Twins Catchers Focused on Maximizing the Strike Zone
Image courtesy of Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY SportsIt is only Tanner Swanson’s second year in the organization, but when you talk to people in the front office or non-Twins employees in the industry, Swanson’s presence is widely revered. To those who know him, he’s affectionately referred to as “a dude” -- which is baseball jargonese for indispensable or invaluable, someone who goes about his business and stands out.
A master practitioner in the art of deception, the Twins’ catching coordinator’s hiring paid immediate dividends. According to Swanson, the Twins’ farm system was ranked 27th in pitching framing metrics from 2015 to 2017, then jumped to fifth after introducing some changes.
Because most of his work was with the catchers in the system before they reach Minnesota, Swanson said he watched Garver’s technique from afar. When Garver contacted him this past offseason, Swanson gave the 28-year-old a rundown which made the catcher only wish he called sooner.
“He basically said, yeah, I see a lot of mechanical flaws in the way I receive and he couldn’t tell me any of those things last year because he felt he was stepping on someone else’s foot and that wasn’t his place to do that,” says Garver. “That sucks. I wasted a whole year where I could have been getting better at something.”
Garver was pressed into extended catching duty with the Twins after starter Jason Castro’s season ended prematurely. Garver’s defensive reputation to that point had always been considered a work in progress while in the minor leagues. His biggest issue was nabbing calls at the bottom of the zone -- the air space which has quickly become one of the biggest aerial battles fought between pitchers and hitters.
As far back as 2014 it became clear that the strike zone was getting lower and lower. More called strikes were happening below the knee. Before the 2018 season, Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch, a former receiver himself, told MLB Network that “the best catchers nowadays can handle the ball below the knees. Now we work north and south.”
Hinch last played in the majors in 2004, where he says the emphasis was trying to expand the zone on either side of the plate. The game now is top and bottom, he says.
“Can I make the low pitch -- over the plate and down -- look like a strike? So the game has moved north and south where it used to be east and west.”
Smart teams started to target catchers who were able to steal or keep those pitches in trade and free agency. The Texas Rangers signed Jeff Mathis, owner of a career .198/.258/.306 slash, to a two-year, $6 million deal simply because he was one of the best at nabbing the low strike (ninth out of 78 in 2018). The Washington Nationals traded three players for 31-year-old Yan Gomes partly because he was the second-best at coaxing strikes on the lower third. So as more teams paid (and potentially overpaid) for that type of catcher, smarter teams figured to go one step beyond and hire the people who can create those kinds of catchers.
That’s where Swanson comes in.
While pitching and hitting advances have radically changed over the last few years, catching as a practice, has lagged behind. Teams have known about the value of pitch framing for years but how to develop that skill has been elusive to some. Previously the message to catchers to become a good framer meant being quiet and holding the pitch in place. Swanson says that is outdated. For starters, catchers should corral low pitches and will work back toward the center of the plate. And, rather than keeping the mitt horizontal, catchers are encouraged to receive the low pitch with the glove thumb pointed downward, giving them diagonal angle.
This is where Garver and Swanson focused.
It is not an easy task, to be sure. Like hitters learning a new swing path or pitchers tweaking their mechanics, catchers too have to undo years of hardwired technique and re-map their systems to perfect this new process. When Swanson works with catchers, he incorporates drills that include weighted plyo balls, j-bands, wrist weights and more. On his Twitter account this offseason, Swanson demonstrated a drill with Twins minor-league catcher Caleb Hamilton where Hamilton works off a pitching machine and just repeats the motion of bringing the glove up -- a movement he was attempted to commit to muscle memory.
But the optimal process for perfecting the low zone strike, Swanson found, begins at the set-up as well.
You may have noticed on the recent broadcasts that Twins catchers are all dropping to one leg in their set-up, reminiscent of the days of Tony Pena behind the dish. Observers at the minor league complex will also see almost all catchers doing the same. Swanson says this is just another strategy of getting as low as possible to give umpires the best view of the low strike zone.
It’s new and it’s different but there is a sense of system-wide buy-in.
“I think if you ask our guys, most, if not all, would tell you this is how they would prefer to do it,” Swanson said about the one-legged receiving technique. “It’s not something that is mandated necessarily, but I think what we’ve done is given them the freedom to learn for themselves -- that this will be even more efficient in what they were doing, specifically from a receiving standpoint.”
Most would probably agree that the one-leg approach (or in the case of prospect Ben Rortvedt, no legs) works fine without runners on base, but the Twins are pushing the envelope, trying to maintain that position even when opponents put men on.
“We’re also learning that we can still block and throw effectively from these positions too and, although it’s different and hasn’t necessarily been explored in the past, that’s not scaring us from seeing what we can learn,” Swanson remarked.
The Twins are also looking at obtaining more strikes at the top of the zone as well. As Hinch suggested, the zone is stretching northward, with teams trying to blast fastballs at the letters or above. In 2018, 40 percent of all fastballs were thrown in the upper third of the strike zone, whereas in 2017, it was at 36 percent. So there has been a drastic shift to throwing heaters up. Receiving those pitches to make them look like strikes also requires some added technique, Swanson says. Instead of pulling the ball up with a downward-facing thumb, high strikes are to be pounced upon almost from above.
Putting it all together can be challenging. It is one thing to work on the elements in a private facility or a practice field during the offseason, but how can you tell if you are making actual progress? Swanson and the rest of the player development staff have tried to be as innovative as possible. This spring training, they came up with the idea to incorporate pro umpires into bullpen sessions to track each catcher’s framing numbers. The Rapsodo technology will track each pitch location and compare it against whether or not a human umpire calls the pitch a ball or strike.
“We [track framing numbers] during the season but we didn’t have the capacity to do that in a training environment, so we were racking our heads trying to think of ways to give our guys more effective feedback during spring training and that’s one of the efforts to do so,” notes Swanson.
In addition to the static bullpen sessions where stand-in batters are just decoys, the Twins also had umpires, Rapsodo and cameras available during their live batting practices as well, hoping to recreate the in-game experience as much as possible.
Each session is crunched by the organization’s research staff and then the data is delivered to the coaching staff every day. So Swanson knows immediately how Ryan Jeffers or Caleb Hamilton’s progress is coming. If a player struggles, they can review the numbers and film together and isolate what things need to be improved. It’s a feedback loop that can hasten the development process.
“For the most part we try to be as transparent with the players as possible to help them understand, not just how the Twins are evaluating them but largely how the industry is evaluating catchers and how valuable the pitch tracking piece is,” Swanson says. “I don’t see any value withholding that information, at least on a consistent basis, so we want to give them as much information as we can so they are not in the dark and can make adjustments.”
“I’m in a great place right now,” Garver says about his new form. “You can see the immediate, immediate change. Took a long time for me to get a feel for what I was doing and getting my body into those positions to receive the balls the way I am, but now that I’m there, it’s only going up from here.”
Garver and his fellow backstops are in a good place right now. It may only be practice games but the Twins’ pitching staff has the third-most strikeouts among all teams. The newly introduced framing techniques undoubtedly plays a role in that stat.
And Garver is just the beginning. The Twins plan on having a pipeline of catchers who steal strikes wherever that advantage may lie. Swanson recognizes that the game evolves, just like the strike zone did, and there may come a time when robot umpires roam the Earth. Their training methods and focus will pivot with the changes.
“We’re all kind of learning this as it continues to progress,” Swanson says about the future. “In some ways it's uncharted territories so we’re all trying to stay ahead of it and push the ball forward.”
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