Alright everyone, I’ve been in Carolina for 2 ½ months with the Class A Mudcats and it’s been quite an experience! I'm getting to play catcher a lot. While nerve-racking at first, I'm having a lot of fun and getting used to it. Catching has become my primary focus (versus 2nd base, where I've always played).
Transition To Catcher
One of the big changes, in being a catcher, is having to work even harder to mentally separate my work at the plate from my work behind the plate. Fortunately or not, my slow batting start last year taught me to be patient at the plate this year.
As a batter, for every at bat, I try to keep it simple, focusing on doing the little things when the hits weren't coming early in the season (for example: moving runners over, working the count, executing a bunt). I try to be in the moment, not worrying about prior at bats or prior plays. If not, the game starts getting faster and faster. To play it right, you have to slow it down. I tend to rationalize it, which helps a lot. I know I will have 50 or more strikeouts. So with that, I accept that there are times that you will struggle in this game. But, I know I will get past those times by working hard.
Catching has been a good distraction during those times when the hits weren't coming (they are now; loving my new custom Phoenix model!). With catching, I can't bring my emotions of hitting on to the field. After an at-bat, I get to go in the dugout, put on my catchers gear and start thinking about how we're going to approach the batters we'll face in the next inning. There is no time to stew; I have to be fully in the game behind the plate at all times. To help clear my head, I will do some quick relaxation techniques, breathing at a steady pace in and out. Focusing on the task at hand in the field, I clear my head of negative thoughts.
Having a regular routine...and getting used to the same guys...has really helped in learning my new position as catcher. And, having a manager who is always in my ear with tips on how to improve and always providing feedback on when I could have done better, clearly doesn't hurt either!
We spend a decent amount of time doing catching drills, which we only do during off days. There are three main drills:
1. Blocking drills - my manager, David Wallace (aka "Wally"), throws balls to different locations in the dirt: middle, left side, right side. The throws get quicker and quicker.
2. Receiving drills - against a pitching machine, we practice catching the ball behind the plate. The balls are thrown to different spots and also force you to go back and forth. This isn't any live BP pitching speed - we're talking REALLY fast at about 95 miles per hour!
3. Throwing drills - we throw to 3rd base, then to the 1st base, then to 2nd base...over and over again.
The drills are all about proper stance and footwork, the backbone of becoming a great catcher. When no one is on base, you use one stance: it's a more relaxed stance that allows you to sit lower, giving your pitcher the biggest target and a little lower target.
When someone is on, it's a different stance. You have a wider, more open stance, squating up less than when no one is on. This allows you to be more ready to throw when a runner is trying to steal. The target, my glove, is still at about the same height, it's just I'm a bit more upright. It's easier to catch the ball up then down.
The biggest adjustment to catching is learning the in-game adjustments that need to be made: when to call on your pitcher for a pick-off throw, when to expect a runner to steal, and when to try and throw out a guy and when not to.
You want to go off your pitcher's strength. When that strength isn't showing or a situation arises that requires something different, I'll change my game plan accordingly. When a reliever comes in, I tell him what the batter has been doing recently (prior games) and what we/I have seen this game.
You may be surprised to know that I actually call the pitches--there aren't signals coming from the dugout for the most part. When a batter steps in to the batter's box and gets ready for his at-bat, I will look to see: how the batter's practice swing looks, where he is set-up in the batter's box relative to the plate, where are his eyes. I ask myself "if I was batting, what pitch am I looking for now?". All of this contributes to what pitch I am going to call.
One key for a starter is establishing the fastball in and out on guys. In between innings, I am always talking to my pitchers about the batters coming up next inning and what pitches I think make the most sense for each batter.
I'll typically go to the mound when my pitcher has walked a guy and has a couple of balls on the next hitter. Basically, I'm going out there to try and slow the game down. As I mentioned before when the game starts speeding up to you, bad things happen. It is important that in going out there that I don't disrupt the tempo, so it becomes a balancing act. You want enough time to get your pitcher refocused and slowed down but not too long that he has too much time to stew over the last batter and the last couple of pitches.
Of course, to call a good game, there is preparation that takes place even before the batter ever steps in to the box for the first time. The day before we see a team, all our team's catchers have a meeting with our manager and pitching coach about our opponent. We'll discuss who's hot, what does the scouting report say (there are only 8 teams in the Carolina league so we get pretty good reports), and what our starters and relievers need to do.
Every day I'm learning. I'll catch bullpen and sides when not starting. I'm always asking questions and learning from my teammates who are catchers. We make each other better.
Until Next Time
The glamour of a 10 hour bus trip may not be there, but the adventure continues to be worth it. I look forward to sharing more. Catch up soon!