Tools of Ignorance
The essence of baseball is the matchup at home plate. One man stands alone in a box against a battery. The pitcher is the howitzer of the battery; firing from the heights at enemy hitters. But nothing happens until the forward observer makes his call for fire. That forward observer is the catcher. They are like the quarterback or point guard of baseball. But quarterbacks rarely have autonomy to call their own plays and it has been like that since the days of Paul Brown. And the trend today is for coaches of amateur teams to call the pitches from the bench. But the pro catchers call the games with the pitchers. I had the opportunity recently to talk to a college coach and two former catchers about calling the game.
Lee Elci is a local morning radio guy on 94.9 “News Now” here in southeastern Connecticut. But he was a catcher in a previous life. He played baseball on three continents during the Eighties and Nineties; Australia in the Australian Baseball League, Europe in the Netherlands (they call it honkbal there,) and in the Saint Louis Cardinals organization. I asked him if he called pitches or if the coaches called them from the bench. He said that Saint Louis let their minor league catchers call the game until it was obvious that they couldn’t handle that skill. He recalls his first day in camp. Ted Simmons was the player development director for Saint Louis back then. There was an early morning meeting with all the catchers in camp. He asked the room to picture this scenario: Jack Clark (the Card’s cleanup hitter at the time) is at the plate. The bases are loaded. The count is 3-0. What pitch do you call for? Some kid sheepishly answered “fastball.” Elci told me, “Simmons said that if you throw Jack Clark a fastball in a fastball count the game is over. He will hit it 450 feet.
“(H)e was just trying to get across the idea to pitch to hitter’s weakness. I always called a game with that in mind. I would call a lot of off speed pitches in fastball counts when a real good hitter is at the plate. Of course you have to have a pitcher who can throw strikes with his 2nd or 3rd pitch to do that…” This is a rare skill in the lower of pro ball, where Elci toiled. But major league starters have this command of pitches.
John Ellis, “The New London Strongboy,” played for the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, and Texas Rangers. In 1974, he caught a no-hitter pitched by Dick Bosman. It would have been a perfect game if it weren’t for an error that Bosman himself committed; ruining his own perfecto. Ellis said that Bosman wasn’t a particularly fast pitcher, but he had command of several pitches. During that game, Bosman was hitting his spots. Ellis didn’t have to move his glove once.
I asked him about Sparky Lyle. Ellis said that Lyle was the easiest pitcher to call pitches for. He just kept calling for the slider. Lyle would throw it with a ¾ motion and it came in hard with a 12/6 up/down movement. He may’ve been easy to call, but he wasn’t easy to catch. The ball would sometimes fall off the table into the dirt.
Ellis told me that the pitcher’s best pitch sometimes changed over the course of the game and that, as the catcher, he’d have to make in-game adjustments. In Baseball For Brain Surgeons, Tim Mc Carver corroborates this. In the book, the former backstop-turned-announcer wrote that it might take a while for sinkers to sink or breaking balls to break the way that pitchers wanted them to.
Although a Yankee, he praised Jason Varitek as a virtuoso when it came to in game adjustments. The former Boston catcher caught four no-hitters and Ellis doesn’t think it was luck. It was the residue of preparation. At the end of Clay Bucholz’s no-hitter, Varitek called for a low curve that froze Nick Markakis and struck him out. “I would have never thought of calling that pitch.” Ellis said.
When it came to approaching hitters, Ellis relied on how they hit in the past. But if the batter was a rookie or otherwise unfamiliar player, his stance would give an indication (albeit imperfect) about how they might hit.
I also spoke with Roger Bidwell. Bidwell is the head coach at Uconn Avery Point. He said, “We (Avery Point) would like to develop a kid to call the game.” But it has been difficult to find a high school catcher with that ability. This has been the trend over the years in amateur baseball. He listed three factors in pitch calling that a catcher needs to learn. Not necessarily in order, they are: 1. The Game Situation, 2. The Ability of the Pitcher, and 3. The Ability of the Hitter,
Bidwell’s pitching coach Jeff Clark calls the pitches from the bench. One of the things he emphasizes is pitching backwards on occasion depending on the hitter or situation; especially aggressive hitters. Clark and Bidwell also like their pitchers to throw middle early and expand late.
Avery Point, by the way, is the alma mater of current Toronto Blue Jay Rajai Davis. While New England isn’t known as a breeding ground of baseball players, the southeastern corner of Connecticut is holding its own with current players like Davis, John McDonald, and Matt Harvey. There were other players from the recent past like Bill Dawley, Roger LaFrancois, and Brook Fordyce. Is there something in the water at this end of the Sound?