"We carry the burden of the ‘pass ball’ and heed the coach's wrath so that our pitcher doesn’t have to."
For every pitching session a college pitcher attends so does a catcher. In fact, catchers attend more. Most teams will have two or three catchers but far more pitchers. Here is an example of what a day looked like for me as a college catcher:
6:00 – 7:00 Team conditioning and lifting
8:00 – 9:00 Catch for Pitcher #1
9:00 – 10:00 Catch for Pitcher #2
10:30 – 1:00 Class
2:00 – 3:00 Catch for Pitcher #3
3:00 – 3:30 Catcher practice
3:30 – 5:30 Team practice
6:00 – 6:30 Dinner
7:00 – 8:00 I’d usually try to get in some extra cardio
Then I’d do any homework I had, try to hang out with my friends for a bit, and then collapse into bed and slip into a coma around midnight. So that puts regular fielders dedicating 3 hours per day to softball, pitchers 4 hours, and me (the catcher) dedicating 6 ½ hours to softball each day.
Not every single day was quite this packed, but the vast majority of them were. Catchers dedicate more time to the game than anyone. Think of the catcher as the quarterback of the team. They have to work for and adapt to each pitcher, learning their signals, their preferred series, their temperament, and how to properly catch each of their pitches. They have to spend time studying and analyzing opposing teams and hitters. The catcher has to understand the game better than anyone as she is the one giving the commands. The catcher controls herself, the pitcher, and the rest of the field. All of those things take practice, work, and time.
You can see from the above section that catchers put a lot of time into their work. But what people don’t know is that catching is a craft. Framing a pitch looks simple, but have you ever tried drop your elbow the ground while avoiding your knee in order to frame a tight, low screwball coming in at 68mph from 43ft (that’s a 96mph baseball pitch) without flipping your glove over all while trying to make the umpire think you never moved a muscle? Have you ever tried to simultaneously ‘go get the pitch’ while also having ‘soft hands’? Have you ever tried to neatly and discretely frame a pitch that was supposed to be screwball but ending up going outside? Well, I can tell you this…it’s not easy. And it’s not something just anyone can do. Framing is an art. It’s subtle and completely unobvious to the untrained eye. You won’t even be able to tell if a good catcher has framed the pitch or if it was actually in the zone. Not just anyone can do that.
Aside from framing catchers have to block. We spend countless hours throwing all of our body weight onto our knees over and over and over again. Just 15 minutes of blocking practice will leave a catcher’s knees completely black and blue and swollen. And after our knees are hurting and we think they are going to fall off, we’ll go to the bullpen and do 200 squats to catch up another pitcher.
Work. Catchers. Put. In. Work.
Catchers are the commanders of the field. They are responsible for what every single player does on that field. People always say that pitchers are the center of the field and they are the center of attention. That’s false. Everyone isn’t looking at the pitcher. Everyone, including the pitcher, is looking at the catcher. It doesn't matter what the ball is doing when it leaves the pitcher's hand. It matters what it's doing when it's crossing that plate and that's catcher territory. The catcher is the team leader. They are the voice of the team. Any truly great catcher will also be a great leader. The catcher has to know and understand the game inside and out. They have to know the situation, the count, how many outs there are, the speed of the runners, what the hitter did last time, what number the hitter is in the lineup, what the hitter's strengths and weaknesses are, what kind of day the pitcher is having, and where she’s going to command the ball if it’s put into play. She has to know and be able to do all of that while also being the morale of the team. The catcher is the one who is responsible for picking the team up and encouraging them. She has to keep her pitcher calm and positive. The catcher has to put on a good face even if she just struck out or missed the block, because everyone is looking at her. The catcher is responsible for motivating and inspiring her team even when things aren’t going well. A good catcher is a leader even when it’s tough to be because she knows she doesn't have a choice. When you decide to suit up you decide to be a leader.
There is a tremendous amount of pressure on pitchers. I 100% agree with that. I can’t even imagine how a pitcher must feel standing in that circle. I couldn’t do what pitchers do. But there is also a huge amount of pressure on catchers as well.
What ever happened to the ‘wild pitch’? A ‘wild pitch’ occurs when the pitcher throws a pitch where it shouldn’t be. For example, if she throws it over the catchers head or if she throws a curve ball in the right handed batter’s it’s supposed to be a ‘wild pitch’ which essentially means it was the pitcher’s fault and that the catcher was physically unable to catch the ball. A ‘pass ball’ occurs when a ball gets by the catcher that she should have stopped. For example, a drop ball goes in the dirt and gets past the catcher, that’s the catcher’s fault. But whatever happened to the wild pitch? I haven’t seen a wild pitch documented in ages. Every pitch that gets by, including the one I leapt into the air for from a squatted position and still wasn't able to get a glove on it because it was so far over my head, is being documented as a ‘pass ball’. We blame catchers for pitchers mistakes. That puts a ton of pressure on a catcher. All I’m saying is, we don’t call it an error on the left fielder because she wasn’t able to jump up 10ft in the air and rob the homerun. Let’s not do it to catchers either.
There is also so much pressure put on catchers by coaches when it comes to pitch calling. Technically, the pitcher calls the game. The catcher just gives suggestions and if the pitcher doesn’t like that suggestion, she shakes off her catcher and gets a new suggestion. But when things go south, it’s always the catcher who is getting ripped a new one. It’s always “Why did YOU call that pitch?” It’s the catcher who must silently take the blame. When the pitcher misses a spot and gets a ball jacked, the coach wants to know what the catcher called, because it must be her fault. That’s extremely stressful to deal with as a catcher and it results in catchers not being confident and second guessing themselves. The point of this IS NOT to say ‘Let’s blame the pitcher.' Let’s not blame anyone. Because coaches, I guarantee your catcher did not purposefully call a pitch that would result in a homerun and your pitcher didn’t purposefully miss her spot. Everyone is doing the best they can. So let’s stop the accusing and blaming mid-game and calmly talk about better pitch selections and hitting our spots after because it doesn’t do the team any good to create a shaky, scared catcher.
Catchers are hitters too
At the college level and after, it’s extremely rare to have a pitcher who also hits in the lineup. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it’s rare. Most pitchers focus strictly on their pitching. In fact, in college, most of our pitchers didn’t even touch a bat in practice either. While everyone else was hitting they would be sent to jog some poles or do some abs. Catchers on the other hand also have to be hitters. If you are a catcher who is a weak hitter, you’re going to have a hard time getting picked up. Catchers are typically expected to not just be hitters, but to be good hitters. With catchers being strong in stature, we expect them to be a top hitter for the team. If you are good defensively but weak offensively, chances are they will put another catcher in your spot. Catchers have to master every aspect of the game.
Being a catcher isn’t for everyone. It takes dedication, leadership, and heart. A quality catcher has to be an expert at every facet of the game, including pitching because they will be expected to be able to tell pitchers what they are doing wrong if a pitch isn’t working properly. (Yeah, we have to watch their body as they pitch while simultaneously catching the ball. It’s crazy. We’re basically ninjas.) We work hard and sacrifice ourselves for the glory of the team. We tangle our bodies into the most uncomfortable positions to get another strike called. We knowingly bruise our knees and willingly take a dirt ball to our bare shoulder. We study and stress over the game so that our teammates can rest easy. We carry the burden of the ‘pass ball’ and heed the coach's wrath so that our pitcher doesn’t have to.
A catcher doesn’t catch in order to gain glory or recognition. A catcher catches because they love the game and are willing to suit up and take on the hottest spot on the field because they know their team needs someone they can trust back there. So the next time you see a quality catcher, pat them on the back and tell them you appreciate what they do because they squatted their butt ON to get where they are. Here's looking at you, catchers. Literally.