Spring training is a time of becoming reacquainted with baseball. The pace, the play, the pitches, the plate, even the equipment — there’s a daily language that comes easier with practice. Catchers are no different, though perhaps there’s a multiplier. You have to get used to your own game, and you have to get to know your pitchers again. And one of the newest ways to measure catcher defense — framing — may have a lot to do with this familiarity.
Talk to Stephen Vogt on the Athletics, and the catcher’s spring training comes into focus quickly. He’s “putting the focus on defense,” which means he’s trying to read the ball better, work on his form, and do some pitching machine work for blocking. There’s a delicate balance when it comes to breaking in a catcher’s body. “You’re going to get bumps and bruises enough during the year you don’t need to murder yourself on the machine,” Vogt said this weekend in Arizona, “but at the same time you do want to put your body through a good pounding during spring training just to be able to sustain it during the season.” Sounds like breaking in a glove.
But, within defense, there’s one goal for Vogt that’s above all: “Getting to know the pitchers, that’s the number one thing,” the catcher emphasized. He’s looking forward to working with Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson, Scott Kazmir, so that he can get to know their arsenals, but he knows he has to give the pitchers he knows time, too — many of them have worked on a new wrinkle over the offseason. And he needs to get to know what they throw so that he can call better games, and receive the ball better.
Vogt knows about the new stats, like strikes outside of the zone, but he doesn’t like the word framing. “The ‘f’ word to me is framing, especially with young catchers,” Vogt said. He feels that the word is “misconstrued” by some to mean “pulling the ball back to the zone.” He prefers the word “present” and works on “beating the ball to the spot.”
Part of that process is familiarity. He needs to know “what pitches to go get and what pitches to let come to you.” Obviously, the more you move to go get a pitch, the more likely it’s called a ball, but the likelihood of a passed ball goes down. If you’re confident of the break on the pitch, you can let the pitch come to you. “The sooner you can get more comfortable with your pitchers, the better you can present the ball,” Vogt said.
One pitcher in particular can help put this into focus. Luke Gregerson may just have one pitch he calls a slider, but he admits that he’s got many different looks on the slider. Vogt agreed that it was important to get to know him. “Most guys, if they have a slider like that, they just kind of manipulate it on their own, and you need to get to know which he’s going to throw when,” Vogt said. In his experience, guys that have different variations on a single pitch have one sign for it, and it’s up to them how they want to throw the pitch.
So Vogt needs to catch Gregerson this spring. Because once he sees each version once or twice, he feels he’ll know what’s coming. And once he’s seen these pitches in game situation, and the pitcher using them, he thinks he will be able to read his pitcher’s body language and the situation and figure out which slider is coming. But even a spring may not be quite enough. Sometimes it takes a while, agreed the catcher.
Look up and down the list of best framers, and you’ll notice something fairly quickly. Minimum 1000 pitches caught, by extra calls per game, here’s your top ten on StatCorner: Jonathan Lucroy, Chris Stewart, Yadier Molina, Jose Molina, Hank Conger, Russell Martin, J.P. Arencibia, Yan Gomes, Buster Posey, Martin Maldonado. In that group, six had been with their organization their entire careers in 2013. All of them but Yan Gomes had been with their team for more than a year. Those trends hold true for the next ten best presenters, too. And it holds true even if you use framing numbers which have been adjusted for pitcher impact.
So spring training is a time for catchers to get acquainted with their pitchers. And that’s an important facet of their preparation for the season. But it seems it’s a job that isn’t finished in a mere handful of innings over one March. To be a great framer, at least, it probably takes a little more time to really get to know your pitchers’ tendencies.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.