"...anyone who says otherwise can go screw himself." -Jason Kendall former MLB catcher.
Blunt opinions like this, tossed off amid good insight, detail and anecdote, thickly populate Jason Kendall's new book about catching in the major leagues, entitled Throwback. Kendall, a 15 year veteran with the Royals, Pirates, A's, Brewers and Cubs, who retired in 2010, takes the reader on a detailed trip within the game from the catcher's perspective, both behind and at the plate and through an average day in the life for a major league backstop. I'd recommend the book for any baseball fan, especially for anyone interested in what really goes on during a game between a catcher, the pitcher, batter and maybe most revealing, the home plate umpire.
One of the most interesting sections got right to the heart of that most hotly debated space in sports, the strike zone. How it is created and manipulated throughout the game by the conversation between the pitcher and catcher, with input from many hitters. A discussion that takes the form of the pitches called and thrown, and perhaps just as importantly, by the constant sparring and debate that goes on unobserved, without eye contact, between a good catcher and the home plate umpire. And according to Kendall, points are almost never scored in such debate by trying to pull the ball closer to the strikezone while receiving it.
That isn't to say that how a catcher catches the pitch has no bearing, but to summarize Kendall's argument, there are other factors far more important. First the pitcher's reputation/experience and his ability to consistently spot pitches on the black. Secondly the balance of the catcher through the catch and the related ability to catch the ball softly, with only the most subtle movement of the glove. And third the ability of the catcher to negotiate a wider strikezone through his banter and steady debate with the umpire.
I think Kendall would agree that there is a varying level of skill at getting balls called strikes among catchers. It just sounds, as he describes it, that a better term or stat than pitch framing would be "strikes added" by the catcher. Certainly a good defensive catcher will get more textbook balls called as strikes than another. The reasons just may not be what we think they are.
His opinion of what some think of as "framing" the pitch, is that moving your glove or body appreciably as the ball is caught is much more likely a tell for the umpire, revealing that the ball wasn't where you wanted it. Same for holding the ball in position to an exaggerated degree. Kendall also mentions that some umpires actually put their hand on his back to better sense how quiet the catcher's body is as they receive the ball. In one aside he actually mentions an umpire costing his team a game by leaning on him too much during a pitch. So in his view, catching the ball softly, with a minimum of fuss, is actually more valuable to getting a borderline pitch than trying to catch it with the glove moving horizontally toward the strikezone.
With that in mind, Kendall argues from experience that your relationship with the umpire, coupled with your pitcher's reputation and time in the game, and ability to help you make your case for some slack around the edges of the zone by hitting your glove consistently, is by far the most important aspect of a catcher's ability to create extra strikes. Most of us know this intuitively. If a guy is pounding his spots, particularly a star pitcher, he's going to start getting that borderline pitch. Whereas a rookie may have to earn it more.
"Say my pitcher doesn't get a call on the outside corner. I might say, 'Are you kidding me? That ball is not outside. I'm going right back out there; he's going to be there all night.'"
And even if the umpire doesn't give in, it's entirely possible that the hitter does, expecting that outside pitch to become a strike if it's close. But the ability to talk an umpire into it, while carrying on conversations about the kids, the weather, fishing, or whatever an umpire is interested in, allows a catcher some leeway, as long as that discussion doesn't involve any gestures or turning of the head that would amount to disrespect for the umpire. And Kendall claims to have had beers with 80 percent of the umpires and that he talked to them non-stop throughout a game. By the time he's made his case, a reader could be convinced that a catcher's best attribute defensively might be his mouth.
But, if he hasn't earned his stripes in the league yet, or he's protested too much, the umpire may decide that it's an opportune time to clean the plate, where he can have a little face-to-face with a catcher who's offering an unappreciated degree of advice. A similar backfire can occur when a young hitter complains, or God forbid, assumes a ball four and drops his bat. According to Kendall, that's the perfect time to quick-pitch the kid, after a quick word aloud, wondering if the umpire is going to take that crap from some noob. As he notes, Albert Pujols gets a different strikezone than Bryce Harper does.
The book covers everything from a catcher's perspective, as well as from Kendall's generally hard-ass, no frills, Throwback attitude and approach to the game. Some of the best bits involve him calling out the hot dogs in the game for such crimes as repeatedly threatening to pick a runner off at first, among many others. The pitch framing issue is just a sliver of the many facets Kendall details. From the signals used by catcher, pitchers, fielders and the dugout, to how he prepares for a game and with a ton of perspective on how a catcher calls pitches and sets hitters up, there's a lot to interest any observer of the game.
There, there's your Christmas gift to yourself or someone else, while we Tiger fans wait to see if Uncle Dave puts anything good under the Tigers tree in the coming weeks...