Monday, June 27, 2011

Catching heat.

Because of one pitch, questions regarding Joe Mauer’s defensive abilities have surfaced.

Following Friday’s Jose Mijares versus Mauer incident, columnist Jim Souhan blogged on the stating that:
I've always been told by Twins people that Mauer is not an exceptional pitch-caller.
Then, after Liriano’s rough outing on Saturday, Souhan relayed more rumblings from the clubhouse on his blog:
“Liriano mentioned after the game that he didn't think the pitch he threw to Gomez was the right choice. Another shot at Mauer's pitch-calling?”
In terms of Souhan’s “Twins people”, it’s hard to tell if that is in reference to pitchers, coaches or front office members. Maybe it’s just people surrounding him in the press box. Or possibly all of the above. It should be noted that in my conversations with Rob Antony last spring, the team’s assistant GM offered nothing but a glowing endorsement of Mauer’s handling of the pitchers. 

Based on the current comments, it is hard to ignore what appears to be an growing sentiment that the pitching staff is growing frustrated with Mauer’s pitch-calling. Of course, this is not new nor is it the first instance of pitcher’s expressing displeasure in Mauer’s selections. In 2008, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins and Slowey were all cited as regular shake-off offenders. Reportedly, field management was not happy with Kevin Slowey shaking off the highly paid catcher as recently as last year. This year, Liriano has been fingered as a pitcher lacking confidence in his catcher choices.

For Liriano, the results seem to speak for themselves when it comes to his pairing with Mauer on the mound this year:

F. Liriano by Catcher 2011


Within this small sampling you can see that Liriano has not worked well with Mauer at all. Yes, those numbers are influenced by Liriano’s shaky start at the season’s onset when the bulk of his time with Mauer was but it just makes me wonder if Mauer’s approach when handling Liriano differs radically in comparison with Rivera, who Liriano has been magnificent with.

In fact, it appears that Rivera is the favorite receiver among the Twins pitching staff. At least by the numbers:

Twins Pitching Staff by Catcher 2011


Needless to say, actually digging into what differentiates the catchers requires much more extensive studies in pitch f/x for pitch selection. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple so I will not be exploring that aspect of the trio’s game-calling abilities today. Skimming the data from his starts against Texas and San Diego compared to his most recent one in Milwaukee, there does not appear to be any substantial difference in what was being called, just a disparity in where his pitches were being thrown.

Nick Blackburn credited Rivera has helping him rebound this season. According to’s Buster Olney, Blackburn’s renaissance came in a chat with Rivera before last month’s start against Chicago:
“The White Sox are aggressive and free-swinging at the plate, and Blackburn and Rivera decided before that May 4 start that they would work inside with fastballs. And this, in turn, would open up the outer half of the plate for Blackburn's offspeed pitches. The Minnesota right-hander allowed one run in 6.2 innings that day, results that reinforced something for Blackburn: If he pitched inside, aggressively, he would create more space for himself in another part of the strike zone. What this meant, too, was that Blackburn didn't have to be quite as precise with his command, because his margin for error with the strike zone would be larger.”
So, wait. Did Mauer or Butera not have Blackburn throwing inside prior to that start? Once again, that’s best answered through an extensive pitch f/x study.

Perhaps it extends beyond simply pitch-calling.

Watching Rivera work behind the plate, you can see why he might be able to coax more out of his pitchers. He’s very visual and moves around the zone, giving directions constantly. In his start against the Padres, Rivera pounded the dirt to make sure Liriano knew to get his slider down against the right-hander Ryan Ludwick. He did the same with Blackburn with Alexi Ramirez at the plate. That’s how you avoid any confusion on where you wanted that pitch and make sure you are on the same page as a pitcher.

Mauer isn’t nearly that mobile behind the plate. He doesn’t thrust his leg out to ensure he gets as low in the zone as possible. He doesn’t do the fake-out hop inside then jump to the outer-half of the zone that Rivera does at times. Does Liriano, who has been all over the board as a pitcher this season, need that kind of guidance that Rivera provides when he is behind the plate? Do the others, like Blackburn, respond better to this style of catching?

Because of Justin Morneau’s injury, Mauer may be moved from out behind the plate to first base on occasion, giving Rivera a chance to prove that his ability to handle the pitching staff isn’t just a success due to a small sample size.