Revisit: So Your Catcher Can’t Throw

Spring Break for the kids means a break for me as well so I’m revisiting one of the most popular post on 8U Travel So Your Catcher Can’t Throw.  Its intent was not to imply catchers don’t need to be strong throwers.  A couple of commenters pointed out that regardless of where Hank Conger ranks among his major league peers, he’s still one of the world’s best throwers.  Absolutely true.  Rather the purpose was to say in the grand scheme of things having a catcher who catches pitches well and blocks bad pitchers well will win you more games than the strongest throw can ever hope to (here’s another great article on what a catcher who’s a great framer means to a ball club from a sabermetric point of view.) 

 As a youth coach, it may mean rethinking what you look for in your catcher, particularly in rec ball and at the younger ages where it takes five miracles to throw a prospective base stealer out (the pitch has to not go to the backstop or the catcher has to retrieve it quickly, the catcher has to make a perfect throw, the fielder has to catch the throw, the fielder has to apply a tag all of which means the runner has to be slow or has to have had an extremely bad jump.)  Personally, at this age, I would rather have my strong throwers on the left side of the infield. 

Throughout the winter months, my son’s catching drills focused on ensuring he continued to cement his receiving fundamentals and on improving his throwing.  Each week, after his receiving drills, we focused on first improving his footwork and speed in moving from the squat to a good throwing position with particular attention on making a good transition of the ball from the glove to the throwing hand.  Then we worked on doing it and making a strong throw.  Then we worked on proper footwork to make a throw to third with a batter (we used a chair) in the right-handed hitter’s batter’s box.  If he’s to continue to develop as a catcher, he has to continue to improve at all aspects of catching.  Still, we would never work on just throwing as receiving is far more critical to his success as a youth catcher than throwing.

So Your Catcher Can’t Throw

035 Revist So You're Catcher Can't ThrowWhy 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:

TeamSnap: Four Ways to Organize A Productive Practice

028 TeamSnap

Here’s an excerpt from the post I wrote for the TeamSnap blog:

I like to rotate all the kids through all the stations. Even the non-catchers try the catching drill, because it’s good throwing work either way and you never know when we’ll be forced to use an “emergency” catcher.

Here’s the link to the post: https://blog.teamsnap.com/general-sports/four-ways-to-organize-a-productive-baseball-practice

Tryouts Need Not Be Feared

023 TryoutsMention tryouts to youth coaches and you’ll hear the words hate and dread a lot.  Tryouts are fraught with politics and issues with parents, not to mention the unpleasant business of having to cut kids which no one wants to do at the younger ages.  All of this makes them difficult to run and much longer than necessary.  Simplifying the format can cut through all the [expletive-deleted] and angst.  And after all, shouldn’t tryouts bring some excitement from watching young kids “rise to the occasion”, the possibility of adding some new talent to the ball club and the anticipation of a new season with its infinite possibilities when your record is 0-0?

My team is part of a town-run program which is a great thing as it keep the costs low and eliminates the need to force kids to play year round to help justify a high cost.  To reduce the potential for issues surrounding tryouts and politics and parents (and I’ve heard there have been some in the past), the head coach is the only adult allowed on the field during tryouts.  Ever try throwing BP or hitting fungoes with a clipboard in your hand?  Personally I am against the mollification, but you can’t change the fact parents see what they want to see no matter what actually happens on the field.

The parental blindness also leads to kids trying out who really shouldn’t.  At the top-end of the ability spectrum, you’ve got kids who throw hard.  At tryouts at the lower end of the spectrum you have kids who can’t catch the ball.  Hello safety issue.  No one likes cutting kids, but sometimes you really need to for the kid’s sake.  And while I love the fact our program’s policy is to field as many teams as the number of kids who come out permits, that doesn’t mean the reason a kid tries out for a summer travel team shouldn’t be a bit beyond “Johnny just loves baseball so much.”  The parents ought to realize this or at least temper their expectations.  Let me put it this way, my son loves hockey, but he doesn’t really know how to skate.  If I brought him to a travel team’s tryouts, whose fault would it be when he doesn’t make it?

Yet in order to appease those same parents, tryouts typically become long, overblown affairs.  Parents have a hard time believing it’s possible to evaluate a player without hours upon hours of tryouts.  I’ve seen coaches therefore rotate the players through every spot on the field as if a kid is trying out for a particular position which only leads to chaos and lengthens the process.  If a kid this age has good mechanics when fielding grounders, he can field them at any spot in the infield.  I would argue there are only two positions to evaluate players at during tryouts (at least at the 9U level): generic infield and generic outfield.  Sure you want to look for potential pitchers and catchers but you need more than a few kids in these slots as a nine-year-old isn’t pitching or catching a complete game, and therefore you’re not in a position to take a kid whose only asset is a live pitching arm for example.

To combat all this, I run tryouts based on the way any open tryout I ever went to was run, the only difference being everyone participates in each drill.  Four stations to evaluate speed, fielding, throwing and hitting then a short session on pitching and catching simply to see if there are any potential additions to the rotation and if anyone who fancies themselves a catcher can receive.  Quick and easy and I’m done inside of one hour and 30 minutes.  If I were allowed to have other coaches assist in the evaluations, I would even run some stations in parallel to keep the kids from standing around at all.  In order:

  • Warm-ups and throwing to loosen the arms: I pay attention to how the kids throw when they are loosening up.  As the Ripken brothers say, you can often tell who’s going to win a game by which team throws better in the pregame.  The same is true for tryouts.
  • 40 yard dash: People have told me I should have them run from home plate second base, but you can always teach kids baserunning technique.
  • Four grounders at short with a throw to first: If you can field a ground ball at one infield position, you can field them at any infield position.  And if you can make a throw from shortstop, you can make it from anywhere.  Here I’m looking for feet, hands and throwing accuracy on balls directly at the fielder, to either side and on one they have to charge.
  • Two grounders in center field with a throw home: This one is more about making a strong, accurate throw than anything else though I will look for their approach to the ball and their transition from fielding to throwing.
  • Two fly balls in center with throw home: Are they able to judge fly balls?  Again a decent throw is a good thing.
  • Eight swings at the plate: Eight is more than enough.
  • Pitching and Catching: Five fastballs (which is all kids this age should be throwing anyway.)  Again here I am just looking to see if I have any potential pitchers.  Given a nine-year-old isn’t going to throw more than two innings a game I need a lot of them to pitch.  The catchers are there because a) the pitcher needs someone to throw to and b) I want to see if the kids who want to catch can receive pitches.  I don’t make all the kids catch, only the ones who are interested.  And I don’t do catcher throwing evaluations because it doesn’t matter at this age as it takes multiple miracles to throw a runner out (here’s a post about why receiving is more important than throwing from youth catchers.)

That’s it.  Nothing more.  Why make it any longer than needed?  I’ve been told you need more fielding (you don’t), you need to move the kids around to different positions (you don’t) and you need to give them more swings (it’s wishful thinking a kid who has missed eight is magically going to hit the ninth and you’re evaluating the swing not the outcome.)  Having each kid participate in exactly the same drill gives me a much better way to compare them.  And because every kid participates in every drill, it’s much harder for parents to argue the process wasn’t fair or their kid didn’t get a fair shot.   Doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  It just means it’s a hard argument to raise.

This year because we’ve moved the tryouts to much earlier in the year, I am thinking about including a scrimmage (on a different date) which is often the second part of the open tryout format.  While I’m loathe to make the tryout process any longer, I do look forward to making tryouts a little more fun for the kids while at the same time giving me a sense of their “game faces.”

Hey, now I’m starting to get excited.  Tryouts are around the corner.  That’s a good thing.

So Your Catcher Can’t Throw


Why the Rays Traded for a Catcher Who Can’t Throw
.  The title of the 018 Pop Time 001FiveThirtyEight.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:

The Royals: A Youth Coach’s Dream

011 Kansas City Royals 001The Royals ability to make contact was a hot topic throughout the postseason.  Though I had tweeted about it a month ago (ESPN’s “Blueprint for October Success“), I hadn’t given it a second thought until a friend asked what I thought about Kansas City’s contact rate.  What I think is the Royals’ approach to hitting is what every youth baseball coach should be preaching.  They are aggressive at the plate.  Flying in the face of Money Ball, they swing early and often.  They go up to plate thinking swing first – “put good swings on the ball and put the ball in play.”  What is often overlooked is they swing hard and still make contact.  What youth coach wouldn’t want their players doing the same?

A quick look at the Royals’ 2015 regular season is revealing:

  • 29thin walks (last in the AL)
  • 30thin strikeouts (last in the majors)
  • Fewest pitches per plate appearance in the majors
  • 24thin HRs
  • 11thin slugging percentage
  • 3rdin team average

They may not hit the long ball, but the Royals aren’t a bunch of Punch and Judy hitters.  They swing hard (high slugging percentage despite few home runs) and they make great contact (high team average, low strikeouts).  I think a large part of their success comes from swinging at hittable pitches early in the count (low pitches per plate appearance and low walks) instead of working the count and waiting on the home run ball.

011 Kansas City Royals 002

Driving up pitch counts is more accountable for the overall increase in strikeouts and lower batting averages than chasing the home run.   When you work counts, you take a lot of pitches that could be hit and put yourself into a lot of two-strike situations.  It may work at the major league level where you want to get to the bullpen and where the hitters are so good they can hit in any count and are strong enough the HRs overcome the strikeouts, but it is the antithesis of what you want young ballplayers doing.

With my young players, I constantly stress going up to the plate ready to swing.  Be aggressive up there; it’s called hitting after all.  It’s why I won’t let my players bunt (heck I won’t teach them how to bunt until they’re a bit older.)  I want them swinging hard every time but staying within themselves so they don’t open up early or pull their heads out or develop a hitch trying to jack the ball.  I also don’t want them leaving the outcome in the hands of the umpires with the extremely generous (and rightfully so at this age) strike zones.  Mostly, I want them learning to put good swings on the ball and to make good contact.  Put the ball in play and good things happen.  And that is pretty much the Royals’ approach to hitting in a nutshell.

“. . . I hate striking out.  So I’m going to battle as much as I can.  Even if I hit a weak ground ball, I feel like that’s a lot better than striking out.  This is a crazy game.  As long as you put it in play, something good might happen.” – Alex Gordon

Though I would have liked to see the Mets win the World Series (even if I am a Yankees fan, I’m a born and bred New Yorker,) I’m happy to see the Royals’ success on the biggest stage.  It’s a good opportunity to show my players a great major league team doing all the things my kids should do.  Thanks Kansas City, you are a youth coach’s dream.