It happens every time; without fail, every time. I meet with a new catcher because they want to get some work in and I get the same answer every time I ask the same question, “What would you like to work on during our time together?”
It’s not just the kids either. The parents give me the same response too. It has become somewhat comical to me. I now ask the question not to get an answer, but to see if this next kid is the one who gives me a different answer.
Pop Time are the two words I have become somewhat annoyed with in my short coaching career. Every kid and the majority of parents want to improve their Pop Time. I want to throw under a 2.0. To me, as a coach and catching instructor these two words have diminished, what I see to be the most vital position on the baseball field, to a mere number.
Catching is more than a number. Now I know I am biased and any other positon coach in the game will wax poetically about their desired group, but this isn’t about them; it is about us, the catchers. Our actions and role on the team are a complex mixture of psychologist, good cop, bad cop, cheerleader, critic and perhaps most importantly leader. What other position on the field has to do this plus have the ability to navigate through the ebbs and flows of a game?
That is what drew me to catching in the first place. Besides the pitcher, we are involved in every play of every game. Ground ball to short, no one on; make sure you bust your butt down the line to back up first. Ball hit to right-center gap man on second; you better have a good idea of multiple variables because the ball will go where you call.
That is why the inevitable answer to my initial question grinds my gears. Up until recently the art and mastery of the position has been overlooked by so many, in my humble opinion. Coaches like Barksdale, Weinstein and Swanson, among others, have brought the subtleties of the catching position to the forefront. The advents of Twitter and the GIF have given kids today so much more information available to them, if they seek it.
Being a catcher requires work. Being a catcher requires perseverance. So, now that I have stated the obvious, we can continue.
With all of this available information I spoke of before, comes the raising of the bar. I am not an excuse guy. My dad always said, “I don’t care how choppy the water is, just get the boat home.” Our level of development and play at the amateur level has risen because of all of this, and that is a good thing. No longer should we be focused on a simple number such as pop time. We need to focus on developing catchers as leaders, receivers, blockers, throwers and the other ancillary skills that are overlooked by pop time.
When my boss asks me to go look at a catcher we are interested in for our program throwing is one of the last things in which my attention is directed. How he handles the game within the game, how he receives each pitch, how he communicates with his pitcher, coach and teammates are all things that come before the throwing. The abstract skills are the ones that push a kid over the top for me. Almost every college, regardless of level, have good enough coaches to teach the concrete skill of throwing and most kids who possess the skill set to play at the collegiate level will be able to develop the necessary skills to get the job done; with some work and dedication to the craft.
Receiving is now an art form. Watch some of these big league guys receive and present the pitches. It is amazing. Recently I was watching a former playing, now in the minor leagues, catch a bullpen for a friend. The ease and flow in which he was receiving was something of beauty. I wish I knew what I know now when he was a player in high school.
You know you are a true catching guy if you notice the quiet perfection of sticking a pitch or keeping a runner from advancing on a dirtball. You appreciate those instances because only a catcher will know how much time and effort it took to get to that point. Countless balls off the machine, learning the proper way to present strikes and taking beatings from blocking drills are what make the position more than a number. To quantify the importance of a catcher with a stopwatch does a disservice to the position as a whole.
Sure I could have written about drills with pictures or videos and that will come, but I just wanted to empower all those catching guys out there to continue to learn and not get caught up in the numbers. The best tool to teach is game situations. Have your catchers sit next to you during games and talk through things. Ask them questions, don’t just simply tell them. Challenge them to think through things. Regardless of outcome, good or bad, ask them why they think that happened. It can be a learning experience for the both of you.
At the end of the day we are all in search of the best outcome for the team. We want each individual to be the best version they can be which in turn will assist the team in achieving any goals. As I said before, empower your catchers to become just that. Spend time and focus on things like receiving, blocking, and communication. Help them not only develop the measurable, but guide them through the immeasurable. Empower them to go achieve more than the lowest number on a stop watch. At the end of the day a catcher’s value to the team does not have a numerical value applied to it if done properly.
I look forward to learning from all of you and diving in to both the concrete and abstract qualities and characteristics of what makes catching the best position on the field.
Jimmy Mancuso (@JMMancuso32) is an Assistant Baseball Coach at Lawrence Tech University.