Catching: The Hidden Talents

Mariners catcher Miguel Olivo is in his 11th season in the major leagues, and while it is fair to say that he hasn't ever truly lived up to expectations for some, the 33-year-old's impact on the game shouldn't be discounted.

Among the advanced statistics that are most difficult to quantify in today's age -- where statistics have come to mean so much to so many -- are those atrributed to defense in general, and to a catcher's defense in particular. Even the most detailed statistic has a hard time separating the influence of the rest of the team, the situation and other outliers. Defensive rankings for catchers can vary wildly from season to season, and that should be expected. The difficulty in quantifying "range" for the position is something that everyone can easily understand. But among the things that the typical fan -- and even the most advanced baseball statisticians -- miss on, the biggest one is something that almost none of them even consider.

One of the great blogs out there for baseball's advanced thinking fan is SB Nation's Beyond the Boxscore. They put together pretty in-depth catcher defensive rankings that incorporate a lot of advanced metrics to try and get a better read on catcher defense. Baseball Prospectus's Mike Fast also does some really great work that tries to get a value on a catcher's receiving ability -- their ability to steal strikes, if you will.

But while both of these resources are a great piece of the puzzle in determining a catcher's worth, neither successfully can tell us who does 100% of a catcher's job the absolute best. Neither can tell us why players that rank so low on these lists have long careers in the majors, holding down the starting role for multiple franchises over those long careers. The reason that is so is because a lot of what a front office and a field staff value in a backstop could never show up in any set of complex algorithm.

The catching position, more than any other position in baseball -- and perhaps more than any other on the field of any other competitive sport -- is responsible for much more than just defending that one position. Arguably the largest responsibility that a catcher has is providing the best atmosphere possible for success for a position that is not it's own. I'm talking, of course, about pitchers.

The way that a catcher interacts with his pitching staff -- both during the games and in between games, during the pitcher's scouting process -- can make a huge impact on a game's outcome. Because of this ability to impact not only every play, but potentially every pitch, many catchers are viewed as the leader on the field -- an extra coach, so to speak.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, nine of the 30 current MLB managers are former catchers themselves. Three of the four managers in the AL West (with Ron Washington being the lone exception) were catchers in their playing days. The Mariners front office and field staff throughout the organization has former catchers scattered everywhere; from Manager Eric Wedge, to third base coach Jeff Datz, to former Player Development Director and current High-A manager Pedro Grifol, former catching instructor and current Special Assistant to the General Manager Roger Hansen and current catching coordinator John Stearns. Catchers see the game in a different way, and the good ones often interact with their teammates -- in particular their pitchers -- in a different way.

In talking about what a catcher's role is to various baseball people, the overwhelming responses that I got told me that most of what teams look for you can't find on any stat sheet. One West Coast AL scout I spoke with told me, "If a catcher can't handle a pitching staff -- and by handle I don't mean catching or blocking the ball. I mean see ahead for and guide the pitching staff -- I don't care how good he can hit. He can't catch. Not for me."

Along that same line of thinking, Rockies Sr. Vice President of Scouting and Player Development and Assistant General Manager Bill Geivett downplayed the offense of catchers when he told me, "I'd rather have a guy that can put down the right finger(s) 90% of the time than a guy that can get a hit 28% of the time."

These are among the reasons that teams continue to run out a guy like Miguel Olivo, who many casual observers think offers little to nothing on offense or defense, over a promising young prospect like Jesus Montero. Olivo has a reputation for building a great relationship with his pitchers and understanding not only batter tendencies, but his own pitcher's tendencies, strengths and weaknesses well. Montero may one day get there, but when Olivo returns from the disabled list it is highly likely that the No. 1 catcher's job will once again be his. Eric Wedge said the other day about Montero, "He's a young catcher. Every day he's back there, he's learning. He has so much responsibility back there, and there's so much going on, it just takes time. He's not ready to catch every day yet." Felix Hernandez has spoke in the past about how he loves pitching to Olivo. As do most of his current and former teammates, and that should tell you something. It should tell you that catching takes more than catching ability. It takes the ability to see the whole game from a different level and to relate to your pitchers.

Frankie Piliere, who speaks with a number of scouts on a daily basis in covering the draft for Scout.com, added this: "Area scouts especially, aside from looking at the ballplayer, are almost like your team's investigators on the ground. They're finding out all they can about a kid's personality and how he reacts to different baseball situations. A lot of that type of stuff can give you some information about whether the player can catch. There are plenty of guys with the physical tools, like the arm and the agility. But, what you look for is the aptitude. He's got to be able to learn the game and help a pitcher adjust on the fly. That feel for the flow of the game is incredibly important."

When asked about what specifically scouts look for when grading out a catcher he added, "Like I said, it's a lot about reading hitters and reading your pitchers. You have to know things like when you're pitcher's secondary pitch is off that day and how to re-adjust your approach to a hitter you're facing. It goes beyond just knowing the scouting reports and receiving the ball. There are decisions that a catcher has to make on the fly during a game. Of course the physical skills have to be there, but you can't value an intelligent receiver enough."

Advanced statistics and sabermetrics have come a long way since their birth, and they are a fantastic tool for evaluating players -- both offensively and defensively. And while it is clearly obvious that everyone that cares to understand these stats unlocks some of the mystery to the game, we all need to keep in mind that numbers don't always tell the whole story. And that thought holds particularly true when we are talking about the impact of the catching position on the outcomes of games and on the successes of a pitching staff.

Getting back to Olivo, he is an incredibly gifted defender with a cannon of an arm that is very accurate, evidenced by his 34% career caught stealing percentage (markedly better than the 28% league average over that time). But he has averaged about nine passed balls a season in his 11 year career to date. That number isn't hugely different from the numbers of some of the catchers considered top defenders in their time -- Ivan Rodriguez averaged just over six passed balls a season in his career, Yadier Molina 5.3 per season, Tim McCarver 6.3, Benito Santiago 7.8, Johnny Bench 5.6, to name a few -- but Olivo's defensive lapses are often viewed as lack of effort. More accurately in my opinion, it is perhaps overconfidence in his ability to backhand or scoop a ball without using proper technique. Call it lazy or whatever, but as you can see, his numbers aren't as bad as many make it out to be.

But again, Olivo has earned the confidence of his pitchers. And in the grand scheme of things, for 125+ pitches each night, that is what is most important. Being that steadying force, that on-field manager for the pitching staff to help them through the tough innings or work them out of jams when perhaps they don't have their best stuff is what the good catchers can do. And that's why they stick around for so long.

Now don't get me wrong, the defensive lapses still do need to be considered and they are certainly annoying -- to fans and probably the pitching staff alike. But so much of the value of a catcher comes from more than balls and strikes. It comes from more than passed balls or runners caught stealing. It comes from more than pitch blocking, pitch framing, stolen strike percentage, catcher's ERA or any other quantifiable statistical rating.

Calling an effective game -- and not just in that they know which finger to put down as Mr. Geivett oversimplified (on purpose, to get his point across) -- is hugely important. Setting up and giving the pitcher a great target in the manner that they like it is huge. Actually receiving the ball is important. But without question the most important skill a catcher can have is the ability to manager, control, calm, and confidently lead their pitching staff.

All of these are what some may refer to as the "hidden talents" of a good catcher. Hidden because so few consider them as skills.

Yes, catching is responsible for a lot more than simply catching. And if a team is lucky enough to land a catcher that can do all of the little things well, it can take a big burden off of the coaching staff and the pitching staff because the catcher can be there to guide both groups as a second set of knowing eyes. And that part of the game should not be discounted.

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