Communication between battery mates is crucial to a team‘s success, and that extends to the relationship between a catcher and a pitching coach. It is especially true with the Angels, where manager Mike Scioscia is as demanding as any when it comes to his backstops and pitching staff.
Mike Butcher is in his fifth season tutoring Halos hurlers. Hank Conger is the club’s catcher of the future — and sometimes present — having seen action behind the plate in 51 games this season. The duo talked about how their jobs intertwine earlier this summer.
David Laurila: How important is the relationship between a catcher and a pitching coach?
Hank Conger: It’s huge. They teach us that as soon as we sign. It’s important for Butch [Mike Butcher] and me to be on the same page, as well as all of the starters and relievers. It makes everything more functional and I definitely pick his brain as much as possible.
DL: How similar are your jobs when it comes to communication?
Mike Butcher: I’d say they’re almost one and the same. [The catcher] is the field general in the game. He’s the guy behind the plate seeing everything coming directly at him; he sees what the pitcher is doing. And there are a lot of things that can get a pitcher by without even doing a verbal. It can just be the way you put down a sign. “Hey, I want that fastball right here.” A catcher can bring an attitude to a pitcher. Or Hank will go out to the mound, on his own, and talk to a guy about making a pitch. They’ll talk things over so that they’re making a good commitment to a pitch.
In a lot of ways, they’re out there doing our job. As coaches, we can only make one trip out there in an inning — the second trip and the pitcher is out of the game — so we rely heavily on our catchers to go out and make proper adjustments. Maybe that’s getting a ball in a certain location, or telling a pitcher that he has to move over to get the plate, because his ball is running off the plate. A lot of things like that are coming second nature to Hank already.
DL: Is there ever a good-cop-bad-cop dynamic when you’re trying to get the most out of a pitcher?
Conger: I don’t think there’s much good-cop-bad-cop. Pitchers have different personalities and you know which ones you can get in their face. There are other guys where it’s just constant support. It’s different between different pitchers.
Butcher: On occasion there is going to be a good-cop-bad-cop type of thing, but a lot of times it’s more the manager and the pitching coach than it is the pitching coach and the catcher. There will be occasions, as Hank grows into his career, that I might tell him something and say it a different way to the pitcher. It will come into play.
DL: Hank, what is your priority when it comes to pitch selection?
Conger: Early on, like after I first signed, I had trouble calling a game. I still feel like that’s the case sometimes. One of the best pieces of advice Butch gives us — he tells us this all the time — is to stick with the pitcher’s strength. I try to keep it simple and work with our pitchers’ strengths, and not get caught up in thinking too much,
DL: What if the reports say you should attack a hitter a certain way and the pitcher keeps shaking you off?
Conger: Mostly, we listen to them; we go with the pitcher — whatever he’s feeling really comfortable with and feels that he has 100-percent conviction in to attack that hitter. I try not to [go to the mound to insist on a pitch], but I know that’s probably sometimes the case. I know that in order for me to get the most out of our pitchers, communication and being vocal — not being afraid to say what needs to be said — is important.
DL: Mike, what is your role if the pitch selection is counter to what the reports — or even what you‘re seeing — suggests?
Butcher: It’s always easy to be a second guesser, so we try to stay away from second guessing. For the most part, Hank hit it on the nose — our biggest thing is communication. Whether it’s in-game communication, bullpen communication, or in-the-dugout communication, we’re going to talk all the time. The pitcher and catcher always talk, and that’s why there aren’t a lot of errors in our game calling. From both the pitcher’s and catcher’s perspective, we’re on the same page, for the most part, and the reason we’re on the same page is that we talk about the game plan and what we’re going to do. And when it comes right down to it — like Hank said earlier — it’s pitch to the pitcher’s strengths and know what he can do.
As a receiver, Hank is seeing is what the pitches are doing. In some cases, he might say, “Hey, look, your best pitch right now is your slider.” The pitcher might be thinking it’s his curveball, and that’s when the catcher really comes into the picture. He can go out and say, “Do you know what? If you throw a slider right now, we can get this guy out. Go with me right here.”
DL: Pitchers obviously have bad games. Do catchers have bad games?
Conger: Absolutely. And if a pitcher has a bad game, you feel responsible for it. You want to lead that pitcher and try to get him through that inning, or get him through that game. I think the most important thing for a catcher is making sure that he’s concentrating on every single pitch.
DL: Mike, do you ever talk to a catcher if he didn’t bring his A-game behind the plate?
Butcher: Not really. What I like to do is have the catchers go around and talk to our pitchers the next day, in the outfield. I want them to talk about, “Hey, what if we’d have done this?” or “This was really working for you yesterday; what were you doing?” That’s the kind of communication we want. And we try not to talk about the negative side of the game. This game is built on failure, so we really try to build on the positives. If the catchers go around the outfield, talking to the pitchers the next day, you want them to take out the positives from that game. So no, I don’t do much of that.
DL: How do you prepare for a team at the start of a series?
Butcher: Before the first game of a series, we sit down — the coaches sit down — and go over video and scouting reports. We put together our game plan. We position our infield and outfield. We maybe go over some match-ups as well.
When that meeting is over, we meet with the pitchers and catchers, as a group, and go over basically the same thing. Who is hot on the opposing team? Who has given us trouble in the past? How are we going to pitch to certain individuals, including who we might pitch around. We watch video as we do that.
Then we sit down with the catchers and the individual starter to see what he wants to do from that game plan. We go over every hitter and make sure that everybody is on the same page. That makes for a lot less confusion in the game and it’s worked very well here for the last five years.
DL: Hank, are you mostly listening during these meetings, or are you speaking out as well?
Conger: If I feel that I see something on a certain type of hitter, I‘ll say something, but for the most part, I’m going to listen. I’m going to see what our pitcher has to say — what he really wants to go to — and I’ll mostly be sticking with that.
DL: When you’re coming in from the bullpen, at the start of the game, what are you and the pitcher talking about?
Conger: We usually just want to be sure that we’re on track and prepared. Once we’re walking in, and the game is ready to start, I try to stay away from as much talk as possible. I mostly let them focus and be in their zone to get ready for the game. We usually get everything out of the way in the clubhouse — all of the preparation.
DL: Mike, is that what most pitchers want?
Butcher: Guys are totally different. Some guys like to talk all the way in from the bullpen and some guys are very quiet. Some guys are saying, “Hey, my slider looked really good out there; I’m going to use it a little bit more; I might break it out a little earlier.” It just depends. Sometimes we’re going over what signs we’re going to use with guys on second base; we want to have a few sets of signs before we go out there. There a lot of things we might talk about, but in general, Hank is right. Most guys want to get focused on what they need to do. And we have a good group of guys who are all pretty much relaxed and focused. We don’t have a guy on the staff who you can’t talk to from the bullpen to the dugout.
DL: Is catching simple, or is it complicated?
Butcher [addressing Conger]: How do you have it on your Facebook status? Do you have it as a complicated relationship?
Conger [laughing]: Yeah, it’s complicated, but you have to keep it simple. That’s the best answer I can give you. [The complicated part] is the fact that you have to be into every single pitch. It’s a cliché that a catcher is involved in every single pitch, but you truly do need to be focused on every one.
Butcher: I think the [simple] part is when you have a pitcher who has command. With command, there’s a clearer picture of what the pitcher wants to do and the catcher can see it. It’s more vivid for him. When you have a guy out there struggling with his command, it makes it more difficult on both ends. It’s almost like you have to search for what he can best command and it becomes, “How am I going to get this guy back into good counts; what is working for him?” Sometimes there is a grey area there. When that happens, communication is especially important.