Catcher-pitcher mound visits don't receive much attention. Neither players nor managers talk about them much, and they generally annoy fans. Baseball analysts largely ignore them.
During his Wild Card game press conference, though, Clint Hurdle made a rare reference to mound visits when asked about Edinson Volquez's bounce-back season. Hurdle said that Russell Martin's timely visits helped steady Volquez's composure and rhythm, adjustments the team emphasized when the right-hander joined the Pirates' staff.
"We're blessed with one of the best catchers in the game," Hurdle said. "Russell Martin has made good mound visit after mound visit after mound visit [with Volquez] this year, in very creative and challenging times."
Certainly, too much shouldn't be made of the impact of mound visits based on one quote from a manager, but Hurdle's comment suggests that mound visits can be more impactful than is often acknowledged. Unfortunately, there is currently no way to objectively measure their influence, since they're not recorded in play-by-play data. But mound visits are ubiquitous, and they probably wouldn't be unless those involved viewed them as important and helpful to winning. In itself, this makes them worth studying.
The timing of Hurdle's remark was lucky for me because I had just completed nine wide-ranging interviews on mound visits with four catchers, four pitchers and Ray Searage. It had become something of a pet project of mine over the final two months of the season, and my interest primarily stemmed from the question of their value, and whether there was a skill involved.
From my conversations with the players, some interesting themes and observations emerged, which I will highlight in series of posts this offseason. In this post, we'll examine whether mound visits are a craft at which catchers try to improve. We will also see an interesting difference emerge between the Pirates' catchers in their attitudes toward mound visits.
Participants in the pitcher-catcher dynamic describe it in personal terms. All the catchers I talked to spoke of the importance of understanding the personalities of the pitchers on the staff and gaining their trust. Every pitcher commented on the importance of maintaining their rhythm and proper mindset on the mound. When a catcher heads out to the mound he is interrupting a pitcher's rhythm and inserting himself into a pitcher's mental space. According to Ray Searage, mound visits are a skill precisely because catcher's need to develop a sensitivity to each pitcher's distinctive and carefully calibrated mound routine.
"The most important thing you don't want to do is mess up the timing," Searage said. "[So] yeah, it is a skill to have a properly timed [mound visit]. ... You don't want to take too many trips out there, because then you just mess up the whole timing. [Pitchers] are in a routine. They're trying to stay in sync. When they think less, they react more instinctively."
Catchers pay particular attention to mound visits during spring training and throughout the season as new players join their teams.
"[Each pitcher is] different," Searage explained. "That's why [catchers] need to pay attention when they're in the dugout and watch these guys and get to know them. And that's where spring training comes in and that's where you develop that instinct in the minor leagues and it carries over up here. It gets fine-tuned up here even more so."
Although pitching coach-pitcher mound visits are slightly different, I asked Searage if he ever felt he came out at the wrong time and actually made things worse for his pitcher.
"Oh, hell yeah, that's how I learned. You don't get better unless you screw up, you know. As of late though, it's been so that I don't have to go out there. Where Russell [Martin] and [Chris] Stewart have done a really good job."
Martin echoed Searage's observation that catchers need to be aware of each pitcher's routine. He added that it is out of respect for a pitcher's mental space that he generally takes a more passive approach and tries not to bother his pitchers with too many visits.
"For the most part, I don't like going out there, because they are in their zone. They are in their element," said Martin. "They like being in their own head."
Martin said that he tries to limit his conferences to obvious cases where a pitcher might need encouragement, or when there is a big situation and he wants to make clear how the pitcher should attack the next hitter.
"I've had times where I've needed to go out and talk to somebody to get them back in the groove. You know, you might see disappointment in somebody's face and you just want to go cheer them up, or give them encouragement or motivate them or something," Martin explained. "Or it is a big a situation and you tell them that there is an open base and we have a better matchup on deck so it's, 'Hey, let's pitch this guy tough and let's pretend this guy is 0- 2 (in the count). We're not going to give in.' So we know we're on the same page and when I call a slider, he now knows I'm not calling a strike slider, [instead] he's going to bury that slider. So little subtleties like that."
Importantly, Martin says that his more passive approach to mound visits is made possible by the relationships he forges with pitchers off the field.
"It's our preparation," Martin explained. "I never really feel the need to go and talk to somebody because I know my pitchers pretty well. I know their strengths. I know what they like to do. They trust me, as well. So you don't really see too many guys not want to throw a pitch I call. And if they [don't], I trust them too. I trust their feel. That has a lot to do with how we prepare going into a game, going into a series."
On whether mound visits should be considered a unique skill, Martin said he wasn't sure. Rather, he seemed to view them as just one part of a larger class of less visible, but equally important, aspects of the catcher-pitcher interpersonal dynamic. The craft is in "getting to know" the pitchers and building working relationships of trust. Those relationships provide the foundation for effective in-game verbal and non-verbal communication.
Chris Stewart was more certain that mound visits were a skill, and he admitted that it took him time to develop it. Specifically, he worked on understanding the needs of the different personalities on a staff, and then gaining the confidence to react to his "gut feeling" when he saw something amiss on the mound.
"I think I've learned to pretty good about reading the pitcher, in terms of their personalities," Stewart said. "I remember coming up as a rookie [and being] a little timid. Certain guys out there, especially if you have a veteran pitcher out there, you're like, ‘This guy should know what he needs to be doing out there, so I'm just going to stay back here.' So you're little timid.
"But at the same time, you learn over time [that] they're human beings. Their mind[s] waver just like everybody else. As a catcher, you need to know when to pick up on that and go out there, regardless of who it is. If a guy's not doing what he needs to be doing, it's our job to get him back to that point. So I think over the years I've learned to be more comfortable with myself and my gut feeling ... of when I need to go out there and talk to the pitcher."
Stewart's view of mound visits presents an interesting contrast to that of Martin's. Where Martin is more passive in the context of a game and relies on a repository of trust, Stewart is more active and willing to assert himself into the pitcher's mental space.
"It's just matter of if I see anything. I'm not afraid," Stewart said. "If I have to go three or four times the same inning, as long as it is getting that guy to do what he needs to be doing, I'll do what I have to do. You go out there and you're trying to figure out what they're doing, and at the same time you've got to kick them in the butt. The results are obviously going to prove if you're right or wrong most of the time. So if the results aren't happening, you have to change something, even if the pitcher doesn't want to change it himself. So that's when you have to be, it's weird [to say], but you have to be hard-ass on him and let him know that he's not helping the team staying where he's at."
Like Martin and Stewart, Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco identified learning how to read the personalities of different pitchers as the underlying skill that guides catchers through mound visits.
"The main thing is just to learn the personalities. Who you can go out there and have a good conversation with, and who it probably works in the opposite direction and they'll end up just getting upset and worked up, and as a pitcher that's not what you need when you're out there. So, you just need to read the situation and know what you can and can't do."
Mesoraco follows Martin's more passive approach when deciding whether to visit the mound. Indeed, he is virtually Stewart's opposite in that regard.
"I tend to not go out there unless I really have to," Mesoraco said. "You know, whether it is to give a guy or break or I really don't want him to throw that pitch. I'll go out there and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?' and if he says, ‘No, I really want to throw this,' we'll just go with what he thinks. It's more about giving them a break, and I try not to go out that often."
Finally, Tigers catcher Alex Avila denied there was a particular skill involved in mound visits. Rather, for him it was simply the intuitive ability of knowing how and when to "talk to people."
"I mean, as a catcher your job is not only behind the plate knowing the other team, calling the game, catching, blocking and throwing, all that type of stuff, but also just knowing your pitchers, knowing people," Avila said. "It's just like anything else, being able to talk to people. And, sometimes your job is just to take the pitcher's mind off baseball for a second, or give them information that can be useful."
Although Avila didn't want to call mound visits a skill, his straightforward approach aligns with a theme described by Searage and the other three catchers: Mound visits come down to learning to work with the different personalities on the staff.
"As the catcher, as long as you know who you're dealing with, what makes them tick, it will depend on what's to be said out there," Avila explained. "But I wouldn't say it's an art or anything like that. It's just talking to people."
For a lack of a better term, the skill that catchers feel they need to possess, and one that is probably more important for them than other members of the team, is interacting with others. Specifically, a catcher needs to have a keen understanding of how to work with, and channel into a positive direction, the varied personalities of the pitchers on his staff.
Whether these interpersonal skills dramatically affect outcomes is an open question that can't yet be answered objectively. It's clear, however, that pitchers and catchers form special relationships that seem to have at least some bearing on pitchers' success. We'll continue to explore this theme in future posts.
In the next post on this topic, we'll look at Charlie Morton's very open-minded view of mound visits. Stewart describes working with first-rounders, and Martin discusses catching Greg Maddux for the first time.