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Catch Me If You Can

by Ed Botti

On September 5, 2020 Kyle Higashioka started behind the plate for Gerrit Cole. Cole went on to go 6 innings giving up 1 earned run, walking 2 and striking out 10 in a game the Yankees lost 6-1 to the Orioles.

Over his next 3 starts to finish the season, Cole went 3-0 with 0.86 ERA and a miniscule WHIP of .619 with Higgy as his personal catcher.

Batters hit .128.

In the eight starts prior, all with Gary Sanchez behind the plate he went 4-2 with a 3.97 ERA and a 1.125 WHIP.

Batters hit .224.

The pitcher/catcher relationship is unique to Baseball. I do not know of another sport where the chemistry of two players is so often analyzed, dissected and debated.

As an infielder during my playing years, the thought of who is playing the other positions had very little impact on my performance or mind set. Rapport is definitely built up by double play partners, but not to the degree we see with the pitcher/catcher relationship.

Same thing goes in Basketball, Hockey and Football. They definitely require rapport, chemistry and trust, but nothing like pitchers and catchers. Their relationship and chemistry seems to go further than the others.

So speaking for non-pitchers and catchers, we don’t get it. At least I never did.

But what do I know? I am just an old infielder. Ball is hit, catch it, and throw the ball. Who cares who I throw it to?

So, let’s take a look into the nitty gritty of the whole debate we keep hearing about.

Cole’s 2020 Breakdown per catcher.

Cole 1.JPG

The apparent variance in Cole’s performance ignited a debate that carried over to the post season. Should Kyle Higashioka be Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher?

For a variety of reasons, most notably Sanchez’ failures at the plate, Higgy became not only Cole’s personal catcher, but also the number 1 catcher in the 2020 postseason.

During the postseason Cole started 3 games, going 2-1 with a 2.98 ERA all with Higgy behind the plate.

Cole 2.JPG

Though it would be completely unfair to suggest that somehow Gary Sanchez inhibited Cole from being his best, the numbers screamed for attention.

So the question is, was Higgy really responsible for an uptick in Cole’s 2020 season?

Many things factor into such a debate. Sanchez defense, especially blocking balls in the dirt may have led to different pitch selections with runners on base. Did Higgy somehow frame pitches better then Sanchez? Did Higgy call a better game than Sanchez?

What exactly did Higgy do that Sanchez did not?

Personal catchers are nothing new in Major League Baseball. Just in recent years we saw how Greg Maddux preferred throwing to either Eddie Perez or Charlie O’Brien instead of Javy Lopez in Atlanta.

In more recent years, Cubs Jon Lester had David Ross, and Dodgers Clayton Kershaw had A.J. Ellis or Austin Barnes.

It is also nothing new to the Yankees. You may recall that David Cone had Joe Girardi, Randy Johnson had John Flaherty, and A.J. Burnett had Jose Molina.

It is also nothing new to Gerrit Cole.

In 2014 and 2015 while with the Pirates, Cole preferred to have backup catcher Chris Stewart over the two starters Russell Martin and Francisco Cervelli.

In 2019 when Cole was 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA with the cheating Astros, he also had a personal catcher.

At the trade deadline the Astros acquired Martin Maldonado to provide relief to starter Robinson Chirinos. Maldonado caught Cole’s start the following day. Cole went 7 innings, with 1 earned run.

The two ended up working together for the remainder of the season and post season.

Overall in 2019, with Chirinos, Cole made 16 starts with a 2.46 ERA.

With Maldonado, Cole made 10 starts with a 1.57 ERA.

Are we on the verge of a new stat called Catchers ERA?

Actually, it’s not new. Wikipedia describes it as “the earned run average of the pitchers pitching when the catcher in question is catching. Its primary purpose is to measure a catcher’s game-calling, rather than his effect on the opposing team’s running game”.

“Baseball writer and statistician Craig Wright first described the concept of CERA in his 1989 book The Diamond Appraised. With it, Wright developed a method of determining a catcher’s effect on a team’s pitching staff by comparing pitchers’ performance when playing with different catchers”.

“However, Baseball Prospectus writer Keith Woolner found through statistical analysis of catcher performance that “catcher game-calling isn’t a statistically significant skill”. Sabermetrician Bill James, too, performed research into CERA, finding that while it is possible that catchers may have a significant effect on a pitching staff, there is too much yearly variation in CERA for it to be a reliable indicator of ability”.

“Woolner concluded that even if catchers do have an effect on pitchers’ abilities to prevent runs, it is undetectable and thus has no practical usage. He also stated that “the hypothesis most consistent with the available facts appears to be that catchers do not have a significant effect on pitcher performance”.

What exactly is it that makes a battery work so well that it befits a team to pair the backup catcher with a particular starter (usually the ace) and sacrifice offense?

David Cone recently discussed this matter and stated that not only is it all about “being on the same page”, he also noted that, “although guys with similar personalities tended to mesh together, there is truly no rhyme or reason why a battery works well together”.

One theory I have is that when starting pitchers are not pitching and are sitting in the dugout during games, they have a lot of time to discuss pitching. Usually, the other person in this discussion is the backup catcher. That may be how the rapport is built up, and these two end up on the same page.

In the case of Cole and Higgy they already had a history together. Both are Southern California natives, and both were scouted by Yankees talent evaluator David Keith.

Higgy was the top rated player at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, California, and part of an elite group of area prospects when he first played against Cole.

I’m pretty sure I caught Gerrit, I can’t even remember specifically when, but I’m pretty sure I caught him playing for the Angels scouts’ team”.

Cole later stated “Probably because we’re both from Southern California. I mean, we have a lot of the same interests, and Kyle’s ability to communicate, be a really creative thinker, good pitch framer, good pitch caller. So we’ve worked out well together.”

The Cole Higgy sample size is very small. Additionally, Cole traditionally doesn’t hit his stride until 8 or so starts. That is precisely the time frame in 2020 when Higgy became his caddy.

Cole’s overall 2020 stats show the tale of the tape.

Cole 2020 stats.JPG

Breaking his season stats down further we see.

Cole 2020 2.JPG

Let’s take a deeper dive into the two catchers approach.

Cole 3.JPG

Nothing drastic overall. Fewer fastballs and a little more balance in sliders and curve balls when Higashioka catches. Sanchez is not calling for as many curveballs as Higgy.

Looking into specific pitches called in certain situations may tell us a little more.

Let’s take a look at pitches called when Cole is behind in the count, with runners on base, split by each catcher.

Cole 4.JPG

Now we are starting to see the variance. When Cole is behind in the count hitters could sit on a fastball with Sanchez catching. Higgy’s pitch selection seems to give the hitters more to think about. Sanchez relies more on the fastball and less on the slider when behind in the count to a large degree.

In MLB, word gets around fast.

When Cole is ahead in the count, we saw the following pitch selections.

Cole 5.JPG

Fastball usage is pretty consistent. One noticeable difference is that Higgy is more inclined to have Cole throw his curve, whereas Sánchez went more slider heavy ahead in the count.

Finally, let’s look at even counts.

Cole 6.JPG

Again, Higashioka likes that curveball and Sanchez uses the slider more.

Keep in mind, Cole can shake off any pitch he wants to, so blaming results on a catcher really isn’t very fair.

However, there is a noticeable difference in how Cole looks to put hitters away with Higgy behind the plate vs Sanchez behind the plate.

Is Sanchez more reluctant to call the curve ball because of his challenge blocking balls in the dirt, and the slider is easier for him to catch?

It’s possible.

When you review the trajectory of both pitches, Cole’s curveball tends to end up in the dirt more frequently than his slider.

Regardless, when trends and patterns are detected in MLB, it always provides for an advantage. If MLB hitters know that Sanchez/Cole, when behind in the count, are fastball heavy and curveball light, they can hunt pitches more so then they are able to with the more even distribution we see with Higgy/Cole.

Whether it is their rapport, same page thinking, pitch selection, or just an organic outcome due to Cole hitting his stride a little late each season, the Yankees aren’t willing to let the small sample size influence their roster usage in 2021, at least not yet.

Boone said he expects Sanchez to be behind the plate to catch Cole on Opening Day.

Not all pitchers fall into this dynamic.

Two of the most dominant starting pitching performances I saw was 1978 Ron Guidry (25-3 1.74 ERA) and 1985 Doc Gooden (24-4 1.53 ERA).

I don’t think having Thurman Munson for Guidry and Gary Carter for Gooden made much difference. Either one of them would have dominated regardless of who was behind the plate.

But Cole seems to be different.

dr sem.png

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