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Why MLB spring training matters more to catchers and pitchers: ‘It’s the most important [relationship] on the field’

In Sports
February 24, 2024

It’s a familiar sight this time of year.

A pitcher and catcher converge at the midway point between the mound and home plate to review an inaugural bullpen session. Feedback is exchanged. Sometimes there’s a fist bump of validation or maybe a firm handshake signaling satisfaction with the day’s work — or in some cases, a more practical interaction between a young prospect and a non-roster invitee who might have met just a few days, if not hours, earlier.

There’s no telling how many more times these pairs will work together over the course of this season, let alone the two players’ careers. Twenty years ago, Adam Wainwright reported to Cardinals spring training and threw a bullpen to Yadier Molina for the first time, and now they are the gold standard of baseball batteries. And while forging a legendary partnership such as Waino and Yadi might be an unrealistic expectation for any duo working together this spring, it is a humble reminder that you gotta start somewhere.

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‘I was just throwing wherever he wanted me to throw that pitch’

There’s a reason pitchers and catchers report to Arizona and Florida before everyone else. For one, pitchers need more time to build up their workloads prior to Opening Day. But beyond the purely physical preparation, the early days of camp are pivotal for planting the seeds of the relationships between pitchers and those tasked with catching the nastiest stuff on the planet.

The truth is those conversations often begin long before anyone arrives at their respective spring complexes. “As soon as they sign with us, I like to get their number and call, say hi to them and just talk to them and try to be on the same page for Opening Day,” Royals catcher Salvador Perez told Yahoo Sports.

Perez went through this process several times this past winter as Kansas City added four free-agent pitchers on major-league deals, including Michael Wacha. The Royals are Wacha’s sixth team in six seasons, so he has ample experience introducing himself to new backstops. He makes it a priority to connect with catchers as early as possible to start the get-to-know-you process well before the regular season begins.

“That relationship on the mound and behind the plate, I think it’s the most important one on the field,” Wacha said.

As a rookie, Wacha had the benefit of easing into the big leagues with a seasoned veteran behind the plate in Molina. “I was just throwing wherever he wanted me to throw that pitch,” Wacha recalled. “He was one of the best out there. Every day I would come in, I would notice that he’s not only watching video on the pitcher that he’s facing in the box, but also he’s watching all of their hitters that we’re about to be pitching against. Just seeing that and knowing that he’s going to be prepared gave me confidence on the mound that he knows what pitch to call.”

It’s certainly comforting for talented yet inexperienced pitchers to throw their initial innings to an established catcher, but this dynamic also exists in reverse for young catchers. Tucker Barnhart has become one of the more respected defensive backstops in the league, winning Gold Gloves in 2017 and 2020, but when he debuted with Cincinnati in 2014, he was taking his cues from a veteran pitching staff.

“When I was in [Gabriel Moreno]’s position, I was catching guys like Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, Bronson Arroyo — guys that had been around for a long time,” said Barnhart, now with the D-backs competing for a backup role behind the ascendent Moreno.

“Cueto is a guy that helped me learn how to call the game. First couple starts I caught him when I was a rookie, he would basically tell me what pitches were coming,” explained Barnhart, harkening back to the pre-PitchCom days. “We had a little system: The hitter would have his head down, and he’d flash a hand sign or with his glove. It helped me learn and put things together and develop the ‘why’ behind certain things.”

Tucker Barnhart became a Gold Glove shortstop in part by learning to work with starters such as Johnny Cueto. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Tucker Barnhart became a Gold Glove shortstop in part by learning to work with veterans pitchers such as Johnny Cueto. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

‘I’m preparing myself to bring the opponent view into this clubhouse’

Mariners manager Scott Servais was a big-league catcher himself, and he acknowledged how much the position has evolved since his playing days. “It’s changed quite a bit,” he said. “Back in the day, you’d just get behind there and catch bullpens and try to figure it along the way.”

Now, with the amount of data available regarding pitchers’ physical strengths and weaknesses, teams such as the Mariners have prioritized an intense intentionality behind how their catchers work with the pitching staff — and the results have followed.

“Now we are running through our player plans, which is everything on every pitcher we have in camp and getting our catchers up to speed as quickly as possible so we can give them a lot more information before they ever get back there,” Servais said.

“And it’s not just the information of what this guy does but where we are leading this guy to. And the catcher can really help us coach that player up — ‘we’d like to see your usage change and throw this pitch more’ — we’re running that through the catcher as much as we’re running that through the pitcher.”

This spring, Mitch Garver is a new addition to Seattle’s catching group. There’s no question that the Mariners signed him to solidify the DH spot in their lineup, first and foremost. But as a catcher by trade and a member of the rival Rangers the past few seasons, Garver also brings a unique perspective to his new teammates. Even if he isn’t expected to spend much time behind the plate, there are other ways for him to contribute to Seattle’s run-prevention efforts.

“It’s not like I’m preparing myself to catch 80 games,” Garver said. “I’m preparing myself to bring the opponent view into this clubhouse. What do other teams think of this pitching staff? How did we attack our pitchers? How can I relay that to our pitching coaches and to our analytics department? How can we better game-plan against certain teams? I’ll be involved in all the meetings. Cal [Raleigh]’s gonna be the guy, and he’s gonna do his thing, but hopefully I can give him a little tip here and there.”

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 16: Cal Raleigh #29 and Bryce Miller #50 of the Seattle Mariners meet on the mound in the fifth inning during the game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on Saturday, September 16, 2023 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Liv Lyons/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

With Raleigh, Garver and backup Seby Zavala setting the standard for preparation at the big-league level, 21-year-old Harry Ford, a top catching prospect in the Mariners organization, is eager to follow suit. And with so many pitchers to prepare for and so many intricacies to master at the position, it’s never too early to start studying. When Ford was playing with Everett in the High-A Northwest League last summer, he sometimes spent his days off at T-Mobile Park when the Mariners were in town. “I’m just a baseball fan at heart, so anytime I get to go enjoy a big-league game, I’m gonna take that chance,” he said, “especially when I get free tickets right behind home plate.”

Sweet seats in a beautiful ballpark are a nice perk, but Ford also made the most of it. “When it’s our guys on defense, I watch it from a catcher’s point. Like hey, what are we calling? What are we going with next? Trying to remember back to spring training, like, OK, what does this guy throw? What are his strengths, his weaknesses?”

Expected to begin this season at Double-A, Ford wants to be as ready as possible in the event that he gets called up for a cup of coffee at the end of the season. “I’m not gonna have seen any of these guys for the whole year,” he said. “So the little extra time I can get to see them, I think that’s going to be best for me.”

‘I don’t care how you’re pitching to guys with nobody on and nobody out’

No matter how early you start, though, there are always new pitchers to learn — and different approaches to absorbing the seemingly never-ending wave of information on what each arm is trying to accomplish when he takes the ball. To that end, despite a well-below-average bat, Austin Hedges continues to secure big-league deals due to his prowess behind the plate. He’s now back with Cleveland, where he spent the 2021 and 2022 seasons, and in turn, he doesn’t have as many fresh arms to learn as he did a year ago with Pittsburgh and after the trade deadline with Texas. When he is digging in on a new pitcher, Hedges reviews a good amount of video before even putting on the gear.

“Starters, I watch a couple starts. Relievers, I like to watch the high-leverage, big situations, see who they are when it matters,” he said. “Are you a four-pitch-mix guy, or are you relying on just two pitches when in doubt? I don’t care how you’re pitching to guys with nobody on and nobody out.”

“I just need to know who this guy is when things hit the fan. That tells me who you think you are, and then I can identify with that.”

And yet, as with many elements of spring training, there’s only so much you can do to prepare for what it’s like when the games — and every individual pitch — start to count.

“You obviously want to be prepared for it and know a guy’s arsenal and what pitches he throws when,” Reds catcher Luke Maile said. “But until you actually have them in a game with hitters, it’s not gonna tell you the whole story. So I’m patient with it. I’m definitely looking for ways to expedite the process of knowing them, but you also have to let it come to you.

“You don’t want to just make up your mind on day one, like, ‘This guy is sinker/slider, and that’s what we do all the time,’ because you’re gonna find yourself at some point needing to use your own eyes and adjust.”

Max Scherzer took it one step further.

“I know as a pitcher, I’m not 100 percent right on what I throw, and I know the catcher may have a good vantage point of understanding what we’re trying to do. But the catcher is not 100 percent right, either,” the future Hall of Famer said.

“And so, you really find out about the catcher once I shake off and I give up a homer, and the catcher was right. And then there’s gonna be another moment where I try to trust the catcher in this situation and give up the homer, and he’s wrong.

“It’s only at that point — once we’ve both been wrong — that we finally kind of get on the same page.”

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