When I was a catcher, the biggest impact I could make for my team was to effectively manage the pitching staff, and call the right pitches. Catching base stealers, blocking balls, and hitting are also important for a catcher. However, the impact of calling pitches and handling a staff can be felt on every pitch in every game. As opposed to your four at-bats, a half dozen balls in the dirt, or three steal attempts in a game which are a small fraction of the game.
Thinking Big Picture, Not Just the Next Pitch
Somewhere along the line, coaches in the high school and college levels have taken this away from catchers, and started calling pitches themselves. Then it started happening at the lower levels as low as 10 year old baseball. I’m not sure when this evolved, but at this point it is almost 100% across the board.
I’ll assume the coaches believe they can call a better game than the catcher can call. They may be right, this may be the case in the short term with an inexperienced catcher. However, looking big picture, the coach in the dugout can’t possibly see or feel what the catcher can see and feel. Being in the game, right next to the batter, and working with the pitcher, isn’t something the coach can experience. What we as coaches should be doing is developing the catchers so they can call the game themselves. This process should begin at a young age.
Developing a Good Pitch Caller
A catcher’s development should mirror a pitcher’s. Pitchers usually start throwing more than just at fastball around the ages of 11 to 12. Once this happens, we as coaches should be letting the catchers think through the at bat, making their own decisions so they can learn and develop. Sure, they may make a call that you don’t agree with as a coach. However, if you talk them through it after the inning, they learn, and get better.
After all, that is our job as coaches, to develop and make players better. Not to compensate for their shortcomings, shield them from failure.
Of course we have to remember, no catcher or coach has ever called a “Hanging Curveball”. The catcher called the curve ball, the pitcher hung it. The execution of the pitch is the most important factor regardless of the perfect pitch call.
Pitch Calling Strategy
￼Calling pitches is not just an educated guess. It is like a mathematical formula that has to be solved as soon as the last pitch has been thrown. Many variables come in to play.
Generally speaking, the formula is easy in more than half of all pitches. For example, a 2-0, 3-0, 3-1 count will almost always be a fastball.
However, the rest of the pitches have a number of variables that have to be considered in order to throw the best possible pitch. If a pitcher understands and believes that this level of thought is going into every pitch thrown, that pitcher will be confident in every decision. Therefore, he can be 100% committed to the execution of that pitch, and every pitch in the game. The more we can remove from the pitchers thoughts, the better off that pitcher can have a singular focus on executing the pitch called.
Deciding the Right Pitch
Pitching is about execution of pitches and not about tricking hitters. While there are times where you will fool hitters (and it feels great), good execution of the wrong pitch is more effective than poor execution of the correct pitch.
As a catcher, or a coach, these are the variables that will determine the next pitch to throw. Some of these are constant and some are evolving during the game.
- What is the pitchers best pitch on this day, and what is the pitchers best pitch for a strike?
- What is the pitchers next best pitch, and how consistent can it be thrown for a strike? (same for third/fourth pitches)
- This should be determined in the bullpen and in warmup on the mound for the first inning. This can change throughout the game.
- There is no such thing as a waste pitch. Every pitch has a purpose
- Pitchers must have a high efficiency of throwing first pitch strikes
- Even counts are extremely important. What we do here will have the greatest impact in the game. 0-0,1-1, 2-2 counts. We should throw the pitch that has the highest % to be thrown for a strike.
- The hitters strengths and weaknesses – is he a pull hitter, slow bat, best hitter, in a slump, can’t hit off-speed, crushes the fastball, etc.
- The situation in the inning – how many outs, runners on base, base open
- The game situation and the score- is it a tight game, late innings, ahead in game or behind
- The batter on deck – who is up next, strong hitter or weak hitter
- The Weather-is the wind blowing in or out, is darkness an issue, is it cold or hot
- Past experience- what has the hitter done today, in the past against the same pitcher, what was the sequence of the last at bat
- Fatigue- is the pitcher tired, fresh, number of pitches thrown
In the early years of baseball development pitchers can only execute one pitch with significant consistency. Therefore the variables don’t come into play as much and we rely on the constants. As the level goes up from high school, college, and the professional levels, pitchers can execute multiple pitches with great efficiency. At that point, variables will come in to play on almost every pitch. While still considering the constants to ensure we don’t out think ourselves.
We may be able to come up with the perfect pitch in the perfect spot, but if we don’t feel that pitcher can execute at a high level, we should go with another pitch most of the times.
As coaches and catchers calling pitches, we must do our best to stay with our pitchers strengths as the priority. A well executed pitch always trumps the perfect pitch call.