By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck
I’ll start by admitting that I’m not a catcher. Other than some rec games when I was very young, I never played the position. However, through coaching fifty-something Little League, PONY, and travel teams, and after having done my share of calling balls and strikes as an umpire, I’ve seen enough pitches hit the catcher’s mitt to make some observations. And I’ve learned how you, as a coach, can help your catchers get those marginal pitches called strikes, and to dramatically cut down the number of actual strikes that an umpire will mistakenly rule as balls.
I’m not talking about framing pitches. A catcher who catches an outside pitch and tries to sneak the glove in the strike zone is kidding himself. Unless the ump happened to close his eyes the instant before the ball got to the mitt, then opened them to see the mitt positioned over the outside corner, it’s not going to fool anyone. But there are three things I see that youth catchers, even at the high school level, could do better to improve their pitcher’s success.
First is the elbow. Catchers need to have a strong, locking elbow when receiving a borderline pitch. So many times I’ve see the ball hit the catcher’s mitt in the strike zone, but then the catcher lazily lets the velocity of the pitch knock his glove down to his ankles. The result? Because the umpire last sees the catcher’s glove down by his shoe laces, a pitch that clearly came across the plate at the knees or higher is called a ball. When we ask where the pitch missed, the umpire says it was low. If the catcher had locked the elbow and held it where it first hit the mitt, there is no way the ump misses the call.
The next skill, which is a little tougher to teach, is how the catcher receives the ball. This is especially important on a pitch in the strike zone, but not where it was supposed to go. A call that goes against you in this situation can’t be blamed completely on the catcher, but it is something they can work on. Let’s say you call a fastball inside, and the catcher gives his target there, but the pitch comes in outside. If the catcher is startled and dives outside, even though the ball may be several inches within the strike zone, it will inevitably be called a ball because the catcher made it seem like it was almost a wild pitch. The trick is to make the reception appear as natural as possible, so as to almost look as if it was planned that way.
This could even be more subtle. I’ve seen a catcher set up his target at mid-thighs, and a beautiful pitch came in at the knees. The catcher should have kept his fingers up and simply moved his glove a few inches lower to catch the pitch, making it appear like this was where he expected it. Instead, he instinctively flipped his mitt thumbs down to make the catch. I don’t know how many games I’ve seen where that pitch is called a ball and the defensive team’s coaches throw their hands up in the air and protest. And yes, a great umpire should still call that a strike, but in the split second it took to decide on a borderline call, the catcher’s action convinced the jury in the umpire’s mind to rule in favor of the batter.
Finally, there’s one more thing you can teach, but only if you have an outstanding player behind the plate. We all know that pitches often travel in, and then out of the strike zone. The best catchers will go get the ball before it leaves the zone, seizing it at the last possible instant. Young players need to be able to wait long enough to be sure the batter isn’t swinging, but a great receiver can take a tailing fastball or a curveball, and nab it before it goes off the plate to make sure it is called a strike.
Clearly, pitchers are extremely important at every level of baseball. But what many coaches don’t seem to realize is that when it comes to pitchers throwing balls and strikes – to getting ground balls and strikeouts instead of giving up walks – often a catcher can make all the difference. So next game, before you complain about the umpire or yell at your pitcher to “just get it over the plate,” take a close look at the kid on the other end of the pitch and make sure he’s doing all the “little things” to make every pitch look as good as it can.
Brian Gotta is a former professional recreational youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is President of Help Kids Play, a collection of companies whose mission is to further the development and enjoyment of youth sports.