Why the Rays Traded for a Catcher Who Can’t Throw. The title of the FiveThirtyEight.com article about the Hank Conger trade was too intriguing to pass over (and not borrow.) Conger is coming off of one of the worst seasons ever by a catcher in caught-stealing percentage; one in which he threw out one of 43 runners. Tampa Bay still wanted him. The article, which gives a statistical view of Conger and catching in general, implies pop time and arm strength do not have a big impact on the running game over which pitchers have far more control. Framing pitches, as difficult as it may be to quantify, is much more important and an area where Conger excels. The spread in runs saved between the best-throwing and worst-throwing catchers is tiny (6.3 runs) as compared to the spread between the best and worst framers (44.2 runs.) Put another way, a catcher who is a great receiver has a much greater influence on the outcome of a ballgame than one with a cannon for an arm. If it’s true in the Majors, it is doubly so in youth baseball.
When I started thinking about lineups before last season, I knew my son would start behind the plate. He really enjoys catching and he had shown some aptitude during the rec season. My only hesitation was his arm strength and throwing inconsistency. Hesitation turned into trepidation as the season opener neared because in the Cal Ripken Tournament runners could steal any base once the ball passed the plate. I started envisioning a carousel of runners who would take off even on strikes over the heart of the plate. I mentioned something to an opposing coach at the tournament meeting who shot me a quizzical look and said “no one steals unless the ball gets behind the catcher.”
As the season played out, I realized he was right. I found the most important things my catcher could do were catching the pitches which should be caught, keeping as many bad ones as possible from going to the backstop and getting the ball back to the pitcher consistently. Being a good receiver helped us far more than the runners stealing hurt. Good catching kept the game moving and kept the pitcher in a rhythm. There might not be pitch framing in the traditional sense in youth baseball, but a catcher who sticks pitches, and by that I mean catches them, and keeps the umpire from getting drilled is going to get a lot of called strikes with the very liberal interpretations of the strike zone at the young ages. And the umpires appreciate good catching. In the season opener, I went to pull my son after two innings to give him a break and the umpire asked me to leave him in, “He’s doing a great job. He’s keeping the game moving. Please don’t take him out.” For my young pitchers, finding a rhythm is critical. Pitching well is about repeatability which is hard enough to achieve in practice for these kids, let alone in a game situation where they have to wait a minute between pitches because their middle infielders are fetching the throw back from the catcher.
For sure, we were run on a lot during the season. We only caught one runner stealing and that was on a tag play on an attempted steal of home. The steals came either on balls which went to the backstop or in situations where I instructed our catchers to hold the ball. Not one was on was on a pitch caught by the catcher in a situation where they were free to throw. And it didn’t matter who was behind the plate. My best player, my stud pitcher who throws in the low 50s and is a vacuum at short, had 25 steals against over eight innings as a catcher. I didn’t keep stats on wild pitches and passed balls, but I know the steals weren’t because he wasn’t doing all the right things behind the plate. A lot of kids were getting on and a lot of bad pitches he had no chance of getting to were going to the backstop when he was catching. Even your best player isn’t going to nab a lot of runners and while it may be a highlight reel play in youth baseball, throwing out runners attempting to steal doesn’t define good catching.
As I think about next year, I have no hesitation about my son being number one on the depth chart at catcher. He still has work to do on his throwing and his footwork moving from the squat to a strong throwing position, but this winter we will focus on continuing to improve areas he did a good job in as a receiver. I also need to find a few more kids who have the aptitude to be good receivers and the desire to catch (you can have the best glove, but if you don’t want to be behind the plate you’re not going to do well). If they have a strong arm all the better, but it won’t be the deciding factor. There’s so much talk about arm strength and pop time, but in youth baseball, while your catchers won’t lose you any games with their arm, they just might steal a few with their glove.
Double click for a video of Conger discussing his approach: