There’s a reason catchers often make great managers and coaches. The mindset that you get from watching every play unfold from behind the plate can inform practically every play. And so, when you find out that John Jaso is an asset with the bat and on the basepaths, it’s no surprise that you can trace these things back to his training behind the plate.
Like when Jaso talks about his plate discipline — his walk rate is seventh in the league since the beginning of last season — the first thing he says it’s that he’s “always thinking of the situation.” Like a catcher, he’s wondering who’s on the basepaths, what the count is, and how things have been going for the pitcher.
When it comes to the first pitch, he doesn’t mind being a little passive. The league, which has been swinging less at the first pitch (down under 30% according to Dave Cameron’s great piece on the subject), has nothing on Jaso, who swings at 15% of the first pitches he sees in an at-bat. He points out that it was fine if he missed a good pitch — “you’ve seen the pitcher’s release point and you’ve gotten a better sense of timing.” It’s hard to get the timing right without good knowledge of a pitcher’s arsenal. There’s a catcher, gathering information for the memory banks.
Jaso’s patience is not all catcher-related. He says that part of being a disciplined hitter is “being comfortable hitting with two strikes.” If he can trust that the pitcher can’t overpower him on pure stuff, he needs to get as many chances to see a good pitch as possible, and sometimes that means going to the brink. Once again, according to Cameron’s piece, the league swings at close to 50% on 0-2 counts, 60% on 1-2, 65% on 2-2, and over 70% on 3-2. Jaso must get to a lot of 3-2 counts (that would make sense), because his swing percentage with two strikes is 74.7%.
Part of that process is natural, and Jaso might actually have some insight on the question of why batters are swinging less at the first pitch, even as pitchers are throwing more first pitches for strikes. “Your picture of the strike zone on the first pitch is really small, and then it gradually starts expanding as you get more strikes,” he says. That makes total sense intuitively, and it follows with Cameron’s conclusions about the changes in swing rates on different counts. Batters are being more selective at which strikes they swing at on the first pitch, and Jaso is an extreme example of that.
It’s not all good news for Jaso this year. His strikeout rate is the worst of his career. He sounds a little frustrated — “I don’t really know what to blame it on,” he says, and “I’m beating myself.” He talks of reaching too much and swinging at balls in the dirt, but it goes beyond his reach rate — which is slightly higher according to PITCHf/x — and into the ‘small strike zone’ he referenced earlier. Between 2008 and 2010, Jaso only swung at pitches on the edge of the strike zone 36% of the time. Now that’s up to 40%. Perhaps he has to “find himself again” as he put it, or at least find his small strike zone again.
But if anyone has a good sense of that zone, it’s the catcher. And that catcher mentality follows him out to the basepaths, too. Jaso leads all catchers since 2010 in baserunning value. That’s a bit of a strange thing, considering he’s sixth in stolen bases and isn’t a gazelle. But he credits his work in the Tampa org — “I was hitting leadoff for them and I always had to look how I could get to the next base” — as having stayed with him today.
What are his steps to taking the extra base whenever possible? First, he runs on guys in the outfield. He takes note of all the arms in the outfield, and if he sees a stumble, he’ll push it. But the second might be the most important. “When I’m on first base, I’m always looking for a ball in the dirt to go to second on,” he says. He’ll read the trajectory of the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand and anticipate that ball in the dirt: “I’ll take off before I even know if it’s actually in the dirt.”
“I know how hard it is to block a ball, get up and scramble for it and make an accurate throw to second base — that’s hard even on a baserunner that read it after it hit the dirt, so if I get a jump, it’s even harder.” – John Jaso
Being a catcher is about keeping track of the count as well as the tendencies of the hitters, pitchers and defenders on the field at any given time. It’s a lot of knowledge, but when put to good use, it can lead to small advantages in important facets of the game. John Jaso is a catcher first, and then a baserunner and batter second, but really it’s all part and parcel of the same approach.
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.