Why aren't catchers pitching coaches?
Backstops would seem to be natural candidates for the posts
Just as in any mainstream business, baseball teams have a chain of command. And, logically, Major League pitchers take their instruction from their pitching coaches. No big mystery there -- when a pitcher works to improve his game, he turns to the man hired specifically to address his questions, his needs, his strengths and weaknesses.
But most pitchers have more than one sounding board. Pitching coaches are the official overseers, but don't forget about the other man in a pitcher's life -- his catcher.
In some ways, catchers are the bigger security blankets. They're the thinkers behind the plate. They act almost as a parent, doing what's best for that pitcher by how he calls games and makes decisions based on what he knows from past experiences and scouting reports. That dynamic works well when the two are teammates, which begs the question: Why can't that extend beyond a catcher's playing career?
Some catchers become bullpen coaches and hitting coaches, while others go on to manage. But considering how closely he works with pitchers during his playing career, isn't it logical for a former catcher to become a pitching coach?
Many former pitchers who are now pitching coaches say the transition absolutely makes sense, and they quickly point to the Cardinals' Dave Duncan, the only former catcher who is currently a big league pitching coach. Having brought out the best in hundreds of pitchers for several decades, including four Cy Young Award winners, Duncan is generally considered tops in the industry.
"There's a prime example of a former catcher who's done extremely well, obviously, as a pitching coach," said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, a former pitcher. "They know the psyche of a pitcher. They know what makes a Major League pitcher effective."
Duncan caught in the big leagues for 11 years, a relatively long career for a player at that position. That longevity likely helped him transition to his current role, as did his two years working with relievers as a bullpen coach.
"If you've caught for a long time, you've dealt with virtually every style of pitching there is," Duncan said. "You haven't been limited to only what you did. You've had the exposure. That benefits you. You've dealt with a lot of different personalities because you've had to deal with pitchers' personalities. You understand the emotions of what a pitcher goes through. It helps you have a better communication with pitchers."
Brothers in arms
And because a catcher's main concern is doing what's in the best interests of his pitcher, the trust factor is enormous.
"You get inside them because you're trying to get the most out of them," Duncan said. "You're trying to get the best out of them. You have to learn what they respond to positively, and what they respond to negatively. You get in their heads pretty good."
Padres manager Bud Black, a former pitcher who became a pitching coach before landing his first managing job in 2006, sees the logic with catchers joining his former fraternity.
"I think there's no reason why there can't be a crossover," Black said. "They understand the pitcher-catcher relationship. I think they understand the mentality of a pitcher. They understand what makes a pitcher click just from all their years of that dynamic, of being involved in that relationship. So from the mental side, it's ingrained in them."
Black, who as a Minor League pitcher was coached by former catcher Norm Sherry, also sees similarities between the basic fundamentals of pitching and catching. Black categorized pitching as "sort of an elevated art of throwing a baseball."
"I do think mechanics can be learned, and therefore can be taught," he said. "A lot of times pitching mechanics are not unlike fundamental throwing mechanics. From a catcher, an infielder, an outfielder, there are basic fundamentals that go with throwing the ball correctly. And those translate to the mound."
But what about the respect factor? Can a catcher truly appreciate what his battery mate is going through during pressure-packed situations where a game's fate often rests solely a pitcher's mistakes?
Astros catcher Brad Ausmus, lauded by pitchers for his baseball smarts, wonders if credibility could be an issue.
"Although catchers can get a grasp of mechanics and spot flaws, mistakes in a delivery or motion, the truth of the matter is the catcher's never stood on the mound and had 50,000 people staring at him with the bases loaded, tying run at third and no outs," Ausmus said. "The focus is on the pitcher. He's the one who gets the win, or he's the one who gets the loss. In that regard, I don't think catchers can fully appreciate what the pitcher goes through."
Ausmus is highly regarded by teammates and widely considered a future manager, but he said he's never considered seeking a pitching coach gig after he retires. He wouldn't rule it out, but he also wondered how he'd be received by pitchers who might not feel they have a true ally in their coach.
"I'm not saying it doesn't make sense," Ausmus said. "But I would think there would be pitchers who would look at the pitching coach and think, 'He's never stood on the mound. He's never toed the rubber.' That said, if he's a good pitching coach, it wouldn't really matter if he's toed the rubber or not."
Start at the top?
More often than not, coaches and managers have to pay their dues just like a player. That means starting at the low levels of the Minor Leagues and working their way up, which can take years. But for former catchers pursuing careers as pitching coaches, the path to the big leagues is often shorter.
Their know-how works well in the higher levels of the Minor Leagues, Duncan explained, but not so much in the low levels, when pitchers are still learning the craft.
"If it's a catcher that's a pitching coach, it may be most difficult at the lower levels than it is as you go up, simply because there's so much teaching of technique at the lower levels," Duncan said. "And you haven't experienced the actual performance of throwing curveballs, throwing sinkers, throwing changeups."
Pitchers have developed mechanics by the time they reach the higher levels, at which time the responsibility of a coach changes.
"You might teach changeups to somebody that doesn't have a changeup, or you may try to improve the quality of what they have, but you're not actually starting from scratch, teaching a pitch," Duncan said. "You're analyzing what the pitcher's capabilities are and you're trying to figure out how he can take what he has and learn to pitch with it."
Two current catchers, Ausmus and Boston's Jason Varitek, are generally assumed to be on the fast track to the coaching or managing ranks following their playing careers. Even in their current roles, they're considered an extra coach in addition to their duties as active players. Farrell points to Varitek's encyclopedic knowledge as one of the pitching staff's most important resources. "The amount of his own personal library and database on so many hitters that he's faced over time, and being here for so long and the relationship he's got with pitchers here over [a] four-, five-, six-, seven-, 10-year span ... " Farrell said. "All of those elements that go into not only contributing to those meetings, but carrying it out and executing a game plan on the field."
Most in the industry expect Ausmus and Varitek to be in high demand soon after their playing careers conclude.
"The good catchers have the ability to think like a pitcher, with pitch selection, game calling, strategy," Black said. "It's an easy segue that makes sense."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.