For a baseball team to be successful, the pitcher-catcher combo has to be a smoothly-running machine. Major League Baseball fans have witnessed New York Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett’s refusal to pitch to veteran Jorge Posada, despite the catcher’s reliability and double-decade dedication to the team. History has proven time and time again that if the connection isn’t there, disaster ensues.
The catcher is perhaps the most underrated position in baseball. Not only does he occupy one of the spaces in the batting order, but he also has an entirely separate job of building these strong relationships and trust with each one of his pitchers. Columbia baseball head coach Brett Boretti can attest to this.
“Good catchers are a very important piece of a good team,” Boretti said. “Catching is a defensive position first and foremost. If you go around the big leagues, there are not too many good catchers hitting above .275 with good offensive production numbers. That’s because big league catchers are there for their defense. If you receive well and throw you will play for a long time. I look at the position the same way.”
Of the four catchers on Columbia’s roster, only one—junior Mark Heil—has been on the team prior to the 2011 season. Freshmen Mike Fischer and Enmanuel Cabreja are two young talents vying for the position in the starting lineup. As the Lions return from their southern spring training road trip, Boretti is impressed with what he has seen thus far. “I am really excited about both of them and the future they have behind the dish,” Boretti said. “Manny [Cabreja] has a very strong arm and Mike has a very quick release. They both have been consistent with their throws so far this season.”
The pair of freshmen may be a wealth of raw talent, but like all younger players, these abilities have to be molded into more refined skill.
“Anytime a freshman is coming into a starting role, there is a learning curve,” Boretti said. “Both of them need to get better defensively.”
Luckily for the Lions, the 10-game road trip was a perfect opportunity for the freshmen to ease themselves into the new team dynamic, as well as for Boretti to pick out specific skills that need to be improved upon.
“I think they both need to improve their receiving skills,” Boretti said. “Learning how to steal pitches for your pitcher comes with time and experience.”
The catcher is somewhat analogous to the position of a quarterback or a goalkeeper. Firstly, he can see the entire field. Secondly, he initiates the start of play, in that his constant communication with his man on the mound is what determines the pitches that are thrown. These are heavy demands for a new player, but the best way to take these responsibilities in stride is with practice, repetition, and experience.
“We practice situations a lot and try to simulate game speed as much as we can, but really it’s the experience during the game, when the catcher makes the call on a bunt or on a relay throw, that gives him the experience,” Boretti said.
As is the case in all sports, mistakes are a large part of baseball. What is unique to baseball, however, is the specific statistic of the “error.” Errors are often most detrimental when made by a catcher, because overthrows and passed balls can result in opponent runners advancing and in the conceding of runs. A catcher must be mentally strong to deal with these occasional mishaps, and can use them to aid in his development and for fuel to perform better in the future.
“If he [any catcher] makes a bad call, you correct him and you learn and move on,” Boretti said. “That’s part of getting better. Are we going to throw a ball or two away and make some errors? Yes. That’s part of learning when to be aggressive and when not to take the chance.”
Just as building skill takes experience, so does building a pitcher-catcher relationship. Strength can be gained at a predictable, steady rate by lifting weights, working out, and the like, but acquiring a foundation of trust takes patience and synchronization of thoughts. In order for this faith to become instilled, Fischer and Cabreja will have to work on developing relationships with each Columbia pitcher.
“We try to make sure our pitchers and catchers are talking a lot,” Boretti said. “Each pitcher is a little different. Each likes a catcher to set up a certain way, likes to work in certain sequences, and so forth. A lot of that is simply communicating with one another so they are on the same page. As a catcher, you learn how to treat your staff a little differently.”
As the Lions prepare to make their spring debut at Satow Stadium this coming weekend, fans will be anxious to see what these new additions have to offer. But Light Blue watchers must not be quick to form judgments. Although the name “catcher” may imply that the job is simply to receive a red-stitched sphere of leather, his responsibilities go far beyond what the average spectator might think.