Archive for the ‘catching’ Category

The Importance of Catching Strikes

April 29, 2009

We’re going Twins-related again (and graphics-free today), and then yet a third Twins post tomorrow, probably, and back to regularly scheduled programming with a non-Twins gameblog on Friday morn.

If you have Extra Innings, or MLB.TV, or live in Minnesota or central Florida, try to take some time out to catch an inning or two of the Twins-Rays game tonight. Not because I expect it to be a great game, really; they’re two pretty interesting teams, I think, and Kazmir is on the hill, but I don’t expect it’ll be making Lar’s Most Interesting this morning or anything.

But, see: Mauer is set to be back for Friday’s game, and the Twins are off tomorrow, so this should be the last chance you get for quite a while to watch Jose Morales catch.

After a rough start, I’ve come around on Morales. He’s a switch-hitting catcher, which is rare enough in itself (there’s a chance he might move into a tie for 48th place tonight on the all-time-plate-appearances-by-a-switch-hitting-catcher list, with 50), and he can hit a little. But that’s not why I want you to watch.

He might be the worst defensive catcher since Matt LeCroy, and that’s kind of entertaining — his throws to second seem to stop for cheese and crackers somewhere above the mound, and he’s lost a couple of very routine foul pops — but that’s not it, either, not really.

No, I’d like you to watch part of this game because I’d like you to notice how Morales catches each pitch. That’s it! See, as I’m sure you know, most professional (and college, and a lot of high school) catchers practice a technique called framing the pitch, whereby you subtly nudge your glove back toward the strike zone as a close pitch comes in, hoping to get your pitchers a few extra called strikes over the course of the game. (Little white lies make up about 40% of baseball, if you haven’t noticed.)

Morales, I’ve convinced myself, does exactly the opposite, stabbing at pitches that should be strikes and effectively driving them well out of the umpire’s idea of the strike zone. I’ve seen pitches that defined the very concept of “down the middle” called balls because Morales almost falls on the pitch, pushing it down toward the batter’s ankles as he catches it. Just watch and see if you see what I see, I guess, because I can’t believe I haven’t heard anyone comment on it.

Like I said, I like Morales. But he’s very likely going to be getting an all-expenses-paid trip to Rochester tomorrow, and this is something he’s going to have to work on. Not only is it frustrating to watch, but an extra ball here and there can make a much bigger difference than most people realize.

Say you have an average AL hitter on an 0-1 count. If the next pitch is a strike (and called such), you have the hitter at a huge disadvantage; the American League as a whole hit .172 with a .245 SLG on PAs with the last pitch coming on 0-2 in 2008, and just .185 with a .274 SLG in PAs in which the count was 0-2 at any point in the at-bat! Meanwhile, the league hit a shocking .330 BA/.519 SLG swinging on 1-1 counts.

Look at those numbers again…I think everybody knows that the count is important, but that important? An average hitter becomes an average-hitting pitcher on an 0-2 count, and the same hitter becomes an MVP candidate when he swings on a 1-1 count. So if Morales stabs at an 0-1 pitch and turns what should have been a strike into a ball, he’s essentially transformed the hitter from Roy Oswalt into Lance Berkman (if the hitter swings at that pitch, that is — the stats after a 1-1 count are much closer to the overall league average, because the possibility of a strikeout comes back into play — but still: would you rather face a league-average hitter or Oswalt?).

I don’t really believe in the surpassing importance of catcher defense; I don’t think having a guy with a cannon arm or superior wild-pitch-avoiding ability is going to win that many games for you. Matt LeCroy could have caught for my team just about any time, back when he could hit. But from watching Morales and looking at those stats, I’m starting to believe that whatever else he can or can’t do, a catcher who doesn’t know how to frame a pitch can lose his share of ballgames for you.

Do any other catchers do this? I feel like framing is such an ingrained practice that every single professional catcher does it without drawing attention, but maybe this sort of shortchanging one’s own pitcher is more common than I think and I just haven’t been paying attention? I’m sure there’s a study to be done there (adjusted called strike percentage for catchers against average, or something)…