Catcher in the Raw

Finding and developing a great catcher means working with this player in some unique ways. The key is to cultivate both his athleticism and leadership skills at the same time.

By Dennis Read

Coaching Management, 8.1, February 2000,

Catcher in the Raw
Finding and developing a great catcher means working with this player in some unique ways. The key is to cultivate both his athleticism and leadership skills at the same time.
By Dennis Read
Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management.

Gary Rungo knows how lucky he’s been. For the past four seasons, Rungo, the Head Coach at Arlington High School in Riverside, Calif., was able to pencil in one name at catcher: first-team All-American Ryan Christianson. The Seattle Mariners made Christianson the 11th pick in the 1999 annual draft, and now Rungo has returned to the ranks of coaches who have to develop their catchers.
“With Ryan, the only thing I worried about was that he would step on a sprinkler and hurt his ankle, or I’d misspell his name on the line-up card,” says Rungo, whose 1999 team was 29-2 and fourth in the final USA Today national rankings.
But natural-born catchers are rare. Even Christianson came to the team as a third baseman. “He had caught a little before, and he sensed that was his way to make the team,” Rungo says. “Sure enough, in the first scrimmage of the year, our starting catcher had the flu, and Ryan went in there and threw out seven guys. After that point, you’d almost have to be blind not to put him in the rest of the way.”
Unless you’re lucky enough to win the catcher lottery, you’re probably faced with developing catchers on a regular basis. And the harsh law of supply and demand leads to the obvious: You may have to make a catcher out of someone who hasn’t caught before. This means you’ll need to determine which players could possibly switch to the catcher spot and then work on developing the unique skills needed to excel at this important position.

What is a Catcher Made Of?
The process of developing a catcher often starts with identifying who would be a good fit for the position. “The most important thing is that a catcher has got to want to catch,” says Mike Lane, Head Coach at the University of North Alabama. “There are guys who have all the tools, but they don’t want to catch. If I watch a high school kid and he’s slovenly and real lethargic in the way he goes about things, I probably won’t be interested in him, even if he shows some ability, because now I have to light a fire under his rear end.”
While it may seem obvious, don’t overlook the most basic skill—being able to catch the ball every time. “The priorities I place on a catcher are what he does most often,” says Rick Jones, Head Coach at Tulane University. “In the course of a game, he’s going to catch 150 to 200 pitches and he’s going to hit five times. He’s going to make maybe five throws to second that are important in a week.”
“They have to be able to catch the ball,” agrees George Smalley, an assistant coach in charge of catchers at Ohio Wesleyan University. “It sounds simple, and it is, but with certain guys every 10th pitch pops out or goes flying by.”
Although another obvious necessity is being able to throw well enough to nab would-be base stealers, be careful about putting too much emphasis on having a cannon arm behind the plate.
“I’m concerned about release time and athleticism,” says Ed Cheff, Head Coach at Lewis-Clark State College, which has won 10 NAIA World Series, including the 1999 title, “because with athleticism you can overcome lack of arm strength. I would bank on being able to get a kid who’s a pretty good athlete, even with an average arm, to throw 2.1 or 2.2 seconds to second base, and that’s not bad.”
A catcher’s ability to receive the ball well can ultimately be more important than his arm strength. “We tell our guys that in a series of five or six pitches, if you can get one extra pitch called for a strike that would have been a ball, you get the strikeout anyway,” Smalley says. “And then you don’t have to make that throw down to second base.”
But there are plenty of players who can catch and throw a baseball. So why are good catchers so hard to come by? It’s primarily because of the intangibles needed to succeed behind the plate. From calling pitches and defenses to working with pitchers and umpires, catchers have a wide range of responsibilities that require intelligence, tact, baseball sense, and above all, leadership.
“I think he has to be a natural leader,” Rungo says. “Part of being a good catcher is that he has to be a kid the other kids magnet towards.”
“You should eliminate him right away if he isn’t going to have enough baseball aptitude or the emotional stability to handle a pitching staff,” Cheff says. “Or if he doesn’t have the mentality to leave his bat in the bat rack when he’s catching. He needs to be able to focus on two aspects of the game because he’s so critical to your pitching staff.
“If a player has any kind of athleticism, you can teach him the skills to play any position,” he continues. “But catching takes a makeup that goes way beyond the other positions on the field. He has to have the mentality to be able to catch.”

Developing Leadership
If developing a catcher means also developing a leader, where does this fit into a practice plan? It doesn’t always, which is one reason this can be such a difficult position to coach. But the best coaches do figure out strategies for developing the leadership skills of their catchers.
The first step, many coaches say, is immediately placing them in leadership roles in order to build up their confidence. Some accomplish this by having the catchers call all the pitches.
“We let our catcher call the pitches and we let him handle our pitching staff,” says Mickey McMurtry, Head Coach at Lassiter High School in Marietta, Ga., which won the 1999 state title. “I think that helps develop a catcher’s ability to lead, and it’s critical to a catcher developing a control of the game.”
At Arlington, Rungo also lets his catchers call the game, a policy he stuck with even when Christianson was a freshman. “I think that gave him a lot of confidence, and the pitchers were then confident in the way he called the game,” Rungo says. “The older pitchers guided him at first, then all of sudden he got a feel for it. I’d say that was half-way through his freshman year, and they didn’t shake him off the rest of the way.”
Roger Ingles, Head Coach at Ohio Wesleyan, works on developing leadership by creating a lot of game scenarios during practice. “We try to put them into situations during practice where they have to step up,” Ingles says. “We’ll put them in situations in drills where we just say, ‘Here it is—bunt defense. Call the defense and take charge.’ You have to practice those things. They’re not just going to happen overnight.
“We’ve had some great catchers, and they’ve gotten better every year because we’ve not tried to throw everything at them at once,” he continues. “We’ve tried to start from a building block and go from there. We have a junior, Jason Bogenrife, who has developed into an outstanding catcher, but as a freshman it was like Silence of the Lambs out there—you didn’t hear a drop out of him. Now he’s done it so many times that he’s gotten the confidence and he’s much more vocal.”
You may need to be a little creative to help a less-vocal catcher get the job done. Pepperdine University Head Coach Frank Sanchez suggests calling defenses with gestures and signals instead of verbally, if the catcher is more comfortable with that. Or having the third baseman remind the pitcher to cover first on a grounder to the right side.
“Some guys, just by nature, are kind of quiet sometimes, and they don’t like to blurt out calls or instructions,” Sanchez says. “So I think you need to recognize that as a coach and try not to make it very uncomfortable for the kid.”
Some players may not exhibit leadership behind the plate simply because they’ve never been asked to. “We have a kid who’s real quiet, and in junior college [his coaches] called the pitches from the bench and told him what bunt defenses to run when that time came,” Lane explains. “When we started allowing him to call pitches and told him we wanted him to take a more active role in being a leader, he jumped into the middle of it. He doesn’t do it in a rah-rah fashion, but we had a kid throw to the wrong base on a cut, and he walked to the front of home plate and basically told him, ‘That’s the wrong cut, you ought to know better, and do what I tell you to do.’ If you had watched him play before, he would not have exhibited great leadership qualities, but that was because he wasn’t required to and nobody taught him.”
“You just have to encourage input, encourage involvement, and encourage decision making,” Sanchez says. “My experience is that leaders come in a variety of forms, but when they’re good, they will command the respect of their peers, which is the key.”

Pitcher’s Best Friend
Once a catcher earns the respect of his battery-mates, your pitching staff will automatically improve. But, to be most effective, catchers may need some insight into exactly what pitchers want from them.
“I tell our catchers that the pitching staff has to respect your work ethic and your intelligence, your ability to call a game, and your ability to help them be a better pitcher,” Cheff says. “They have to feel you’re helping them to be the very best pitcher they can be.”
“We talk about what we’re looking for from them mentally during the course of a game, and that is to make the pitcher feel as confident and comfortable with him as possible,” Jones says. “But if that were easily done, everyone would be able to do it.”
Of course, this is complicated by the fact that each pitcher not only throws differently, but thinks differently. “Ideally he’ll be able to relate to different types of personalities,” Cheff says, “just like a coach has to.”
The only way a catcher can know the members of his pitching staff is to catch them—all of them. So it’s vital that you don’t let your catchers fall into the habit of working only with certain pitchers while ignoring others.
“After a certain number of pitches in practice, we’ll rotate our catchers,” Smalley says. “That gives them practice catching every pitcher on our staff, because you never know who’s going to be catching who in a game situation, and they need to be familiar with all of them.”

Considering the Umpire
Another notable aspect of the catcher’s leadership role is interacting with umpires. “That’s something you have to nurture and develop,” Lane says. “We tell our guys, ‘You have to be a diplomat back there, you have to be a politician.’ If an umpire misses a curve that was right there, and the catcher knows it’s a strike and says, ‘Blue, that was there, wasn’t it?,’ he’s telling the umpire he thinks he missed the call. A lot of umpires don’t take well to that. But if the catcher says to the umpire, ‘Blue, was that a little low?,’ then he’s giving him an opportunity to say ‘Yes,’ or ‘You know, I might have missed that one.’ Then the catcher can say, ‘That’s OK, we’ll get the next one.’”
Your catchers should also find out if they’re doing anything to block the umpire’s view, preferably early in the game before he has to call any close pitches. “We teach our catchers to always start out asking the umpire, ‘Blue, am I giving you enough room to see the ball?’” Lane says. “Don’t ask him after he’s missed a pitch, but start out the game like that. ‘Blue, let me know if I’m getting in your way or moving too quickly, because I want to help you out.’”
It’s important for catchers to feel as if every pitch is on display, even in the bullpen or during practice. “They should get the feeling all the time that they’re trying to sell that pitch,” Cheff says. “I want my catchers to have the mentality that, ‘There’s always an umpire behind me and this guy is going to make a call on this pitch and I’m trying to make it easy for him.’ A lot of catchers are sloppy with this in drills and in the bullpen. Then they try to clean it up when they get in the game, and they can’t.”
It also helps to remind your catcher that it’s a good idea to block every ball for the umpire. A ball doesn’t hurt any less just because no one is on base.
“You might be calling him Joe and thinking he’s your best friend,” Cheff says, “but the first time you won’t block a ball for him, he’s going to start to tighten down and I guarantee you his strike zone will change.”
At least one coach has found that simply removing himself from the catcher-umpire equation works best. “I used to put my catchers in an adversarial role because I’d ask ‘Was that pitch in there? Was that a strike?’” McMurtry says. “I was constantly putting the kid in between me and the umpire. And I think that’s wrong. The umpire and catcher have a natural, cooperative relationship back there and they’re going to take care of each other. I don’t know what is shared between our catchers and the umpires, but they seem to get along since I got off the umpires.”

Balancing the Load
All the defensive work a catcher needs to put in is absolutely vital to his success, but it can also cut into his offensive development, or put too much wear and tear on his body, if you’re not careful. “When I was playing, one of the first things I noticed was that the catcher was always in the bullpen and really missed out on much of batting practice, and it never seemed right to me,” Sanchez says. “We make sure our top-flight catchers don’t miss any swings during batting practice. We have guys who are primarily responsible for catching bullpen. We do that because I want to afford our first- and second-string catchers time to hit.”
Rungo also does this at the high school level, although his emphasis is more on saving his catchers’ energy, especially as the season goes on. “Even though our pitchers usually go 45 minutes, there were times as a junior and senior we had Ryan go 15 minutes and let him hit the rest of the way to keep his legs fresh,” Rungo says. “It paid off because we didn’t have the wear and tear in practice that we might have had in the long run. Once you determine who your starting catcher is, you have to make sure he gets his work in—but not for too long a period of time.”
Although catchers obviously need to put in a lot of time behind the plate, make sure they are using that time to become better catchers and not just serve as a backstop. “Catchers are good athletes and they like the game, so it’s nonsense to put them behind home plate during practice and just let them catch the ball for the coach,” Sanchez says. “You can have a manager do that. So when we play live defense, we let the catchers play other positions, because that helps develop their awareness for the game.”
However, it’s also important that time is set aside to work directly with your catchers. There are more drills for catchers than you could complete in a month of practices—the key is to make sure high-quality drills are performed at a high level.
“People get caught up in having tons of drills, but they don’t do enough of the good drills to allow the player to develop his capabilities,” Lane says. “The number of drills isn’t what counts, it’s the quality of the repetitions.”
“A catcher has to be challenged to approach every drill and every bullpen as if it’s the most critical game situation he can be in,” Cheff adds. “If he can practice with that type of mentality, then hopefully when something does happen in the ninth inning of that critical game, it’s just a matter of routine. He simply has to be a great catcher every day and in every drill.”

Sidebar - Tackling Blocking
Blocking is one of those obvious skills a catcher must have, not just to keep umpires comfortable, but to keep pitchers confident and coaches happy. At Ohio Wesleyan University, Assistant Coach George Smalley works on the usual things like leadership and intelligence, but he also tries to instill another quality into his catchers—pride.
“It has the most to do with the blocking side of the catcher position,” Smalley says. “You have to be about half-crazy to do it anyway. It’s not something that feels good. It’s not something natural—you don’t fall out of your mother’s womb and want to block a 90-mile-an-hour fastball that’s going to hit you in the chin or off your chest. We teach it so our guys take great pride in blocking and they take it personally if balls get by them. It’s a state of mind.”
Smalley both taps into and builds that pride during the unit’s blocking drills. He takes a little different twist rather than firing ball after ball at a catcher to block.
“Anyone who has ever done it knows that after you block two or three times in a row, it makes you pretty darn tired,” Smalley says. “Because you are tired you’re going to start developing bad habits. Because you’re using poor form and because your legs are tired, you’re going to start missing a lot of balls and it reinforces negativity.”
Instead, Smalley has his catchers take a position behind a plate and he fires a pitch from about 50 feet away. They have to block the pitch, scoop it up, bounce into throwing position, and fire the ball back to Smalley before returning to the end of the line. The next catcher steps right in for his turn.
“It allows them to be successful at the skill,” he says. “They’re not going to get extremely tired—although we do get after it pretty good—because they’re going to have at least a few seconds to catch their breath in line.”
If a ball gets past a player or he doesn’t block it correctly, he’s out of the drill, which adds a competitive aspect to it. “They don’t want to leave the drill because it becomes a competition where we have a winner,” he says. “They fight hard to win that game, then that flows into the game situation. When they need to block the ball in a real game, they can revert back to that practice game.”

Sidebar - Behind Every Pitch
Whether it’s warming up a pitcher between innings or the often mundane throwing sessions of preseason, it’s easy for catchers to lose their edge. The solution, say coaches, is to make sure your catchers practice like every pitch matters.
“Say a catcher is going to catch in the bullpen,” says Mike Lane, Head Coach at the University of North Alabama. “Some teams will send him down there with just his mask and glove, but he doesn’t catch in a game like that. When he’s down there in the bullpen and someone throws one in the dirt he’s just going to get out of the way—so now he’s practicing something he definitely doesn’t want to do during the game.”
“Some coaches allow their catchers to just kind of sit back there and take it easy [at the end of practice],” agrees George Smalley, Assistant Coach at Ohio Wesleyan University. “But this is a time when we go as hard as any other time. I take it upon myself to evaluate the catchers, and we make a game out of it. They get points for positive things they do that we’ve taught them, and for anything negative they do, they lose points. Hopefully we have more positives than negatives. We give them something to strive for. We want to make it as gamelike as possible.”
In addition to catching bullpen in full gear and blocking every errant pitch, Lane also has his catchers pop out of their stance and fake a throw following a certain number of pitches.
“Say a guy is having problems throwing to first and you want him to build a rhythm,” he says. “We’d have him go 10 pitches in a row where he’s going to shift and get his left shoulder in line with the first baseman and fake like he’s going to throw to first base. Then he’ll lob the ball back to the pitcher.”