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The position of the catcher
Catcher is also a general term for a fielder who catches the ball in cricket.

Catcher is a position for a baseball or softball player. When a batter takes his turn to hit, the catcher crouches behind home plate, in front of the umpire, and receives the ball from the pitcher. This is a catcher's primary duty, but he is also called upon to master many other skills in order to field his position well. The role of the catcher is similar to that of the wicket-keeper in cricket.

Positioned behind home plate, the catcher can see the whole field; therefore, he is in the best position to direct and lead the other players in a defensive play. By rule, the catcher is the only defensive player who is allowed to be in foul territory when a pitch is thrown.[1] The catcher typically calls for pitches by means of hand signals; therefore, he must be aware of the pitcher's mechanics and strengths, as well as the batter's tendencies and weaknesses. Foul tips, bouncing balls in the dirt, and contact with runners during plays at the plate are all part of the catcher's job, so protective equipment must be worn. This includes a mask, chest and throat protectors, shin guards, and an extra-thick glove.

Because the position requires a comprehensive understanding of the game's strategies, the pool of former catchers yields a disproportionate number of Major and Minor-League managers, including such prominent examples as Steve O'Neill, Al Lopez, Yogi Berra, Mike Scioscia, A.J. Hinch, Joe Maddon, Joe Girardi, Bruce Bochy, and Joe Torre. The physical and mental strain of being involved on every defensive play can wear catchers down over a long season, and can have a negative effect on their offensive output.[2][3] Due to catching's strategic defensive importance, if a catcher has exceptional defensive skills, teams are often willing to overlook their relative offensive weaknesses.[2] A knowledgeable catcher's ability to work with the pitcher, via pitch selection and location, can diminish the effectiveness of the opposing team's offense.[4] Many great defensive catchers toiled in relative anonymity, because they didn't produce large offensive numbers. Notable examples of light-hitting, defensive specialists were; Ray Schalk, Jim Hegan, Jim Sundberg and Brad Ausmus. Schalk's career batting average of .253 is the lowest of any position player in the Baseball Hall of Fame.[5] That he was selected for enshrinement in 1955 was largely a tribute to his outstanding defensive skills.[5]

In the numbering system used to record baseball plays, the catcher is assigned the number '2'. (See Baseball scorekeeping.)

Contents

Catching pitches

The catcher is usually the first to notice the tendencies, quirks, and peculiarities of each home-plate umpire. Some umpires favor high strikes, pitched balls that are technically above the strike zone but appear, to the umpire, to be good. Conversely, some umpires will call low pitches strikes even when they are slightly below the knees. Other umpires have an inside bias or an outside bias; some umpires have more than one bias; some are uniformly lenient; some have very restricted notions of the strike zone, and the pitcher will constantly feel that his pitches are unfairly judged. The catcher can exploit an umpire's tendencies by taking him into account in how he chooses to receive the ball.

The catcher can help his pitcher get more strike calls from the umpire by using a technique called "framing" pitches. This practice is a matter of a catcher keeping his mitt inside the strike zone, or as close to it as possible, when receiving the pitch, thereby giving the plate umpire the impression that the pitch is in the strike zone, even if it is not. When framing, a catcher will also hold his mitt still for a second or two so that the umpire has an opportunity to thoroughly consider his call (and, hopefully, let his innate biases influence his decision in a direction favorable to the catcher's team.)

The catcher, when receiving a borderline pitch, usually has several options in how he makes the catch. He can catch the pitch in the webbing of his mitt or in the heel; he can catch the pitch on his forehand or backhand, as necessary; he can catch a low pitch with the mitt pointed upward or downward. These choices help the catcher to create a favorable presentation (or frame) for the umpire.

A variation on "framing" is called "pulling pitches". The general approach is to catch the half of the ball that is outside the strike zone and show the umpire only the half of the ball, lodged in the mitt, that is closer to the zone. The illusion is often enhanced with a slight 'tug' of the mitt (of an inch or two) toward the strike zone.

Calling the game

What is meant by calling the game is that oftentimes the catcher decides what pitch to throw at that particular time. Because the catcher is considered a captain on the field he is often in charge of instigating defensive plays. The catcher will give signs to the pitcher for what pitch is to be thrown. The majority of the time it is done through a number system. Each number will represent a different pitch, and then the pitcher can either agree or disagree with a shake of his or her head.

Throwing

A catcher nearly always throws with his right hand. Since most hitters are right-handed and stand to the left side of the plate when batting, a catcher who throws left-handed is forced to take some time to sidestep (or otherwise avoid) the right-handed hitter when he throws from behind the plate. In addition, a lefty's throw would tend to come in on the shortstop side of the bag, while a righty's throw would be on the second base side of the bag, which is where the runner is coming in. Consequently, players who are left-handed rarely play catcher. Left-handed catchers have only caught eleven big-league games since 1902,[6] and Jack Clements, who played for seventeen years at the end of the nineteenth century, is the only man in the history of baseball to play more than three hundred games as a left-handed catcher.[7] However, some observers, including the famed statistician Bill James and ESPN writer Rob Neyer,[8] have suggested that the real reason that there are no left-handed catchers is because left-handed players with strong throwing arms are almost always encouraged, at an early age, to become pitchers. Benny Distefano, the last lefty thrower to catch a big-league game (in 1989), noted that lefty catchers have difficulty on bunts up the third base line and on fielding throws home for plays at the plate.[9]

Blocking wild pitches

To block balls that a pitcher accidentally throws on a bounce toward home plate (pitches that are said to be "in the dirt"), the catcher will slide his body to the left or right, as necessary, to place himself directly in the path of the ball. Once in position, he drops to his knees, places his mitt between his legs to prevent the ball from passing through, and leans forward to deaden the rebound when, and if, the ball bounces off his thigh or torso. Although many an inexperienced catcher may try to catch the errant pitch with his mitt, a more-seasoned catcher knows that it is more important to prevent the ball from getting behind him. Ideally, the catcher will be able to knock the ball to the ground where it will stop within arm's reach. To perform this properly, without the ball being deflected in an undesirable direction, the catcher must angle his body so that his chest is always leaning forward, toward home plate. This manoeuvre is often difficult, and its difficulty depends largely on how fast the ball is traveling, where it first hits the ground, the firmness of the ground it hits, and the manner in which it is spinning.

Defensive plays

The defensive plays expected of catchers, aside from managing the pitcher by calling for pitches and catching them, include:

  1. Preventing wild pitches and avoiding passed balls. Although the pitcher has a responsibility to throw with reasonable accuracy, catchers must be mobile enough to catch (or block) errant pitches. By doing so, a catcher prevents baserunners from advancing while the loose ball is retrieved. An errant pitch that eludes the catcher and allows a baserunner to take one or more additional bases is called a wild pitch. (Techniques for blocking wild pitches are described in the previous section.) A pitched ball which would require only ordinary effort to be caught or blocked by the catcher — but is nonetheless misplayed, allowing a base runner to advance — is called a "passed ball".
  2. Fielding high pop flies, often hit at unusual angles.
  3. Fielding weakly-hit fair ground balls (including bunts) in front of home plate in order to throw to a base to complete a groundout or a fielder's choice play. The catcher must avoid hitting the batter-runner with the thrown ball.
  4. Guarding home plate on plays in which a baserunner attempts to score a run. The catcher is often obliged to catch a ball thrown from a fielder and to tag out a runner arriving from third base. Naturally, the runner's objective, in this situation, is to elude the catcher's tag and touch the plate. The catcher's best strategy is to block the runner's path so as to prevent the runner from reaching the plate at all. A catcher may only obstruct a runner's path to home plate when he, the catcher, is in possession of the ball. Collisions between runners and catchers are common. Note that, without the ball in hand, the catcher must allow the runner to score, uncontested if he drops it the runner is safe.
  5. Preventing stolen bases by throwing to second base or third base to allow an infielder to tag a baserunner attempting to reach the base. A catcher who is very good at preventing stolen bases is said to have a low stolen-base percentage; a poor one has many bases stolen while he catches. (A pitcher who is slow to deliver is often more at fault for stolen bases than the catcher is.) Ideally, a catcher should be able to get the ball from his glove to that of the player covering second base in under two seconds. This is referred to as a catcher's "pop time", the time elapsing between the popping sound of the pitch striking the catcher's mitt and the similar pop when the ball arrives at the glove of the fielder covering second base.
  6. Rarely, a catcher can make a successful pick-off throw to a base to surprise an inattentive or incautious baserunner. Especially at the higher levels of baseball (where this play almost never results in an out), the catcher's snap throws are mainly for psychological effect. If the runner knows that the catcher often attempts snap throws, the runner is likely to take a smaller lead from his base before each pitch, which will allow the infielders an extra fraction of a second to throw the runner out at the next base if he attempts to advance (as, for example, when a ground ball is hit).
  7. Rarely, a catcher will run to first base or third base to participate in rundown plays at those bases.
  8. In certain game situations, typically a ball batted to the shortstop or third baseman with no runners on base, the catcher may be expected to back-up first base in case the first baseman misses or mishandles a throw.

Any failure by the catcher can have dire consequences for his team. Passed balls are possible whenever one or more runners are on base. A failure to catch a ball thrown from the outfield on a play at home plate, or a failure to tag a runner, means that the defensive team fails to record an all-important out and, instead, it allows a run. On an attempt to prevent a stolen base, a catcher's bad throw might careen past the infielder and skip into the outfield, allowing an additional advance by the baserunner.

Injury

Despite being heavily padded, catchers routinely suffer the worst physical abuse in baseball. The catcher has the physically risky job of blocking the plate to prevent base runners from reaching home and scoring runs. Catchers also constantly get bruised and battered by pitches, foul tips, and occasionally the bat in an undisciplined follow-through of the batter's swing.

Catchers also are prone to knee ailments stemming from the awkward crouching stance they assume. Because of this, catchers have a reputation of being slow baserunners; even if they have speed at the beginning of their careers, the eventual toll taken on their knees slows them down. Although some exceptions such as Manny Sanguillén. Some players who begin their career as catchers are moved to other positions in order to preserve their running speed, increase their availability for games, and take advantage of their prowess with the bat. Prominent examples of catchers switching position in mid-career include Craig Biggio, B.J. Surhoff, and Dale Murphy.

Catchers often have shorter careers than players at other positions; consequently, few catchers hold batting records that require many seasons of play to compile. Mike Piazza is the only catcher in history with more than four hundred career home runs, and no catcher has amassed three thousand career hits. (Although 3000-hit-club member Craig Biggio played his first three full seasons as a catcher, he played his remaining sixteen seasons at second base.)

The larger or heavier the catcher, the greater the health risks associated with repeatedly assuming a crouching or squatting position; knees and backs are especially vulnerable to "wear-and-tear" injuries. Catchers also have an increased risk of circulatory abnormalities in the catching hand. A study of minor-league ballplayers showed that, of 36 players in various positions, all nine of the catchers had hand pain during a game, and several had chronic pain in the catching hand. Catching high-speed pitches can, in some cases, cause the index finger on the gloved hand to swell to twice the size of the other fingers. Ultrasound and blood-pressure tests showed altered blood flow in the gloved hand of five of the catchers, a far higher incidence than in the hands of players at other baseball positions.[10]

During the 2006 season, San Francisco Giants catcher Mike Matheny was assigned to the disabled list after a series of foul tips caromed off his mask, resulting in a serious concussion. On February 1, 2007, Matheny announced his retirement from baseball due to symptoms associated with post-concussion syndrome.

Equipment

A baseball catcher prepares to receive the pitch

Catchers in baseball use the following equipment to help prevent injury while behind the plate:

  • Catcher's mask: To protect the face, much of the side of the head, and, often, part of the throat. In recent years, catchers have begun wearing masks similar to those worn by ice-hockey goaltenders. The hockey-style mask typically includes a section which protects the top of the head; older-style masks are usually worn over a flap-less helmet (worn backwards and often with a trimmed bill) to provide similar protection to the skull. Some helmets also are somewhat like the hockey style helmets. They have a helmet without a bill and a facemask.
  • Mitt: Catchers use mitts with extra padding to lower the impact of the ball on their hand. The catcher is the only player on the field who is allowed to use this type of mitt. (The first baseman also wears a mitt instead of a glove, but it is longer and not as heavily padded as a catcher's mitt.) See Catcher's mitt.
  • Shin guards: To protect the knees and legs from the impact of a ball that the catcher is unable to play cleanly. Less commonly called 'spike protectors', they are used to prevent injury caused by base-runners advancing home with 'spikes up', that is, with the intention of injuring or intimidating the catcher with their metal cleats. Most modern styles of shin guard also incorporate a flap that covers the top of the foot.
  • Chest protector: A piece of equipment, padded with rubber, plastic foam, or gel, that protects the catcher's body from the impact of a pitch if he fails to catch it. Many modern chest protectors also have an extension to cover the shoulder of the non-throwing or "glove" hand.
  • Cup: Worn by a catcher under his uniform to mitigate the risk of serious injury when a batted or thrown ball strikes the groin area.

Additionally, some catchers choose to use the following optional equipment:

  • Knee savers: Special pads which are comfortable for the catcher to rest on when in the squatting position; they provide support for the knee ligaments which can, over time, stretch and tear.
  • Inner protective glove: A glove, similar to a golf glove, that is worn inside of the mitt to help absorb the shock of the pitched ball striking the hand.
  • Throat protector: A hard-plastic plate which hangs from the bottom of the catcher's mask to protect the throat. Because a ball striking the throat may cave-in the windpipe, throat protectors are required in almost all youth-baseball games, even at the high-school level.

In addition to his protective equipment, a catcher usually also adopts practices that minimize his risk of injury. For instance, unlike fielders elsewhere on the field, a catcher tries, to the extent possible, to catch the ball with his gloved hand alone. An outfielder may catch a fly ball by covering the ball, once it strikes the pocket of his glove, with his bare hand in order to secure it. The catcher, however, tries to keep his bare hand, which is highly vulnerable to injury, out of harm's way by presenting the pitcher with a target (the large round glove) while hiding his unprotected throwing hand behind his back. By doing so, the bare hand can't be struck by a foul tip. Many broken fingers, split fingernails, and grotesque dislocations are avoided by adherence to this simple expedient.

Given the physical punishment suffered by catchers, the pieces of equipment associated with the position are often referred to as "the tools of ignorance". This is an ironic expression; the catcher typically has the most thorough understanding of baseball tactics and strategies of any player on his team.

Hall-of-fame catchers

The following fifteen men are the only catchers who have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York:

Trivia

  • The first catcher's mask was worn on April 12, 1877 by Jim Tyng while playing for Harvard University. The team manager, Fred Thayer, received a patent for the mask in 1878.
  • Mike Piazza holds the record for most career home runs as a catcher. He surpassed Carlton Fisk, on May 5, 2004 at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York with his 352nd.
  • In some parts of the United States, particularly the South, catchers are referred to as "hindcatchers". It is not clear where this term originated, but is believed to be an extraction of "behind the plate" or "'hind the plate".
  • Joe Mauer was the first catcher to ever win the American League batting title when he did so in 2006. He also won the batting title in 2008 and 2009.

References

  1. ^ The Official Site of Major League Baseball: Official info: Official Rules
  2. ^ a b Never Underestimate A Good Defensive Catcher, by Al Doyle, Baseball Digest, June 1997, Vol. 56, No. 6, ISSN 0005-609X
  3. ^ Catching, by John Lowe, Baseball Digest, July 2001, Vol. 60, No. 7, ISSN 0005-609X
  4. ^ For Catchers, The Name of the Game is Defense, by George Vass, Baseball Digest, May 2005, Vol. 64, No. 3, ISSN 0005-609X
  5. ^ a b howstuffworks.com
  6. ^ Top 10 Left-Handed Catchers for 2006 - The Hardball Times
  7. ^ Encyclopedia of Baseball Catchers - Left-Handed Throwing Catchers
  8. ^ Where are the lefty catchers?
  9. ^ Left-handed catchers
  10. ^ Ginn, et al., 2005)
  • Ginn TA, Smith AM, Snyder JR, Koman LA, Smith BP, Rushing J (2005). "Vascular changes of the hand in professional baseball players with emphasis on digital ischemia in catchers". Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery 87 (7): 1464–9. doi:10.2106/JBJS.D.02047. PMID 15995112. 

External links

See also

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Simple English

A catcher is a position in baseball. The catcher crouches behind the home plate and catches the ball thrown by the pitcher.


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