Catcher's relationship with pitcher instrumental
MINNEAPOLIS — After Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano struck out a career-high 15 batters Friday against Oakland, he credited part of it to being on the same page as catcher Drew Butera. Statistically speaking, there's something to that.
Liriano has indeed pitched better with Butera behind the plate this season compared to when Joe Mauer or Ryan Doumit catches. Liriano has a 2.70 ERA in 11 games with Butera catching him, compared to an 8.75 ERA with seven games as Mauer as his catcher and a 10.57 ERA in two games with Doumit behind the plate.
Each catcher calls a game differently, and the Twins are a baseball rarity in that they currently have three catchers on their roster. Butera doesn't provide as much offensively as Doumit or Mauer -- he's batting just .231 with four RBI in 24 games prior to Sunday -- but his teammates laud him for his ability to call a game and his defensive work behind the plate.
"Drew works really well with just about anybody you put out there," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "He's a defensive-minded catcher."
Mauer, meanwhile, is a three-time batting champion and five-time All-Star based on what he's done offensively in his career. Yet the 2009 American League MVP prides himself just as much on his ability to call games as he does in his prowess at the plate.
"I think I probably get a little bit more attention with my bat, but there's days when you can get your guy into the seventh inning when in the first or second inning you're just hoping to get maybe three or four. I take a lot of pride in that," Mauer said. "I think all catchers know that goes unnoticed a lot."
Doumit is in his first year with the Twins after seven seasons in Pittsburgh. He's played numerous positions for Minnesota this year, but he's caught in 32 games, including Sunday's start by left-hander Brian Duensing.
While all three catchers have the same goal of getting their pitcher deep into games, each has a different approach to doing so.
"I feel like Drew may be more of a no-nonsense, let's go right at them type of guy," said Duensing. "I think Joe is the type of catcher who will try and get ahead but isn't afraid to go to the offspeed stuff. Doumit, I feel like he's the type of guy who finds the pitch that's working and tries not to stray away from it too far."
So what does it take for a pitcher and catcher to be on the same page? Is there a trick to calling a good game? It begins with the catcher's knowledge of the pitcher he's catching -- what mix of pitches he throws, what pitches are working best that day and how the pitcher reacts to different situations and adjustments the batters make.
Of course, it's also essential to know the opposing hitters, but all three Twins catchers say that having a read on the starting pitcher is the top priority.
"I'd say the most important thing is knowing who's out there, knowing obviously what he can do that day, knowing his pitches and knowing what's working that day," Mauer said. "That's your job as a catcher is to try to put your pitcher in the best position possible to have success."
Added Doumit: "I think you've got to find out what's working well for a pitcher on that given day, what he has the most command with, what he feels the most comfortable throwing. I think that's first and foremost."
Now that Mauer's in his ninth season, he's gotten to know most of the Twins' pitchers pretty well. He knows their tendencies and their best pitches, and he can pick up early on when they don't have their best stuff.
But Minnesota's rotation has been in flux over the past few years. The Twins have used 11 different starting pitchers this year and have seen players like Cole De Vries and Samuel Deduno make their first major league starts this season. That's made it a bit of a challenge for Minnesota's catchers as they need to learn about each starter.
"It makes it fun," Butera said. "You don't wish anything on anybody, any injuries or anything like that, but you deal with the hand that you've got. It makes it fun to learn new guys and to help them succeed."
A pitcher and his catcher might not always be on the same page -- it will usually be evident early on if they're not. But the way a catcher calls the game, talks to the pitcher when he's struggling, or adjusts to what opposing hitters are doing is instrumental in how the pitcher fares on the mound. Calling a game isn't necessarily a skill that can be taught, but rather learned over time through trial and error with each pitcher.
Those things won't show up in the box score, but they're certainly a big part of baseball.
"It's real important that the catcher controls the game and helps (the pitcher) out," Gardenhire said. "That's the important part of the job as a catcher is being able to handle the pitchers, make sure you calm them down, understanding what the hitters or for and making those adjustments during the game. I think our catchers do a pretty decent job of that."
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