Josh Thole vs. Maurkice Pouncey

Josh Thole

Josh Thole: Center For The Pittsburgh Steelers

I always hear the same thing about young catchers: that most of them need to learn how to “handle a pitching staff” or “call a game”. For a little while now, I’ve been wondering about the importance of calling the game, which in essence means instructing the pitcher as to which pitch to throw, and where for every throw.

Think about it for a moment. The decision about which pitch to throw is both strategic (long-term) and tactical (short-term). These decisions are important, and require specific information. In a perfect world, wouldn’t these decisions best be made by someone with immediate access to the proper information? Or at the very least by someone trained to make these sorts of decisions?

Instead, games are called by catchers…who in some cases are said to do a great job of calling a game, but in others they’re said to do poorly. And while I can’t imagine most major league catchers can rattle off J.D. Drew’s Z-Swing% or know that Kit can’t lay off the high hard one, I’m certain that many of them take the time to learn their pitcher’s tendencies and those of the batter at the plate. But in major league baseball, is it good enough? Can teams do better?

After thinking about this for a while, I came up with a comparison to another sport: football. In football, the important tactical decision on every play is most often made by a head coach or an offensive coordinator in real time. These are the personnel with the experience in making these decisions, and the data at hand to make the best choice. Of course the difference between a football play and a pitch in a ballgame is different…but is dramatically different? Why aren’t these decisions made by someone with the right information or the right capabilities, say the manager or the pitching coach?

Of course, occasionally the quarterback in football calls his own plays, reads the defense, calls an audible. To me, this is the role of the pitcher. He shakes off signs, he’s seen what the hitter has to offer, and he knows his capabilities. Some pitchers are cerebral – one might say that Greg Maddux was the Peyton Manning equivalent. But plenty of major league pitchers don’t educate themselves at a high level about opposing tendencies – they just follow the lead of their catcher. And that works fine in many instances.

But then there’s the catcher. The person that actually seems to make these decisions. And to me, this is like the center in football calling the plays. Plenty of NFL centers are smart, quick, and captain the offensive line. It is one of the most underappreciated positions in football. But NFL centers don’t usually call the plays for the offense. Through this imperfect-but-telling analogy, the equivalent of a center in baseball does.

I’m not entirely sure how much difference this makes, but I believe that it means something. The cat-and-mouse game between the pitcher and the hitter, where the hitter tries to guess what the next pitch might be, has been documented as important. We all hear about hitters “sitting on a fastball”, “getting fooled”, and the like. If a team could play the odds – and win this matchup – either through the application of game theory, or superior knowledge, or just improving catcher skill – there has to be room to win an extra advantage.

(Anyways – the title of the post comes from the idea that both the titled players are young, talented, and have certain skills. And perhaps neither should be calling the plays.)

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Filed under Josh Thole, Sabermetrics

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