04/03/2004 11:51 AM ET
New mates starting to settle in
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
|Communication will be key this season for Jason Varitek (left) and Keith Foulke. (Charles Krupa/AP)
It had been a very early exhibition game, but Curt Schilling already came off the mound positively glowing.
"I've always wanted a catcher as locked in as I am," Schilling had said, "someone as totally into it. Someone in total control back there. I now have that guy, and I'm really excited."
You might expect Schilling to have had too many birthdays (37) and wins (163) to get giddy about a new catcher, even one as respected as Jason Varitek. But, then, you probably don't understand the depth of the relationship between poles of the battery.
Battery? Where did that come from, anyway? Even the term's origins, dating back to the Civil War era, reflect an interdependent bond: A battery in military terms describes a group of artillery pieces which deliver missiles to a target.
Precisely the pitcher's mission: to pound baseballs into the catcher's target.
And can the man holding that mitt make a difference? A huge one; his impact is the premier game-within-the-game. In fact, one of the most overlooked and least appreciated statistics is the breakdown of a staff's ERA by catcher. These numbers merit greater attention, because the great fluctuations usually seen address the receiver's value.
Consider the level of trust involved with letting go of that ball ... throwing what pitch the catcher wants and where he wants it.
"The catcher is the guy you want to take charge," says Philadelphia manager Larry Bowa. "There has to be a good relationship between a pitcher and catcher; he's the guy who tries to get the pitcher through tough spots in the course of a game."
Now, consider the limited time available to forge that trust between new partners. Not just any new combination; rosters are always in flux. But between celebrated pitchers and their new catchers.
Put this one right atop the list of "What Spring Training is All About."
"It's about learning each other and building trust. Trust is one of the most important things between a pitcher and a catcher," says Houston's Brad Ausmus, challenged this spring perhaps more than any other catcher -- not only does his staff have two new pillars, but both Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens are ex-American League lifers.
"A pitcher has to be able to trust you to call the game," Ausmus continues, "trust you to block balls, trust you to control the running game, trust you to know the situation, trust you to know his mechanics. The more a pitcher trusts you, the more at ease his mind is and the more he can focus on the pitch he's throwing rather than these other extraneous things."
Ausmus, an 11-year veteran, knows he will have to strike a balance between his own knowledge of the NL and the two veterans' knowledge of themselves.
"A veteran pitcher probably has a little more credence to his word because of the experience he has," Ausmus says. "These pitchers (Pettitte and Clemens) know themselves a lot better than I'm ever going to know them, having not seen them ever before.
"It would be presumptous of me to try to change anything. But really, anything they can tell me in terms of how they compare and what they like to do when they're on the mound, quickens the learning process."
Also working on meshing with two new hurlers is Anaheim catcher Bengie Molina; he is put at ease by sharing a language with Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar.
"It's a little hard because they come from different teams, so they have to get used to us and we have to get used to them," Molina says of the right-handers. "But they're good people, so everything will fall into place quickly."
Molina is a strong believer in the power of observation. "The homework ... finding out how they like to pitch, ask them what they like to do in certain situations. If I don't find that out, I'm not doing my job. That's a responsibility you have to take very seriously."
The catcher needs his pitchers' faith, so not every critical pitch-selection turns into a head-shaking display. For the special few preceded by their solid reputations, it's an easy sell.
Jorge Posada will not defer to new starters Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez, or to any of the other new faces on the Yankees staff. Posada brings his own rhythm to a game, and it works.
"One of the nice things for me is that he can come to the mound and, whether I'm throwing the ball well or poorly or somewhere in between, we can discuss what's going on," says Mike Mussina. "One side doesn't get emotional or all fired up and lose perspective.
"He can just come out and say, 'Hey, what's going on out here?' And we'll just talk about it. He gives you that 30 seconds or a minute of relief and maybe a laugh and gets you right back in the groove. And few can read his pitchers as well as he can."
Vazquez, in turn, already has a read on Posada: "I feel it already. What I really like about Jorge is the target he gives you and the way he always tries to put his body where the ball goes. That's one sign of a very good catcher, and it's very good for the pitcher, too."
Similarly, it did not take Schilling long to get comfortable with Varitek.
"I told him if there's something he feels adamantly about throwing and I shake it off," Schilling says, "to go back to it because I'll throw that pitch with as much confidence as if I called it. Because if it's something he's set on doing, then he's got a reason for doing it."
Becoming intimate with his pitchers' repertoires is critical for the catcher. On different days, a different pitch will work best, and the catcher must quickly recognize this.
"The catcher has to understand what a guy is throwing," says Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, "and whether he's got his stuff today. If not, you go to something else. That's why they have to know each other so well."
While it has become trendy for new-wave managers to call pitches from the bench, old-schoolers like Cox scoff at the practice.
"I might call five pitches all year long," he says. "If it's located right, no one can hit it, whatever pitch it is. All that second-guessing is rubbish."
When a catcher and a pitcher hone their relationship, the ultimate goal is growing into extensions of the same entity. Two guys surfing the same brainwaves.
Bowa played behind the definitive battery, the Tim McCarver-Steve Carlton pairing which clicked for the Phillies in the latter half of the '70s.
"They were always on the same wavelength. Lefty very seldom shook off McCarver," Bowa says. "It's important to establish that kind of a relationship.
"Even if it's more physchological than anything. Bottom line, a pitcher feels good about throwing to a certain catcher. There's just a comfort zone."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.