2/11/2013 10:20 A.M. ET
For pitchers and catchers, it's about the relationship
Defensive skills, handling hurlers are what make the best, most valuable backstops
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
The Yankees are Chris Stewart's fifth Major League team in pieces of six seasons. The definition of a journeyman, the 30-year-old Southern California native is a .217 hitter with a .583 OPS in 148 career games. Not much to get excited about, right?
And yet, as you dig a little deeper, you find something remarkable about Stewart, a Riverside (Calif.) Community College product who caught in 55 games for the Yankees last year and a career-high 63 games with the Giants in 2011 as Buster Posey was recovering from a shattered ankle.
In "The Fielding Bible" section of the 2013 Bill James Handbook, it is revealed that only four catchers -– Yadier Molina (32), Matt Wieters (29), Humberto Quintero (18) and Jeff Mathis (17) -– have saved more runs over the past three seasons than Stewart, who has been credited with saving 16 by the metrics mavens. Right behind Stewart, who is expected to share the catching job in the Bronx with Francisco Cervelli this season, come Ryan Hanigan, Posey, Salvador Perez and Carlos Ruiz, four of the game's best catchers.
Molina and Wieters are the reigning Gold Glove winners. Molina led all catchers who played at least 500 innings with 16 runs saved in 2012, followed by Perez (nine), Hanigan (seven), Alex Avila (six) and Wieters and Mathis (five each).
With catchers, as with no other position players, there always is more -– much more -– than meets the naked eye.
The good ones have the tools and acumen to shape and control a game while gaining the full trust of the man on the mound.
As pitchers and catchers go through their early paces this week in Spring Training camps in Florida and Arizona, managers and coaches will be making their own pitches designed to motivate and enlighten.
In the case of the Angels' Mike Sciosicia, the words, sprinkled with humor and anecdotes, might vary from spring to spring, but the underlying message is essentially always the same.
"Nothing in the game," Scioscia says, "is more important than the pitcher-catcher relationship. It's the foundation of any team."
Slugger Josh Hamilton will not be the only important new face looking back at Scioscia in the Tempe, Ariz., clubhouse. The Angels' camp will be devoted to integrating starters Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton and relievers Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett and Brandon Sisk into the system, getting the new pitchers comfortable with catchers Chris Iannetta, Hank Conger and John Hester.
This represents a major overhaul for a contender, requiring the full attention and accumulated wisdom of Scioscia, pitching coach Mike Butcher and the rest of the staff.
"Everything starts with the pitcher-catcher relationship," Scioscia said. "How they communicate and interact, the rhythm and pace they establish, it sets a tone for the game. There is so much that goes into building that relationship, and it's critical to a team meeting its goals. This is something we stress from the first day of camp and carry through the season."
Bonds formed during these seven weeks of spring can go a long way in determining how successful teams will be over the long season.
The men on the mound command most of the attention, but the guy shielded by the mask and equipment is the backbone of a team. He is the field general, responsible for calling pitches, instilling confidence and erasing doubts in his pitchers, setting the defense, keeping everything together.
The Giants and Cardinals have claimed the past three World Series. Their catchers –- Posey and Molina -– just happen to be the two best in the game in the eyes of many. That is not a coincidence.
Posey's offense gives him the slight edge in most evaluations, but Molina is the master defensively, the standard by which all receivers are measured. Posey, the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, is rock solid and has a great arm, but if you're Salvador Perez in Kansas City or Miguel Montero in Arizona, Molina –- who learned his lessons well from big brothers Bengie and Jose -- is the guy you want to emulate.
The Cardinals, with a wealth of strong young arms, are one of the few clubs that could withstand the loss of a pitcher of Chris Carpenter's stature. Manager Mike Matheny, a four-time Gold Glove winner behind the plate, has deep faith in Molina's ability to bring out the best in such young, developing talents as Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal and Shelby Miller. While Giants manager Bruce Bochy, another former catcher, carefully manages Posey's workload behind the plate, giving him time at first base to keep his bat in the cleanup spot, Molina has maintained remarkable durability. His 133 catching starts in 2012 were exceeded only by Montero's 136. Posey made 111 starts at catcher and 29 at first.
Wieters (132), the Dodgers' A.J. Ellis (128), A.J. Pierzyinski (126) of the White Sox and the Yankees' Russell Martin (116) also were durable forces behind the plate.
Pierzynski and Martin have taken free agency to new challenges. Pierzynski will be handling the Rangers' staff along with Geovany Soto, while Martin gets to know the Pirates' arms. This leaves the White Sox staff in the hands of young Tyler Flowers, who flourished defensively behind Pierzynski, and Hector Gimenez.
Cervelli and Stewart are expected to handle CC Sabathia and Co. for manager Joe Girardi, at least until highly regarded Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez are ready for the Major Leagues.
Quintero, a 10-year veteran who has played for the Padres, Astros and Royals, is a non-roster invitee with the Phillies. Quintero, who caught in a total of 167 games for Houston in 2010-11, could play his way into a valuable role as Ruiz misses the season's first 25 games due to an amphetimine suspension.
Two of the most ingruguing catching stories of the spring will unfold at the Surprise, Ariz., site shared by the Royals and Rangers.
Kansas City is welcoming three new starters -– James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana -– to a rebuilt rotation. They will be thrilled to throw to imposing, athletic Perez, who has All-Star talent and needs only to avoid injuries to showcase it for a full season.
Texas, meanwhile, has imported the colorful Pierzynski to guide its gifted young staff along with Soto, who arrived at midseason 2012 in a deal with the Cubs.
The reigning American League West-champion Athletics finished the season with Derek Norris and George Kottaras sharing the duties in the wake of the trade to Washington of Kurt Suzuki, Oakland's durable receiver for five years.
General manager Billy Beane recently acquired John Jaso from division-rival Seattle, which landed slugger Michael Morse from Washington in the three-team swap as Beane parted with pitching prospects A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen. Kottaras became the odd man out with the lefty-hitting Jaso forming a platoon with Norris.
The A's won with pitching and power in 2012. Jaso, who had a .394 on-base percentage for the Mariners and a .927 OPS against righties, figures to help in an area where the A's got mostly Ds. Norris, 23, will play against most of the southpaws.
"I think [Jaso] and Derek complement each other very well," Beane said. "We think [Jaso] is a great offensive fit in our lineup. He was really starting to show some power last year, and I think he's a unique bat that can catch."
The Rays' primary receiver in 2010 and 2011, Jaso had a 3.41 catcher's ERA in 43 games in 2012, handling a Seattle staff that had a 3.76 overall ERA. Norris, in 51 games, had a 3.10 CERA with an Oakland staff that had a 3.48 ERA.
Considerable debate exists over the relevance of CERA. Most managers prefer the eye test over hard numbers, studying such hard-to-quantify elements as how a catcher manages pitchers' emotions.
Historically, dozens of cases can be found of pitchers clearly performing at a higher level with their receiver of choice.
The great Greg Maddux found a comfort level in Atlanta with unheralded Eddie Perez over Javier Lopez, the Braves' star.
Tim McCarver, who has been talking a good game for years, experienced extraordinary success with Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton.
Gibson's ERA with McCarver was 2.44 in 214 games, a half-run better than Gibby's lifetime ERA of 2.91 in 528 games. Carlton had a 2.82 ERA with McCarver in 236 shared ventures, compared to 3.22 for Lefty's career in 741 games.
While these numbers are classified as random variables by most numbers crunchers, Yankees fans might be heartened by the 2.70 ERA that Giants pitchers put together in Stewart's 63 games in 2011, compared to their 3.20 season ERA. Stewart saved four runs and forged a 3.41 ERA in his 54 games in pinstripes in 2012. The Yanks finished with a 3.85 team ERA.
Moving east this season, to the National League game he prefers as a pitcher who can handle a bat, Dan Haren will be reunited with Suzuki, who contributed to the Nationals' Major League-best record after coming in a midseason swap with the A's. In Oakland, earlier in their careers, Haren and Suzuki had a 4.23 ERA in 14 games, a small sample size.
In Anaheim, Haren found remarkable success with Mathis, leaning heavily on the catcher's athleticism to record a 2.41 ERA in 32 starts. That was Haren's best ERA by more than a full run with any receiver in his career.
In the blockbuster deal that shaped the Blue Jays as a contender, Mathis moved from Toronto to Miami, where he'll be an invaluable mentor to young Rob Brantley.
Jose Molina, who preceded Mathis and Mike Napoli in the Angels' Camp Scioscia alongside big brother Bengie, is the Rays' No. 1 receiver, nurturing a staff that led the Majors in 2012 with its 3.19 ERA. Molina, 37, appeared in a career-high 102 games. Rays manager Joe Maddon, Scioscia's bench coach with the Angels before moving to Tampa Bay, knows a good thing when he sees it.
In The Fielding Bible's rankings of catchers by a panel of insiders, Jose Molina –- the middle of the three brothers -- tied Suzuki for sixth. Yadier, Jose's kid brother, was the unanimous No. 1, followed by Wieters, Hanigan, Ruiz and Posey. Rounding out the top 10 were Jonathan Lucroy, Alex Avila and Josh Thole, the former Mets receiver who went to the Blue Jays with NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.
Toronto's J.P. Arencibia ranked 11th, ahead of Ellis, Montero and Joe Mauer. Miguel Olivo, a gifted athlete joining Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco with the Reds, gained more support in the survey -- tying Pierzynski for 15th -- than did Martin, Buck, Brian McCann and Carlos Santana.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.