Much has been written about pitch framing, and Tyler Flowers knows the subject well. The Chicago White Sox backstop has caught 255 big league games and another 362 at the minor-league level. He’s no grizzled veteran, but at the age of 28 he’s far from a neophyte behind the dish.
Flowers is 6-foot-4, which makes receiving low pitches a challenge. It’s a facet of his game he’s working to improve, and he’s doing so fully aware that not all framing nuance is of a purely physical nature. Flowers shared his thoughts on selling strikes — and related matters — when the White Sox visited Fenway Park last week.
Flowers on getting the low strike: “When the situation permits – nobody on base – I’ve been putting one knee down. I’ve been lowering my center of gravity probably another three-four inches, which strengthens my ability to handle a pitch at the bottom of the zone. Before, it was 10 inches high, now all of a sudden you’ve lowered yourself so the bottom of your zone is six inches high. You can handle that pitch and not have it carry out of the zone; you can be in a strong position to kind of hold that pitch and kind of massage it back up into the zone to keep it looking like a good pitch.
“I think smaller guys have an advantage in that department. Take a Jonathan Lucroy. He’s a little smaller — a little more wiry and limber – and is able to sit extremely low. He’s known as a really good receiver and pitch framer. He can handle that low pitch. He’s changed his position of strength to be lower in the zone. I’ve noticed that when you do that, it seems like you sacrifice some pitches at the top of the zone. Not necessarily fastballs or cutters, but breaking balls or something with a little bit more change of speed. I’ve noticed that those seem a little more difficult to get.
“I definitely want to get those low strikes with a sinker-ball guy, because I want to encourage him to keep it down in the zone. Sinkers, when they’re up, get hit hard. Scott Carroll threw the first game here and did a great job of [keeping the ball down]. I feel like I helped contribute to that, because we were able to get some borderline low pitches called in our favor. That kept him confident throwing the ball down in the zone. It also made the other team aware, ‘Alright, this guy is throwing down in the zone and this umpire is calling [strikes], so we’ve got to try and jump on one that’s not quite that low.’ Then you get some early contact and early outs.
“With more of a straightforward power guy, you might be inclined to not worry about the low pitch. It might be a little more enticing to try to secure the top of the strike zone. One example that comes to mind – he’s not active right now – is Nate Jones. He throws 96-100, so we elevate a lot of fastballs. In his situation, it’s kind of the opposite. We want to establish the top of the strike zone to force hitters to have to try and cover 99 at the belt. What kind of pitcher you have on the mound might change your style and what you’re going for.”
On flexibility and framing, and staying quiet: “For me, [getting low] is not that easy. I think you have to kind of go by body type and such. If you asked me to do what Jonathan Lucroy does, I’d probably only be able to play for a week, and I’d be icing all sorts of joints and parts.
“[Lucroy] is more limber than most, and I guess you can attribute that to his frame and years of doing what he’s done. I came up against him in the minors and he’s always kind of been that way. He’s able to tuck his knees in. He’s got extreme flexibility in his hips to where he can basically almost sit with his butt on the ground, yet he’s flexible enough to keep his knees out of the way. He’s able to kick his knees in — kick them down low – and still maneuver his glove in front of him. Physically, I think there are only a handful of guys that can actually do that.
“Then you get other guys, like a [Yadier Molina] who have adapted to a one-knee-down sometimes, Jose Molina, a bigger guy, goes one-knee-down a majority of the time. I’m sure he would say the same thing, that he feels it puts him in a stronger position to handle that low pitch.
“Another thing is the ability to keep your body a little bit more quiet. You’re fixed on the ground, so you’re not going to be able to sway much left and right. From an umpire’s perspective, if everything’s pretty quiet – if you’re not moving much – it gives the illusion of pitches being a lot closer than maybe they are. The fewer distractions –the fewer movements – the easier it is for that umpire to trust the ball is close to where that target was.”
On knowing an umpire’s tendencies: “Some umpires have a tendency to be a little more generous in certain locations, whether it’s off the plate away to a righty or in to a lefty. You see a mix of all sorts. Some have a tendency to call the low pitch or the high pitch. That’s information we know going into most games. There are all sorts of statistics on that for the umpires. I can look at that and kind of cater to their tendencies.
“But, in most situations, you’re going more on what the pitcher is doing and what the count and situation dictates. Maybe you’re going to set up 6-8 inches off the plate, in, to a left-handed hitter. Maybe he’s a guy that has a tendency to chase, or maybe he likes the inside pitch. So we’ll throw a cutter 6-8 inches off the plate and try to tie him up. More often than not, that’s when you’ll see a catcher setting up that far off the plate. If you see a catcher setting up 1-2 inches off the plate, then it’s probably more the umpire. He knows that maybe he can get an extra inch or two here or there. Some umpires are really strict and really tight. They’re real by-the-book as far as, ‘This pitch has to touch that artificial surface called home plate,’ but majority of them will give a little bit.
“You also need to have an understanding of an umpire’s point of view. If I’m setting up away to a right-handed hitter, the umpire is over my left shoulder. He’s on the inner part of the plate, so he’s not getting the best look of the outside corner. I think that’s why you see a tendency for umpires to be a little bit less consistent on the outside corner, which typically ends up being a little more generous. Rarely do you get a pitch off the inside corner, because they’re looking straight down over your shoulder at the inside corner. It’s hard to get that called in your favor if it’s off the plate.”
On veteran presence and catcher-umpire relationships: “A veteran like David Ross might get more pitches called in his favor throughout the course of a game. The reason I say that is because he’s been around. He has a relationship with some of these umpires and can talk to them in a fashion where they’re not feeling belittled by him questioning a call or giving his opinion on a pitch. I assume the advantage would go to a guy like Ross in that situation, as opposed to a Christian Vasquez, who is on Day 2 of his career up here in the big leagues. He has no relationships with any of the umpires, so he might be a little more hesitant to question a call.
“That said, I don’t think it’s the same as how a veteran pitcher will get the benefit of a doubt on a pitch just off the corner. I don’t think that really applies to catchers. There are too many other elements. I find it hard to believe an umpire would be able to digest and diagnose, ‘I’ve got a rookie pitcher, a rookie hitting, and a veteran catching” and be like, ‘Veteran catcher here, looked good, I’ll give him to him,’ I don’t see that happening.
“Again, with that said, in addition to the relationship he might have with umpires, the veteran catcher might be a little better receiving pitches in general. There’s a reason a guy like David Ross has played this game as long as he has and been successful. He’s good at things like that. He’s a good receiver, he’s good at communicating, he’s good at calling a game. So he might have a bit of an edge, as far as physically understanding what is more appealing to umpires to call a pitch a strike, or what will have him calling a borderline pitch a ball. It goes back to how you set up, the amount of movement you have, and how you receive a pitch. I’m a big fan of Rossy, because he does a great job of being quiet, and letting breaking balls and high pitches get deep to give the illusion they’re lower than they are. He does a good job with the low pitch, catching it out in front – catching it at a higher point.”
On Christian Vazquez: “He didn’t have too many pitches in the dirt today, so I didn’t see any blocks. But I saw a pretty compact kind of guy. It looked like he had a good, low set up. I did notice there were a number of low pitches, and he seemed to do a really good job of not letting them take him out of the zone – he didn’t let the momentum carry his glove down. He did a good job counter-acting that force to catch it where it was, or even kind of massage it back up in the zone a little bit. What I saw from [the dugout] as far as up and down, I thought he looked pretty good, pretty sharp. He was kind of effortless, too, which is always a plus.”
On A.J. Pierzynski getting ejected this year for asking for a new ball, one the umpire could see: “At times, you kind of have to be a jerk [to umpires] because you can only take so much. You’re the spokesman for your pitcher, your staff, and your team. You’re back there and have one-on-one communication with the umpires. I have a number of great relationships with umpires and they’ll take what I say and work with it. There are also a couple of umpires out there I don’t get along with very well. I’ve had a couple of situations where I’ve been forced to maybe be a little more harsh, or rude, than I would prefer to be. It’s just another part of the job behind the plate.
“[What Pierzynski said] doesn’t surprise me. I know how much of a competitor he is. Contrary to what people might think, I know how much he enjoys catching and how much he has a passion for it. So when you see something like that – something that’s unjust or unfair – that’s just his way of communicating with them. He knows he’s kind of antagonizing the umpire, but like I said in regard to myself, sometimes you have to be rude and basically disrespectful to make some of these guys take you seriously. Umpires have their own personalities, their own confidence that they carry about, and I think that’s a good thing in most instances. But some of them maybe take it too far. You have to make sure you grab their attention, and I think that was A.J.’s way of making sure he grabbed that umpire’s attention. He obviously did, and unfortunately he got ejected for it. But I’d be interested to see how the rest of that game went – if that pitch started going in their favor – because part of your job is to stand up for your guys back there.”
On Manny Machado hitting Derek Norris with his backswing: “Probably 99 percent of hitters are going to say something. Every time, with the exception of once, I’ve has them turn around. The majority of them turn around rather quickly and say, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ I’m not going to name names, but the one time someone didn’t say anything, the guy was going through a rough stretch. He was obviously frustrated, and I can relate to that. It really wasn’t a bad shot – it wasn’t in a bad spot and didn’t hurt too much — and I could really relate to what the guy was going through. He wasn’t hitting well and wasn’t feeling good. He’s already had a tough day. I understood the situation and let it slide.
‘So the majority of guys will say something. If they don’t, they might have a good reason,whether it’s their performance, personal issues, or whatever. But if it’s something significant, everybody is going to say something at some point. It may not be right away; — it might be after the [trainer] examines you. Who knows, Manny Machado might have sent him a text later on, once he realized what he did, and that he wasn’t proud of what he did. I’m sure he rectified the situation. He’s a good, young player and I’m sure he did the right thing eventually.”
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.