A Relationship That Transcends Analytics

A Relationship That Transcends Analytics

The weeks leading up to Major League Baseball’s trading deadline are always tense. Every team has to evaluate where they are in the standings, what the organization’s long-term outlook is and how much could be changed by acquiring a few veterans.

Depending on how the math shakes out, clubs decide if they are buying or selling — the Mets, for instance, are selling in a big way — at which point they begin reaching out to other teams to try to find a match. Along the way, players are left to ponder what moves their teams will make and whether they will soon be on the move.

Not knowing which city they will be living in the following week can be overwhelming, even for professional ballplayers. And things don’t necessarily get easier once the deadline passes, as they are immediately thrust into a pennant race and expected to justify the price that was doled out to acquire them.

Those challenges are universal, but they are heightened whenever a catcher is involved. The saying goes that baseball is a simple game, but tell that to a catcher suddenly asked to manage a dozen new pitchers, most of whom he has never caught before.

“The hard part, especially if you are coming in and you’re going to get the bulk of the catching duties, is that you have to do this for five starters, seven relievers, and you’re rinsing and repeating on a daily basis,” said Gerrit Cole, the ace right-hander of the Yankees. “You’re doing this while you’re getting used to the hitting routine and the hitting platform and the coaches and how long it takes you to get to the ballpark and all these other things that come along with moving.”

Among the teams that could be in the market for a new catcher before Tuesday’s 6 p.m. Eastern deadline, despite those challenges? Cole’s Yankees, who have not gotten much offensive production from Kyle Higashioka and lost Jose Trevino — one of the game’s most talented pitch-framers — to a season-ending injury.

Evaluating whether the team should make such a move, however, is complicated by the fact that in an era where nearly everything is quantified, the pitcher-catcher relationship transcends analytics. This intangible symbiosis is the bedrock of many championship-winning teams. Developing it takes time, though exactly how long depends on the individual pitcher and catcher.

“Complete flow takes, I don’t really have a number,” Cole said. “I would say more than three games, less than 10.”

Considering that most starters have no more than 12 regular season starts remaining after the deadline, and that each of those starts could be the difference between making or missing the playoffs, time is not a luxury that newly acquired catchers can afford. Instead, they are forced to adjust on the fly and forge relationships with pitchers as they go along.

“It’s like speed dating,” said Jonathan Lucroy, a former All-Star catcher who was sent to a contender on the day of the deadline in both 2016 and 2017, helping both of his new teams reach the playoffs.

Lucroy, who played his final M.L.B. game in 2021, hit well after both trades, but he said the pitchers were his main responsibility. In 2016, when he went to the Texas Rangers from the Milwaukee Brewers, he provided stability to a Rangers staff that had already worked with four other catchers that season. A year later, when the Rangers fell to fourth place, they sent Lucroy to the Colorado Rockies. Colorado’s earned run average dropped from a bloated 4.73 before his arrival to a much more respectable 4.09.

In hopes of getting to know his new pitchers, Lucroy would strike up conversations about many topics other than baseball, and he devoted hours to sifting through scouting reports and watching video.

“I would make sure to catch them and get to know them, not just their stuff but also who they are,” Lucroy said. “Learning the personalities of the pitchers you’re catching is just as important.”

The central tenet of the pitcher-catcher relationship is trust. A pitcher needs to have faith in his catcher to call the correct pitches, properly receive the ones near the strike zone and block any of the deliveries that he spikes into the dirt. Once that trust is established, a pitcher can relax his mind and free his body to throw his pitches with authority. Without it, a pitcher is more likely to overthink his next pitch and second-guess his previous one.

To earn that trust, the catcher must know his pitcher’s tendencies and understand the mechanics behind them. He needs to learn how to manage his pitcher’s emotions, boost his confidence and massage his ego.

“A catcher’s primary reason for being on the field is to serve his pitchers,” Lucroy said. “It’s a position of extreme responsibility. It’s quite a burden to carry.”

That burden might be part of the reason that most of the recent midseason trades for catchers involved backups or platoon players rather than starters. Aside from Lucroy, the few starting catchers who have been traded before the deadline over the last 10 years include Christian Vázquez, Yan Gomes, Austin Hedges, Austin Nola, Wilson Ramos and Martín Maldonado. And among this group, only Nola, Ramos and Maldonado were the full-time catchers for their new teams.

One reason for the lack of in-season swaps could be that playoff-bound clubs typically have at least one decent catcher already on their roster. Also, teams might be more hesitant to trade for a catcher because there is much less time to get him up to speed. Before they agree to a deal, the teams want to be sure that the catchers they are considering can handle it.

“It might be more difficult for a certain player, less difficult for another player,” Cole said. “I think the organization itself and the pitching staff itself also contributes to how fast or slow that adaptation can happen.”

Adam Ottavino, a reliever for the Mets, said that, in general, catchers who are more improvisational might have an easier time joining a new organization midseason because “they’re feeling things out in the moment, and they’re willing to ad-lib and audible.” The more detail-oriented catchers who run through every possible scenario ahead of time can also make it work, as Lucroy did, but it might be tougher for them, he said.

As baseball becomes ever more analytically driven, though, the gap is shrinking between the guys who depend on data and those who rely on feel; many players do both, at least to some extent. The result is that even the most improvisational of catchers are expected to study and retain the vast sources of information available to them.

“It certainly takes time,” said Tanner Swanson, the Yankees’ catching coach. “Getting somebody integrated to not only the pitching staff and their individual strengths and preferences and how they like to attack hitters, but also learning the coaching staff and the support staff and how we like to disseminate information, how we go about our advanced meetings and how we leverage that information in game.”

“I think every organization is a little bit different in that regard,” Swanson added. “You’re not only learning players and people and personalities, but you’re trying to learn systems on the fly, too.”

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