Pitchers & Catchers: The Battery, Part One
Durham Bulls catcher Chris Gimenez, his son, and Bulls catcher Jesus Flores. Photo by Ivan Weiss.
It’s easy to assume that pitching, which is the originating force of every baseball play, is a one-way street, although perhaps not always in the same direction. Either a pitcher throws exactly the pitch his catcher calls, every time, without argument; or a pitcher shakes his catcher off repeatedly until he gets the sign for the pitch he wanted in the first place.
There are some pitcher-catcher relationships that work this way, but the truth lies mostly somewhere in between. The working relationship between a pitcher and catcher may very well be the single most important in all of baseball — it’s called “the battery” because it makes the game go — yet it gets relatively little attention. That’s largely because it’s kept hidden, by necessity. Most of the strategic and tactical work pitchers and catchers do together takes place where you can’t see it: before the game, in the dugout between innings, and in discreet on-field communication that they go out of their way to conceal.
To most eyes, it appears that the catcher squats, dangles a few fingers, waits for the pitch, catches it, throws the ball back. Repeat. In fact, it’s far more complex than that. Every single pitch of every game is the result of quite a bit of ratiocination, collaboration, and on-the-fly adjustments. No two innings, no two at-bats, are ever the same. Every pitcher works differently with every catcher, and every catcher works differently with every pitcher.
I wanted to know a little more about how this working relationship functions, so last month I asked Durham Bulls pitcher J. D. Martin, who starts game two of the Governors’ Cup championship series against Pawtucket tonight, and catcher Chris Gimenez to spend a little time talking to me about what they do. This was not a random pairing on my part. Martin, at the relatively old age of thirty, had a breakout season in 2013. He broke the Bulls’ Triple-A record for wins in a season (sixteen), leading the league in that statistic by a wide margin; the next closest winner had only twelve. His ERA was just 2.75, and with his playoff stats included, he set a career high for innings pitched in a season. Martin was justly named International League Pitcher of the Year.
In eighteen of Martin’s twenty-seven starts this year, the catcher was Gimenez. (It would surely have been more than that had Gimenez not missed about a month with a hand injury.) The Bulls have had three other catchers this year, and they have rotated fairly regularly, with Gimenez catching fifty-six of the team’s 144 games. That nearly a third of them were started by Martin (and that two thirds of Martin’s starts were caught by Gimenez) does not seem like a coincidence.
And no wonder. Gimenez and Martin have known each other since 2004, when they were both youngsters in the Cleveland Indians organization. In 2006, they were on the same Class A team, and for the next three seasons rose together to Triple-A. Gimenez caught Martin many times, both as his teammate and in spring training and instructional leagues.
I got a sense of what a close pitcher-catcher bond is like without any of their actual words. Gimenez and Martin interact like an old married couple. They talk over one another; they finish each others’ sentences. They needle each other mercilessly, evidence of their great affection for each other. Both are highly intelligent, forthcoming, articulate players (the leading vote-getters for our “Media Good-Guy” Award this season), and they’re at ease discussing the finer points of the game in a writer’s presence. Gimenez will often get up on his feet and demonstrate something in order to back up his point. When he talks about a “front-hip” cutter, he reaches out and smacks you on the front hip.
Martin is a little less physical, but then, starting pitchers always are. They spend four of every five games not playing. He’s slightly less talkative, too, which seems appropriate to the partnership. It’s the catcher, Gimenez, who makes most of the suggestions, and the pitcher, Martin, who chooses to take or reject them. Ultimately, it’s the pitcher’s game to throw, and he expresses himself through action more than words.
It’s too bad, (except for Gimenez, of course) that Gimenez was called up to the majors on September 1: we won’t get to see this collaboration in action tonight. It’s likely that Craig Albernaz will catch Martin instead. I asked Martin about changing his approach with Albernaz behind the plate, but he said it wouldn’t be necessary. “He knows what I throw,” Martin said. “It’ll be easy.”
What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation I had with Gimenez and Martin on August 26 at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, in the afternoon before a game. (The quasi-marital overlapping and interrupting is edited out for readability, but imagine two people talking at once for most of this.) Check back on Friday for part two: a foll0w-up talk with Gimenez, which includes a good deal about the championship series game three starter, Matt Buschmann.
I break out of the interview periodically to add a few things, in italics.
Adam Sobsey: When did you start playing together?
J. D. Martin: Spring training, 2004, or Instructs [Instructional Leagues].
Chris Gimenez: We played with each other in ’06, for Lake County.
Sobsey: Not 2005?
Martin: I had my Tommy John surgery in ’05.
Gimenez: ’06 was the first year I caught. I was drafted as an outfielder. They did a mini-camp thing for the new guys, and made me a third baseman. I caught two games [actually three] in short-season ball. The next year in Lake County, I was a third baseman all year.
It’s interesting to hear players’ memories of these sorts of things. According to Gimenez’s Baseball Reference page, he played forty seven games at third base in 2005, but he also played forty-one in the outfield and twenty at first. In his mind, though, Gimenez was a third baseman; but his mental self-image was on the verge of not mattering:
Gimenez: I was a catcher in high school, and the scout that drafted me knew that I could catch. The way the minor-league spring training clubhouse was set up, the front row was infielders, the next row was outfielders, and three rows were for pitchers. Then, in the very, very back, they called it “the hole.” That was for the catchers. Literally the darkest, dirtiest corner of the clubhouse was for the catchers. When I got to spring training, I went to find my locker, and it was not there in all the clubhouse, and all the guys said, “Dude, you’re in the hole.”
Martin: “Get in the hole.”
Sobsey: It amazes me how randomly so many careers begin.
Gimenez: Oh, yeah. “I think you might be okay at this.”
Sobsey: So what were your first impressions of each other?
Martin: My first impression, was, “Nice dude.”
Gimenez: Yeah. Good dude. We were both from the Vegas-California area.
Sobsey: Did you [Martin] throw harder before your Tommy John surgery?
Gimenez: Harder than you do now! [laughter] I think you topped out at ninety-two—
Martin: I topped out at ninety-three [mph] in high school. Then I was eighty-eight to ninety one after the surgery. Now I’m eighty-seven, eighty-eight.
Gimenez: You got the bad ligament. You didn’t get the one that makes you throw ninety-six.
Sobsey: When J. D. came to the Rays organization this year, were you thinking, “I know exactly what I’m getting here”?
Gimenez: Exactly. I knew I exactly what J. D. throws. It was all about, “Let’s just see how he wants to do it.” I caught his first bullpen at the Trop[icana Field, where the Rays play]. I went and picked him up from the hotel when he got here. It was just like riding a bike. I knew how his pitches were gonna move.
Sobsey: Were there things about J. D.’s arsenal or habits that you wanted to mess with?
Gimenez: No, I feel like a catcher’s job is to call a game based on what a pitcher’s good at, and what he’s not good at. J. D. throws a lot of cutters; that’s his pitch. I base my game plan on each pitcher.
Sobsey: How much of that has to do with how you feel on a given day?
Gimenez: Oh, a lot.
Martin: A lot. If my curve ball’s dog food, we’ll be careful with it.
Gimenez: We’ve still got to throw it, but we’ll pick our spots. We might use the cutter or the changeup instead. But maybe as the game goes on, he gets a feel for it, and boom: we’ll start using it again. It’s one of those in-game decisions. Two starts ago, he did not have a good feel for the curve because it was humid and raining, so we shelved it for a little bit. We still used it a little, and it ended up being a pretty good pitch for him in the fifth and sixth inning.
Martin: It’s all adjustments. Not just what I have a feel for, but it also goes by what I’m seeing. I’ll have a plan on a guy, and it’ll change. I’ll see him dig in, and I’ll bang that plan.
Gimenez: J. D. has pitched in this league before. Hitters know he attacks righties with cutters aways, lefties in with cutter, and also back-door cutters. If we throw a pitch, and I see a hitter is hanging back on it, we’re going to go with something different.
Martin: Guys will sit back on my cutter, so I’ll throw fastballs, or I’ll throw the cutter to the other side of the plate.
Last week, I spoke with Russ Canzler, who has faced Martin as an opposing hitter this year and last. He confirmed Martin’s attack plan: “If you sit on the cutter, he’ll bust you with a fastball inside,” Canzler said. “My plan is to try to do as little as possible. He’ll eat you alive if you try to do too much.” Canzler went 1-3 against Martin that night, with an opposite-field double, a hard lineout to center, and a groundout to shortstop.
Martin: One time this year, early in the season, I was charting pitches from the stands. When I chart, I’m also seeing what each hitter is doing. One guy, a big right-hander, he’s going the other way with everything. So I’m gonna work him inside, that’s my plan. I get up on the mound the next day, and he was [set up] way off the dish. Now I can’t go inside on him. I said, “Screw this, I’m going fastball away instead.” Bam. I throw it, he takes it. I throw it again, he takes it again. Then we went cutter inside.
Gimenez: I know where a hitter is standing every single time. That’s one thing I look for before I even give a sign. I’m always looking at the hitter’s back foot. I know when guys are making an adjustment within that at-bat. If the guy [starts off] standing in the very back of the batter’s box, and then next thing you know he’s standing right here [at the front], he’s looking for something soft. He’s trying to cut it off before it breaks.
Martin: If I notice a guy coming up on the dish, I’ll still throw him curve balls, but maybe I’ll break them earlier. It sucks for the catcher, because it bounces up into his mask, but the hitter will swing and miss at that.
Sobsey: How much does charting on the day before you pitch help you the next day?
Martin: It’s had for me to watch a game and get a lot of information for myself, because batters attack each pitcher differently. I’ll watch Buschmann [who pitched the day before Martin for most of the season], and he’s a very different pitcher from me. He throws a lot of fastballs inside. I don’t throw fastballs inside until I really need to. For a lot of guys, you can see what they’re trying to do. They’re just trying to back-foot balls off the Blue Monster. I watch and I get an idea, but they might four for four on fastballs in one game, and then I throw a fastball in, and they take it.
Sobsey: How much of what you’re throwing is dictated by Chris?
Martin: I’ve always been a guy who shakes [off catchers] a lot. I have a plan, and maybe a little stubborn, too. But with me and G., I have that trust with him, so a lot of times I’ll be up there [on the mound] and I’ll think, he either knows exactly what I want to throw, or I either want to throw a fastball away here or a cutter, so whatever he gives me first, I’ll throw. I know he’s not going to ask for a changeup.
Sometimes he’ll see something and say, “I want this.” [Martin taps his chest to demonstrate the way Gimenez indicates this.]
Gimenez: [tapping his chest] “I got this one.”
Martin: When he does that… I think I’ve shaken him off only once when he’s done that, and it was because I knew I wanted to throw a cutter. It was the perfect pitch right there. He actually gave me a changeup, and I have a lot of trust, but this particular time, I was like, “I’m throwing a cutter,” And it worked.
Gimenez: There was a time this year where Jeff Clement [of the Rochester Red Wings] hit a home run. On that pitch, I was like, “Give me this changeup right here.” It was up a little bit, and Clement just destroyed it. There’s times when it’s not so much the pitch, it’s the location. As a catcher, I don’t feel like I can get upset, because I call a perfect game all the time but pitchers don’t throw them. That’s kind of the joke.
Martin: Yeah, that’s the joke.
Gimenez: But I’ll never, ever get upset, because J. D. was one hundred percent committed to that pitch. I know he’s got confidence in it, and I know he can throw that pitch where he needs to. Whereas a younger kid coming up, maybe he’s got a good arm but doesn’t know better. Sometimes I’ll go out to the mound and say, “Let’s throw this pitch,” and he wants to throw something else. That’s fine, it’s your pitch, you’ve got to have confidence in it.
Sobsey: But it’s different with different pitchers, right?
Gimenez: Yeah. With Monty [Bulls starter Mike Montgomery], he’s trying to develop a cutter, and I have to call that pitch and make him throw it. With J. D., I don’t have to worry about that, because he knows what he is; but Monty’s still at that stage where he’s developing pitches. I have to pick and choose times to make him throw the cutter because he’s not confident with it yet, and he’s got to get confident. The last three or four starts, he’s thrown probably twenty cutters and they’ve been successful for him.
Martin: I’ve been in situations before where you’ve just got to shake, shake. A whole lotta shaking going on. It gets really frustrating.
Gimenez: I get frustrated, too, when a pitcher has to shake, because I want to be on the same page.
Gimenez: Sometimes it’s good to shake: to fake-shake. I’ll just sit there and shake my head.
Martin: Sometimes it’s great to start guys off with fake shakes.
Gimenez: If you get in the box and nobody’s shaking, you get into these patterns. Suppose you mix in a shake. The hitter thinks: “Maybe he’s not throwing that cutter.” “Maybe he’s not throwing the fastball.” “Maybe he’s throwing something else.” Then, boom, you throw it.
Martin: I especially like starting an inning off that way. I’ll come into the dugout and say to you: “Hey, let’s go fake-shake, fastball.”
Gimenez: Because with a shake, the hitter is never thinking fastball.
Martin: I might be overthinking it a little bit.
Gimenez: We call it “trickeration.” [laughter]
Sobsey: Do you actually put a decoy signal down?
Gimenez: No. I’ll do this: [shakes head]
Martin: [at the same time] He’ll do this: [shakes head]
Gimenez: I’ll just sit there and shake my head. I’ll look to make sure the hitter’s not peeking.
Martin: Sometimes I won’t even be on the mound. I’ll just look at the batter and be like [flashes three fingers at his hip]. That way you don’t even have to shake.
Gimenez: Especially if there’s guys on base, I’ll do that a lot. I don’t even have to give him a sign. You can pick up signs easily [from second base]. I’ll even mix in [makes a complicated sign]. This sign means absolutely nothing. [The hitter thinks:] “Did they switch it up?” Just little things like that.
Martin: I’ve had catchers come out to me and say, “Hey let’s mix it up. Let’s mix up our sequencing.” If he thinks that they’re tipping signs, he’s gonna come out to me and say, “We gotta mix it up.”
Gimenez: But just because you know what’s coming, you still have to hit the ball. A well-located pitch is successful ninety-eight percent of the time. The best pitch in baseball is a located fastball. If you can locate a fastball down and away to a right-handed hitter, ninety-nine percent of the time the guy’s not gonna hit it hard. I think, too, [about] recognizing earlier what guys are sitting on. Earlier in the year, we had some issues in the first inning. Like, four starts in a row, you gave up one or two runs in the first inning. And it was usually on homers. We figured it out, you gotta start mixing it up. Cause we’d just go out: fastball, cutter; fastball, cutter. Now we’re throwing the kitchen sink.
Martin: I try not to throw any curve balls in the first inning, but sometimes I have to. If they’re sitting there, if they know I’ve got a cutter and the fastball, okay, I gotta throw a curve ball.
Gimenez: It was like three or four starts until we figured it out. Finally we got through the first inning with a zero and we were, like. “Yeahhh, dude!”
Martin: And then we went out in the second and [Pawtucket first baseman Brandon] Snyder hit a home run. [laughter]
Gimenez: And we were like, [redacted].
Gimenez: And, too, he started throwing cutters in to righties. That’s been a big thing for you, too.
Martin: Oh, yeah, I love doing that.
Gimenez: Because that keeps guys honest inside. Throw it at their front hip.
Martin: If you get strikeouts on that, that’s a fun strikeout.
Check back Friday for part two, a supplemental interview with Chris Gimenez, mostly about Matt Buschmann and Kirby Yates.