Calling Catchers

Catchers capable of calling a game can be valuable assets to a program—provided they’re ready and fully prepared.

By R. J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at rja@MomentumMedia.com.

Coaching Management, 13.7, September 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1307/callingcatchers.htm

In the spring of 2005, Charlie Robinson, catcher at Cabell Midland High School in Ona, W.Va., was breaking new ground for the Knights’ storied baseball program. A returning starter on a team gunning for its second state championship in three years, Robinson had more responsibility than any catcher before him at Cabell Midland. In addition to handling the pitching staff, intimidating would-be base stealers, and providing nimble defense behind the plate, Robinson was given the opportunity to call all the pitches by Head Coach Tracy Brumfield.

By placing his faith in Robinson, Brumfield did something that many coaches are hesitant to do: relinquish control. Because this particular aspect of the game is so important, Brumfield’s decision to hand Robinson the reins was not made without plenty of evaluation and a little trial and error.

“Last year, we let him call the pitches early on, then we took it over as the season progressed,” says Brumfield. “He didn’t do a bad job, but he just wasn’t familiar with how to do it. Charlie was a first-year starter for us then, and we felt more confident in having the coaches call the pitches at that point.

“This year, we let him do it the whole season,” continues Brumfield. “We had a lot more trust in Charlie this time around. He’s very intelligent, game-savvy, and he’s played with our four senior pitchers this year and he’s caught them all since Little League. We felt confident with him calling the pitches this year and so did our pitchers.”

So what changed in the span of one year? In a word: experience. Brumfield’s faith in Robinson, as well as the confidence of his team’s pitchers, grew through time spent working together during practice and summer-league baseball as well as from Robinson’s diligence in learning the intricacies of the game.

In this article we’ll talk to a handful of successful coaches whose pitch calls come from behind the plate and rarely, if ever, from the dugout. They’ll share their secrets for getting batteries on the same page, offer advice for preparing catchers for this important task, and extol the virtues of letting the catcher call the shots.

Catcher’s Advantage
Like most coaches at the NCAA Division I level, University of Minnesota Head Coach John Anderson is a big believer in developing his players into independent, critical thinkers. And for him, that education begins with the two busiest and most influential players on the diamond—the pitcher and the catcher. “My philosophy has always been that practice is for coaches, and games are for players,” says Anderson. “I believe in turning over as much of the responsibility of the game to the kids as I can and being more of a consultant during the process.”

That is also the thinking of Princeton University Head Coach Scott Bradley. A former Major League catcher, Bradley feels that catchers calling pitches is how the game is supposed to be played. “In my eight years here, I have yet to call a pitch from the dugout,” he says.

Philosophical and developmental preferences aside, the main reason coaches empower their catchers is simple: They’re in the middle of everything. These coaches are convinced that catchers are in a much better position to know what to call. “They see the hitter’s position in the box and how the hitter is reacting,” says Anderson. “They’re much more connected to the process than I am watching from the dugout.”

Bradley agrees. “I’ve watched a lot of baseball games, and I still don’t believe that standing in the dugout gives as good a viewpoint or as good a feel as the catcher gets behind the plate catching every pitch,” he says. “They see the movement, the life on the fastball, and they’re able to see the subtle adjustments a hitter makes in the box.”

Need more reasons? Anderson says that letting the catcher call pitches means a coach’s expertise and knowledge can be spread out instead of focused on just one aspect of the game. “You’ll also find you have more energy for the rest of the game,” he adds. “It takes a lot of energy to bear down and call every single pitch from the dugout.”

Brumfield says the same is true at the high school level. “I can concentrate on moving the infield around, call out defenses, and even think ahead to what I want to do in our offensive half of the inning,” he says. “And my pitching coach is able to concentrate on the pitcher’s mechanics because he doesn’t have to worry about what pitch to call next.”

Brumfield also notes that the odds of the opposing teams stealing your signs are lowered. “Instead of our pitching coach giving the signs, then having the other team pick them up by the fourth inning, we cut that element out of the equation,” he says.

For the catchers themselves, calling the game provides a chance to build confidence and display leadership skills. “The catcher should be deeply into the game anyway, but calling the game puts them in command and allows them to lead the team,” says Vince Keister, Head Coach at Midd-West High School in Middleburg, Pa. “It also gives them confidence in other areas like hitting and their defensive skills.”

Alex Marconi, Assistant Coach at the University of North Carolina, agrees that calling a game enhances the other tools a catcher brings to the team. “He’s going to learn each pitcher and really help the staff,” says Marconi. “They’ll be more comfortable with him, and he’ll be more comfortable with them. It also helps the catcher as a hitter, because he can think: ‘If I was behind the dish, I’d be calling for a fastball away right now.’”

Working With Pitchers
Perhaps the most important talent for pitch calling is learning to read and communicate with his battery mate. At North Carolina, Marconi, a former minor league catcher, preaches the importance of winning the pitcher’s trust.

“I talk to my catchers about gaining a reputation as a ‘pitcher’s catcher,’ which means building a rapport and finding out what each pitcher likes and doesn’t like to throw,” says Marconi. “Ultimately, they need to find out how to get the most out of each pitcher. And that’s an ongoing process.”

“A catcher never wants to ask a pitcher to throw something he’s not comfortable with,” adds Bradley. “You want to gain an understanding of the pitcher’s confidence level so that you know when you can and can’t call for a change-up on a three-two count.”

For most catchers who call pitches, that rapport building begins during practice. “It’s important that a catcher spend time in the bullpen when his pitchers have their work days because it shows the pitcher you care about him and that you understand that you’re in it together,” says Bradley. “Also, the pitcher may be working on something new—maybe changing his grip on a slider—and the catcher can be back there saying, ‘What was that? Throw it to me again. Boy, that’s much sharper, I like that!’ But if the catcher is not around for those practice sessions, and during the next game he calls a slider, he’s not going to have a very good feel for what the pitcher is throwing.”

At Minnesota, Anderson isn’t afraid to pull his catchers out of team drills to have them work with his pitchers in the bullpen. “I want my catchers in the bullpen spending 20 to 30 minutes of each practice working with the pitchers,” he says. “And I want them involved when the pitching coach is helping them work on their pitches.

“Some coaches only pair the pitcher and catcher together at game time, and they miss lots of opportunities to grow together and learn about one another,” continues Anderson. “You have to connect those players long before you get into a competitive situation, whether it’s in the bullpen, during drills, or while working on a certain pitch.”

Anderson also recommends that each catcher practice catching everybody on the pitching staff to learn their strengths and weaknesses. “It’s a time for the catcher to find out what the pitcher’s demeanor is like and figure out how to keep him together when things aren’t going well,” he says.

It’s a good idea to get your pitchers and catchers together as often as possible. This can be as simple as pairing pitchers and catchers during drills and running. During games, have a catcher who is not playing sit with the next day’s pitcher and do the pitching charts together. It’s a good time to talk strategy and how they would handle certain situations.

Coaches should also encourage their pitchers and catchers to talk baseball during free time. “We try to emphasize to our catchers early on that they need to spend time with our pitchers and talk to them off the field. A good way to do that is by watching big league games on TV together,” says Bradley. “That’s a great time to talk about pitching and find out how the other guys see the game.”

Post-game bus rides or evaluation meetings also offer good opportunities to build the pitcher-catcher relationship. For Anderson, the evaluation aspect is a critical element in the development of that relationship. “We’ll sit down—the pitcher, catcher, the pitching coach, and myself—and go over the game and make sure everybody has a chance to talk about what was good or bad and what we can do to get better,” says Anderson. “It’s a formal process, verbal and written, where we ask the catchers to evaluate how the pitchers threw and we ask the pitchers to break down how the catchers performed and how they called the game.

“I think a big mistake coaches often make is not talking to the kids enough—we don’t ask for their input often enough,” he adds. “They’re on the front lines and have a lot more to offer than you think.”

Eyes on the Batter
While getting your catchers and pitchers on the same page is important, perhaps the tougher lesson is learning what to throw to opposing batters. Though scouting reports help, they aren’t always in abundance at some levels. That means the catcher needs to be able to pick up on hitters’ tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. Unfortunately, this skill is not gained overnight.

Robinson, for example, struggled with reading hitters in his first year behind the plate. But after a year of watching batters and learning what to look for, Robinson improved markedly. “Over the last two years he probably played more than 200 games between our season and summer ball. He learned a lot just by being out there and doing it,” says Brumfield. “Through summer ball, he was familiar with more of the hitters in our area.”

Robinson also learned the value of watching opponents’ batting practice. “He would watch the tendencies of the hitters, whether they were inside-out swingers, whether they dove into the plate, that kind of thing,” says Brumfield. “I would stand next to him and we would talk about those things. And he would ask a lot of questions.”

Minnesota’s Jake Elder, drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks this year, knew his responsibilities included watching opponents’ BP. “He sat next to me, watched the hitters, and developed his own game plan,” says Anderson. “He knew we had confidence in him by giving him that responsibility, and that he was accountable to the rest of the team to do the job.”

With two freshmen in the program backing up the senior, Anderson instructed the newcomers to sit with Elder as he watched the opponents’ BP and explained what he was looking for. “We want the older guys to pass along the routines and processes to the younger guys so they’re prepared to take over when that guy leaves,” Anderson says. “And when those more experienced players graduate, we’ll invite them back and have younger guys pick their brains about what they’ve learned at the next level.”

Ready To Go
Some coaches bring players along slowly, often calling pitches themselves in certain situations. So when do you know when your catcher is ready to call a game? And how should you bring him along?

Most pitch-calling training takes place during fall practices and in summer leagues. “If we’re having a scrimmage during fall ball, we’ll let the catchers call the games,” says Marconi. “If I see a catcher call a pitch that I strongly disagreed with or felt was inappropriate for a particular situation, I’ll pull him aside and ask why he decided on that pitch. Then I’ll explain why that wasn’t the best pitch to call and what would be better.”

Coaches with limited time to spend with their athletes can ease their catcher into pitch-calling duties during the season. At Midd-West, Keister slowly integrates them. Early in the season, Keister typically handles the pitch calls for the first few innings, then hands it over. As the season progresses, Keister does less and less until the catcher is calling the game from beginning to end. When his team has a big lead, Keister automatically turns over the pitch calling.

If the catcher has difficulties, Keister doesn’t hesitate to step in and call a few pitches. “For example, if I see that they’re relying on one pitch too much, I’ll call time-out and say, ‘That’s not what we want in this situation,’” says Keister. “Then I’ll tell them, ‘Watch me,’ and I’ll call the next couple pitches. Then they’ll take over from there.”

For a younger catcher who may not be quite ready to call a full game, Keister picks his spots for when he’s comfortable giving the catcher free rein to call the shots. “I have a younger catcher right now, and I still call most of his pitches,” says Keister. “But every so often I’ll just look away and force him to make the call. Then we analyze his choices between innings. I’ll say, ‘You did a fine job,’ or, if it didn’t work out well, I’ll tell him how I would have called it.”

Jumping In
Ultimately, turning over pitch calling is hard for many coaches because it requires a leap of faith—in both a young man’s growing knowledge of this complex game and one’s ability to teach it. Letting a catcher fly on his own is a test of both, and that can be as scary as it is necessary.

“There’s only one way for your kids to learn it: You just have to trust them and let them do it,” says Bradley. “There might be some pitches that you disagree with, but there are a lot of times a coach calls a pitch that doesn’t get the guy out.”

And once you turn the keys over to your catcher, you might find that his style looks familiar. “If coaches give their catchers a shot, I think they’ll find that the kids have a pretty good idea of how to do it,” says Anderson. “They’ll probably call the game similarly to how you did it because that’s who they learned from.”

“For coaches who are considering it, I think it’s like skydiving: Just close your eyes, take the plunge, and talk about it afterward,” says Bradley. “I trust my kids—I trust the hitters to hit in 3-0 counts, I trust my base runners to steal bases when they think they can, and I trust my pitchers and catchers to work together to do this.”


Sidebar: Managing Mistakes:
The University of Minnesota’s John Anderson is a veteran head coach who has trusted his catchers to call games for a long time. However, that wasn’t always the case, as during his early years of minding the dugout, Anderson took those duties upon himself. Because he’s been on both sides of the pitch-calling fence, Anderson knows that calling pitches is not an exact science and more importantly, he understands that nobody is perfect.

“I realize that on occasion a catcher can make a bad decision and not get the results that we want, but I believe we can learn from those mistakes and move on. You might give up a hit in a crucial situation and lose a game here or there, but to me there are tons more benefits over the long haul,” says Anderson. “I also remember back to when I called pitches, and that I called quite a few home run balls myself.”

So how should a coach react when he doesn’t agree with the catcher’s pitch calls? What should they talk about when they visit the mound? “I talk to my catcher, I don’t second-guess him,” says Scott Bradley, Head Coach at Princeton University. “As long as he has a reason for why he called a certain pitch, he’s never wrong. And we tell him that early on. I might say, ‘We had that guy one-and-two. Why did you call a change-up in that situation?’ And as long as he has a logical reason, he’s always right. And I don’t ask them those questions only when I disagree with them; I ask them all the time because I want to understand his thinking.”

Anderson, too, focuses on the reasoning behind a particular selection. “As long as they thought it out, I have no problem if they chose a different pitch than I would have called,” Anderson says. “I may say, ‘Let’s look at it from a different perspective,’ and tell them what I would have done in that situation.”

Tracy Brumfield, Head Coach at Cabell Midland High School in Ona, W.Va., advises coaches to show trust in their catcher and remain calm after a poor decision. “Tell him that it’s natural for people to make mistakes,” says Brum-field. “Tell him, ‘I’ve been there before. You’ll learn from your mistakes.’”

And mistakes will be made, regardless of who calls the pitches. “To me there’s no exact science to calling a game. It’s all a matter of feel,” says Bradley. “There’s no blueprint for exactly how you’re supposed to do it.”