Ryan Hanigan might be the most underrated catcher in baseball. He is definitely one of the most studious and verbose. The 32-year-old Cincinnati Red knows the game, and he can break down the nuances of his craft — and his pitching staff — with the best of them.
Signed by the Reds as a non-drafted free agent in 2002, Hanigan made his big-league debut five years later and has since become a stalwart on both sides of the ball. A well-above-average defensive catcher who threw out 48 percent of runners trying to steal this year, he boasts a .370 lifetime OBP.
Hanigan recently addressed a number of subjects, including where he hits in the batting order, who has the nastiest stuff on the staff, and the challenges Aroldis Chapman will face as a starting pitcher.
David Laurila: Do you pay attention to advanced stats?
Ryan Hanigan: I have an understanding of sabermetrics and a lot of the terms people are using to categorize what matters, and is what is actually going on. There’s definitely something to it, so I’ve thought about it in terms of the type of player I’ve been, and what I’m trying to become. It factors in to the organization’s perception of you, as well as Major League Baseball’s.
Some of the new stats are more tangible, at least to the stat-specific people of this world. Baseball is moving more towards that, although there are obviously still a lot of people who don’t believe in that stuff. They look at things more old-school.
DL: As a guest on Ken Broo‘s Sunday morning sports show [AM-700 WLW] I’ve suggested you hit second in Dusty Baker’s batting order. What are your thoughts on that?
RH: There’s logic to it. That said, I’m paid to play and the decision, ultimately, isn’t for me to make. That’s up to the manager. Dusty is going to hit me where he wants to hit me, and the last thing I want to do is step on anybody’s toes. It’s not my job to try to change the status quo.
At the same time, the type of hitter I am… I’ve always considered myself a good hitter. I feel like I’ve always been a good hitter, through the minor leagues and in the big leagues. I haven’t ever developed a power swing, for whatever reason. Coming up, I had to get hits in order to play. I wasn’t a big prospect. I was always one of the better players on whatever team I was on, but I was never really considered a prospect until about the 2007 season, after I had proven myself year after year.
In my developmental phase as a player, in the minor leagues, I had to take a strike. That was the philosophy. Dan O’Brien implemented it in the organization. When I was in A ball, we were forced to take a strike. That was a season I played a lot — I had 430 at bats — and I had to learn how to hit two-strike sliders. I had to learn how to hit the ball to right field. Every team in the league knew it, and that’s how they pitched us. They started us right down the middle and then threw sliders or balls on the corners.
It was hard for me to learn how to hit, first of all with runners in scoring position in terms of being a damage guy. Second, to be able to hit in hitter’s counts. I was defensive for a big period of my career.
You can call it a detriment, or you can call it a strength, in my game right now. It is what it is. I’m still learning. There’s a lot of technique to extra-base hits. I definitely don’t feel it’s a strength issue. With the team we have, especially with guys like Votto and Bruce and Brandon — we have power — what I try to do is get on base. I’ve never been a good bad-ball hitter, but I’ve always had a good eye. I know the strike zone and am able to recognize pretty quickly if a pitch will be a ball or a strike.
DL: You have more walks than strikeouts since you’ve reached the big leagues.
RH: I can’t chase out of the zone. That’s not going to do me any good. Second of all, I don’t get worried about hitting with two strikes. I feel more comfortable after I’ve seen pitches, because I know exactly how the ball moves and what the spin is. Once a guy has thrown me a couple of pitches, I can see if he’s trying to pitch me soft or if he’s trying to challenge me hard. There’s give and take to that in the big leagues, because you get guys that are just nasty and you don’t want to fall behind them. A level of aggressiveness is always needed, and it’s a matter of figuring out when the right time is to be aggressive. I could talk about that for hours.
We have guys that are paid to drive in runs, but I feel I have the potential to do that as well. Hitting in the two-hole is a whole different game. There’s even a huge difference between the seven-hole and the eight-hole, because you have an offensive player behind you. In the two-hole, you get a lot of good pitches to hit. You get challenged. You get fastballs, because you have dangerous guys behind you.
DL: Your lack of speed is probably a big reason Baker doesn’t hit you near the top of the order.
RH: That’s a detriment they would see, but it’s a matter of what you’re trying to get when you write out your lineup. My on-base percentage, and my ability to get on by drawing walks and getting hits — I get my hits — can work there. You can look at it like, “Okay, he’s slow and clogging the bases,” or you can look at it as, “There are three guys hitting behind him who might hit a double or a home run.”
Hitting second would definitely be a change. I’d be hitting early in the game, and I’m usually pre-gaming for the first inning as a catcher. I don’t even worry about hitting until the second inning, I’d have to change my mindset, but that’s just part of being a professional.
I’m sure I’d be pitched to a lot more, which would make for easier at bats. I wouldn’t be seeing as many 2-0 sliders, and guys trying to hit the corner, where if they miss, they don’t care if they walk me. That’s a tough way to hit. Not getting challenged can be frustrating.
DL: What do you look for when you’re watching film?
RH: That’s a huge part of the game — an enormous part of the game. When I look at film, I want to see how he’s pitching to hitters who are similar to me. I’ll look for tendencies and patterns, like what he does in certain situations. I want to know what he likes to throw on a 1-2 count, or if I get ahead of him 2-1, what will he throw then? In terms of percentages, I want an idea of how to load my timing and how to get myself ready. At some point, you have to look for pitches in certain locations.
As for the defensive side, that’s where I put in most of my time. Of course, I’ve seen most of these hitters, because I’ve been in the league for so long. I do need to learn about the new guys and what they like. I read swings and try to find their vulnerabilities. I do a lot of that, and it’s something you learn by playing the game. It’s not something that can be taught, or really even learned from a scouting report.
DL: Is recognizing a pitch out of the hand similar behind the plate and in the batter’s box?
RH: I think it is. I’m really watching how my pitchers pitches are moving — the type of action they have — and his release point. I’ve had a lot of success against pitchers I’ve caught. The more information the better. But at the end of the day, if you can hit you can hit, and if you can’t you can’t.
DL: Do you ever recognize, out of the hand, that you’re getting crossed up?
RH: Oh yeah, that happens, and it’s not a good feeling. But if you recognize early enough, sometimes that saves you from taking one square. Your instincts and reaction kind of save you. Some guys throw too hard for you to really have time, but with others it’s not as big a deal.
With Bronson Arroyo, I just put down a one or a two, and he throws a lot of different pitches off a one or a two. He throws them at different speeds, but it doesn’t matter. For some guys who have both a curve and a slider, and they’re pretty similar, I can just use one sign. But with guys who have big velocity, or a power split, it’s too much movement.
DL: Is there such a thing as late movement?
RH: Late movement is just a term. What’s really happening is that a guy is getting fooled. He’s not seeing the ball well. There are different levels of seeing the ball. The better you see the it, the better you’re going to hit, and sometimes don’t really pick up a pitch at all.
You have to recognize spin. That’s important. If I see spin for a split or a slider, anything that’s going down… I already know what the guy throws. I know he has a slider, so I know what angle it has to start at in order for it to be a ball or a strike. When I see it out of his hand, if I see it in a certain spot, I know it’s not going to be too low and I have a chance of putting the barrel on the ball.
Sometimes you’re going to be wrong. You’ll think a pitch is going to stay in the zone and it doesn’t, or you think it’s going to move out of the zone and it stays right there. It happens so fast that you’re going to be right and you’re going to be wrong. The better groove you get into, the more chance you have to connect. Once you get in that zone, it almost doesn’t matter who’s on the mound, you see everything for what it is. When you’re locked in like that, you don’t get fooled.
DL: Who on the Reds staff does the best job of disguising his pitches?
RH: Johnny Cueto’s split looks a lot like his fastball. He’s got real good arm action. It explodes at you, but then the ball drops. It’s a tough pitch to pick up.
With Bronson, you can never tell what velocity he’s throwing. He’s so eloquent with his delivery that everything is just kind of flowing and then comes at you. His curveball looks the same as his fastball. You can’t pick anything up from his arm action, or his delivery, so you have to just see the ball and try to pick it up as early as you can.
There are a lot of guys with nasty stuff, because their arm action is consistent with all their pitches. They’re just doing different things with their hand, or they’re pronating their arm. Whatever they’re doing to get movement, they’re doing at the same speed.
If you start doing different things with your delivery, you’re in trouble. Hitters will recognize when you’re babying your breaking ball. It’s easy for an experienced hitter to see that.
Getting back to the late movement question, yeah, there’s definitely late movement. It’s all chalked up to how well you’re seeing the ball, and there’s never just one way to see it. It’s all relative to who’s the observer. If he’s in the zone and seeing the ball real well, he’ll recognize the movement. Conversely, if he’s not seeing it well, it will move two inches — barely at all — and it looks like late movement.
A lot of power pitchers in the game… big, hard-throwing righties will throw pitches that either run up and in, or down. There are sinker-sliders guys who throw their sinker 92-94 and then mix in a slider. As a right-handed hitter, the ball is either running in on your hands, hard, or it’s moving away from you at a different speed. If you’re looking for a slider and get the sinker, you’re screwed. If you’re looking for the sinker, it’s hard to stay back on the slider. It’s a battle hitting against guys like that. You have to try to get them to miss in the middle of the plate.
DL: Can a curveball have late movement?
RH: Yeah, definitely. It can have late drop. Nick Masset was hurt this year, but he has one of the nastier curveballs in the game. That thing feels like it has its most action the last four feet. Just because there’s a pitch called a curveball… I mean, you’d be hard pressed to find two guys who throw exactly the same type of curveball. I’m talking exactly. Everything is a little bit different.
The one Masset throws is real hard and real big, and it’s late. Bobby Jenks — people like that — have a big, power curve, where that last 10 feet is when it has its most action. That’s why you’re screwed. No one is making their living hitting that pitch. You might get lucky and shoot a single, but you’re not going to drive it.
There are pitches in the game, that guys have, that get hit for a home run once or twice all year. It just doesn’t happen. You have to look for pitches you can handle, and guys have to throw them. They can’t just throw their nastiest pitch every time, and if they did, it wouldn‘t be as nasty. They have to set it up.
The cutter is a huge pitch in the game right now. It wasn’t 20 years ago, and it can be devastating. It looks like a fastball and then runs either in or away. So many guys are throwing it, and controlling it. Even since I’ve been catching in pro ball, I’ve seen the progression of guys, year in and year out, who can command a cutter. They can do what they want with it.
If a pitch starts middle and moves to a corner — and it looks middle for so long — it’s going to be tough to hit. It’s not a lot of movement, just four or five inches, but that’s enough to get you off the barrel. No one hits Mariano Rivera. Chris Carpenter has one. Even Roy Halladay throws a little baby one, about 87. It’s an equalizer to a sinker. It’s not quite a slider, because a slider hangs a little bit, every once in awhile.
DL: Who has the best cutter on the staff?
RH: Cueto throws one that’s real good. Mike Leake throws a pretty good cutter. Of the bullpen guys, Jonathan Broxton can throw one. He doesn’t often, but we used it a couple times in big situations. It’s a real baby one — it’s only a little one — but it’s pretty good. It fools a lot of guys. Masset has a little baby cutter as well. Sean Marshall, our big lefty, throws one all the time.
DL: Can you talk a little more about Broxton’s cutter?
RH: We worked on it. I hadn’t caught him much, so I said, “Try some stuff, do a few different things.” He pulled out the cutter and I was like, “Dude, you have to use that.” The next outing he used it once or twice, and then a few more times the next, and after awhile it was probably his second-best pitch. He throws it in the low 90s. Not in the 80s, but the 90s. It’s hard. We were getting a lot of broken bats with it.
He’s nasty. He’s a veteran guy who’s been around and has pitched in some big games. He’s pitched in some big situations as a closer. He’s a professional with a big arm, and it’s hard to go wrong with a guy like that.
DL: How does Sean Marshall get guys out?
RH; He does different things. First of all, he’s tall, lanky and long, so his delivery is funky. That’s a big advantage for guys. He has a tough delivery to pick up the ball out of.
He has a nasty breaking ball, a big, nasty left-handed breaking ball that he can command. He can throw it for a strike or below the zone. He’s got a slider that he can also command. He’s got a pretty decent fastball. It’s not overpowering, but he uses it. He’s got a cutter as well. So he throws a lot of pitches off different things.
DL: Does he have what it takes to be a closer?
RH; He closed a little bit when Ryan Madson went down right out of the gate. He’s got that potential, but day in and day out, he probably throws too many breaking balls that aren’t overpowering. They work for him, but he’ll also get hit. At the end of day, it’s much better to have a guy who is overpowering.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking anything away from Sean. I love Sean and have a lot of confidence in him when he comes into the game. He can close, but velocity-wise, his fastball doesn’t get any higher than about 91. Guys aren’t really going to worry about getting beat, so they can take advantage of his mistakes a little better.
DL; Is there such a thing as closer mentality?
RH: Yeah. Different strokes for different folks — what works, works — but closer mentality… guys have to get fired up. I can tell, almost instantly, when a guy is throwing his warm-up pitches, if he’s really got it, if he’s sitting on his legs and driving through the ball. I can tell if he’s worked up and ready to try to dominate the game. When you have certain types of pitchers with certain types of velocities — guys who can really bring it — there’s no point in not getting pumped up. Hopefully you’re only throwing 10, 12, 15 pitches, and if you can’t get yourself pumped up to do that, there’s something wrong with you.
Closing is a huge, huge job, but so is the eighth inning. Games can get lost in any inning, but there is something to getting those last three outs. The other team has a little more focus, and is in more of an urgency-mode. The situation is a little more intense, so it’s important to have a good head on your shoulders.
DL: Aroldis Chapman is expected to move into the starting rotation. What challenges will he face?
RH: It will be a huge endeavor. We’ll have to get really serious and it’s going to take a lot of work. When he first came over, he had a split-action change that was pretty nasty. He just couldn’t command it very consistently. When he did, it was a nasty tumbler. It was hard. It was one of those unhittable pitches, but you can’t be throwing the ball to the backstop and all over the place. He might have to develop a third pitch.
His slider got better. He can command that, so I have a lot of confidence in it. Velocity-wise, he’s going to have to tone things down. I don’t think he’s going to be able to sit at 98-99 as a starter. Maybe he can end up doing that. If you look at Justin Verlander, and guys who throw really hard, what they do is pitch at 92-94, command it, and amp it up when they need to.
It was simpler for him as a closer. I was like, “Look man, throw as many strikes as you can.” You have to really understand what your check points are in your delivery, because if you get just a little out of whack with your mechanics, you’re going to be wild. He knows that, and really got it down to where he could stay consistent. He knew what to do when he was starting to miss. He knew why and how to fix it. But that’s not as hard when you have to throw 15-18 pitches. When you have to throw 100, it’s a different ballgame in terms of keeping your body in control.
I’m sure the [organization] is optimistic, and I am too. We’ll see how it goes. I guess he’s coming into camp as a starter, and hopefully it will work out. If not, he can go back to being a good closer. Hey, he’s a nasty guy. I’ll tell him, “Hey, you have to watch David Price.” They’re similar guys with similar stuff, and Price is one of the top three pitchers in the American League.
He was a starter before he came to us, but it’s a whole different game in the big leagues. It will be my job to work with him and get the best out of him. If he can do it… he’s got the arm. No one questions his ability. But there’s a lot that goes into it, so who knows. We’ll find out.
DL: Command issues aside, Daniel Bard’s fastball didn’t play nearly as well at 92-94 as it did at 98-99. What kind of action does Chapman get when his velocity is down?
RH; He does two things real well to a right-handed hitter. To a left-handed hitter, it almost doesn’t even matter, because his slider is so devastating. But to a right-handed hitter, he can overpower you in, under your hands — kind of down in the zone for a strike — and that pitch is usually 94 to 96. He can control it at that velocity. Then, when he really lets it go, he gets it up there 98 to 103. The ball comes off with a little bit of run and goes away from me. When he comes in under the hands, it’s very true, with less velocity.
With lesser velocity, he can still be effective, but he’s going to have to command different parts of the zone. We don’t worry about commanding parts of the zone with him — I don’t — when he’s throwing 100. I’m just making sure he’s not cutting the ball. He has a tendency sometimes to cut the ball, and he can’t command that. I also try to make sure he doesn’t fly open and let the ball sail.
Those things are about his mechanics, but as far as his velocity, he’ll have to pitch more down in the zone and then put guys away a little higher. Curt Schilling was real good at pitching at 95 right up under the hands or high in the zone. Or a Roger Clemens, those high-fastball guys who have the velocity and the height to keep the ball at the top of the zone, so you can’t get on top of it. That’s something Aroldis does as well as anybody. We do that a lot — we’ll pitch at the top of the zone at 97.
That could be his put-away pitch, or it could be his slider, but pitching at 93 at the big-league level isn’t the same as 97-98. That’s a different level. 93 is still firm, but you can’t miss middle up. You have to miss down, in or up. Guys can hammer 93 in the middle. I think he can do it. It might not happen overnight, though. He’ll have to do some different things, so it will be a process.
DL: Is it fair to say that a big part of your job is making sure pitchers know what optimizes their chances of getting hitters out?
RH: Yes, and they know that. I’m on them about that stuff. I’m running the show and making sure they know what hitters are doing and what they’re looking for. Pitchers think they know, but sometimes they have no frigging clue. It’s so funny listening to them talk about what they think hitters are doing. I’ll tell them, ‘You have no idea.” A lot of pitchers are good at it — don’t get me wrong — but sometimes a guy will be like, “Oh, I’ll just throw my fastball by him.” I’ll be like, “OK, let’s see what happens.” But they learn real quick.
There’s also something to be said for being a [wussy]. If you’re going to be scared and nibble around, that’s not going to work either. It’s a fine line. It’s tough being a pitcher in the big leagues. Either guys have nasty shit, or great command, or they don’t last too long. There’s not a lot of in between.
DL: Do pitchers and catchers think differently?
RH: It really depends, because everybody is different. I’ve run into a million catchers and a million pitchers, and I couldn’t say there is one consistent thread that rings true. But catchers that work well with pitchers can really take a lot of pressure off. They can make them feel like they have a partner on the team, someone who has their back.
If a catcher is standoffish, or kind of into himself and worrying about his own [stuff], his pitchers will feel on their own. There are guys who are like that. They put down a finger and if the guy shakes, they just put down another one until he nods. There’s no plan, just a lot of “whatever” to it.
You have to be a student of the game to be a catcher, or a pitcher. What hitters are looking for, and what’s going on in a game, is everything. A game is usually going to come down to four or five pitches, really. If you get them right, well, that’s the game. My job is to help make sure that happens.
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.