As a child and the lone girl on my Little League team, there was nothing more enticing than the dream of being able to be the team's catcher. All that equipment looked so legit and there was something appealing about taking two out check swings while wearing shinguards. After all, no Little Leaguer wants to wait for a slowpoke catcher.
As I grew up and my baseball knowledge expanded, I became aware that there were a whole lot of reasons that made catchers cool that had nothing to do with all that awesome extra equipment.
If you think there is a position more imperative to a team's success than a great catcher, maybe this will change your mind.
There's a good reason the catcher is often referred to as the general on the field. He must be hyper-aware of his surroundings. His teammates' strengths and weaknesses, as well as the opponents', are all knowledge that a catcher must have ingrained. The more a catcher knows about what is going on with everyone around him, the more likely he is to come up with good and quick decisions.
The catcher must have an extraordinary working knowledge of everyone on the opposing squad, whether they are found in the starting lineup or not. It would be dangerous to call for pitches without this sort of intel at his fingertips. What speeds and pitch types a batter is or is not fond of must be within a catcher's immediate arsenal. Truly good catchers have an even more extensive knowledge, knowing a batter's habits based on different pitch counts and game situations. When you consider how many opposing teams a catcher will see in a single season, it becomes an almost baffling amount of information to take in.
In addition to knowing the opposing team, a catcher must have a great knowledge of his own pitchers and defense as well. He needs to be well-versed in what pitches his hurler is capable of, and even be able to instinctually know exactly what a pitcher is capable of on any given day. He needs to know when to give in to his pitchers wishes and when to stand his ground.
A catcher must also know exactly what is going on with his own defense. Where they are positioned and the range of each player is important when determining just what pitches a batter will see. A truly great catcher will often know where the play will take place before it even happens.
And if there's a runner on base? A catcher must make sure to hold him at bay and predict his actions while keeping track of the batter at the plate.
There is no position on the field nearly as demanding as that of the catcher. Some could make arguments that it is nearly as taxing to be the pitcher. Even if that were true, a starting pitcher works every five days and a reliever works for only a handful of innings. A good catcher is seeing at least nine innings of action five days a week.
A tough workout for most people is just a handful of squats. A catcher squats and jumps up an innumerable amount of times during the course of a game. It requires extreme durability and strength to be able to handle that. By about squat 30, most people can focus only on gritting through another squat. How his legs feel is the least of a catcher's worries, so he better be ready to sustain it.
It isn't just a catcher's legs that take a beating. A catcher takes a ton of foul tip balls, bang-bang plays at the plate and even an occasional misfired swing to his body. A catcher's equipment is merely padding. It doesn't prevent all the damage a catcher sees during the course of an ordinary game.
It isn't enough for a catcher to just be physically strong—he needs to be emotionally and mentally strong as well. No matter what is going on in the game, it never behooves a great catcher to get emotionally involved. It is the catcher's job to keep the bigger pitcher in mind, keep his pitcher calm and keep the umpire on his side.
Catchers will often develop a rapport with an umpire. A catcher must have an advanced knowledge of the umpire's strike zone and a keen ability to expand that strike zone with pitch framing. A catcher must also be able to talk to the umpire calmly when he feels a pitcher isn't on the receiving end of a favorable strike zone. He must also be able to make the opposing batters feel on edge without getting himself into trouble. It's very nearly political behind the plate.
Besides keeping his cool around the umpires, a catcher must know what his pitchers need. Pitchers can often be the divas on a team, prone to both physical and mental breakdowns. A catcher must be able to talk a pitcher through a problem and know when he has had enough.
There's a reason a catcher like Joe Mauer was on the receiving end of a $183 million contract. Good offensive catchers are tough to come by. Mauer's excellent hitting ability is accentuated by how shallow offensively the catcher position is. As strictly a first baseman, bats like Mauer's can be a dime a dozen.
A catcher's great strength must come defensively as they are running the field. Unfortunately, a catcher will always find himself in the lineup. Unlike pitchers who don't need to worry about their offensive prowess (in half the majors, anyway), a catcher must work on his offense as well as having the greatest defensive knowledge of anyone else on the squad. No matter how great he is defensively, a catcher hitting below the Mendoza line is going to find himself in danger of losing his job.
If a catcher is an asset at the plate as well as behind, a team is already setting itself up for success.