Commentary

A relationship that's extremely important

How a pitcher and a catcher relate can ultimately determine success or failure

Originally Published: January 6, 2011
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

It has been three weeks since Cliff Lee made a stunning left turn and signed with the Philadelphia Phillies instead of the New York Yankees or Texas Rangers. The reasons were many, a new one of which was volunteered by ESPN baseball analyst Bobby Valentine: Maybe the pitcher signed because of the catcher.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee and Carlos Ruiz
Howard Smith/US PresswireCliff Lee and Carlos Ruiz are once again teammates with the Phillies after spending three months together during the 2009 season.

Maybe Lee signed with the Phillies in part because their catcher is Carlos Ruiz, a terrific defender, thrower and caller of a game who is signed through 2013. Maybe Lee signed with the Phillies because the Yankees were uncertain about their catching with aging Jorge Posada, rookie Jesus Montero, Francisco Cervelli and Russell Martin (who had not signed when Lee was negotiating with the Yankees).

The Rangers were equally unclear behind the plate. Lee is an artist, a strike-throwing machine who, similar to Greg Maddux, needs to be synchronized with his catcher in order to execute his precise game plan. That pitcher-catcher relationship is more crucial than ever, not just for Lee, but for all pitchers.

"You're preaching to the choir, you're talking to a guy who made his house payments [by calling and running a game],'' said Brent Mayne, who caught in the major leagues from 1990-2004. "What's the most important part of the game? Pitching. If it wasn't, why would teams throw this kind of money around lately? [That said] you have to have a good catcher. It's like having a phenomenal race horse, but no jockey. Will the horse win the race without one? Probably not. Someone has to know when to use the crop and when not to.''

Mike Flanagan, the American League Cy Young Award winner in 1979 and a member of some of the best pitching staffs in recent history in Baltimore, said the pitcher-catcher relationship "is critical. I wasn't a free agent like Cliff Lee, but when I was traded to the Blue Jays [in 1987], my first question was, 'Who are their catchers?' Ernie Whitt caught me, but in my last start [of the regular season] that year, Greg Myers caught me. He hadn't caught me much, but he called one of the best games I've ever thrown. I pitched 11 innings and I shook him off three times. I've had other games where I shook off the catcher 30 or 40 times. There are certain catchers who are on the same page with you right from the start, they can anticipate what you want to throw. When I haven't thrown a curveball for two innings, I'm thinking curveball, he calls one, and I think, 'Look, there it is.'''

Mayne was one of those catchers who could anticipate what the pitcher wanted to throw. Few know catching better than him, and he wrote a book called "The Art of Catching." On a weekly basis, he offers catching tips, complete with video, on his website. Mayne says he understood why Maddux would have a personal catcher every year. And why the Yankees' A.J. Burnett used backup Jose Molina, not Posada, as his catcher for much of the 2009 season, including the postseason.

"The conclusion is that maybe, maybe the most important job of a catcher is the running and calling of a game,'' Mayne said. "The pitcher-catcher relationship, the comfort of the pitcher, is more important than whether Posada gets a couple of hits, and hits a home run. That's not a knock on Posada. Some people don't get along with some people. It's not that big of a deal. I caught Randy Johnson. I didn't catch him much, but I never really connected with him. There was an intimidation factor on my part, I wanted to do so well for him. It confused him. When I caught him, I didn't feel it. If I didn't feel it, he didn't feel it.''

Feel by a catcher is huge. It is at least as important as all the reports and information that catchers, and teams, receive daily about opposing hitters. Every hitter can easily access every at-bat he has had against any pitcher at any time, so the need for the pitcher and catcher to be prepared is more important than ever. That's why the catcher has to have a sense of who his pitcher is, what he has that night and what is needed to get the most out of him.

"Some pitchers need to be patted on the back, some need to be kicked in the ass, and a catcher has to have a feel for that,'' Mayne said. "That's extremely important, and it's rare today. You have to be able to sense that. You have to be an amateur psychologist in some ways. There's so much more to pitching than following a scouting report to a tee. That's not how it works. That's not the ultimate decision. The ultimate decision is the feeling in your gut. Carlos Ruiz has that, and Cliff Lee knows he has that. Anyone can sit in the stands and look at a scouting report, or an iPod, and know what to throw next. But sitting in the stands, you can't see the subtle shift that the hitter makes after a pitch. Only the catcher can see that. And that's where the feel for the pitcher comes in. The best pitch any pitcher can throw is the one he can throw with conviction, whether it's the right pitch or the wrong pitch. The catcher's job is to give him that conviction.''

Said Flanagan: "[Former Orioles catcher] Bob Melvin was that way for me. We clicked right away. When you're not clicking, it's work. You're not sure of yourself out there. You are asking yourself, 'Is he right? Am I right?' That's when games drag and heads shake.''

In baseball history, there have been countless examples of pitchers who preferred to throw to a certain catcher, the most famous in the last 40 years being Tim McCarver as the personal catcher for Steve Carlton. More recently, Maddux went to spring training every year and said, in so many words, "OK, who is going to be my catcher this year?'' Maddux was the ultimate tactician, a robot who knew before the game exactly what he wanted to do with every hitter in every count, and he needed a catcher that could keep up with him -- Javy Lopez, a very good hitter, could not keep up, but Charlie O'Brien, Eddie Perez, Paul Bako and Henry Blanco could. Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox so believed in Maddux's comfort level with a catcher, he started Bako, a left-handed hitter, not Lopez, in Game 1 of the Division Series against St. Louis Cardinals left-hander Rick Ankiel. (Maddux gave up six runs in the first inning. Cox ditched his plan and pinch-hit for Bako in the top of the second inning before he had taken an at-bat!. Then, Cox let Maddux stay in the game to hit!)

Brent Mayne What's the most important part of the game? Pitching. If it wasn't, why would teams throw this kind of money around lately? [That said] you have to have a good catcher. It's like having a phenomenal race horse, but no jockey. Will the horse win the race without one? Probably not.

-- Former catcher Brent Mayne

"Maddux was really into the reports,'' Mayne said. "He really felt there was was a perfect pitch for a certain hitter. And he wanted his catcher on the same wavelength. He felt there was a game plan, and the catcher had better figure it out. For most pitchers, not Greg Maddux, there may be a perfect pitch to throw in a certain situation, but can they throw it? You have to throw a pitch that a pitcher is comfortable throwing.''

Whatever sign Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Chris Snyder put down in 2006, that's what Brandon Webb threw -- and Webb won the National League Cy Young Award that year. Two years ago, the Kansas City Royals acquired catcher Jason Kendall because they needed a steady hand to mentor their pitching staff and had him run the daily meetings with the pitchers. In 2009, the Seattle Mariners parted ways with their catcher, Kenji Johjima, because the language gap was so acute, Mariners pitchers had trouble communicating with him and didn't want to throw to him. The Los Angeles Angels often use Jeff Mathis as their catcher instead of power-hitting Mike Napoli because he is so much better defensively and at calling a game. No one is better at that than the Cardinals' Yadier Molina, whose rapport with pitchers is unmatched, as is his ability to recall pitch sequences from years earlier.

"I caught Kevin Appier, he was a character, an interesting guy, he was from another planet,'' said Mayne. "When I went to the mound with him, he responded when I was blunt, like, 'We are going to do this right now.' He felt that you had the confidence in what we were doing, so he did, too. If you went out there and hemmed and hawed, he might doubt you, then overthink things. Paul Byrd was different. He didn't mind you getting in his face, but he wanted it to be a teammate thing, he wanted you to talk to him.''

It isn't just about pitch-calling or blocking balls in the dirt or having the right demeanor during a conversation on the mound, it's also about presenting the proper target to the pitcher. Flanagan said the primary catcher in his career, Rick Dempsey, gave a perfect target.

"With some catchers, you can see the target early in the windup, but when you go to throw, his [mitt] hand tends to drop, and you don't get as good a look at the target," Flanagan said. "Dempsey had the unique ability to keep his mitt dead straight vertical the whole time. It stayed in the same place the whole time. That was a big thing for me, but there are points as fine as after you shake off a catcher, how confidently does he put the next finger down? Is it positive? If it doesn't pop down, there's not a lot of confidence there.''

Confidence is the key. Carlos Ruiz obviously has it with Cliff Lee, but perhaps more important, Lee has it with Ruiz. And that's another reason that Lee will be in Philadelphia in 2011.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.