Lindbergh: The hidden forces that affect how catchers perform at the plate

From SAR member Ben Lindbergh at The Ringer on March 26, 2018:

“He was in the fire, and we were lookin’ into it,” Brewers backstop Ted Simmons said to New Yorker writer Roger Angell in the spring of 1983. Simmons was speaking about Steve Lake, a fellow Milwaukee catcher; while Lake had been behind the plate in an Arizona exhibition game, Simmons and two younger catchers had been on the bench, trying to think along with Lake and determine the perfect pitch to call. In the dugout, they debated the merits of fastballs vs. breaking balls on 2-2 counts, but they didn’t disturb Lake, who had work to do and no time to talk. He was in the fire and beyond being helped.

That sentence from Simmons, which Angell lifted for the title of a 1984 essay, is apt because we watch catchers the way we watch fires: mesmerized by their movements, but lulled into bleariness and barely aware of the atomic interactions producing the surface effects that we see. Catching is complicated, a combination of technical craft and cult of personality; it’s receiving, blocking, throwing, defensive positioning, and pitch-calling, all folded into the same physically punishing pursuit. The other seven spots in the infield and outfield are positions. Catching is an imposition. And almost cruelly, catchers also have to hit.

Elsewhere in his essay, Angell noted that the catcher briefly becomes the center of attention on plays at the plate but lamented “the anonymity we have carelessly given to our receiver in the other, and far more lengthy, interludes of the game.” In recent years, catchers have, for their own safety, surrendered the star-making, occasionally career-breaking practice of blocking the baseline, but on balance, they’ve gained greater renown. The advent of pitch-tracking technology has confirmed the existence of the position’s long-suspected but theretofore-unproven powers, revealing the vast value that skilled strike-stealers can accrue across thousands of toss-up pitches and spawning fawning features about framing and GIF-filled exegeses about catchers who’ve abruptly ascended or descended the new-look leaderboards.

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Originally published: March 26, 2018. Last Updated: March 26, 2018.