by Doug Wedge
Watch a baseball game, and the catcher flashes his fingers, signing for the next pitch to throw.
How does the catcher know which pitch to call?
According to Charlie O'Brien, a catcher who spent fifteen seasons in the Major Leagues, it depends on who's pitching.
"My job was to find out what a pitcher liked to do. I called a game around that, based on that pitcher's strengths and weaknesses. I knew which pitches they had the most confidence in, the pitch they'd want to throw when the game's on the line. In those situations, I wanted to sign for the pitch they wanted to throw so that we'd be in
sync. That way, they'd be like, 'Hey, we're on the same page. We're thinking alike.' I don't want them getting frustrated with me, waiting for me to go through a few signs before landing on what they want to throw. We need to click."
That cohesion can build a pitcher's confidence says Don Heinkel, winner of the most games (fifty-one) in college baseball history.
"I think a big thing . . . is if you knew [the catcher was] behind you one hundred percent and that they have confidence in you. That really helps a pitcher have that little extra confidence also."
Confidence and comfort go hand in hand, Heinkel explains.
"You've got to throw a pitch that you're comfortable with. Let's say they call a fastball. It may be the right pitch to throw, but you're only eighty percent confident in it, and you only throw with eighty percent of your heart, it's not a good pitch. If you throw the wrong pitch with one hundred percent of your heart, you've got a better shot
than throwing a pitch you only eighty percent believe in."
Catchers also need to tap into some chess match strategy. O'Brien credits Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton for helping him master this aspect of pitch selection.
"Working with him was like going to a pitching clinic and learning from a genius. Sutton had pitch selection
down to a science. He threw off hitters' timing by speeding them up and then slowing them down."
When O'Brien played with Sutton, it was toward the end of the pitcher's career. Although Sutton didn't
overpower hitters, he changed speeds and the placement of the ball so the hitter had to adjust his eye level with each pitch.
"He'd start with a fastball away, then a curve. Follow that with a fastball inside, then a slider. Then he might come back inside with another fastball. Then a changeup. It was fast and slow, in and out. With slightly above average stuff, he stifled hitters, and it was all because he kept them from getting comfortable. Kept them guessing, mixing his pitch selection and speeds and moving the ball around so that they never knew what was coming.
I was like, 'Damn. He's forty something years-old. He's not throwing very hard, but he's still getting guys out at the big league level. It's pretty cool how he's doing it.'"
Catchers also know the scouting reports, profiling hitters' likes and dislikes, identifying who's hot and swinging the bat well.
Sometimes, these factors gel. When the catcher signs for the pitch, the pitcher agrees with no hesitation and fires. The battery works fluidly, communicating through series of flashing fingers and quick head nods, punctuated by the ball smacking the catcher's glove, and the process repeats itself for the next pitch.
A seasoned catcher like O'Brien who understands pitch selection can allow the pitcher to focus on executing pitches rather than deciding which pitch to throw. Newly elected Hall of Famer Tom Glavine notes the difference working with O'Brien offered.
"The thing I always looked forward to when Charlie caught me was, and I don't mean to say this in the wrong way, but it was almost as if you felt like you could go out there and turn half of your brain off because you knew you didn't have to think overly more than you wanted to because Charlie was going to help you get through the game so to speak. You knew you weren't going to have to recall scouting reports or recall sequences of pitches by yourself the whole game because . . . [y]ou knew he remembered what happened the last at-bat or the
sequence of pitches. So, really, from a mental standpoint, he took a lot of the workload off of you."
This was one of O'Brien's goals: "I wanted us to get to the point where the pitcher didn't have to think. I wanted them to have enough faith in me to block out pitch selection and just focus on making their pitch. Sometimes, this worked out. Guys like Tom Glavine, Frank Viola, and Roger Clemens, they trusted me and the pitches I was calling. They went on auto-pilot. All they had to do was throw."
Other times, tandems did not achieve this trust and flow.
O'Brien says, "Sometimes, it didn't matter how much homework I did, I couldn't figure out which direction a pitcher wanted to go. Like with Chris Bosio. I caught Chris quite a bit when we played together in Milwaukee.
One time, I put down two or three signs. He shook me off each time. Finally, I put down a five and set up. He stepped off the mound and looked at me kind of funny. Then he called me out there.
"'What's a five?' he asked.
"'Five is I don't know what in the hell you're going to throw, but I could give a shit. Just throw it.'
While understanding the scouting reports and the pitcher's preferences can help the catcher decide which pitch to call, the catcher may also call for a pitch based on years of playing baseball and knowing the unexpected will work in the right situation.
O'Brien remembers, "One time, I was catching Tim Belcher with the Angels. He didn't throw sliders,
but, in a 3-2 count, I called for a slider. He threw it. Punched the guy out. We were walking back to the dugout, inning over, out of a big situation, and he asked, 'Why did you call that?'
"'I just felt like you were going to throw me a good one.'"