John Baker isn’t a cookie-cutter catcher in the mold of a Yogi Berra or a Crash Davis. He doesn’t read comic books or converse in cliches. The Chicago Cubs backstop is a deep thinker who sees parallels between pitchers and a character in American Psycho.
Baker attended Cal Berkeley, but the foundation for his pitch-calling acumen was laid much earlier. It revolves around memory and perception, and is related to books from Winnie the Pooh to The Catcher in the Rye.
“As a catcher, you have to retain certain visual things,” Baker told me. “The more I’ve played – over my 13 seasons – the more I’ve noticed things kind of end up being the same. A ball comes out of a lane and the next ball comes out of a lane. Sometimes I get a deja vu feeling. I know what happened before, and maybe we can change the outcome this time by going with something else.
“I’ll remember a swing the same batter took a few years ago. It was on a pitch similar to what we just threw him, and if we go back to that spot he might hit the ball into a gap. But if we throw the next pitch in that same lane, with a little bit of a wrinkle, maybe we can get a ground ball.”
How does that relate to books? The former California Golden Bear explained:
“Having read a lot as a child helps me remember certain game scenarios and which pitches to call. I think a big part of memory development comes through reading books. As a kid, that’s what took me to thinking about things after the fact. When I’d be done with a chapter, I’d be lying in bed trying to figure out what the heck just happened. I believe that’s how I began processing what I’ve seen before.”
I asked the 33-year-old Baker if calling a game is akin to the writing process.
“It’s not really like the process,” replied Baker. “It’s more like writing a novel with some sort of muse. That muse is your pitcher. From an artistic point of view, you have to be the seed in a guy’s brain that allows him to make the right brush strokes. You have to be able to offer up a scenario by putting a sign down that he’ll believe in.
“A pitcher and a catcher is a two-person relationship, not unlike a novelist and reader going back and forth. In this case, the pitcher would be the reader, albeit with more input. Actually, maybe I’m the editor and the pitcher is the writer. I’m telling him, directionally, which way he might want to go at this particular moment. If I can do it in a way he thinks it’s his idea, even better. A big part of my job is convincing people my idea is their idea.”
An ability to create believable characters is a necessary skill for any writer. Baker is a bibliophile, so I asked if he could equate a protagonist from a novel to a pitcher.
“If I had to pick one, it would be Patrick Bateman in the book version of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Baker answered after a pregnant pause. “Bateman was this insecure guy. He didn’t really believe in himself and was always trying to show he was ‘the man’ with his business cards, his music choices, and his reservations. In baseball, sometimes we get caught up in that kind of environment.
“Sometimes I see that with teammates, especially pitchers. They’re trying to do the right thing, while in reality they’re crazy. But you kind of want that crazy to come out of them. A big part of sports is understanding a person’s mindset and who they are. If he’s a psycho, you have to let him be a psycho. Sometimes we try to run away from that instead of letting a guy operate inside of his own crazy environment. It’s what makes him successful, yet we try to manage him so he’s the same as everyone else.”
Baker’s belief in individuality doesn’t extend to pitch calling. His idea that a catcher is akin to a good editor resurfaced when I suggested pitching is like poetry.
“I’m not sure it’s poetry,” said Baker. “I think it’s more chaotic than that. People use the analogy, ‘He’s a painter and he’s throwing beautiful pitches,’ but it’s really more basic. The most appropriate mindset for a pitcher would be 100 percent focus on executing the current pitch. That’s all that should be going through his head. As a catcher, I have a different point of view, which is, ‘What did the pitch before look like and how will the pitch we’re going to throw now set up the next pitch?’ He’s living in the present and I’m living in three places at the same time. My lens is a lot larger.
“The way you win a baseball game is by winning every single pitch, once. A pitcher can’t think of it like a book, because then he’s thinking about how it starts and how it’s going to finish. He’s thinking about that story arc when he should be living right in the middle. He should be living in the moment and trusting the guy behind the plate.”
Baker readily admits that’s not always easy. He knows a catcher can’t be viewed as a dabbler in teen fiction. He needs to be seen as a producer of best-sellers.
“Trust is a big leap we ask pitchers to make,” said Baker. “A catcher is almost like a religious figure. He’s getting somebody to buy into whatever book he’s got. It’s: Buy into Hinduism or Buddhism or Catholicism; believe in me and I’ll lead you down the right path.’ It starts to sound snake-oily after a while, but in essence what you have is two people with the same objective. You’re trying to win this baseball game and I’m trying to win it with you.”
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of talking with Cubs TV analyst Jim Deshaies. With Len Kasper, the 54-year-old former big-league lefthander forms one of the top broadcast duos in baseball. Prior to going behind the microphone 18 years ago, Deshaies played for 12 seasons and won 84 games. His best years came with the Astros, including a 1989 campaign where he went 15-10 with a 2.91 ERA.
He had trouble with Barry Larkin. The Reds Hall of Famer went 16 for 36 off Deshaies, with five home runs. One game in particular stands out.
“Back in the early 1990s, when USA Today used to do a lot of player surveys, we were in Cincinnati playing the Reds,” remembered Deshaies. “Before the game, I filled one of them out. The last question was, ‘Who is the Best Player in Baseball?’ Barry Larkin had the speed, the defense, the power – he could do everything – so I put him down as the best.
“That night, as if to prove a point, I gave up three home runs to Barry Larkin. He hit one to center, one to left, one to right. Fastball, changeup, slider – he hit all three of my pitches in three different directions. What I proved that night was that while I wasn’t a very good pitcher, I was a helluva scout.”
He didn’t have much success against Tony Gwynn either. The Padres Hall of Famer went 18 for 52 off him. That didn’t make Deshaies unique. Gwynn’s .346 batting average versus Deshaies was only .008 higher than his lifetime mark.
“Pitchers uses to talk about how to get Gwynn out,” said Deshaies. “All across the league it was, ‘What do you do with Tony?’ Nobody had a good answer. The default kind of became, ‘Throw it down the middle. Let him hit it early and hopefully it will be at somebody.’ If you went away he was going to exploit that hole between third and short, and if you went in he’d pull a double to right. If you threw it down the middle he might hit a fly ball to center field. There was a grain of truth to that, but a lot of it was: why bother expending all the energy and all the pitches to set him up when in essence he wasn’t, quote unquote, ‘set-up-able?’”
As a rule, the lefthander tried not to throw too many pitches right down the middle. However, he wasn’t shy about throwing his nothing-special fastball up in the zone.
“I had kind of a short-arm delivery, so I was a little sneaky,” explained Deshaies. “You hear guys refer to pitchers as having an ‘invisiball.’ It looks very hittable, but they swing through it or pop it up. Sid Fernandez was like that. I was like Sid-lite. It’s funny – I still hear people reference it today, because there are so few pitchers who pitch that way. I’ll hear broadcasters say, ‘This guy reminds me of Deshaies’ because he doesn’t throw hard, but he throws high fastballs.”
Deshaies broke into the big leagues with the Yankees in 1994. When he got there, he received advice from one of the top lefthanders in the league – and largely ignored it.
“My very first start was at Yankee Stadium,” said Deshaies. “Ron Guidry and I were pitching each end of a doubleheader and he asked what I do. I told him I throw high fastballs. He said, ‘You can’t do that up here, kid.’ That was a little daunting.
“Here’s the irony: Everybody tells you when you get to the big leagues, ‘Just keep doing what got you here,’ but then somebody like Guidry tells me it won’t work here. That set me back a little bit, but then I kind of put it away and didn’t think about it.”
What else does he remember about his first game?
“Being on the mound and not being able to feel my legs,” said Deshaies. “My heart was racing. I also remember giving up a long home run to Harold Baines. I don’t remember if it was on a high fastball or not.”
A little over a month ago, the Sunday Notes column featured R.A. Dickey and Max Scherzer on the subject of pitch counts. The 1963 game where Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn each threw over 200 pitches was the starting point for the discussion.
I also spoke with Mark Buehrle for the story, but his responses ended up on the cutting room floor. The Blue Jays southpaw deserves to be heard – he’s on pace to throw over 200 innings for the 14th consecutive year, and leads all active pitchers with 2,998 innings pitched – so he’ll get his due here.
Given Buehrle’s durability, one might think he’d view the Marichal-Spahn duel as doable in the current era. That isn’t the case.
“That’s not happening nowadays, with me or anybody,” exclaimed Buehrle. “That’s ridiculous. There used to be guys throwing 300, 400 innings and I can’t even fathom that. Especially with all the injuries happening. I couldn’t see it.”
The 35-year-old has walked just 2.1 batters per nine innings over his 15 seasons. This despite what he considers a big reason pitch counts and innings loads are what they’ve become.
“The strike zone has gotten half of what it was back in their day,” opined Buehrle. “The game has changed to make it harder to throw. Go back to even the 1980s and 1990s, and see the strike zones. Look at how much guys were getting. It’s definitely shrunk up in size.”
Scherzer and Dickey weighed in on conserving energy for later in the game. They also touched on how effort levels impact innings loads. What are Buehrle’s thoughts on those subjects?
“In your head, you go out there for six or seven innings and do what you can to get through them,” said Buehrle. “That’s what’s expected of you. I don’t really save bullets. At my age, I don’t have many bullets to save anyway. As for [effort level], guys like Scherzer are more balls out and letting balls fly. I’m not doing that. I just go out there and pitch.”
Many infielders will tell you their glove is like a part of their hand. For that reason, they’re quite protective of their leather. Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney – one of the elite defenders at his position – is among them. I asked him about his glove of choice prior to Wednesday’s game at Fenway Park.
“I use an 11-and-a-half [inch] Wilson A200,” Barney told me. “It’s the same model I’ve used for about seven or eight years. The individual glove I’m using now – my gamer – is in its third season. It’s the longest I’ve ever had a glove last. I don’t play catch with it, or do anything with it, until the game starts. Warming up my arm before a game, I’ll use a different glove.
“One out of every four or five gloves I get ends up being a gamer. The others will be backups. It never happens that one of my backups becomes my gamer. If something happens with the gamer, I find a new one. The last glove I got rid of was in 2011. There was a backhand I dropped, and I threw the glove away right after that.”
The 28-year-old Oregon State product doesn’t drop many. He’s won both a traditional Gold Glove and a Fielding Bible Gold Glove, and has led NL second basemen in fielding percentage each of the past two seasons. He’s committed just 24 errors in over 4,100 innings.
Barney has played 502 games as a second baseman. On the rare occasions he’s played elsewhere – 16 appearances at shortstop and six more at third – he’s used his gamer.
“I use the same glove at any position,” said Barney. “I don’t know how some guys can switch from a bigger glove to a littler glove. For me, the feel needs to be the same. Your glove molds to your hand over time. If someone else sticks their hand in there and moves the leather a little bit, it could ruin the way it feels to you.”
What would he do if a teammate went into his locker and grabbed his glove?
“That wouldn’t happen,” said Barney. “At this level, guys kind of know not to do that. If someone stuck their hand in my game glove, it would be a problem. But protocol says you wouldn’t do it, so I’ve never had to deal with anything like that. Guys know how important gloves are.”
Chris Davis agrees with Barney when it comes to protecting gloves. The Baltimore Orioles slugger also cherishes his lumber, a 35-inch, 33-ounce Louisville Slugger M356. He says it has “a little bigger head and a medium-sized handle” and has been his weapon of choice for the last three years.
While he sticks with the same model, Davis says he’s “not a guy who has to have a certain bat.” Nor is he the overprotective type who gets upset if someone picks up one of his bats. According to the first baseman, gloves are a different story.
“Hands are shaped differently and some guys have bigger hands than others,” explained Davis. “And some guys don’t wear their gloves all the way on the their hand. Some put their whole hand in it and others kind of just put their fingers in it. Once you get a glove formed to your hand, you don’t want somebody else stuffing their mitt in there.”
“I think pitchers are more particular about who puts their hand in their glove, which I think is kind of ironic, because most of the guys who have grabbed a glove of mine and put their hand in it have been pitchers. But it doesn’t happen very often. Not too many people bother picking up a first baseman’s mitt. It’s more likely one of the middle infielders’, because they’re usually the guys with the cooler-looking gloves.”
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