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Pitch Calling Gone Wild

  • Written by Barry Mabry

Pitch Calling Gone Wild

Signal little leagueI anticipate this article to be very controversial. My thoughts on pitch calling are very different than what I see in today’s baseball. Not only has pitch calling reached little league baseball (blows my mind) but the method behind it has gotten more and more complicated.

UCF music standPitch calling not only has gotten out of control with different techniques but it has now filtered all the way down to little league. In today’s baseball you see coaches throwing out a hundred different signals just to relay an outside fastball. Some coaches break up the zone in five sections across and five sections top to bottom. Some sit on a bucket, some use a teacher’s desk, and the most common is a music stand like they are conducting an orchestra. The question I have is what are we really trying to do? Is our job to develop or is our job to show people what a great pitch caller we are? I think we have to break this down of what level we are talking about.

Let’s first look at the levels of baseball starting at the top. MLB, minor leagues, college, high school, junior varsity, middle school, little league, tee ball. Rarely do you see pitches being called in MLB; the same goes for minor league baseball and college coaches are stuck deciding between developing vs. winning. Everything below those three is what is called ‘Pitch Calling Gone Wild’.

I think it all starts from little league. You have coaches still trying to live out their dream through thier kid of the mistakes they made instead of allowing their own kid to develop. This then leads over to middle school, JV, and varsity baseball. Catchers spend the majority of their childhood having some washed up dad sitting on a bucket calling their every pitch. And, then you wonder why there are so many college coaches having to call pitches now days. It is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.

I have been a coach for over 10 years and I can say that when it comes to pitch calling, I leave that up to my catchers and how I teach them between innings, before games, practice, bullpen, after games, on the bus, in the clubhouse, in the hotel, etc. There have been times I have called a pitch or two when I see a pattern starting to form, but I put it right back in the hands of the catcher after a ‘nice’ discussion with him. Anyone that has spent time in the dugout with me knows that I like my catchers to call the game because I want them to develop before I ship them off to the next level. I have the luxury to do that unlike college coaches who if they don't win, they don't have a job. Learning how to read hitters meshed with creating a special bond with your pitcher is priceless. What you do not see is the time I spend with these same catchers before, in between, and after the game discussing certain pitch selections. I was brought up this way. I rarely had a coach call my pitches (that I recall) from high school through my six years of professional baseball.   

coach giving signspitch callerNow I am probably going to rub some people the wrong way here but I honestly do not care. I see no use in a coach flashing six numbers then fourteen face signs every pitch. Not only are we slowing down a game that already has speed issues but what exactly are we teaching our catchers? My philosophy is this; if we as coaches are calling pitches, a catcher will never learn how to read hitters or learn the ‘cat-and-mouse’ game. Our pitchers will never get into a rythmn or pitch with what his heart is telling him to. I think coaches hinder the kid’s ability to learn the game and if we are over there calling pitches, what does that say about the confidence I have in that particular catcher; or pitcher? How will they ever learn? 

I found an article the other day from Mike Matheny that I thoroughly enjoyed and will share with you now.

“I had a question from one of our media people about one of our young catchers. I was taken aback when they asked me if I had been calling the pitches for him in the game. I laughed and then I realized that they were serious. It really shouldn't have been a surprise to me as an overwhelming percentage of youth coaches have decided to call the game for their young catchers. I believe this to be a mistake.

As an organization, we are amazed how few of our young catchers know how to call a game for their pitchers. We get frustrated by their pitch selection and their lack of game knowledge. The real issue is that these kids are not to blame...their previous coaches are. More and more often, we are seeing coaches at every level above tee-ball that feel that they must sit on their bucket in front of the dugout and give a complicated set of signs to their young catcher who then regurgitates the same sign to his pitcher, with little to no thought as to why they are throwing the pitch they are about to throw. My question is this: If the man sitting on the bucket knows which pitch is the right pitch, then why doesn't he teach the catcher how to do it? It may take some time, and some (a lot) of patience, and it may actually cost the team a couple of wins (heaven forbid) but it will give these aspiring players the foundation of what it really means to wear the "tools of intelligence."

I count myself very fortunate that I had a former catcher as my coach in youth league, and in college. I had one year in college, as a freshman, where my college coach called every pitch from the bench. I felt worthless behind the plate. Fortunately, my sophomore year, Bill Freehan (former Tigers all-star catcher) became our college coach. Coach Freehan was appalled that the game calling had been taken away from the catchers and went to work helping us learn our pitchers and how to get the most out of them.

This particular blog is going to be a little longer than most, because this is something that really has bothered me for a while. As a player, the most frequently asked question that I received from fans, was "When you are looking into the dugout, is Tony (LaRussa) calling your pitches?" I get the same question in regards to Yadi still today, and the answer is a very clear "Of course not." There is no way that I could ever have a better sense of the game, or see the subtle things that only a catcher could see, from the dugout.

Your rebuttal may be that your young catcher simply doesn't have the ability to handle such an important task. My reply is that you must not be a good enough teacher. Excuse my blunt approach to this issue, but once again remember that my goal is to help kids enjoy the great game of baseball, and one of the greatest joys as a catcher is the cat-and-mouse game of pitch selection.

I never once had Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa call a pitch for me, nor have I ever called one for Yadi...and I never will. We do, however, talk about pitch selection every single day, and we are always learning and challenging ourselves to be better at it. Help your kids, no matter how young or old, do the same”.

I have played with and coached some really great catchers. Two are in the big leagues, three are starting catchers at major D1 schools, and the other was a first rounder in 2013 (one has been a big league All Star seven of his eight years). The two big leaguers rarely had pitches called for them.  They made their mistakes and learned which allowed me to become a better pitcher. The four I have coached (two in SEC, one in ACC, and the other was a first rounder) I never once called their pitches but there were many discussions about pitch calling between us two. I know some of you out there are going to say “well as a college or high school coach your job is on the line if you do not win”. That just proves my point even more. To quote Matheny “Your rebuttal may be that your young catcher simply doesn't have the ability to handle such an important task. My reply is that you must not be a good enough teacher”.  Again, this all starts in little league.

I understand I probably ruffled some feathers with the article because just about every baseball game you go to whether it be little league, high school, or college you will find a coach calling every single pitch. Good, I am glad I did; especially amateur coaches below college. If those same catchers learned the game from little league up to high school, maybe those college coaches wouldn’t have to call their every pitch. I understand college pitching coaches lose their job if they do not win; and if they do not win usually the head coach gets hacked as well. But for those at the amateur level... You aren’t getting fired if you don’t win. Development is the most important aspect. That is what helps college and professional coaches out. Knowledge of the game and baseball instincts mixed with tools is a beautiful thing. Let the kids learn from their mistakes but teach instead of creating robots. Anybody can receive baseballs and call themself a catcher.