Jays’ Martin goes ‘with the pitch’ to get strikes

Russell Martin is regarded as a skilled receiver behind the plate (John Bazemore/AP)

TORONTO – One of the easiest ways for a catcher to quickly befriend and obtain the trust of his pitchers is to earn them extra strikes. By that measure, it shouldn’t take Russ Martin very long to become immensely popular with the Toronto Blue Jays staff.

Over the past seven seasons – the period for which Baseball Prospectus has available data – the 31-year-old Canuck has been among the elite pitch framers in the game, finishing in the top five each year in extra strikes, collecting 1,099 over that span for an annual average of 157.

The payoff extends well beyond the obvious benefits in the count, as the men on the mound tend to pitch on the edges with more confidence when they have faith their catcher will get the call. The flip side applies to batters, who may feel pressured to protect on borderline offerings more often for fear they won’t get the call.

Martin’s knack for framing isn’t the sole reason the Blue Jays gave him an $82-million, five-year deal, but it is a key part of the package that attracted them to him. With a pitching staff trending younger and featuring lots of the velocity and late movement that’s very difficult to catch effectively, presenting pitches to umpires in the best way possible can pay all kinds of dividends.

“As simply as I can put it, I work with the pitch,” Martin says in explaining his approach. “If it’s a two-seamer to a righty on the inside from a lefty, and the pitch is working its way back towards the plate, I would catch it deeper so that ball keeps working back onto the plate. If it’s a breaking ball or a pitch that’s dipping out of the zone, I try to catch it out in front before it drops down. Really you’re just trying to present the ball as best as you can for the umpire to get a good look.

“A slider or a curveball that’s down, you want to catch it as far out as possible to give the ump a good look as to where that ball is crossing. Two-seamers and breaking balls that are up, you catch them a little bit deeper because you want the ball to get down into the zone.”

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Over time the frame game has changed. Sal Butera, the Blue Jays coach responsible for the club’s receivers, can easily spot the difference between how umpires call balls and strikes now and the 1980s, when he was behind the plate for nine big-league seasons.

“What happened,” he explained during a September interview, “is because the umpires are graded on the strike zone, they have to be more particular, and they know they’re allotted a little leeway on both sides of the plate. If the pitcher had good command in the olden days, if you threw to a spot and were consistent you got that pitch. Nowadays it really is more the catcher and his positioning on the plate.”

One thing catchers do now is set themselves off the edges of the plate and try to subtly funnel pitches just outside the zone toward the corners. The umpires also tend to off-set as a result and that can sometimes embellish the zone.

At the same time, getting calls isn’t as simple as standing at a spot and receiving the ball in the same area.

“The hand position when you receive the ball is the key ingredient,” says Butera. “I teach thumb up, so when you frame a pitch, you want to stay away from moving the glove away from the target. You go out and attack the ball to catch the ball out in front as opposed to catching it back. In my generation a lot of the catchers were taught to catch the ball back. Bob Boone, Carlton Fisk, they caught the ball deep into their body and they can hold it. Jose Molina is one of the few guys who still does a little bit of that.

“Now everybody wants to catch the ball out front, and the further out you go the more distance you cut down on the plate. If the ball is going to move off the plate and you go out to get it, you’re going to catch it before it gets off the plate.”

That’s what makes it so difficult to catch hard-throwers with pitches that run and tail like Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, two potential cornerstone arms for the Blue Jays. All that life can work both to their benefit and detriment on borderline pitches.

“You want the movement from the pitcher, but you want to go out and get the movement before it gets so deep that it looks like it’s off the plate,” says Butera. “If a guy has a straight fastball, you’re pretty much going to get it the way it’s coming in. But if you catch with your thumb up, you can manipulate your glove, position it going towards (the plate). I try to teach our guys to catch into a cone, the more you catch to a cone, the better chance you have of getting the pitch, and if the umpire doesn’t say anything, you take it as far as you can.”

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A shortstop growing up, Martin first started catching on a part-time basis at Chipola Junior College, where one of his teammates was Jose Bautista. The Los Angeles Dodgers selected him as a third baseman in the 17th round of the 2002 draft and that’s where he played in 40 of his 41 games during his first professional season that summer, lining up at shortstop in the other contest.

The Dodgers converted him to catcher with rookie-ball Ogden in 2003 and he quickly rose through the ranks, breaking through to the majors in 2006 and becoming an all-star in ’07 and ’08.
While he had soft hands and athleticism, it made for an unconventional path to becoming such an elite backstop.

“Pitch framing, in my opinion, is one of the toughest things to teach,” says Martin. “It’s like trying to teach a boxer how to have power. You can teach a little bit of technique but there’s a skill involved. You can get better at it, but I feel like I’ve always had that ability to catch a ball and be smooth with it and bring it back into the zone. There are techniques I’ve learned over the years watching other guys play around the league. I’ve tried teaching it, some guys grasp it a little bit, but it definitely is a skill and it’s definitely hard to teach.”

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Though pitch-framing is largely skill, there’s an art to it, as well, that’s essential.

“A good catcher doesn’t try to frame balls,” says Butera. “You frame a close pitch, and you have to know what a close pitch is. When a guy runs three, four balls off the plate, don’t try to bring them back over the plate. The idea is knowing which pitches you can and can’t get, it’s very simple. A lot of it is predicated on the pitcher you have. Can he hit the location enough times?”

Catchers that go overboard are likely to hear it from umpires, who quite understandably don’t like being duped. Other teams may also point out when they think a backstop is getting a little too brazen in his quest for extra strikes.

Ultimately, though, a good catcher needs his pitchers to consistently be around the zone in order to pick up some extra calls.

“On our frame readings, when a guy has a good rating, usually the pitcher has pretty good control because he’s going to get those borderline pitches more often,” explains Butera. “Like Mark Buehrle. When (Dioner Navarro) catches Buehrle, his rating is usually between plus-3 and plus-6.”

Navarro lost 109.7 strikes last year, 99th in the big-leagues, according to Baseball Prospectus, but the Blue Jays have their own proprietary system to evaluate pitch framing. One thing they found with Navarro was that his ratio improved dramatically when catching balls down on one knee, something he did more often over the season’s final two months when no one was on base.

Being on one knee allowed Navarro to push his glove out further and provide the umpire with a better view of the ball. Butera also worked with both Navarro and Josh Thole on catching the ball into the centre part of their bodies, regularly running pre-game drills to help in that regard.

Now, rather than looking for gains, the Blue Jays will simply need to keep Martin in tune.