Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jason Varitek and the Art of Calling the Game

One of the gospels of the New Testament of the Boston Red Sox (Praise be to Tito) is that Jason Varitek is the greatest game caller in the history of the game. I'm a believer and I'll get to why later, but I think “calling a game” is one of those concepts baseball fans never bother to explain to anybody else. What, exactly, does a catcher do when he calls a game, and why is it important?

At its most basic level, a catcher “calls the game” by telling the pitcher what kind of pitch to throw. Simply put, it's really hard for a catcher to catch a pitch if he doesn't know what's being thrown at him. Depending on the catcher and the pitcher, this process can be dominated by one or the other, or be a fluid decision making process.

Catchers are sometimes also responsible for telling the pitcher when to try to pick off a runner, or when to throw a pitch far outside the strike zone to make it easier to throw out a runner they expect to steal. Occasionally, catchers will be responsible for arranging the infielders, but usually the short stop or the manager does that.

Calling a game is one of those things that is very easy to do adequately, but very difficult to do greatly. In any situation, there are lots of pitches and locations that will work, but as with all things, there is only one “best pitch in the best location.” And knowing what that one pitch is very complicated indeed. It involves all the statistical stuff that has now come to dominate baseball; the batter's average against particular pitches, in particular locations, in particular situations, cross-referenced with the pitcher's various statistics.

But it also involves a psychological contest with the batter who, at least the professional level, knows all those statistics as well and knows the catcher knows those stats; the dark arts of getting into an opponent's head. There is no better way to guarantee a strike, or at least guarantee that a hit won't happen, than for the catcher to call for a change-up, when the batter expects a fastball.

But along with all that, the catcher needs to constantly assess the ability of the pitcher; is he getting tired, is his curveball working, does he have enough energy for the high heat. And if there are any problems, the catcher is the first person responsible for figuring it out; is the pitcher tipping his pitchers, are his mechanics off somehow, like he's dropping his elbow or stepping too far towards 3rd base or something like that. And, of course, a pitcher's problems can be caused by the pitcher's own emotions; is he frustrated with the umpire over a call or concentrating too much on one particular aspect of his motion or distracted by something else in the universe.

Of course, in most games, a catcher has to catch for different pitchers, often different pitchers with entirely different repertoires and personalities. Think about another common situation Jason Varitek would have to deal with. Let's say he's been catching soft-spoken, classy, professional, cancer survivor John Lester for a couple of hours and the Red Sox have a 4-2 lead going into the 9th inning. It means he'll be hopping on the express train to crazy town because “My dog ate the World Series Ball,” “I don't care if anybody steals on me,” lazer-eyes, dancy pants, Jonathon Paplebon is coming in. (A little off topic, but imagine what it feels like for Saltalamacchia to spend a couple of hours knocking knuckleballs out of the air and then see Daniel Bard about to throw a 100mph fastball at him.)

To put this another way, a great game caller needs to be a statistician, a strategist, a pitching coach, and (sometimes) a therapist all at once. In some ways, this is one of those skills that is almost impossible to accurately assess. Because the physics of baseball ensure that batters get out the vast majority of the time, it's hard to tell the difference between adequate and excellent. But Jason Varitek was the best at it. Here's why.

The Red Sox pitching staff did not have much success at the beginning of the season. In fact, the beginning of '11 was historically bad. The transition from Jason Varitek as the primary catcher to Jarrod Saltalamacchia upset the entire pitching staff. The staff eventually settled down, though Josh Beckett still won't pitch to anybody but Varitek. This is an indicator, because teams change catchers all the time, without having such a drop-off in performance. For the Sox, this drop off was caused by going from the best game caller in the game to somebody else. It would have happened no matter who ended up doing the bulk of the catching; any of the Molina family, Joe Mauer, Jorge Posado, maybe even (Praise be) Carlton Fisk.

The most concrete statistic for this argument is that Jason Varitek has caught more no-hitters than any other catcher in history; four. Furthermore, he caught them for four different pitchers, unlike Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Lou Criger, and Johnny Edwards (all catchers who caught 3 no-nos), who caught multiple no-hitters with the same pitchers. Furthermore, they were four very different pitchers. Clay Bucholtz in his second professional start, Hideo Nomo with his unique wind-up, Derek Lowe the sinker ball pitcher, and John Lester, the fastball/curveball lefty. He has also been one out away two more times, once with Josh Beckett and again with Kurt Schilling. Had those happened he would have caught twice as many no-nos as anybody else. Red Sox fans of the last decade will know, that 'Tek has guided many pitchers hitless through six, seven, and eight innings.

But perhaps the best argument at how good Jason Varitek is at telling pitchers what to throw next is when his pitchers ignore him. The most famous moment has to be when Schilling shook off a call and gave up a hit, with two outs in the ninth inning, of what would have been his only no-hitter. But I think a lot of Papelbon's struggles last year came from him being convinced, despite what Varitek was telling him, that his fastball was totally gonna blow the batter away.

Finally, when was the last time you heard an announcer, coach, player, or sports writer talk about calling a game? It was probably in reference to Jason Varitek. And the first time? It was probably in reference to Jason Varitek. Essentially, he is the only catcher in recent memory who has been able to draw attention to calling games at all. Calling a baseball game is one of those invisible activities whose results are always debatable. Because there are so many factors, it is almost impossible to know whether the call was the important part of the strikeout. (Ooo look, a real world lesson.) But something congealed around Jason Varitek. Certain statistics implied something atypical. He earned only the third captaincy of the Boston Red Sox. And his place as the greatest game caller in baseball is now gospel.

No comments:

Post a Comment