In Depth With Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Jarrod Saltalamacchia has come a long way behind the plate. “Salty” isn’t among the elite at his position, but he’s developed into a solid defensive catcher. He is certainly among the most cerebral. Once looked at as an offense-first backstop, he is playing a key role in the success of a Boston Red Sox pitching staff that is exceeding expectations.

Originally a first-round pick by the Atlanta Braves in 2003, the 28-year-old switch-hitter was acquired by the Red Sox from the Texas Rangers in 2010 and has been the team’s primary catcher for the past two seasons. He discussed the nuances of his craft — and several members of the Boston pitching staff — prior to a recent game at Fenway Park.

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Saltalamacchia on setting the tone: “The first pitch of last night’s game was a fastball away. Nine times out of 10, that’s what it’s going to be. Most pitchers throw off their glove side, so for a righty, it’s away to a righty. But it depends on how that guy likes to pitch. With Jon Lester, there are times we’ll start hard in. We want that pitch to be a strike so his cutter becomes more effective. He can throw a four-seam in, for a strike, and that activates the hitter thinking, “‘OK, now I’ve got to be ready for that heater in.’ Then we can throw something that looks like a heater, but it moves and they foul it off. Now the count is 0-2.

“A first-pitch fastball sets the tone. “Every pitcher’s No. 1 pitch should be a fastball. He needs to trust himself enough to know it can play, that it can beat the hitter. There are guys like Ian Kinsler — who like to swing at that first pitch — but that doesn’t mean you go away from the fastball. You just throw it to the outside corner, as opposed to down the middle or middle in. When I was in Texas, Mike Maddux always used to stress what the batting average is when you throw a first-pitch strike and get ahead.

“We talk about how we want to pitch guys, but we also have to go by the situation. We want to establish the fastball — and there are guys who always want to throw a heater on their first pitch to a batter — but if there are runners on second and third, with less than two out, it changes. But for the most part, with nobody on — unless it’s a Miguel Cabrera, who can really do some damage — you’re mostly going fastball.”

On pitchers moving on the rubber
: “You have to be able to throw to both sides of the plate. Last year, Clay Buchholz had some trouble throwing inside to lefties. He was on the third-base side of the rubber and had trouble throwing across his body to get to that side of the plate. This year he moved to the first-base side, which made it easier for him to do that.

“Jon Lester moved from the first-base side to the third-base side so he could throw his cutter to [the glove side] of the plate without throwing across his body and yanking it. He likes to throw his four-seam in there, and could still throw his sinker away. He’s since moved to the middle of the rubber, because he wasn’t completely comfortable on the third base side.

“For some pitchers it’s a big adjustment to move from one side to the other. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. When Jonny moved to the third base side, he felt like he could get the inside part of the plate to a righty, but away to he was struggling a little bit — he was pushing it there. Moving to the middle kind of cut that gap.

“Some guys move around the rubber. Buchholz does. John Lackey has started doing it. He moves pitch-to-pitch sometimes.”

On pitch sequences:
“Sequences are based on different things. Maybe our reports say ‘Pound this guy in,’ but we try working in and don’t have that pitch today. Then we have to try something else. A lot goes off of feel. You can’t really go off a guy’s bullpen, because he might be shitty out there and come in and start spotting.

“In one recent game, we had a power hitter up and wanted to establish the fastball with his first at bat. We started him heater away for strike one. Now we had him in a defensive position. We knew he wanted to swing the bat — he’s an aggressive hitter — so we were thinking something on the outside corner he probably couldn’t pull out of the park. We went with a cutter a little off the plate, trying to get him to chase and maybe hit it off the end of the bat and roll over.

“You always want to get as many outs as you can with the least amount of pitches, so right from the get go, I was thinking strike one. I wasn’t thinking strikeout. Once we got ahead, we were looking for weak contact. If he were to foul it off, we’d be in a position where we could do a ton of things. If he took the pitch, and it was a ball, the count was 1-1 on an aggressive hitter.

“How a hitter takes a pitch plays into it. We may go sinker in, because he just saw two pitches away, and his eyes and body are leaning that way. Maybe we can surprise him by coming in. We can also go back outside, seeing if we can get what we were trying to do on 1-1, because we know he’s an aggressive pull hitter.

“One way you can get a hitter off balance is by changing velocity. Ryan Dempster is great at that. He can throw one 86 [mph], the next one 89, and the one after that 92. That surprises the hitter. You can also surprise a hitter by throwing a 2-1 changeup. That’s a good fastball count and he’s maybe looking out over the plate, so you throw something that looks like a fastball and he ends up too far out in front.”

On scouting reports versus reading hitters:
“I go a lot off the hitter’s swing percentage. For instance, what does he do on 3-2 counts? If a guy is a 90 percent swinger on 3-2, I feel comfortable calling my pitcher’s second-best pitch, whether it‘s a slider, a changeup or whatever. If it’s something we can get the hitter to swing at — out of the zone — that’s better than giving in and throwing a fastball in the zone. You can go off a hitter’s tendencies.

Elvis Andrus is a guy who is usually trying to hit the ball to center or to right field when he falls behind in the count. Sometimes he’ll do that early in the count. I’ll use that to my advantage. If he wants to go that way, I’ll let him sit out there, but maybe we’ll throw a slider that gets him a little off the barrel. Or I might call a heater in, to jam him.

“If one of my pitchers has had success against a hitter, and is comfortable with it, I’m going to stay with what he’s done until that hitter proves he can make the adjustment. I’m not going to have my pitcher make an adjustment for no reason.

“Before a series, the coaches give us a sheet filled with numbers: 0-0, 1-1, 1-0, etc. Then there’s a section that tells you what their approach has been. There’s a section with what they’ve done against lefties this season, and what they’ve done against righties — how many strikeouts they’ve got, how many walks. They go through that stuff and kind of simplify it for us, Then I simplify it even more on my own. ‘OK, this guy’s only walked twice in 150 at bats.’ That tells me he’s not seeing pitches; he’s trying to get you before you get him.

“I look into the off-speed data, like, ‘What’s his average against sliders?’ and ‘What’s his average against curveballs?’ He could be hitting .170, then all of a sudden, with two strikes he’s hitting .320. What does that tell you? It tells you that on 0-2, he’s looking soft. Or maybe he’s gone from a .300 hitter on fastballs to an .080 hitter on 0-2 fastballs.

“You have to look at what a hitter does on sliders, versus curveballs. On sliders, he might be a .300 hitter and on curveballs he’s a .150 hitter, so a slower break is better against this guy. When I was in Texas, Maddux would be, ‘Nick Swisher is hitting .130 on curveballs this year, so I’m like, ‘OK, curveballs.’ But Scott Feldman was on the mound for us, and when Scott threw his curveball, Swisher was crushing it. It was a different curveball than, for instance, Justin Verlander’s. That’s where I have to get on video and see what exactly he’s hitting. Or maybe someone has been hitting .200 on curveballs, but he’s been crushing them right at people.

“The data we use is usually from the last seven or eight games. Hitters can be making adjustments, because that’s what this game is about. That’s where a catcher’s feel behind the plate comes in. It might be, ‘He took a pretty good swing on that, so let’s try this.’ Playing against these guys more and more helps, because you get to know them. The first game of a series against Detroit, if you haven’t seen them in awhile, is tough.

“The biggest thing for me has been getting more comfortable with what my pitchers can do. I think I’ve always had a pretty good feel for what the right pitch is, but I can’t ask my pitcher to do something he’s not capable of doing. Knowledge and trust are important, so the more you know them, the better.”

On movement and receiving: “I don’t know if you can get late break on a breaking pitch, but you can get sharper break. Taz’s [Junichi Tazawa] curveball kind of tumbles in there, as opposed to Alex Wilson’s slider, which is sharper — he gets some good tilt. When Jonny Lester throws a good curveball, it’s got good tight spin and just kind of drops. It’s not late break so much as sharper break.

“Other guys, as soon as it comes out of their hand, it starts to move. Those are usually the guys who are pushing the ball a little bit, or are underneath it, and that’s what’s causing the ball to kind of run out of their hands. Those guys are easier to see. If you know someone is a sinker guy — and you see it sinking right out of his hand — he’s probably getting under it and pushing it.”

On deception, timing, and being on the same page: “Guys who are deceptive often have a funky windup, or they hide the ball well and it just kind of pops out of nowhere. C.C. Sabathia is like that. Felix Doubront, in his last few outings, has been doing something to be a little more deceptive. We’ve worked on kind of getting a little… it’s almost like a Felix Hernandez turn. It’s not as drastic — it’s just a little bit — but it keeps him loading on his backside and not jumping.

“A lot of times, it’s just a guy who has a quicker motion and keeps the timing off the hitter. That acts as deception, because the hitter is thinking, ‘Okay, when do I get ready,’ as opposed to having a comfortable at bat where you’re just trying to see the ball.

“If you look at Mike Trout, his average and OPS are down with men on base. A big reason for that, we feel, is timing. When a pitcher is in the windup, he can time that — he can stay back, lift his leg, and be on time. A pitcher in the stretch can slide step or lift his leg. That’s a reason some guys maybe aren’t as good with runners in scoring position.

“I think one reason Tampa was so good last year is that, not only are their pitchers good, they’re on the mound, ready to go, before the ball is even back to them. As a hitter, that can be frustrating. They want to go quick, and as a hitter you want things slow. You want to take your time. You can’t time a guy who is getting the ball and going. That’s tempo. You want your pitchers to go fast, but at the same time, they have to make their pitch. I don’t want to ask Koji [Uehara] or Taz, who are kind of high leg-kick guys, to slide step or quick-pitch. They’re not necessarily capable of that, so you have to meet them in the middle.

“Koji is really deceptive. He hides the ball well, for one thing. Two, he throws strikes. Hitters know he’s not going to miss over the plate, so they kind of have to look in one spot. He’s also got that good split. We try to mix back and forth with location. He’s shaken me off maybe twice this whole year, so I think it’s a matter of him feeling he can throw any pitch, at any time, where he wants. That’s a good feeling, because in my mind I can call what I want and have a good feel for it. He’s not going to shake; he’s just going to throw it.

“Some guys — especially younger pitchers — aren’t going to shake, regardless. They’re just going to go off of what the catcher calls. Some guys — especially veteran guys — you just get a feel for. With Jonny, it’s taken a few years, but we’ve pretty much gotten close to the same page. We know what we’re capable of doing and what’s working that day. But a lot of it — as a catcher — is that a pitcher is going to throw what he wants to throw. He needs to have conviction to throw that pitch, so I’m not going to get upset and complain if he shakes. At the same time, I need him to execute. If he’s throwing a pitch I don’t think is the right pitch, he better execute.”

On raw stuff and heavy fastballs:Allen Webster’s stuff is as good as anyone in the league. When he puts it together and learns how to pitch, he’s going to be good. He throws 97 [mph], with a 95 sinker. We’ve had to go to his sinker a lot, because that’s what he’s had more command with. He’s got a changeup, which is his best off-speed pitch. His changeup is good. He’ll throw his fastball 97 and then his changeup 87. It comes out with good four-seam rotation, so it’s very deceptive.

“Some guy throw a heavier ball; it’s literally heavier. For whatever reason — I don’t know if it’s better backspin, more of a downward angle, or what it is — the ball is heavier. You can actually feel that when it hits your glove. Alex Wilson throws a heavy ball, as opposed to someone like Taz. For some reason it’s just different. I’ve never been able to explain it, but some guys just throw a heavier ball.”

On developing into a good defensive catcher: “Catcher is the toughest position to evolve. You can be a great catch-and-throw guy, but calling a game is going to take some time. And when you’re a taller guy, it takes time to get under your body and learn the throwing and blocking. I’m not satisfied with where I’m at — I always feel I can do better — but I feel I have a good base now. The past few years have been a little tough, but I’ve gotten better.

“Coaches play a big role in what we do. Knowing your pitching staff, and what they’re capable of doing, also plays a big role. Two or three years ago, I didn’t know these guys, so I didn’t always feel comfortable calling for a 3-1 changeup, or a 3-2 changeup. I wasn’t sure if they could do it. Now I know if a guy can execute or not, so I’m not afraid to call certain pitches in certain situations. Knowledge is a big part of calling a game.”



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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


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jim08
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jim08
3 years 18 days ago

Incredibly insightful interview.

JS7
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JS7
3 years 18 days ago

Interesting.

noheroes
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noheroes
3 years 18 days ago

Great interview, David. And thanks to Salty!

pmacho
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pmacho
3 years 18 days ago

As a guy who never really played baseball as a kid, it gives me a better perspective as the little things that go on in baseball. Sure there are statistics but they players are the ones who dictate those statistics. Its good to get an on field view of how the game can work.

ODawg
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ODawg
3 years 18 days ago

I highly recommend you read “On Baseball” by Keith Hernandez. He basically does what Salty did for two entire games (one AL and one NL). It’s from early 90s but basic concepts still apply. I read it years ago; I wasn’t good enough at baseball to use the knowledge much, but as a fan it gave me such a better understanding, just like this excellent interview with Salty.

ODawg
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ODawg
3 years 18 days ago

Sorry that was Pure Baseball.

sturock
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Member
sturock
3 years 18 days ago

Interesting interview. Thanks for going into so much detail.

Lenard
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Lenard
3 years 18 days ago

Who knew there was such a mind under that Eno-esque hair?

Synovia
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Synovia
3 years 18 days ago

Nice interview, but how exactly is the Red Sox staff exceeding expectations?

Lester looks terrible. Dempster looks worse than last year, but in line with career expectations. Doubront’s ERA is better, but his periphrials are pretty much the same as last year.

Lackey certainly looks better, but having a healthy elbow is probably the biggest reason for that, (as his overall numbers are in line with his time in LAA).

Clay looks fantastic, so there’s that.

James
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James
3 years 18 days ago

Clay, Doubront and Lackey have all taken strides forward. Dempster and Lester are on pace for nearly 400 innings at roughly a 100 ERA+. It’s one of the AL’s top rotations and that’s better than what was expected.

Synovia
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Synovia
3 years 18 days ago

Clay’s BB/9 are pretty much exactly what they’ve always been. His GB%: exactly what its always been.

His K/9 is higher than its been, but is right in line with what it was when he first came up into the majors. I’d say its more likely the result of his back injury finally being diagnosed and allowed to heal.

Normalize out his LOB% and HR/FB and hes pretty much exactly what he was before the back injury.

Still, definitely better than last year.

Doubront is a 22 YO starter in his 2nd full year. Of course hes improved. Thats what guys his age do.

Lackey is slightly better than he was in LAA, but this may be the first time hes throwing with a healthy arm since who knows when.

They’ve all taken strides forward, but I don’t see anything that is unexpected.

Dempster is a long time vet who is doing what he’s always done, and Lester has shit the bed.

So, 1 serious negative (Lester), one strong postive (Buchholz), one guy doing slightly better than expected, and 2 guys doing what they were supposed to do.

I’m not seeing anything thats unexpected. yeah, its one of the better rotations in the AL, but its also one of the most expensive rotations in the AL. Pretty much everyone but Doubront is an established starter, with most of them being regarded as elite at one point or another.

Grohman
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Grohman
3 years 18 days ago

Very negative point of view! You listen to WEEI and read the Globe, don’t you…

Pat
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Pat
3 years 18 days ago

Maybe because its rotation has the second best ERA in the AL?

Synovia
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Synovia
3 years 18 days ago

So?

Dempster and Doubront are the only starters with career ERAs over 4.00. And Doubront is a 22 year old who should be getting better.

They SHOULD BE one of the best rotations in the AL.

Jim
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Jim
3 years 18 days ago

That’s the second time you’ve said Doubront is 22. He isn’t – he’s 25, and he came into the season with a 4.86 ERA.

Also, John Lackey came into the season with a 4.10 career ERA, and a 5.26 ERA since 2010. He currently has the lowest ERA of his career, which is pretty impressive considering he owns an ERA title.

I’m not sure who deserves credit for their better season this year, but the Red Sox rotation is pretty clearly outperforming most people’s expectations. If your expectations were that they should have been one of the league’s premier rotations, you’re more prescient than the rest of us.

BrianB
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BrianB
3 years 18 days ago

Great insight. Sounds like he’d make a great pitching coach or manager one day.

DNA+
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DNA+
3 years 18 days ago

I like that he says the ball is “actually” and “literally” heavier with some pitchers.

Grohman
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Grohman
3 years 18 days ago

Thought the same thing at first – but when he expands and says he means how the ball hits the glove, “literally heavier” makes a little more sense.

septopus
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septopus
3 years 17 days ago

I like it too. I tense up whenever anybody says “literally,” but this is a situation where we all just have to trust his subjective experience of reality. You can tell he knows it doesn’t make sense too.

Scott J Marcus
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Scott J Marcus
3 years 18 days ago

Wow! I watch a lot of baseball, and never really realized how much thought goes into each pitch for a good catcher, like Salty. Very cool.

Jordan
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Jordan
3 years 18 days ago

Unless he’s lying about a lot of this stuff, giving information like this away on the internet seems foolish. Opposing batters reading this would come away with a solid idea of how they’re going to be approached when Salty is behind the plate.

James
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James
3 years 18 days ago

There’s nothing in here that hitters wouldn’t find in the scouting reports of Red Sox pitchers..

Nick
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Nick
3 years 18 days ago

What exactly in this interview is earth shattering or information that every team doesn’t already have.

DNA+
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DNA+
3 years 18 days ago

hitters generally know how pitchers approach them, since they get to experience it every at bat…

Caveman Jones
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Caveman Jones
3 years 18 days ago

Great interview. Thanks a lot.

CB
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CB
3 years 18 days ago

Superb work, as always.

BigSteve
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BigSteve
3 years 18 days ago

Excellent. Best baseball interview I have read in a very long time.

Matthew Murphy
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3 years 18 days ago

This was an excellent read.

pft
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pft
3 years 18 days ago

Salty does seem better this year behind the plate. Not sure thats him or pitchers executing or both.

Would love to hear his explanation for that pitch Lester threw on 0-2 to Ibanez, cutter middle in that he hit for a HR instead of getting him to chase outside the zone away.

Salty does a good job explaining part of his thinking is calling pitches a pitcher can execute which may not be the best pitch for a given hitter.

MGL
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MGL
3 years 18 days ago

Interesting read. I have a feeling that almost all catchers think and prepare in similar ways. That is one reason why the pool of catchers is so slim and why you can’t just put anyone back there, even if they can hit a lot better than the average catcher.

There are some things in that interview that would concern me.

This is scary:

“The data we use is usually from the last seven or eight games.”

Before I read that, I was thinking that when you look at chopped up data, like how a batter does on an 0-2 slider, the noise is going to overwhelm the signal. Using data from the last 7 or 8 games? Are you kidding me?

Another thing is, a cerebral catcher like Salty doesn’t know why or hot a sinker sinks? He says this:

“For whatever reason — I don’t know if it’s better backspin, more of a downward angle, or what it is — the ball is heavier.”

He is talking about a sinker of course. And a sinker sinks because it has less backspin not more. That is the only way to get a ball to “sink.” Of course all pitches sink, but sinkers sink more than the typical 4 seam or 2 seam fastball. A fast sinker is the one that is described as “heavy” I think.

I also recall reading somewhere that sinkers can also regular be regular fastballs that are simply thrown lower in the zone, so that they appear to be sinking more than fastballs thrown up in the zone.

That is probably another reason why some pitches feel “heavier”. My guess is that a fast fastball thrown down in the zone feels heavier than one up in the zone.

I do like the fact that he appears to realize or at least suspect that there is no such thing as “late break”, although I think that a certain pitch can give the illusion of a late break from the batter’s or other perspective.

By the way, I hate the way Salty receives pitches. He sticks his glove out very saliently well before the pitch for some reason. I don’t think he tips location; I just don’t like that kind of receiving. I am not sure why. I also don’t think he is a particularly good framer, but I am not sure of the numbers of the top of my head.

I think that all most pitchers and catchers, even the ones that seem to be bright, like Salty, fall prey to many of the same misconceptions about statistics and game theory that managers and other players do. They rely on too small sample sizes and do not randomize their decisions enough.

If I were a batter in MLB, I think I would be very successful just trying to think like a pitcher or catcher. IOW, I don’t think that too many of them are using proper game theory in order to cause me not to be able to get an edge no matter what I do.

I mean the way that Salty is talking is easily exploitable by a batter who can think the same way. That can’t be an optimal strategy for a pitcher. And I don’t think that Salty is giving anything away in this interview. I think that most catchers think and operate this way. Obviously there are better catchers and pitchers in terms of randomizing their pitch selections and sequences. In fact, I think that most of the very successful pitchers do just that.

It is important to remember that ANY strategy by a catcher/pitcher, like pretty much everything that Salty is talking about, is easily exploitable by a batter who can think in a similar fashion. The key is randomization. I’ll give one very good example of what I am talking about:

You hear a million times during the season a TV commentator saying some version, “He just threw an inside fastball in order to set up something soft and away.”

That makes no sense of course. If that were true, then virtually every batter with half a brain would know that he is getting something soft away, and that would the last pitch that the pitcher would want to throw.

So what should the pitcher throw? Well, whatever the pitcher does throw must have NOTHING to do with what he just threw, otherwise he is giving away valuable information to the batter! The only caveat to that statement is this:

If (and I have no idea whether that is true) an inside fastball makes a next pitch soft and away more effective for psychological reasons, then it would be correct to throw that soft and away pitch a little more often than one would do so if the previous pitch were not an inside fastball. However, surely, even if that were the case, surely you cannot throw that soft and away pitch TOO often, otherwise it becomes too predictable.

MGL
Guest
MGL
3 years 18 days ago

“It is important to remember that ANY strategy by a catcher/pitcher…”

I meant any strategy that does not use proper game theory to optimize pitch selection,

Brady
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Brady
3 years 18 days ago

The only thing I thought was weird was what he said about the Rays. I looked it up and the Rays pitchers are actually the 2nd slowest in the game when it comes to pace.

MGL
Guest
MGL
3 years 17 days ago

I have a rule.

Rarely trust anyone’s memory, recollection, or perception of things that are comprised of a large series of data. Never trust that of a professional athlete!

Actually, this is a known tenet in cognitive psychology. At least the first part. I was sort of joking with the second part…

MGL
Guest
MGL
3 years 17 days ago

According to Max Marchi’s data, Salty is one of the worst full-time catchers in baseball at framing and game calling. While he sounds like he knows what he is talking about, I’m not sure we should be listening to this guy.

Interestingly, his framing was good in 2011, 2012, and 2013, but his game calling was decent in 09, 10, but awful in 11, and 12, and then slightly above average so far in 2013.

Obviously, there is uncertainty in all these numbers, but if we use a weighted average of his 09-13 numbers, he does come out as well-below average as a projection.

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