Caleb Joseph on the Maturation Process

Caleb Joseph is a classic example of a catcher whose value extends well beyond his raw stats. The 30-year-old Baltimore Orioles backstop isn’t much of a hitter, and while his defensive numbers are good — he’s an above-average pitch-framer and has a solid success rate throwing out runners — they’re by no means elite.

More than anything, Joseph is a game-manager and a psychologist. The gear he wears is often referred to as the tools of ignorance, but that might be baseball’s most-misleading slang term. Catchers know the game, and Joseph knows it better than most. The ability to help a pitcher, especially an inexperienced pitcher, navigate from Point A to Point B isn’t something you can quantify. It does make you a huge asset to a major-league baseball team.

I recently approached Joseph to get his perspective on how young pitchers mature. Our conversation didn’t end there. We also delved into the development of young catchers.


Joseph on the maturation process for pitchers and catchers: “You don’t see many youngsters figure everything out right away. What we’re seeing now is a lot of power arms coming up. The stuff and the action, the power behind the fastball, is all there, and the location is secondary. You do have guys who are 89-92 with incredible command — they rely completely on that — but more times than not, you’re seeing the power.

“You get these young arms who dominated in high school, and they dominated in college, and it was mostly because of their stuff. They could miss in the middle of the plate. Then they got to the minor leagues and a lot of them could dominate at the lower levels there. But when you get to the big leagues, you have to mature in order to succeed. And there are a lot of different aspects to that maturity.

“Mainly, it’s the actual location of the pitches. That’s why you have guys… I’m not going to say Justin Verlander — he wouldn’t be a great example — but there are guys who were power pitchers, and then their velocity goes down a little bit. Over the years, their command becomes really nice, and they’re able to ride out their careers.

“All pitchers, even in high school and college, have a basic understanding of pitching. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what they need outside of experience. But once you get to the highest level, there is that maturation of knowing how to miss in certain areas, when to miss in certain areas, how to be consistent with doing that… or if they need a certain pitch to move in a certain area, maybe backing off versus white-knuckling and throwing it harder. That’s a main component of knowing how to pitch.

“As a catcher, you can feel it when pitchers hit that accelerator. They go harder and harder, whereas the more mature, better pitchers actually let off. They let off the gas and slow down a little bit, and work a little bit more on command.

“You look at guys… from a hitter’s standpoint, I would rather face 95 over the heart of the plate than 91 on the corner. That’s not to say you can’t [throw] 97 on the corners, but there’s a huge difference between the corners and the middle of the plate. At this level, velocity doesn’t matter nearly much. You can get away with it at times, but the maturation that takes place is just really important.

Kevin Gausman is right in the middle of that maturation process, and it’s fun to watch. Dylan Bundy is right in the middle of it, too. That’s fun to watch. You get these feelings like, ‘These guys are really getting it; they’re learning how to add and subtract, versus always hitting that accelerator.’

“For me, behind the plate, a lot of it is the feel of the pitch. In certain situations where… let’s just say there are runners on second and third with less than two outs. We need a quality pitch. We’re trying to keep the ball on the infield, preferably on the ground, and preferably to the left side of the infield — if it’s on the left side, the runners usually aren’t going to run. A good pitch in that situation is a fastball inside.

“If you’re really anxious about getting that fastball in there, you may hump up and the ball may leak over the middle part of the plate. Now the ball ends up in the left-center-field gap.

“Executing a pitch in a pressure situation… again, you can feel it back there when a guy is trying to execute a pitch versus almost trying to will it to happen with their power, or with their intensity. It’s ‘OK, if I put this ball right here, I’m probably going to get a desired result more times than not’ as opposed to ‘I’m going to beat you with my stuff.’ You can feel it from the pitcher’s windup. You can feel it from his intensity.

“When you’ve caught a guy a lot, you know what a great day looks like for him. You look at his windup. You look at his pre-pitch movement. You can tell when something doesn’t look right. You can see him pulling off, or you see his arm getting on the side, versus being on top of the ball. When guys get really amped up, their hand positioning sometimes moves on the opposite side of the ball, and it will end up cutting.

“Catchers are always playing percentages. You’ve got to know what he’s doing well that day, and you balance that with a hitter’s weaknesses. There’s a tug of war there. Let’s say a guy has a good slider, but today it’s inconsistent, and this guy hits sliders. I need to find a way to combat that.

“In that moment, with that certain pitch, is there a greater probability that he can execute it, versus something else? Ultimately, there’s a game plan, but at the end of the day, conviction is always the best pitch. If a pitcher doesn’t have confidence in something, then it’s not his best pitch.

“Again, you’re playing percentages. Yes, this might be the right pitch on paper, but if you’re not sure he can execute it, you might have to go to Plan B. That’s why calling a game can be challenging. Those types of decisions… we have to make close to 200 of them a night. By the end of the night, if you’re not exhausted mentally behind the plate, you’re not doing enough.

“The main thing you want from a pitcher is that he has a plan. You also like it when he’s willing to go on the line with his conviction. Sometimes you worry when you’re behind the plate and don’t get any shakes. Kevin Millwood once told me, ‘All you are is a glorified suggestion box back there.’ So, I think it’s healthy to be shaken off a few times. You want your pitcher to take ownership of what’s going on.

“Something I learned from Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti is that you have to be invested in your pitchers. They’re not just numbers that throw sliders and fastballs. You have to know them as people, and once you know them as people, you’ll better understand how to get the most out of them. That’s a big part of your job.

“A catcher has to be [a psychologist]. There are certain guys who need a pat on the back, and there are certain guys who need a kick in the pants. You have to know how they respond to pressure. You have to know how they respond to a big lead, and how they respond to a tie game. You have to be in touch with the mental part of what’s going on out there. If you’re not, you’re grasping at straws. You’re just guessing. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it rains.

“But in terms of the maturation — this goes for pitchers and catchers alike — sometimes it happens quicker, and sometimes it happens slower. Ultimately, the guys who can make the adjustments and figure it out will stick around. There are a lot of guys in the minor leagues who have a lot of talent. It’s a matter of getting over that hump.

“For a catcher, it’s a matter of games and games and games, and innings and innings and innings. That’s how you get better. You don’t just wake up one morning and have five years of experience. And the big leagues is such a different animal. You can play hundreds of games in the minor leagues, but you can’t simulate a major-league game — the atmosphere, and what it takes mentally to catch. There are plenty of guys who can catch the ball and throw to second. Mentally, you have to navigate through a major-league lineup and get the most out of your pitchers

“It takes years to do that well. I think every young catcher will tell you that they have an idea, and then three or four years in, they’ll admit they’re finally starting to get it. You’re always learning. That’s the case for pitchers, and it’s definitely the case for catchers.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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5 years ago

I really need to stop misreading these article titles.