— In basketball, the point guard is the coach on the floor, making sure his team runs the offense properly, keeping his teammates involved, getting the ball to the scorers when they’re open. In football, the quarterback does much the same, only with the added danger of facing the 300-pound defensive linemen eager to separate man from ball.
But in baseball, the catcher is a different kind of animal altogether. He’s a scout and a coach. He’s a psychiatrist and a self-help therapist. He’s the first one to sacrifice his body and the last line of defense. And if he wants to make big-time money, he’s going to have to hit, too.
He’s got the responsibilities of a quarterback and yet most likely will receive the notoriety of an offensive lineman. Want to be a catcher? Good luck. It’s not going to be easy. In fact, you won’t find any sporting venture that’s tougher.
“It is the most difficult position to play over the course of a whole season in all sports, and the demands are very real,” says Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who caught nearly 1,400 games in a 13-year career with the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Not only the demands physically, but the demands to perform when you’re not feeling 100 percent, the mental part of it. It’s extremely taxing.”
That’s a strong statement, and Scioscia should know, as in addition to his many years as a catcher, he also played high school football. Of course, as happens when discussing any topic like this, not everyone is going to agree: “Quarterback is probably way tougher, to be honest with you,” says Cleveland Indians catcher and former high school quarterback Lou Marson, citing football’s speed and playbook complexity as the difference makers. “But yeah, (catching’s) definitely tough.”
No matter what side you come down in the issue, there is no doubt that catching belongs in the discussion among toughest jobs in sports, if not the toughest of all.
‘YOUR BODY GETS NUMB’
Any discussion about the hardships of catching has to begin with the physical toll it takes on an athlete’s body. Foul balls frequently glance off various body parts. Pitchers throw wild pitches in the dirt, and the catcher must throw himself in front of it to keep runners from advancing. Long swings by batters occasionally club the back of the catcher’s helmet, or his outstretched hand. And catchers are marked men whenever there is a close play at the plate. Dare to block the plate and the runner might assume the role of linebacker, flying in at breakneck speed for a vicious collision.
And then there is the non-stop squatting. Up and down, up and down, thousands of times over the course of the six-month long season, often through three- and four-hour games in the stifling heat of Texas, California, Florida and Georgia.
In Scioscia’s estimation, a catcher might be 100 percent physically on the first day of the season, and then it’s all downhill from there. The strain will cause a catcher to lose weight, and thus strength, over the course of the season. Kurt Suzuki of the Oakland Athletics, a bit slight for the position at 5-11, 190 pounds, says he changed his diet radically over the offseason, bulking up to 205 to help him keep from wearing down as quickly during the long season.
“It drains you,” says San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, a former catcher who logged more than 800 games behind the plate between the majors and minors. That’s why a lot of guys aren’t able to do it, and I always admire guys who can catch 140-150 games (in a season). That’s not easy to do. It’s tough on a body, and by the time you get to August or September, they’re feeling it.”
Every catcher has a different way of dealing with the wear and tear, but the bottom line is that’s exactly what they all must do. They know it’s just part of the job description.
Seattle Mariners catcher Miguel Olivo claims that the most difficult time is the first two months of the season, when his body is adjusting to being sore every day. Eventually, he says, “your body gets numb. … Then, you’re in pain so much of the time, you don’t even feel it anymore. Last year I got hit so many times, I got used to it.”
San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey can’t help but crack a smile when told of Olivo’s comment. Posey, who missed most of the 2011 season after a collision at home plate broke his leg and tore ligaments in his ankle, knows all about pain. Nine months after his injury, he’s just now regaining his health and his form. He says it not so much that a catcher’s body eventually goes numb, but that it’s about riding the ups and downs of a long, torturous season.
“You go through stretches where you’re really feeling it,” Posey says. “Maybe you get beat up a little more with foul tips and what not, and then you have a couple weeks where you feel good. So I think it’s just a matter of trying to take care of yourself off the field as much as possible.”
‘YOU’RE A LEADER BY POSITION’
As physically strenuous as it is to play the position, most catchers say that it’s the mental aspect of the job that is truly draining.
“You’ve got to be mentally tough, as well as smart,” says Seattle Mariners third base coach Jeff Datz, who is also in charge of the team’s catchers. “Know the game, run the game, lead the game. You’re a leader by position, and we want our guys to take charge whether they’re 22 years old or 38 years old.”
Datz is charged with instructing Jesus Montero, a 22-year-old slugging phenom who has much to learn about the non-hitting requirements of the position.
"It's a process," says Datz, preaching patience. "Guys don't usually step in and shine right away."
“It’s taxing,” says Rob Leary, Minor League Field and Catching Coordinator for the Cleveland Indians. “The physical part is one part of it. But if you’re a catcher that’s really attempting to run the game, call the game and work with the pitchers properly, night in and night out, the mental side is as strenuous, or maybe even more strenuous, than the physical.”
And running the game is, when it comes right down to it, the catcher’s main job. Every position player is expected to hit, but for most catchers, hitting comes secondary to defense and game planning. Last season, for example, 56 major leaguers hit .280 or better and only three of them (Yadier Molina, .305; Alex Avila, .295; Miguel Montero, .282) were catchers. And of the 64 players to hit 20 or more home runs, only three (Carlos Santana, 27; Brian McCann, 24; Matt Wieters, 22) made their living behind the plate.
There is just so much more to the job description. Catchers must scout opposing hitters, watching video and pouring over statistics in order to formulate a plan for each game. Every series requires a new plan for a new opponent, and adjustments are made from game to game depending on what happened the night before. All of this in addition to getting time in the batting cage to hone their hitting stroke.
“I’ll get to the field early enough to where I can go in the cage and hit, and do all my scouting reports,” says Suzuki, a career .258 hitter. “I take a lot of time scouting. You’re looking at video, looking at charts, looking at stats. I get there early enough to where I do all that, and still have enough time to go in the cage and get my hacks in.”
Once the game begins, the job is not done. A catcher must adjust his plan depending on how his pitcher is throwing that day. Sometimes a pitcher’s best ammunition might not be working, alternatives are necessary, and a catcher must improvise to get his hurler as deep into the game as possible.
“It’s very similar (to playing quarterback) because the quarterback is in charge of the huddle,” says Leary. “And even though the pitcher has the last say because the ball is in his hand, the catcher is there to guide him.”
And when things go awry and the pitcher begins to lose his composure, the catcher must coax him back into the game mentally. Sometimes it takes a pat on the back, sometimes it takes some tough love, but when it comes to pitchers, it’s not one-size-fits-all.
Bochy remembers once heading to the mound to confer with veteran right-hander Goose Gossage, a future Hall-of-Famer closer and gruff intimidator on the mound. Gossage wasn’t exactly welcoming to visitors on his mound, and dismissed his catcher with a curt “OK, I got it.”
“Everybody is different,” says Bochy. “You have to go out there with one guy and give him the business, the next guy you may have to support, to give him some confidence. So everyone is different and you have to understand that.”
‘THOSE GUYS DON’T JUST DROP OUT OF THE SKY’
With so much on the catcher’s plate, you would think that attention, acclaim and money would come with it. But by and large catchers don’t get much attention unless they also happen to be great hitters, regardless of how well they play defense, handle pitchers and call games. Among all Major League Baseball players, only relief pitchers ($1.95 million) are paid less on average than catchers, who make just more than $2.5 million a season.
Designated hitters, who only appear four or five times per game when they lumber to the plate for an at-bat, make a whopping $9.32 million per year, followed by first basemen ($8.89 million), outfielders ($5.62 million), second basemen ($5.22 million), third basemen ($5.18 million), starting pitchers ($4.88 million) and shortstops ($3.90 million).
This tells you something about baseball’s value system: It pays to hit, not to catch.
One reason for the pay disparity is that good hitting catchers are often moved to less taxing positions to save wear and tear on their bodies. Players who are able to take the pounding and continue to be elite hitters are rare. Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins was just such a rarity. But Mauer, a career .323 hitter and the only catcher in baseball history to win three batting titles, has also seen his share of injuries, playing only 82 games in 2011 — 52 of them behind the plate.
The lessons of Mauer and Posey have made teams wary of losing a great hitter to a catching-related injury. Leary understands this, and is charged with teaching proper defensive techniques to Cleveland Indians catchers — including their own young slugging phenom Carlos Santana, who missed nearly half of the 2010 season to a frightening knee injury — to help reduce injury risk.
“Those guys don’t just drop out of the sky,” says Leary. “So when a Carlos Santana loses half a season, when a Buster Posey misses a whole season with a really nasty injury, you’re talking about a guy that’s in the middle of your batting order. Those are huge, huge losses for a team.”
But what about the average catchers, the non-elite hitters? With all that they do on a daily basis, are they undervalued? Suzuki doesn’t think so, saying that hitting is “just what organizations lean towards. It’s hard to find a guy who can hit .300 with 35-40 homers you know? I think those guys are a little bit higher on the priority list.”
But maybe it’s time to appreciate the craft a little bit more, and realize that hitting is only a small portion of what a catcher handles on a daily basis.
“We’re the hardest workers of anybody on the field,” says Olivo. “One little mistake we make, and the game is over. One bad (pitch) call, you don’t block the ball with a man on third, or you make a bad throw. Little things.
“People need to realize that and give more credit to the catcher.”