Any catcher worth his salt knows the type of attention his pitching staff deserves.
”Put it this way: You’ve got usually 35, 36 at-bats that a pitcher is going to face (a game) — maybe more,” said former Gold Glover Mike LaValliere, who caught for the Phillies, Cardinals, Pirates and White Sox from 1984-1995. “You got three or four of your own (at-bats). That should tell you right there (what’s most important).”
LaValliere attended New Hampshire’s Trinity High, then played at UMass Lowell. The 1987 National League Gold Glove winner was a guest at the Granite State Baseball Dinner in Manchester last Saturday and took some time to chat with The Eagle-Tribune about Boston’s new defensive-oriented catcher David Ross and the importance of the catcher position in general.
A catcher must gain the trust of his pitching staff. Lavalliere was able to do that. Throughout his career, his pitchers combined for a 3.49 ERA when he was behind the plate.
”If your pitchers know that you know what you’re doing back there, they will probably have a little bit more conviction in throwing what you want them to throw,” he said. “If you’re a guy who is just like, ‘Let’s go get them out’ without doing any research, then I think guys have a tendency to go, ‘I’m ready but I’m not sure he is.’
“Some (catchers) can’t function by putting too much information in front of them. Some guys thrive on it.”
Ross is the type of catcher who puts emphasis on getting the best results out of his pitchers. He should help Boston’s staff bounce back after it ranked 27th out of 30 major league teams with a dismal 4.70 ERA in 2012.
”Here’s a guy that’s got experience,” LaValliere said. “The biggest thing is that he’s coming from a winning organization. He’s got a winning attitude. Is he an everyday guy? I don’t know.”
LaValliere added that Ross, a right-handed batter with some occasional power, could produce at Fenway as a hitter, too.
The Red Sox, who signed Ross to a two-year deal totalling $6.2-million, certainly were in need of a catcher who puts the pitching staff’s statistics above his own offensive numbers.
Ross led all National League catchers with a 48 percent caught stealing percentage in 2009 and then threw out 15 of 34 (44 percent) last season.
But holding the running game in check isn’t the most important quality a catcher can possess. Jason Varitek threw out only 23 percent of base stealers during his career and Red Sox pitchers loved him.
More importance these days is placed on game-calling and receiving (blocking and framing pitches).
If you’re pitchers like throwing to you and they feel comfortable, then you’re doing your job.
In the 54 games Ross caught last year for Atlanta, his pitchers combined for a 3.59 ERA. His pitchers combined for a 3.43 in 2009, 3.15 in ‘10 and 3.11 in ‘11.
LaValliere said a catcher’s preparation needs to take into account the opposing offense and his starting pitcher.
”We kept a book — index cards on all the guys we were facing: their strengths, their tendencies,” said LaValliere, who runs a baseball training facility in Florida. “That gave you a general outline of what you wanted to do. You also should have had a good understanding of what your pitcher is capable of doing. And that would change from night to night. And that’s why you find pitchers and catchers don’t get along sometimes — because some catchers can’t vary from the program.”
LaValliere said probably 95 percent of the pitches he called ended up being thrown.
”There were a couple of guys who wanted to throw their game,” he said. “But for the most part, what I put down is what they threw. And they knew I was doing my job. They knew I was paying attention. They knew I cared about their ‘W’ or their ‘L’ the next day in the paper.”
Boston still is in search of its next ace defensive catcher. In other words, its next Varitek.
Ross will turn 36 in March so he obviously isn’t the longtime solution.
However, he is a short-term fix and gives the Red Sox the flexibility to trade either Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavarnway
Neither of them has gained the pitching staff’s trust like a Lavalliere or Varitek.
Boston would rather trade the 27-year-old Saltalamacchia, who threw out just 18 percent of base stealers last year. Also, Boston’s ERA went from 4.63 in 2011 to 4.84 last year. He did show major improvement cutting his passed balls from 26 to 6.
The 25-year-old Lavarnway, who didn’t star catching until late in his career at Yale, is about on par with Saltalamacchia defensively. The Red Sox still think he will improve in the next couple of years.
Interestingly, LaValliere didn’t start catching until his first professional spring training. He signed as a third baseman.
LaValliere said took him about 29 months after changing positions to start feeling comfortable as a catcher.
”For me, the physical side of things, the actual blocking and throwing to second base, those things were a little bit tougher than the mental side,” he said.
Future Sox catchers
The Red Sox have three minor league catchers — Dan Butler, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart — who are known as strong defenders.
Both Butler and Vazquez were added to the 40-man roster Tuesday.
Vazquez was picked by Baseball America as this year’s best defensive catcher in the Carolina League after leading all qualified catchers with a 41.9 percent caught stealing percentage (44 of 105) and 110 assists.
Swihart has the highest ceiling. A first-round pick in 2011, the 20-year-old is ranked by Baseball America as the sixth best prospect in the Red Sox system.
Brentz could get call-up
The Red Sox are looking at outfield options and signed Jonny Gomes to a two-year deal last week. A right-handed hitter, he pounds left-handed pitching but has struggled some against right-handers. He likely will be used as a platoon player.
The Red Sox are still considering other outfielders, including bringing back Cody Ross.
Furthermore, right fielder Bryce Brentz, who is ranked the eighth best Red Sox prospect, has a chance to follow a similar path this year as Will Middlebrooks did last year.
Brentz, a first-round pick in 2010, very likely could be called up after playing a couple of months in Pawtucket. He has power similar to Middlebrooks’.
Brentz, who will be 24 on Dec. 30, finished his Arizona Fall League season with a .297 average, two homers, 11 RBIs in 64 at-bats.
“I don’t think it’s fair for me to make comparisons or put a timetable on his future, but he’s certainly positioned himself well going into 2013,” Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett said.