Riceís Graham Believes Educating Catchers
To Call Game Works Better
Originally printed in the April 2, 2004 edition of Collegiate Baseball
By LOU PAVLOVICH, Jr.
HOUSTON, Tex. ó Should baseball coaches call each and every pitch from the dugout or let the catcher and pitcher work together?
At one time, it would have been unthinkable to see coaches relay signals into the catcher who in turn flashes the sign to the pitcher.
But now, it is routine as team after team on the college, high school and youth levels prefer to have coaches call pitches.
Wayne Graham, head coach at Rice University, is considered one of the top pitching minds in all of baseball and has rarely called pitches. He is the quintessential teacher who believes that the educational value of having the catcher and pitcher working together to call the game is extremely important in the development of both athletes.
"I grew up believing that educating the catcher on how to call a game was extremely important, and I have done this for the past 32 years with pretty good success," said Graham, Collegiate Baseballís National Coach of the Year in 2003.
Graham, who led Rice to its first national championship in baseball last June (2004), and his system prevents potential problems from cropping up.
"Everything we do is to try not to create robots," said Graham.
"In baseball, you must have conditioned responses. You also must have an intuitiveness and adaptation and courage under fire. We encourage that with our pitchers and catchers. But with this element of the game, it is tough to teach. We have two new catchers who are learning the process now. Our starting catcher last year (All American Justin Ruchti) did a superb job of calling pitches all season long. At the College World Series, he was nearly perfect.
"Teaching catchers how to call a game involves a tremendous amount of time. They are in meetings all the time with the coaches to instruct them on what should be done with different batters. They work with scouting reports which are applied to the umpireís strike zone and the pitcherís pitches working that day in relation to hitters he will face."
Graham said his system dissects hitters into no more than six types of hitters so that his catchers arenít overwhelmed.
"When some teams come to play us, you can almost tell that this team uses a certain hitting system which shows in each hitter. Other teams have hitters which are different. You have hitters which are pure book hitters. You mix pitches and try to keep the breaking ball and fastball down an away or throw them at the hands.
"If a hitter is not a power hitter, you will more than likely throw more pitches over the plate if the pitcher is behind in the count. If the batter has power, you will take another approach.
"We as coaches are constantly critiquing our catchers so they learn what they should call against different batters in different counts and situations. Our new catchers this year have made mistakes, but they havenít hurt us that much. When mistakes have been made, it seems like ball shave been hit hard but right at people."
Graham said the educational development of the catchers and pitchers canít be undervalued.
"Occasionally, I will call a pitch if the catcher is having a difficult time. But that is one rare occasions. The simplest thing in the world is to have the coach call the pitches. Sometimes we lose games early because of the learning curve that goes on with catchers. But in the long run, having the catcher call the game has been extremely beneficial in our program. The catcher can see the field and sees what the pitcher is doing and what the strike zone is, especially in an out. A coach has a tough time seeing pitches in and out from the bench."
Graham mentioned that problems can crop up when calling pitches from the bench.
"I heard of a story about one team that liked to have the coach call pitches form the dugout. An individual of the team absolutely hated the coach and let opponents know what the signs were for different pitches. With the catcher calling signals, you donít have this potential problem.
"We won the national title at San Jacinto North JC one year against Seminole JC and their great coach Lloyd Simmons in 1987. It might have been his best team ever, but we won, 2-1 in the national title game. They were calling pitches form the dugout during the game. After the game, we found out there was a mix-up with our hitter on a pitch he hit over the fence for the winning run. The catcher thought the pitch was supposed to be a changeup but it was intended to be a slider. Our guy hit it into the lights, and that was the difference in the game.
"When you call pitches form the dugout, you also have the potential problem of the other team stealing your signs. There are a number of issues to consider."
Graham said that working with catchers to call games allows them to become adept at pitch selection.
"Once they go through our system, they are better prepared for professional baseball and seem to progress fairly rapidly through the minor league system. But this educational system is constant and ongoing. The University of Texas has a powerful hitting team this season, we have had a mixed bag in the way we pitched them this year. In fact, I will be meeting with our catchers to explain how they should call pitches against Texas hitters and see if they can correctly ascertain whether this batter is Curtis Thigpen, Taylor Teagarden or Seth Johnston when I discuss their hitters.
"By all means, our system is not the only way to have success in pitching. I have seen Coach Tom Holliday this season for Texas call some unbelievable games. He has done a remarkable job of staying one step ahead of our hitters."
Bringing Best Out
Graham said teaching catchers how to call game sis extremely involved but worth the trouble.
"If you transmit your knowledge to the catcher, it will help the team. The growth that player will show in his knowledge of calling pitches is important.
"At one time I was a catcher at age 15 but gave it up at 16 to my best friend. I loved to catch. And you know what? Good catchers can bring out the best in pitchers. If I am in professional baseball that is the catcher I want. It is important to have a catcher who can get the best out of pitchers on a daily basis.
"Hitting is timing and good pitching should destroy a hitterís timing. If you have a hitter who sits on fastballs, you canít let him do that. You occasionally show the fastball but get him out with the curve or other breaking pitch. For the batter who has a slow bat, you show the curve and get him out with the fastball. You can also get him out by throwing the breaking pitch which he chases outside the strike zone. Then you have other batters in between those two areas."
Graham said while it is important to watch the feet placement and movements of hitters when batting, it is not wise to pitch to those tendencies alone.
"I had a hitter named Mark Quinn once who stepped toward shortstop all the time when he batted. But he kept his front shoulder in and could hit outside pitches extremely well. The University Texasí Thigpen is a terrific hitter who can really hit fastballs away. But in one at bat, he moved back away form the plate and our catcher called and outside fastball with two strikes. He proceeded to hit a frozen rope.
ĎThigpen decoyed the hell out of our catcher. So you must be careful with hitters like this. When I played baseball, I would get close to home plate realizing the pitcher would try to throw inside.
"Then all I had to do was turn on the ball and hit the ball hard. I always looked for inside pitches. The most deceptive hitter who ever lived was Roberto Clemente. It was amazing to watch him work pitchers."
Graham acknowledged that he may call a couple of games for his catchers in the near future to give them the feel of what he wants. Then he will step aside and let them go to work.
"I always have the ability to call pitches from the bench. If I see a catcher floundering and needs help, I have the option of calling pitches. But I rarely do it because it is more beneficial if they learn form mistakes."