Crippling Game Calling
One of the most important aspects of a catcher's game is his ability to call the game. In today's game, at the amateur level, we are seeing a complete lack of an ability to call baseball games.
Why is that? I have one reason…lack of experience because of coaches calling pitches.
Pitch calling is an important skill that many young catchers today are missing out on. We have seen a rise in the amount of coaches calling pitches for their catchers in order to have more control of the outcome of the game while limiting a catcher’s ability to grow in this aspect of his game.
This is one of the most debilitating things coaches can do to their young catchers, especially those catchers who desire to play at high levels. There are still some high school coaches who let their catchers call the game and only a handful of college coaches, from what I have seen, who allow the catchers to call the game, but at the professional level, we all call our own games.
No manager or coach called games at that level. They would give the occasional sign with runners on base if they wanted us to pick off or throw a pitch out, but when it came to pitch calling, that was our responsibility on the field. (Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand why college coaches are doing it. Their jobs are on the line. Makes sense that they may feel more inclined to have more control over the game because of that. However, that isn’t going to help the catchers learn how to call a game, nor, in my opinion, is this the best recipe for success if you have a catcher on the field who knows how to call a game. Which is why I think it is so important to teach catchers how to call a game to begin with.) If a mistake is made it falls on the head of the catcher.
Therefore, knowing how to call a game is highly desired for catchers who want to play at the professional level. And not only is it beneficial to know how to do that in order to perform at the pro level, it is just as important to know how to call a game at the youth level because this helps catchers to be more mentally in tune and engaged with the game. A mentally disengaged catcher is a disadvantage to any team. Catchers must be the brain of a team which means they need to be attentive on every play and paying attention to every message they can receive from the batters.
I started playing the catching position around the age of 8 after being a shortstop for the first couple years of my baseball days.
At that time, we were still using the pitching machine so pitch calling was something that was not really that important. I guess I could have put a finger down if I wanted to, but no matter what number I put down, I'm pretty sure that machine was going to throw the same pitch every single time. It was in the next season that I started to learn about pitch calling as I moved up to kid pitch. I started to realize that real people threw different pitches and real people do not throw the ball in the same spot on every pitch like the machine was designed to do, although it was fairly inconsistent back in the 90s.
That meant I was going to have to start learning how to put down fingers in order to get a certain pitch out of my pitchers, especially those pitchers who had decent pitches outside of their fastball, if I wanted to have any chance of being a successful receiver. Because of this newfound realization I had to begin learning how to actually call a game.
Not only did I need to know what pitches were coming out of the pitchers hand prior to the pitch in order to set up in the right location and to make sure I caught the ball, I also needed to know how to combine certain pitches together in order to get hitters out.
Being that I grew up in a small town of roughly 2,000 people there weren't many coaches who could really help me out when it came to pitch calling because not many had the experience. My dad however, was a huge baseball nut and had an analytical mind by nature and he put me in front of MLB games on the television and began teaching me the art of calling a game.
He would talk to me about different pitches and keeping hitters off balance. He talked to me about sequencing and mixing up pitch calls throughout an at bat and a game. It was then that I started to take a closer look at Javy Lopez for the Atlanta Braves.
I loved watching him call the game for pitchers like John Smoltz (who I had the opportunity to catch myself), Tom Glavine, and a few other highly touted major league pitchers. It was in watching those major league games that I developed a sense of how to call a baseball game.
I took that knowledge to the little league field and started calling pitches to carve up little league hitters left and right. It was an awesome feeling being able to understand pitch calling enough to keep hitters off balance and help my team win ball games.
Obviously, the little knowledge I had as a little leaguer would not be enough to help me at the higher levels, I was going to have to learn as I grew as an athlete, but it was good practice and a great place to start for me as it enabled me to learn faster at the next levels.
I was fortunate enough to have a high school coach who allowed me to call the games and almost expected me to handle that part of the game. He wanted me to be a leader on the field and to be a second coach out there. His trust in me as a catcher and a pitch caller, even as a freshman on varsity, allowed me to develop even more into a knowledgable pitch caller as I was able to study hitters and learn tendencies while developing skills to communicate with pitchers.
Not only did that help me to learn my pitchers, but it also helped my pitchers learn themselves and better understand what they had to offer on the mound.
This is something I have not seen very much from travel ball players and high school players.
From my experience, the coaches at these levels are making most of the pitch calls, which does not serve the players well at all. These catchers struggle to develop into smart players who know how to call a game. If anything, they will continue calling the game as they saw their coach call the game.
This takes away from the freedom for that player to figure out the best way to call the game for each pitcher. I get it, the coaches want to win the games, but so do the players. If the coach doesn’t need to hit for players then why does he need to call pitches for players?
Pitch calling techniques are important, but at the end of the day it really just boils down to if the pitchers execute the pitch or not. I have seen too many coaches blame the players for throwing the “wrong” pitch when something goes wrong but when the coach makes the “wrong” pitch call and something goes wrong then it is still the players' fault for not “executing” the pitch the coach called.
We are human, we are going to mess up, but how else will young catchers learn how to call a baseball game effectively if they are not given the opportunity to do so? Pitchers and catchers need to get on the same page, learn how to communicate, and learn how to manage a game without the coach doing everything for them.
There are a few other problems I have seen with regard to coaches calling pitches. The main one being that it changes the pace of the game. Every pitcher has his own style and his own pace. Some guys develop a bad pace that negatively effects their game and that is when the catcher needs to be aware enough to talk to the pitcher about changing his pace in order to have a better outcome, or for the pitching coach to take a mound visit to do some coaching and remind the pitcher of a good pace. I have seen it in my own career when coaches would take too long to relay the sign to me and then to the pitcher. I had a few pitchers who loved to work fast and were actually more effective that way. It is very time consuming to have signs relayed. The first thing that has to happen is the coach has to figure out what he wants to call, then the catcher has to look over and wait as the coach goes through a series of signs, then the catcher has to look at his “quarter back sleeve” if he is using that or just process the signs to relay to the pitcher. Then he gets to give the sign to the pitcher. All the while, the pitcher is standing on the mound ready to receive a sign. This is no good. When the pitcher is ready to throw the ball, we need to be ready to catch the ball.
The other problem I have seen is the lack of awareness from the coach, not because they are unqualified to coach, but because they simply do not have the in game feel of a pitch and its effectiveness in the same way catchers do, nor can they see the exact location of a pitch. My coaches would often times question a pitch from the dugout and I would have to tell them that they were wrong. As a player, I never wanted to go against my coaches, but when asked where a pitch was I had to be honest with them and tell them it was not where they thought it was. We would have a ball six inches off the plate but from the dugout it looked like a strike. Or, the coach would call an inside fastball and the pitcher would leave the ball middle and the coaches had no idea that the pitch was not on the corner. Typically we call inside pitches in order to set up another pitch. If the pitch is not inside it completely changes what we choose to throw next. Without that knowledge, coaches are unable to make the proper pitch call. Good catchers are thinking 2-3 pitches ahead before ever catching a pitch. We know what we are wanting to do with each batter in each at bat, and we are able to change on the fly if our pitchers don’t hit a spot. It creates a great rhythm and helps the pitchers out tremendously to have a catcher with that ability.
The best thing we can do for young catchers (little league, travel ball, school ball) is to allow them to call games on their own. Coaches have no business calling every pitch of every game. It has gotten to the point of coaches wanting to have too much control of the game instead of allowing kids to develop their physical and MENTAL skills in order to play at higher levels as most young players desire. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to call every game prior to college, and even a few in college. Luckily for me, my college coaches had enough trust in me to call some games while I was there. I didn’t call all of them, which is understandable, because as I said, their jobs are on the line, but the fact that they allowed me to call some games on my own really helped me out as I made the jump to the professional level. One of the reasons I was drafted was because of my pitch calling ability and game management. This is something all catchers need to be striving for.
Coaches, let your catchers call more games. It will help them out in the long run, and they will probably end up learning a whole lot about the game and be able to contribute more to the team.