Sunday, March 1, 2020
Copyrighted by Sarah Morris, 2020
Over my forty-three seasons of watching baseball, I have learned the catcher is the most important position on the baseball diamond. According to an old baseball adage, pitching wins games. True, but without a good backstop, pitchers will not perform well.
Catching is the most physically demanding position in baseball. Mostly, baseball teams usually carry only two catchers. Squatting for nine innings requires strong legs. Catchers must be nimble to block stray pitches, usually in the dirt, and typically hits the catcher where he does not have pads. He must chase foul balls with heavy equipment. Although catchers save countless victories with their defense, they rarely get an ovation for their outstanding defensive play. Other than the pitcher, the catcher is involved with every pitch. Usually, catchers must suggest which pitch the hurler should throw, and this requires much pre-game studying. Although some people call the catching gear “the tools of ignorance,” catchers must be smart as they call the game and convey signs from the bench.
Now, with the increased focus on framing, catching became more complicated than previously. General managers do not trust their pitchers to throw enough strikes to have quick outs. Although successful pitchers throw at the corners of the strike zone, the umpires should be able to distinguish between a ball and strike. Anyway, good framing catchers are desirable and need strong hands. Sometimes, good framing catchers have more passed balls than ordinary catchers.
Yesteryear, teams thought the catching position was primarily a defensive position so that a catcher could contribute offensively regularly was a bonus. After Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Mike Piazza and Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants showed they could be terrific offensive players as well as good defensive catchers, the offensive expectations for catchers have increased. So far, new Major-League catchers have lived up to the new expectations.
As a Dodger fan forty-three seasons, I have been spoiled with superior catchers. Only Piazza was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, Steve Yeager, Mike Scioscia, Paul LoDuca, Russell Martin, and A.J. Ellis were terrific defensive catchers who could contribute to the offense in meaningful ways.
When the Dodgers had Yasmani Grandal as their primary catcher, their defense at the catching position suffered. The front office management liked Grandal because he is a switch-hitting catcher who excelled at pitch framing. Nevertheless, he allowed too many passed balls, which undermined his pitchers’ outstanding efforts. Although he worked well with pitchers, his reluctance to move his body laterally while in the crouch position cost the Dodgers victories. Offensively, he is a streaky hitter who was prone to prolonged slumps.
Also, the Dodger front office management appears to like Austin Barnes. In the Dodger Minor-League system, Barnes’ teammates thought Barnes would eventually win a Major-League batting championship. Even in 2017, Barnes as a Dodger hit .289. Something happened to his swing. Last year his offensive woes of having a batting average of .203 earned him a demotion to Triple-A.
Barnes is a decent defensive catcher but nothing special. He moves well behind the plate, but he sometimes gets lazy and fails to block a pitch in the dirt. The front office management likes his framing ability and his ability to set a low target. Originally a second baseman, Barnes has a weak throwing arm. Since the stolen base does not occur as much as in the past, the front office management does not think Barnes’ arm is a problem, but teams with speedy runners who know how to steal a base have exploited it.
Will Smith burst on the scene in June 2019 when Barnes had a groin injury. He was a real catcher. He spends hours studying videos trying to figure out what to throw the opposition. He has good throwing arm and knows how to frame pitches well. Offensively, though he did not hit much in September and during the NLDS, Smith displayed a knack to hit with runners in scoring position.
However, almost 25, Smith is still learning his craft. Catchers can be injured at any time, and having Barnes as a backup catcher is undesirable. The Dodgers have a 21-year-old Keibert Ruiz, a highly touted catcher for the future. During spring training, Ruiz does not appear to be ready. He squats incorrectly, preventing the lateral movement. From the television, Ruiz does not appear to set a low target. Offensively, he has not impressed anyone. Ruiz might be a catcher of the future, but the future is ways off.
If Smith gets injured and must be on the Injured List for a while, the Dodgers have a problem. Rocky Gale, a veteran, has impressed with his defense this spring, but he has not hit well. For an extended period, Gale would not be an asset to the Dodgers.
The Dodgers can solve their catching problems relatively easily. Russell Martin is still available to be signed. At 37, Martin might not be able to catch on consecutive days, but he is an outstanding defensive catcher who is willing to help the younger catchers learn their craft. Pitchers have always loved throwing to Martin, who won a Gold Glove in 2007. Last year, he helped to guide Hyun-Jin Ryu to have his best season in the Major Leagues. During the NLDS, Martin had a big hit with runners in scoring position, which helped the Dodgers win Game 3, and the rest of the Dodgers struggled with hitting with runners in scoring position.
Whereas Martin is an excellent catcher, he can play other positions. In four games as a reliever, Martin did not allow a run. He can play third base, and the Dodgers do not have a satisfactory backup for Justin Turner, who is 35.
The Dodgers like to have incredible depth, but at the catching position, they do not have it. Signing Martin could help the situation.