thees gets even more specific when helping her catcher size up batters they’ll actually be facing in games. “We pitch against fictitious lineups from our conference teams in practice,” she says. “We have a hitter go up to the plate and say who they are, what team they’re from, and what they look like. The catcher has to call the pitches from that information.”

The next step is often actual scrimmages during practice. “Let the catcher call the pitches against her own teammates during a scrimmage,” advises Wells.

The key to making mock situations profitable is maintaining a running dialog with the catcher about what she called, why she called it, and what the result was. “You have to participate with them,” Hartwig says. “You have to stop and say, ‘Why did you call that pitch?’ and let them respond without being afraid of giving the wrong answer.”

“At the high school level, sometimes it’s harder for players to slow down and analyze what’s happening, so I spend a lot of time coaching my catcher through that process using dialog,” Thomas says. “What did we do, and what happened as a result? When I start getting really solid answers to my questions—when she tells me, ‘Coach, I saw her bail out, so I knew the next pitch you would call,’ or, ‘I remembered we got her with that pitch the last two times’—I know she’s getting close to being able to select pitches herself.”

Video can also be a useful resource. “As long as you have access to a video camera, there are some really basic things you can do,” Enquist says. “Make a video of the major types of hitters and their swing patterns. Then roll the videotape and ask your catcher, ‘Okay, what pitch would you call for this batter?’ You can tell when they’re starting to get the hang of it, because they’ll tell you, ‘Coach, she swings so up on the ball, I’m going to call a rise ball and she’ll be swinging up on it all day long!’ The reward as a coach is seeing that light go on.”

Game Day
Mock games and scrimmages are one thing, but the transition to having the catcher call pitches during a big game can be nerve-racking for both the catcher and the coach. One solution is to move the catcher through a progression where the coach starts out calling the pitches during games, then proceeds to sharing the job before turning it completely over to the catcher.

“I almost always start the season calling the pitches myself,” Thees says, “but when the catchers come in, I always talk over the pitch selections with them and ask them if they know why I called what I did. That’s the first step.”

At Hillcrest (S.C.) High School, Assistant Coach Larry Wooten relies on the score to let him know if it’s time for his novice catcher to call the pitches. “I always start out calling,” he says, “but if we’ve got control of a game, I use that as an ideal opportunity to give her some experience calling.”

Enquist relies on sensing when her catcher and pitcher have settled into the rhythm of the game, regardless of the score. “Early in the season, I’ll select the pitches myself for the first inning or two of each game,” Enquist says. “Once I see that the team has established itself within that game and the pitcher is comfortable with having the catcher call the rest of the game, I turn them loose.”

Even after Enquist’s catcher is turned loose, though, she’s never completely on her own. “In the heat of a game, it’s important for the catcher to know that she can look to the coach for assistance,” she says. “I always tell our players, ‘We are your safety net in the dugout, so if you feel a panic coming on or you’re stuck between two pitches, just give a sign, and we’ll be here to give you a signal.’”

“During a game, a catcher may need reassurance,” Hartwig agrees. “You can create signals that allow you to communicate. If the catcher looks to the coach and puts her hand on her knee, that can mean, ‘Do you think a change-up is good here?’ If you maintain an open, teaching relationship, it won’t be threatening or belittling for her to ask for help.”

Even with the most experienced catchers who start and finish calling most games on their own, there are selected times when the coach will want to choose the pitch. “Sometimes, if there is a lack of communication going on between the pitcher and the catcher, or because we have a very strong opinion on what to call because of information we have on the charts in front of us, the call will come from the dugout,” Enquist says. “But you need to prepare your catcher for that possibility. So as a coach, you have to tell your catchers in advance that there may be times when you’re going to take it out of their hands temporarily. As long as they’re aware that it may happen, your catcher won’t skip a beat. But she may panic if you pull something that you haven’t prepared her for.”

Just as with the mock situations, every game is a golden opportunity to learn, from both good decisions and bad. “My catchers keep a hitters journal to help them review games,” Thomas says. “They record what hitters they saw, what they pitched them, and what pitches were and weren’t hit. It’s a great way to help them start thinking about what factors went into their pitch selections and whether they got the result they wanted.”

Mistakes Welcome
To build the confidence she needs to call pitches, the catcher needs to know that her coach is backing her up. A big part of that is allowing her to make mistakes along the way.

“As a coach, sometimes you feel like every eye is on you and you’re supposed to know it all,” says Thomas. “We’re afraid to let the catcher call the pitch, because what if she calls the wrong pitch, it gets hit over the fence, and it costs us the game? But you and she both have to realize that if someone hits the ball, it’s not the end of the world. Good hitters are going to hit the ball sometimes, no matter where you put it. A good coach develops the ability to set his or her own ego aside and let the catcher make the mistakes that are going to help her learn.”

“I often remind myself and my catcher that calling pitches is really a guessing game,” Thees says. “Even if I call the pitch, it could get hit for a home run, and I’ve called many pitches in my day that have. You have to coach your catcher that if she guesses wrong, she just needs to say to herself, ‘I didn’t think that batter could hit a change-up; now I know.’ And you and she both have to move on from there and get ready for the next pitch.”

At UCLA, Enquist doesn’t just expect mistakes, she plans for them. “We go through a complete, step-by-step mental-confidence training program,” she says. “Calling pitches is a lot of responsibility, and the game will kick your catcher in the stomach if you let it. Our program develops her confidence so when those mistakes happen, she doesn’t get derailed.” The program takes 10 weeks, and players work on it both during practices and on their own. “The first thing we ask our catchers to do is put into writing what they think their character strengths are,” Enquist says. “Then they go on to articulate the strengths they see in their pitchers.

“The next thing we ask them to do is describe how they manage failure and fear,” she continues. “This is usually where the breakdown occurs. They don’t have a plan for managing failure and fear, because they haven’t accepted that it’s unavoidable.” After the catcher fills out the questionnaire, she and Enquist go over it together.

Next, Enquist takes her players through what she calls green lights, yellow lights, and red lights. “This is all about helping them learn to identify their own internal state during a game,” she says. “Green lights is when everything is working and you’re in the flow of the game. Then let’s say the catcher calls a change-up, and the batter ropes it. Now maybe she’s entering yellow lights—she’s starting to question herself and lose her confidence.”

Enquist’s catchers learn what she calls a “failure routine” to deal with such moments. “We teach them to ask themselves, ‘Okay, where am I? I’m in yellow lights, so here’s what I need to do. I need to tell myself that I’m only in control of maintaining my mechanics and my rhythm—I am not in control of the result.’ We practice for failure, so that by the time it happens in a game, it’s nothing new to them. They’ve been there before, and they know exactly what to do.”


SIDEBAR:
LET’S TALK DRILLS

An important part of being able to call pitches is the ability to communicate effectively with the pitcher. “The best catchers are the best communicators,” says Sue Enquist, Head Coach at UCLA. “So in addition to the other skills, we make sure we address that in practice.

“If the catcher isn’t a talker, she will have what we call a talking station in practice,” she continues. “She’ll spend her time at the station talking, yelling—doing whatever it takes to get her vocalizing. Once it becomes second nature in practice, it carries over to games.”

“A catcher needs to be very vocal,” agrees Susie Parra, a three-time national champion pitcher for the University of Arizona and former pitching coach at Cal State Fullerton. “But a lot of times, younger catchers are shy and they don’t talk. We’ve used the sandwich drill to combat that. Each time the pitcher pitches, the catcher has to give her a positive, tell her how to fix something, and then give her some encouragement for the next pitch.

“So she might say, ‘Good, you hit the corner!’ That’s the positive,” Parra continues. “Then she might say, ‘It was a little slow, so throw it a little harder.’ That’s the fix. Then, she’ll say, ‘Here we go, bring it, kid!’ and that’s the encouragement that finishes the sandwich. If a catcher gets used to communicating that way with every pitch in practice, it will really make the communication during the game work better.”

On game day, Parra uses another drill to keep her catcher communicating. “I take her off to the side just before the game and I tell her she can’t stop talking for five solid minutes,” she says. “I don’t really even care what she’s saying—it can be something like, ‘Here we go now, let’s strike this batter out, let’s go, we can do this.’ The purpose is to bring her out of her shell, cut through her nerves, and get her talking. If she’s feeling frozen vocally, I know she’s feeling frozen physically and mentally too, so we have to get her past that.”

SIDEBAR:
OFFICIAL ADJUSTMENTS
While calling pitches requires a catcher to consider the actions of primarily two people (the pitcher and the batter), there’s another party she must factor into her deliberations, and that’s the person standing inches behind her. When she’s behind the plate, one important consideration for the catcher will be the strike zone of the umpire who’s calling the game.

“The catcher has to adjust for the umpire’s specific strike zone when she’s selecting pitches,” explains Linda Wells, Head Coach at Arizona State University. “If she’s planned her calls around the ‘book’ strike zone, and the umpire isn’t giving her that low strike, or the high, inside strike, she can’t continue to make those selections. If she’s willing to adjust, there are probably places within that zone that can work to her advantage. The key is adjusting so that she’s calling as much as possible in the pitcher’s strike zone, given what the umpire is calling.”

The catcher may have to do some detective work to determine what pitches are going to work based on the umpire’s strike zone. “It’s perfectly acceptable to coach your catcher to turn to the umpire and say, ‘Is my pitcher missing on the vertical or horizontal line?’” says Sue Enquist, Head Coach at UCLA. “Once she knows that, she can adjust her calls accordingly.”

Catchers need to be taught the fine art of addressing the umpire, however. “The first thing I tell my catcher is, never, ever turn around and say, ‘Hey, what was wrong with that?’” says Audra Thomas, East Paulding (Ga.) High School Head Coach. “Most umpires like teaching and they’ll respond positively as long as the catcher asks questions in a respectful, professional way. Then, once the catcher understands the umpire’s strike zone, she can make sure to select a pitch that’s going to be called a strike that day.”