The coach behind the plate

If you watched James Russell protect a Cub lead by throwing a scoreless seventh inning against the Reds on Saturday (4/21) during the recent homestand, you might remember a couple of highlights. One, Russell pitched out of a men-on-second-and-third, no-out jam that was not of his making. (Campana lost the leadoff fly ball in the sun and dropped it, and then he lunged in front of DeJesus, who was in pretty good position to catch the ball, when the next batter hit a soft liner to right.) Russell retired the next three hitters, Stubbs, Votto and Phillips, in order, but the memorable out came when Votto swung late at a 2-2 fastball. The fastball was moving briskly but not overpoweringly at Russell’s usual pace of 89 mph. The pitch was mostly straight down the middle, maybe an inch or two to the inside of middle, but Votto was late enough that it didn’t matter where it was. Enough to say that Votto wasn’t expecting a fastball when Russell had a ball to give, and with first base open. A prudent pitcher might bury a couple of breaking balls–as Russell had just done on 1-2–and then let a righty reliever come in and clean up the bases-loaded mess.

After the slider in the dirt on 1-2, catcher Steve Clevenger came to the mound and said a few words to Russell. Russell then blew the fastball by the slugger. I was watching the WGN feed when they focused on Russell as he gave a quick nod of affirmation toward his catcher. If you’re a subscriber, you can watch the at-bat on mlb.com and determine for yourself whether Russell was signalling to his battery-mate that they had just succeeded at something together.

Nothing could be more anecdotal than a story that ends with an affirmative head-shake. At the same time, it’s hard to quantify the effect of a catcher consistently making the right pitch request. Other than catcher-ERA–the ERA of pitchers when a particular catcher is behind the plate–there is no stat that helps us evaluate the game-calling skills of a catcher. I will grant that it is unsafe to rely, especially early in the season, on a stat for a defensive player that is so dependent on how well six or eight pitchers are feeling and throwing. I would just note that Cub manager Dale Sveum did bring up the game-calling stat recently when he said that Clevenger has “done great, and the ERA when he catches is incredible.”

Many argue that a pitcher calls his own game. If he doesn’t like the sign from the catcher, he just shakes it off. I wonder, though, if that formula really works in the immediate case. Russell doesn’t make a living throwing two-strike fastballs to league MVPs. I don’t think he volunteers to throw that pitch. At the same time, he doesn’t like to overrule his catcher when he has confidence in him and when the catcher has demonstrated a good situational feel. What I think happened here was that Clevenger said, Let’s go against the grain a little bit, and Russell said, Sure, why not? Brenly remarked that it took guts for Russell to throw that pitch, and I agree completely. I just believe that Russell needed, and got, encouragement from Clevenger.

If the catcher isn’t offering advice and support, the pitcher is all alone out there. If baseball were pro football, the pitching coach might assume the role of defensive coordinator and call pitches from the dugout. But baseball is autocratic. In between “Play ball!” and the scorekeeper’s last entry, the manager rules. The pitching coach might have a few words with the pitcher in the dugout. When the pitcher is on the field, however, he is not receiving signs from the dugout. Catchers do look to the dugout when runners are on base, so the manager can call pickoffs and pitchouts and the like. But my observation is that the catcher is the pitching coach during the game.

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