Pitchers and catchers: a team within the team
Jerry Narron was a 23-year-old rookie. He was going to catch Catfish Hunter for the first time. They had the usual meeting to go over the scouting report.
Said Narron: "He told me, 'Whatever you call, I'm going to throw it. If I don't like it, I'll throw it so they can't hit it.' "
Hunter had a pretty good day that day.
But most pitchers aren't headed for the Hall of Fame the way Hunter was. They need a little more help from the catcher. The pitcher- catcher working relationship has come up a lot with the Reds this year because Narron has continued to give David Ross the bulk of the playing time despite his struggles at the plate.
The Reds' ERA when Ross is catching is 3.49. Narron says that's not a coincidence.
"He's done a great job with our starters," Narron said. "It's huge."
The catcher calls every pitch and location, though the pitcher has a right to refuse the decision.
A pitcher-catcher relationship can have a major effect on game.
"It can totally change the outcome," Reds starter Aaron Harang said. "It affects how you pitch, how you attack the hitters."
A catcher must have a game plan, knowledge of the scouting report and a feel for what the pitcher throws.
"You study reports and you get a feel for a hitter," Ross said. "Even if there were no report, you have to get a feel for a guy when they get in the box. In the minor leagues you don't have scouting reports, so you learn to call a game that way. Looking at guys, how they set up. There's a lot that goes into it as you learn over your career."
But pitch selection and location are just the start.
The catcher is the pitching coach on the field. He can slow the pace of the game, or go to the mound to remind a pitcher of what a hitter did in a previous at-bat. But you need different styles for different pitchers.
"It's all about personality," Narron said. "That's one part about catching - knowing all the different personalities. A catcher has to know what they need: A pat on the back, a kick in the rear. Which guys are going to go along with everything. Which guys are going to fight you.
"There's pitchers out there who really trust everything the catcher calls for. There are pitchers who just don't want to be bothered by having to think. They see a sign and throw. There's other pitchers who think they have a much better idea than the catcher."
The Reds' pitching staff runs that gamut.
Bronson Arroyo admits he may lead baseball in shaking off signs. (That's when the pitcher literally shakes his head no, meaning he doesn't like the first sign and wants another choice.)
The rest of the staff rarely shakes off a call.
Matt Belisle likes to work quickly, and that can happen only when he's clicking with his catcher.
"It's something you don't force. If you're rolling, you're rolling - it's rolling," he said. "If the game is slow and I find myself shaking off too much, I'm getting in my own way and not trusting my stuff and not trusting my catcher, that's a time for me to take off and say, 'Let's establish a rhythm.' It's something that helps."
Arroyo loves throwing to Ross, who caught 32 of his 35 starts last year and all six this year.
Still, Arroyo says he probably shakes off more pitches than anyone in the game.
"It's part of my game to be able to pick people apart mentally," Arroyo said. "A lot of times, when you're in synch with your catcher, he's kind of guessing along anyway. But, for the most part I pitch so much off of instinct instead of the scouting report that I wind up shaking off a lot.
"It doesn't matter if the game's going good or bad. That doesn't have anything to do with it. I don't feel comfortable getting beat around and second-guessing myself on what I should throw."
His relationship with catchers has had a huge effect on Arroyo's career.
He went 15-4 with a 3.65 ERA for Double-A Altoona (Pa.) in 1999. He made the Pittsburgh Pirates' roster the next year, going 2-6 with a 6.40 ERA, and was sent to Triple-A, where he began dominating again.
"When I'd come to the big leagues, they didn't want me to shake off (catcher Jason) Kendall," Arroyo said. "He didn't know my style of pitching. That took away the whole mental game for me to pick hitters apart. So without that, you're trusting in someone else to see things in a hitter that are impossible for them to know.
"No one can know on that day how I'm feeling on a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded with Carlos Lee at the plate. No one can know if I'm more comfortable throwing a fastball or a breaking ball. Because it's only that day, it's only that inning. It changes so much. You've got to have a catcher who is willing to allow you to do your thing out there. When it comes down to it, nobody's ever going to look at the catcher and say he gave up seven runs in three innings. It's all on our shoulders."
Arroyo's lack of success in the majors prompted the Pirates to put him on waivers. The Boston Red Sox claimed him and sent him to Triple-A, and he dominated again.
When he got called up to the Red Sox, he sat down with catcher Jason Varitek, who told him to shake off until his heart's content.
"He made it known right away that he didn't care about that. I had just come up with the team and I was still a pretty young guy in the league, but he said, 'Whatever you want to throw, throw it. If I completely disagree, I'll come out and talk about it. I just want to get guys out. I don't care.' "
It was the start of a beautiful relationship. Arroyo went 24-19 with the Red Sox before he was traded to the Reds before the 2006 season.
"At the end of the day, I get the win or loss and the ERA," he said. "If I'm going to look like an ass in the spotlight, I want to be the one deciding the pitches."
BAD CALL OR BAD PITCH?
The one time Narron has questioned pitch selection this year was after a 5-4 loss at Arizona April 10. Kyle Lohse gave up four runs in that game - on a three-run homer to Chad Tracy and a solo shot to Chris Snyder. Both home runs came with two outs, and Snyder's came with the pitcher due up next.
Before each homer, Lohse shook off Javier Valentin to throw the pitch he wanted.
Lohse said in each case it wasn't selection, it was execution.
"It just wasn't executed," Lohse said. "Any pitch is good if you execute it. Sometimes it's a matter of an inch whether it's good or bad."
In the case of the pitch to Tracy that night, Lohse threw a fastball an inch or two lower than he wanted.
"That's pitching," Lohse said. "Some people would disagree, but I don't think there's any right pitch. There are pitches that are less right."
Generally, Lohse tends to throw what the catcher calls for.
"I might shake him once or twice a game," Lohse said.
Said Valentin: "A lot of pitchers know in a situation what they can do. If you feel 100 percent you can throw that pitch for that situation, that's fine. You're the one who decides what pitch you throw."
In Lohse's 1-0 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field April 15, he simply followed Ross' plan.
"The days like that are rare," Lohse said. "(On those days) everything's working. It feels like they could put down anything at any count and you're going to put it right where they need it. Those days don't happen all the time."
It didn't happen in Lohse's most recent start. He struggled through six innings, allowing eight hits and three walks Wednesday at Houston. Limiting the Astros to three runs was a major accomplishment.
"I didn't have a feel for the fastball," Lohse said. "Javy and I were doing anything we could to get innings and keep us in the ballgame."
That's why communication is an ongoing thing. Lohse's plan was to establish his fastball, but his fastball wasn't working.
"You have to see what happens in the game," Valentin said. "We've got a plan, but it might not work when you see what the guy's got."
In the end, catchers are a little like football offensive linemen - they don't get a lot of credit, but they do get their share of blame.
Said Narron: "There are some pitchers who want to blame the catcher as soon as they give up a hit."