They’ve been stealing strikes for a long time…
A few weeks ago, as you’ll no doubt remember, I related my discovery of references to pitch-framing, and the technique thereof, in a book published in 1982 and written by Milwauke Brewers personnel. I was particularly taken with the term stri-ball, used to describe a pitch on the edge of the strike zone that might easily have been called either way by the umpire.
Our goal is not to have balls called strikes, but to have every strike called a strike. We especially want the marginal strike, the “stri-ball,” called a strike. This is the ball on the corners, the pitch just at or slightly below the knees, the fastball just above the waist, and the curveball at the waist. How we catch this pitch determines whether it will be called a ball or a strike.
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Remember, we want only those strikes we are entitled to. Good framing technique will usually get you more marginal pitches. We are not trying to put one over on the umpire, only to give our strikes the best showcase possible. If you are not smooth, the umpire will feel that you are trying to take advantage of him by pulling pitches into the strike zone, and he could take pitches away from you.
Later, I got to wondering when people actually started talking about this stuff, publicly?
Some years ago, I collected dozens and dozens of books about pitching. Some of these books were actually about playing baseball, generally; I just got them for the parts about pitching. But all those books, about a dozen of them, also include instructions for catchers. So I dug these out and looked for references to pitch-framing…
And didn’t find much. A quick summary:
In 1951’s The Way to Better Baseball — written by former Yankees great Tommy Henrich and Brooklyn high-school baseball coach A.L. Plaut — the authors say, "On a pitch that is on the corner or at the shoulders or knees, he should hold it there after gloving the ball to let the umpire see how good it is; but it is amateurish and futile to pull bad balls into the strike zone to try to fool the umpire."
In 1953’s Baseball: Major League Technique and Tactics, ex-major leaguer Ethan Allen wrote, "Low balls are caught with the fingers down, and high ones with the fingers up. The hands are retracted gradually up and in on low pitches, and down and in on high ones. Similarly, all pitches that are slightly wide of the plate are brought in. Questionable pitches are often called strikes if caught in this manner. Some catchers develop a habit of jerking the ball up or down or over the plate. This, however, is an admission that the pitch passed outside the strike zone, and in most cases the pitch will be ruled a ball by the umpire. An exception to the above rule is the pitch just off the corner of the plate that is sometimes ruled a strike because the catcher holds his hands where the ball is caught. The glove covers a portion of the plate, and unless the umpire is in perfect position to call the pitch he may think the ball passed through the strike area."
In 1954’s Championship Baseball: From Little League to Big League, author William T. "Buck" Lai — whom I consider the only Chinese-American player in major-league history, even though he never actually got into a game with the New York Giants — wrote that the catcher "should bring every pitch that is in the strike zone into his belt buckle. By doing this, he is bringing the ball over the center of the plate, making the umpire’s job easier. The umpire can easily see the pitch is a strike and can call it correctly… If the ball is not in the strike zone, the catcher has to shift to catch it, in order to be in position to throw. But the catcher should not shift his feet on a borderline pitch. If he does, he may influence the umpire to call the pitch a ball…"
In 1956, Dell published a paperback book titled You Can Play Better Baseball, written by ex-major leaguer Lew Watts. Actually, each of the individual chapters was supposedly written by a major-league star, but I suspect that was a commercial subterfuge. So I’m not at all sure that Roy Campanella had anything to do with the chapter about catching. Nevertheless, the list of tips about "receiving" pitches does include these:
6. Catch high pitches with a minimum of body raising — don’t block the umpire.
7. Always catch a low pitch from underneath — bring it up.
8. Always catch a high pitch from above — bring it down.
9. Bring all pitches toward the belt buckle.
Here’s Tim McCarver from 1972’s Sports Illustrated Baseball: "Catch the ball as far in front of your body as possible without interfering with the batter. Umpires are fooled sometimes by curve balls which break out of the strike zone after crossing the plate. You are not trying to trick them by grabbing the ball before it goes outside. I never try to jerk a ball back into strike territory after catching it. I catch the ball in front of me to make sure that the umpire calls a legitimate strike."
Okay, so Ethan Allen comes the closest to actually saying the goal, or one of them anyway, is to get strikes on pitches that are actually outside the strike zone. And that might actually have been in 1938; I have the 1953 edition of the book, but I suspect it was little-changed from the original edition, published 15 years earlier.
Here’s one more reference, though, and it’s a doozy:
The good receiver often makes many doubtful pitches strikes by catching the ball properly. This is not done by jerking or pulling the ball over the plate. Instead it is done by bringing all those close pitches toward the belt buckle if they are just inside our outside of home plate. The clever receiver accomplishes this by bring all pitches toward his belt buckle, and then returning the ball to the pitcher. The entire action must be smooth if the umpire is to be deceived. Deception in this case is quite ethical and a part of the game, as the call is based on the umpire’s judgement and not on whether a thing is right or wrong.
That’s from Al Campanis’s book, The Dodger Way to Play Baseball, originally published in 1954 and kept in print for around 20 years, at least. My edition’s from the 1960s, but it doesn’t seem the book was revised much, if at all, during all those years.
One thing you might have noticed: Among seven citations, three advocate the belt-buckle technique, which seems obvious but I suppose obvious is good when you’re teaching kids. What’s different about Campanis is that he actually admits to what nobody else really does: The catcher is trying to steal strikes.
Which we can now trace back roughly 60 years.