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Article: Twins Catchers Focused on Maximizing the Strike Zone

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#1 Parker Hageman

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Posted 14 March 2019 - 08:17 PM

Mitch Garver says he could see the writing on the wall.

In 2018, the Twins catcher finished 75th out of 78 qualifiers in framing runs above average. His -9 FRAA would cost his team almost a win.

“If I don’t fix things right now, I will not be in the game in two years, three years,” Garver says he told himself. “I won’t be a catcher anymore.”

Understanding that his value as a player would depreciate quickly if he were to move out from behind the plate, Garver reached out in multiple directions for help. Initially, Garver thought about working with recently retired catcher Eddy Rodriguez in Tampa. Rodriguez has spent some time in the Twins organization and Garver considered him a friend. It was only after asking bench coach Derek Shelton his opinion on what he should do, that Garver changed his mind.

“Go call Tanner,” were the orders he received from Shelton.It 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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"You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time." -- Jim Bouton, "Ball Four"


#2 DocBauer

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Posted 14 March 2019 - 10:34 PM

Very sad Garver couldn't have spoken to Swanson last season. That's just wrong! Something my father and I were talking about when he came back from his ST visit last week and various comments we both read here at TD and other places.

The pace of practice has picked up with nobody standing around. Duh? Isn't that the way things are supposed to work?

I read how practices at the ML camo have improved, including little thjngs like the catchers getting batting practice early, before they get tired. The milb staff decided this, and other changes, we're a good idea. Holy hell! MLB or milb, isn't this still the same organization? Shouldn't things be done the same way from the top on down?

And I have recently read various comments how coaches and advisors from the ML camp have been spending more time on the milb side. This wasn't done before?

All of this is dis-heartening to hear initially. And then you stop and reflect how much change that Rocco and the FO are making and it lifts your spirits. This organization is finally getting on the same page.

As to the catchers themselves, I get the low strike and clear umpire view. I'm just glad to read they are not ignoring the high strike as the way the game is evolving, with power/launch angles/mad SO totals, the high strike can be a weapon.
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#3 nclahammer

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 04:21 AM

This is the most comprehensive article I've ever read on pitch framing.Very well done.What a great read.

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#4 terrydactyls1947

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 06:12 AM

The only thing I can remember from my days in American Legion baseball is the long, boring practices.I did learn how to juggle three baseballs pretty well while standing around waiting for someone to hit a ball.Glad to see things are finally catching up to other sports.If you go to a pre-season hockey practice, you will see 90 minutes of non-stop skating.Maximum use of ice time.And it sure gets them all in shape (as if they needed it). 


#5 beckmt

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 06:56 AM

I can understand the idea of both the low strike and the high strike.Both are difficult to elevate well.If you elevate the high strike, most of the time you will have a popup or lazy fly ball.Low strike , you will be over the top and a ground ball or again if under it a lot of the time you have a fly ball.  

Glad to see the Twins are working on this.Anything that helps this staff do better is good.


#6 Doctor Wu

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 07:02 AM

 

The only thing I can remember from my days in American Legion baseball is the long, boring practices.I did learn how to juggle three baseballs pretty well while standing around waiting for someone to hit a ball.Glad to see things are finally catching up to other sports.If you go to a pre-season hockey practice, you will see 90 minutes of non-stop skating.Maximum use of ice time.And it sure gets them all in shape (as if they needed it). 

I agree! Give that man a raise (in this case, Parker). And good to hear that Garver is a quick learner and excited about this stuff too.


#7 ScooterDance

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 07:02 AM

and he couldn’t tell me any of those things last year because he felt he was stepping on someone else’s foot

Really hope this is a philosophy that is being strangled out of the organization. Siloed thinking craters innovation and progress. 

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#8 ashbury

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 07:39 AM

This article addresses some questions that had arisen in the past week, such as when Rortvedt was behind the plate in a couple of televised games.

 

I'd like to see further exploration of how this ties in (or trades off) with the many other aspects of a catcher's game. A brief mention was made of dealing with baserunners, but can more be said? Also, not everything goes according to plan - could pitches in the dirt, either by design or simply a wild pitch, be harder to corral? Ditto for unexpectedly high pitches, or way outside? Finally, might anything about the changed stance make a catcher more vulnerable to missing the pitch with his glove when crossed up by the pitcher? Taking one off of the mask is an uncommon occurrence, but anything that slightly increases the odds of that could be very costly in return for the advantages of better framing - we've seen the long-term cost of concussions, and Garver has had a serious one already.

 

The traditional crouch, when done by an agile athlete, would seem to have one big advantage, of offering the most balanced starting point for any of the tasks which the catcher may be called upon to perform. Sticking a leg out may optimize some tasks, but impede others. I have to rely on experts to tell me the pluses and minuses. This article's a great start.

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#9 Parker Hageman

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 07:59 AM

A brief mention was made of dealing with baserunners, but can more be said? Also, not everything goes according to plan - could pitches in the dirt, either by design or simply a wild pitch, be harder to corral? Ditto for unexpectedly high pitches, or way outside? Finally, might anything about the changed stance make a catcher more vulnerable to missing the pitch with his glove when crossed up by the pitcher?

 

 

1. Yes.

2. Sometimes.

3. Sometimes.

4. Not really, no. 

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"You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time." -- Jim Bouton, "Ball Four"


#10 tarheeltwinsfan

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 08:07 AM

Let's ask a sportsorthopedist and a sports physical trainer about the effects on a catcher's knees, ankles, and hips with these "one leg down" or "both legs down" stances vs. the catching stances of crouching. Also at what age should a pre-teen catcher or a teen catcher begin these new stances? Are there any potential negative effects on the growth plates in the legs? Who are some medical people and physical trainers the TD staff could interview about this? Just wondering.

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#11 cardsfan

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 08:33 AM

There are few things that can ruin a season like catching problems. Your starting catcher is injured or falters and you can have season-wide issues. Pitch framing? I am sure umpires are aware that they are trying to be deceived.

A pitch that is in the strike zone at the top of the plate, but, dips below it does it get called a strike when entering mitt?

Edited by cardsfan, 15 March 2019 - 08:35 AM.


#12 Hosken Bombo Disco

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 09:14 AM

Pretty candid comments by Garver. I like him as a third catcher with options at this point. (I think he still has at least one option year left?) I think framing is just one of his deficiencies and it would be tough to improve from 4th worst to middle of the pack when everyone else is also trying to improve in that area.

#13 caninatl04

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 10:21 AM

A few thoughts

Among the four popular sports, my opinion is that hockey referees / linesmen are the best. NFL is a second. NBA was the worst during the Shaq decade and the gambling problems. MLB is and always has been 3rd or 4th.

I know I sound like an old #@*&%, but a strike is a strike and the concept of "stealing a strike" is more of an indictment of MLB umpires that of a catcher's talent.

But, alas, if those stupid fat over-paid attention-seeking so-and sos can be fooled and cannot do their basic function, then so be it.

#14 Sam Morley

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 10:41 AM

He switches which knee is down often. Does anyone have insight into why/when it changes? It's not singly relative to the handedness of the batter, nor does it seem to be singly relative to the pitch. Could it be random? What is the risk of tipping pitches/location?

 

Some of his movements in that video are really extreme, like he snatches his glove what appears to be more than six inches several times. I understand curling and cushioning toward the center, but I don't understand how such dramatic movements can be effective. Aren't umpires resentful of such overt deception? If I was umping and I saw a catcher yanking his glove around like that, I would really be on guard- I might even tell him to knock it off.

 

Or maybe when you are trying to steal every single pitch, even the outlandish ones, it makes the close ones seem even closer by comparison. 

 

In my mind, framing is about moving the ball closer to the zone without it seeming like you're moving the ball closer to the zone. 

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#15 haplito

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 11:16 AM

Another great article, Parker. Keep them coming, please. Love reading your stuff. 

 

I like the video on Garver from Goodro, but he appears to have a lot of arm in his framing action. That'll catch up to him. 

 

He switches which knee is down often. Does anyone have insight into why/when it changes? It's not singly relative to the handedness of the batter, nor does it seem to be singly relative to the pitch. Could it be random? What is the risk of tipping pitches/location?

I wouldn't be surprised if it's to reduce strain and discomfort. I was never a catcher, but I've always been amazed that grown men can stay in that position for so long.

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#16 jkcarew

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 12:22 PM

Generally, I don't want balls/strikes called by a machine. But, then I'll read an article on pitch-framing. If not for instant replay, I'd guess we'd have data and articles on tag-framing (2B/SS) and ball-in-glove-framing (1B) by now.

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#17 Parker Hageman

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 12:37 PM

 

Generally, I don't want balls/strikes called by a machine. But, then I'll read an article on pitch-framing. If not for instant replay, I'd guess we'd have data and articles on tag-framing (2B/SS) and ball-in-glove-framing (1B) by now.

 

Anything that could potentially provide an advantage, yes, they would (and should) analyze it. 

"You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time." -- Jim Bouton, "Ball Four"


#18 RaoulDuke

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 12:43 PM

On the one broadcast I have caught so far the Phillies old school announcers were blasting the catcher for doing this, so I am all for it!This spring has really brought me hope for this organization and the way it has quickly modernized. 

 

Get them low strikes for Berrios curves.

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#19 Tom Froemming

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 03:18 PM

A couple comments have made reference to deceiving the umpire. While that would be an incredible skill to be able to hone, framing is much more about simply making sure strikes are called as such. Here's a good quote on framing from Jason Castro from February 2017:

 

"The goal at the end of the day is to try to help your pitcher keep as many strikes as possible," Castro said. "And to not do anything to take away from presenting pitches that are in the strike zone to the umpires that would lead them to believe that any given pitch is not a strike."

 

So it's more about keeping strikes than stealing them. This data from an April 24 game Mitch Garver caught shows what an area of improvement that is for him. These were all called balls:

4/24 Garver

 

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#20 yarnivek1972

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Posted 15 March 2019 - 06:04 PM

I wish the umpires would focus on maximizing the strike zone.



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