One of the more unique facets of the game of baseball is the special relationship between a pitcher and his catcher. It is a game within the game. The defensive players on the field are anticipating where the ball will be hit and what they will do with it, if it comes to them, something we all learned in Little League. At the same time the pitcher and catcher are concentrating on how to get the batter out. They are playing a game within the game.
Today pitchers are judged by their velocity, spin rate and other analytical numbers. Everyone from the average fan to the scouting directors in MLB evaluate a pitcher sabermetrically. What we tend to lose focus on is, can he pitch? Well guess what, his catcher also needs to know how to catch. Not just the physical part of catching a ball but also the unique dynamics of calling a game, where he is on the same page as his pitcher. The pitcher and his catcher need to work together on pitch selection to every batter using information from scouting reports, analytical data and yes, good old baseball instinct. By the way, the part that is impossible to chart analytically for batter and pitcher is execution, it cannot be predicted with numbers. Today the use of charts and videos as to what a particular batter did in the past as well as what he did his last time up is amazing. There is so much information available on hitters today that, at times, it’s confusing. Sometimes too many options to chose from.
When I see a manager or coach in the dugout calling pitches, it makes me wonder. Does he know that the pitcher feels uncomfortable, for what ever reason, about a curve ball that he is being told to throw and that he is not confident in throwing it? Pitcher and catcher always know the situation better than a coach in the dugout. We sometimes do see that pitchers will shake off signs, telling us that he either has been given the option or that some managers want the pitcher and catcher to call the game. Old school baseball is not totally dead.
We need to enjoy that special thing that happens between a pitcher and his catcher. If he is good, the catcher can tell if a hitter is going to be able to turn on an inside pitch by taking note of something the batter just said or how he just moved 2 inches off the plate. Sometimes the pitcher and his battery mate are the only ones who know that they just got away with a pitch or that this guy had no clue on another one. They see the same thing and now the game within the game begins. It’s not science or mathematics, just common sense and baseball instinct. When the pitcher and catcher are thinking alike, it is a thing of beauty. Maybe you will see some of that magic with starters but once the parade of bullpen arms begin to take the mound, it becomes, “throw as hard as you can for as long as you can.”
With the new baseball concept of reading pie charts and graphs to determine what pitch to throw to a hitter by a manager or coach, the beauty of the pitcher/catcher relationship is fading away. It’s almost as if players are being plugged into a game without any ‘gut’ feeling from a manager, coach or player. When baseball becomes predictable it will also become boring and not worth watching. I hope I don’t see that in my lifetime.
Here is a bit of history about how pitchers worked before sabermetrics that will make your head spin. On July 2, 1963, the San Francisco Giants’ Juan Marichal pitched a game against the Milwaukee Braves. He ended up throwing 16 innings of shutout ball with 4 walks and 10 Ks. This was one of the most famous pitching duels of all time, as Marichal, 25 years old and on his way to a 25-win season, and 42-year-old Warren Spahn both went the distance before Willie Mays finally won it with a home run in the bottom of the 16th. Giants manager Alvin Dark was going to hit for Marichal in the 13th, but the Hall of Famer barked that he wasn’t coming out if his 42-year-old opponent was still in the game. Today so many pitchers hand the ball to the manager and walk off the mound because they have reached their magic number of 100 pitches. SABR research indicates Marichal threw 227 pitches in the game and Spahn threw 207. That tells me Spahn’s former catcher Del Crandall, who was now with the Giants, was in sync with Marichal big time that night.
By the way, Marichal also made his next scheduled start on four days of rest, then made his next two starts after that on three days of rest. He’d pitch 68 innings that month. No pitch count, no calling pitches from the dugout, no Tommy John surgery and a ticket to Cooperstown. He doesn’t do all of that without a catcher who knows how to call a game. The game within the game.