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An Inside Look at How Pitchers, Catchers Attack MLB Superstars

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An Inside Look at How Pitchers, Catchers Attack MLB Superstars
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Baseball, it's often said, is a series of individual battles disguised as a team game.

The showdowns between pitcher and batter are the very essence of the sport, and even those one-on-ones can be broken down further, into pitch-by-pitch challenges. Baseball, then, really is roughly two to three hundred challenges spread out over about six dozen showdowns, all within a single game.

Not every one of these, of course, is created equal.

From the point of view of the pitcher and catcher—the two players most responsible for deciding which pitches to throw, as well as when, where and even why—certain individual battles are more like epic wars to be waged. Such are the stakes when it comes to attacking superstar hitters, an endeavor that has come to require careful preparation, in-depth strategy and precise execution. A little luck doesn't hurt, either.

KATHY WILLENS/Associated Press/Associated Press
John Flaherty spent 14 years behind the plate in the majors.

"I would say that about 75 to 80 percent of major league hitters you can pitch the same way," former big league backstop John Flaherty, now a YES Network analyst, tells Bleacher Report. "It's just a matter of finding their weakness and making your pitches to exploit that.

"With the very best hitters, though—the superstars—you can't pitch them the same way from at-bat to at-bat," says Flahertywho caught 1,032 major league games with five teams across both the AL and NL from 1992 to 2005, "because they're great hitters, but they're also smart hitters."

With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training this week, now's as good a time as any to explore how they go about teaming up to take on all hitters, especially the best ones.

 

The Evolution of Preparation and Information

Things have changed on this front quite a bit over the years and decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, and even into the 1990s, game-planning for how to throw to certain hitters used to be brief meetings between the pitchers and the pitching coach before the start of a series.

Now? Well, here's what ESPN baseball analyst Rick Sutcliffe, who pitched with five clubs over 18 seasons and won the 1979 Rookie of the Year and 1984 Cy Young Award, both in the NL, tells Bleacher Report:

There is a ton of information available now. Everybody is in front of a video machine, preparing for that day's game. They aren't doing too much extracurricular activity like playing cards or things like we used to do in my day. Then again, we didn't have access to all the footage and statistics and information that players today have. I'm jealous as can be—I would have loved to have that. Back then, I used to do a quick check of the box score just to see who was driving in runs and scoring runs for the opponent, and that was about it. That's nothing compared to what's available now.

Meanwhile, Flaherty recalls the first time he sat down to go over the opposing lineup with former pitcher Bob Tewksbury, a soft-throwing right-hander who relied on location, movement and changing speeds, when both were with the San Diego Padres in 1996:

Bob knew how he wanted to attack a lineup, especially the toughest hitters. The first time I met with him to discuss the other team's lineup before the game, Bob pulled out this legal pad. On that pad was the full list of the opposing hitters, and next to each name were specific notes about how he was going to pitch to each guy.

In 2014, though, pitchers and catchers have a whole lot more at their disposal than a coach's advice or a legal pad. These days, there are advance scouting reports that come in on a daily basis with detailed nuggets about hitters, including their approach or any changes or adjustments they've been making.

There's also a plethora of statistical data and information available. With a few clicks of the mouse or a couple taps on a tablet, sites like Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball (home of PITCHf/x) make all sorts of numbers accessible to any pitcher or catcher who wants to take advantage of diving into and dissecting the digits.

Want to know how new Seattle Mariner Robinson Cano does when he puts the ball in play on the first pitch of an at-bat? Baseball Reference has it, and considering he triple-slashed .386/.397/.675 in such situations last year, perhaps giving him something to hit right after he steps in the box isn't a good idea.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
AL West pitchers and catchers take heed: Avoid giving new Mariner Robinson Cano anything to hit right off the bat.

Or say veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan, who spent the first seven years of his career with the Cincinnati Reds before being swapped to the Tampa Bay Rays this offseason, wants to get more familiar with where his new ace left-hander David Price likes to locate his fastball against righty hitters. Well, there's a heat map for that, thanks to ESPN, among other sources.

Beyond all this, of course, teams have their own proprietary material that includes charts, graphs and breakdowns to help pitchers and catchers consume and digest just about everything they could possibly want—or even imagine—about how to attack hitters.

"The first guy I remember seeing who really started to glean all of that and funnel it into a game plan was Jason Varitek," says Sutcliffe, who took a tour of the Boston Red Sox facilities early on in the 2004 season.

"While I was there, I saw Varitek and Curt Schilling going over the plan for that night. They were there for quite a while, and Varitek was doing most of the talking. He had his book with him with all sorts of notes and information on the hitters they were about to face, and it was condensed into a specific approach against each batter. Obviously, there was more of a focus on what they were going to do against the big boys."

Sutcliffe said he found out that this was happening on a daily basis, and he felt "what Varitek was doing was a clear turning point for that franchise, in my opinion." Sutcliffe drew a direct connection from that early-2004 account to what eventually happened later that season—the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.

David Goldman/Associated Press
A two-time World Series champ with the Red Sox, Jason Varitek (middle) is now a special assistant to GM Ben Cherington (right).

"For me," Sutcliffe says, "no player was more significant to the Red Sox's stretch of winning seasons—and winning two World Series in 2004 and 2007—than Varitek."

 

Don't Let the Best Beat You 

Information, clearly, is key when considering which pitches to call for or throw against the superstar hitters based on which side of the plate they hit or what the count is or even whether there are runners on base.

But there's a mental aspect to attacking the best batters, too.

"When you're going over the opposing lineup with your starting pitcher," Flaherty says, "there's always that one hitter that you would try to stay away from or be extra careful with. To an extent, you can take your chances with everybody else—but you have to be ready for that guy."

Sutcliffe knows a thing or two about this from the pitcher's perspective:

No doubt, no matter who I was pitching against, there was always that opposing hitter where you go in thinking, 'If I'm going to get beat today, it's not going to be by him.' That was drilled into me by Johnny Oates, who was one of our catchers during my rookie year of 1979 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

By then Oates was already a nine-year veteran, and even though he only caught Sutcliffe on four occasions that season, three of those starts came in Sutcliffe's final seven as he was wrapping up the Rookie of the Year trophy. For what it's worth, the right-hander's numbers were markedly better with Oates behind the dish:

Rick Sutcliffe's 1979 Rookie of the Year Season
GAMES IP ERA WHIP K BB
Overall 39 242.0 3.46 1.30 117 97
With Johnny Oates 4 25.1 2.84 0.87 19 4

Baseball Reference

All told, Oates spent 11 seasons as a big league catcher before going on to manage 11 more years with the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers, compiling a .517 winning percentage overall and three division titles with the latter. Says Sutcliffe: "He was the one who told me, 'When guys hit in the heart of the order, they're there to hit.'"

Sutcliffe realized quickly that he could get those middle-of-the-lineup bats out "by throwing pitches that started in the zone and moved or broke out of it. You didn't necessarily have to throw strikes all the time—but the pitches had to look like strikes to get them to chase."

That's especially true when facing an All-Star-caliber hitter, which requires that much more effort, both physically and mentally.

"It's funny, because there were a lot of guys in my career who I fared pretty well against who wound up becoming Hall of Famers," Sutcliffe says. "But there were others who weren't nearly as good who did more damage against me. Part of that, I think, is because of how much I had to focus and prepare against the superstars."

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Rick Sutcliffe won Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers in 1979 then the NL Cy Young with the Cubs in 1984.

That said, the pitcher and catcher need to be ready—and willing—to scrap the plan of attack against a certain hitter if something changes on a given day.

"One of the big decisions is whether to exploit a particular hitter's weakness or rely on the pitcher's strength," says Sutcliffe. "From a pitcher's point of view, a lot can change from start to start and even inning to inning, like release point or feel for a specific pitch. It's important not to be a slave to the plan if you can no longer execute that plan."

In other words, it's key for catchers to learn quickly. Backstops need to be able to recognize and diagnose what's working—and more importantly, what's not—for his pitcher on a given day.

Here's Flaherty:

I would say that 95 percent of the guys I caught didn't realize when they didn't have their good stuff on a particular day. That means it's on me, as the catcher, to be aware of what is working well, what's working a little bit and what isn't working at all.

Catchers can see a lot from back there (behind the plate), like how well the pitcher is locating and commanding his stuff, or whether hitters are off balance against a certain pitch, or if they're taking that pitch because they can pick it up a little too well.

That's when the pitcher and catcher need to work together to get through the lineup, with special attention paid to the best hitters, so they won't be the ones to determine the outcome of the game.

"At that point, it really becomes a pitch-by-pitch basis," Flaherty says. "Both the pitcher and catcher have to know what the pitcher has and determine whether he can execute in a big spot against a dangerous batter."

 

Succeeding Against Specific Superstars

Speaking of dangerous batters, there is a way to get them out, at least some of the time. Although, even that, like the available statistics and information, has changed over the years.

"When I first broke into the bigs, we used to pitch good hitters away and play them away," Flaherty says. "That could work because it limited the damage—they might get a base hit, but they weren't reaching the seats by hitting the ball to the opposite field that much."

This isn't the case anymore, though.

"Now, if you pitch superstars out over the plate away, and even a little off the plate, they can just kill you with extra-base hits and home runs the other way," Flaherty continues. "The key, I think, is to get these big hitters—whether it's guys I played against and with, like Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez, or some of the best guys going today, like Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera—to be thinking about the whole plate, so you have to pitch them inside, too, to keep them honest."

That whole-plate approach can get the job done, if executed properly. Going back to Sutcliffe's previous comment about facing future Hall of Famers, he specifically cited his ability to hold in check George Brett and Paul Molitor.

Rick Sutcliffe Against George Brett and Paul Molitor
HITS/AB BA/OBP/SLG
Vs. Brett 1-for-23 .043/.154/.043
Vs. Molitor 7-for-40 .175/.283/.285

Baseball Reference

Those two hit from opposite sides of the plate—Brett was a lefty swinger, Molitor a righty—but Sutcliffe was able to succeed against them by using his low-90s fastball and one of the game's better sliders both inside and outside against each.

As for another superstar of yesteryear, one who's been relevant recently because he was just elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, take Frank Thomas. Flaherty says most knew the book on the 6'5" right-handed hitter, but that didn't necessarily help much: 

We all knew how to pitch to the Big Hurt—it wasn't a secret that he didn't like the ball to be inside, especially fastballs in. Problem was, he was so big that he would jump out of the way on any pitch on the inner half, and even if it was actually over the plate, it would look like it was inside because of how he jumped back.

Umpires wouldn't call it a strike because of how Thomas reacted to the pitch. That meant you had to face a guy who was an elite hitter who loved to get his arms extended on pitches away and hit the breaking ball, and those were about the only pitches you could throw to him.

In breaking down how to try to take on the nearly impossible task of getting Miguel Cabrera out, Flaherty made a comparison between the two-time reigning AL MVP and one of the best hitters from the previous generation:

With Cabrera, anything out over the plate, he is going to do damage. The thing with him is, he'll swing a little bit at pitches inside, and even at some pitches off the plate inside. From a catcher's standpoint, that's the area where he can be attacked and get him to chase on occasion.

Cabrera reminds me a lot of Edgar Martinez, who was one of the greatest hitters I ever got to play against. And you learned fast that you couldn't pitch Edgar the same way in his first at-bat as you're going to pitch to him in his third at-bat—Cabrera is the same way. They pick up on patterns and make adjustments, so you get burned if you don't adapt, too.

And often, their third or fourth at-bat is when the game is on the line in the later innings, so it's even more important to be aware that they've seen the pitches and the approach by that point. You have to do something different.

In other words, when it comes to attacking and trying to get out superstar hitters—even with all the planning and preparation beforehand, as well as the mental focus and physical execution during the actual game—one size most definitely does not fit all.

 

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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