Catchers Are Quietly Changing Baseball

One of the few good things to come out of this pandemic is that the hiatus in live events has allowed for a time for reflection. Re-runs of classic games have taken the primetime slots where live games would have normally aired.

One of the striking aspects of this unique situation is how it displays the full context of any given game without the soundbites or short clips associated with these famed moments in baseball history. It allows for the full breadth of a game to be watched in its entirety, and many differences can be seen when compared to today’s game.

One of the games recently aired was Roger Clemens’ 20 strikeout game. In the early innings, the announcers were ecstatic over the fact that Clemens had been throwing over 90 mph on the day and how his off-speed was working well.

Today, it is expected that every pitcher can consistently throw over 90mph. How has the game changed that much since then?

There are two players in frame for every pitch and it’s evident that pitchers aren’t the only ones who have changed.

If the act of receiving a ball would be interpreted as an art form, Tony Peña should be considered the Claude Monet of catchers. He displayed a strange stance back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but others didn’t start emulating it until recently. This catching style is here to stay and it is changing the very fabric of the game for the better.

Without runners on base, Peña adopted a bizarre and unorthodox stance. He had one leg stretched out while he kept the other leg tucked beneath his torso. He was never known for his bat, but his defensive qualities kept him in the game for all of his 19 seasons. His longevity is a remarkable feat, and surely his unique stance allowed him to endure at a physically demanding position.

Baseball has always been a traditional sport; there will always be a crowd that is opposed to change. Up until recently, catchers were conditioned to use traditional methods when receiving a pitch. 

Catchers had typically used the “formal” two-stance setup. When a catcher gives signs to the pitcher, his feet are closer beneath his torso to hide the calls from wandering eyes. When the pitch is delivered, the right leg shifts behind to a staggered position as the feet are widened.

Catchers have long been the recipients of physical trauma (see Buster Posey). Donning the “tools of ignorance” has weathered many, especially the lower half of their bodies. Few catchers finish their careers behind the dish due to the physicality of the position, and many see their knees wear down eventually. Deep squatting puts a lot of stress on the joint, as it pulls on the tendons and squishes the cartilage. Rising from this position can put even more pressure on the joint.

Peña’s unprecedented take on receiving pitches genuinely gives himself and his team an advantage over others. By using this “informal” setup, he conserves energy, saves his knees from great stress, and most importantly has the ability to better frame the ever-so-important low strike.

Many players today have adopted a similar stance from one knee. Salvador Perez, J.T. Realmuto, and Gary Sanchez are among the best catchers in the game. They are also some of the players that adopted this style of “informal” catching.

El Gary isn’t an elite defensive-minded catcher, so this offseason he aimed to improve his framing. According to Baseball Prospectus, he was a below-average blocker in 2017 and 2018, and only slightly improved for the 2019 season. The Yankees recently brought in new catching coach, Tanner Swanson, to aid his receiving abilities.

Swanson was stationed up in Minnesota during the 2019 season, where he drastically improved Mitch Garver’s defensive capabilities. Garver adopted this “informal” stance under Swanson’s tutelage. Garver consistently dropped down to one knee, even with runners on base.

The most important factor in using this new stance is the ability to “steal” the low pitch. 

Having a lower base gives the illusion to umpires that the pitch is higher than it really is. If the same exact pitch is thrown and someone with a higher stance stabs downward at it, while another from one knee sweeps upwards to catch the ball, the latter will always be called a strike over the former. 

It’s an optical illusion and learning to play to the umpires’ tendencies is something that is critical to finding success in the Sabermetrics Era.