If you manage to watch one of our games, you may notice something different. You may not see it immediately, and that’s a good thing. The catcher isn’t looking over at the dugout in between pitches.
Most coaches call pitches from the dugout and relay signs to the catcher, who then relays that instruction to the pitcher. Type of pitch (fastball or offspeed), location, pickoffs, and back picks are all things that may be signaled from the dugout.
I don’t do this. The reason is backed in my general philosophies about how I see my role and the end goal for developing baseball players.
You may not agree with it. It is certainly different for most. It can create some level of chaos, but, when done correctly, creates an environment where the players learn to lead and become more well-rounded and involved.
Let’s take a look first at why I don’t call pitches and then some suggestions to make sure that you use this approach productively.
Calling Pitches Slows the Game Down
The catcher tosses the ball back to his pitcher and gets down into his crouch. He turns his head to the dugout.
Coaches, perched on buckets, discuss the situation. Coach flashes a series of signs.
The catcher misses it. Asks for it again.
Coach flashes the signs again.
The catcher then gives his signs to the pitcher.
Multiply this by about 120 pitches. All of this slows the game down. It makes it harder to watch, but it also creates downtime for the defense. It creates an environment where fielders are less likely to be focused and in the game.
Calling Pitches Can Create Confusion
Have you ever played the game of Telephone? One person whispers a message to another, who whispers to another. When that message gets to the final person, we often find that it’s a completely different message than originally intended.
Granted, we’re only talking about two sets of messages here. But the chance of either the catcher missing the coach’s signs or pitcher missing the catcher’s signs are higher than relying only on the pitcher getting the sign from the catcher.
The result? Someone’s going to get it wrong. Someone’s going to get yelled at. This can be especially true when back picks and pickoffs are called only as signs relayed to the catcher. If anyone misses that sign, a ball is flying into the outfield.
Opposing Teams Can Steal Your Signs
So, what does a coach do to limit the time it takes or confusion that can be caused by relaying signs? They simplify those signs.
What happens when the coach’s signs are simple? Everyone can see them. Next thing you know, parents, coaches, and even players are picking up on it. “Watch the offspeed!”
If only the catcher is calling pitches and he does a good job of hiding those signs, this eliminates the possibility of stealing signals.
Don’t Create Robots and Pawns
A big part of my decision not to call pitches is related to my overall philosophy. This is not my game. The players are not my pawns. I don’t want to create robots who follow my every command without understanding what they are doing and why.
This is their game.
We need structure and expectation. The players need to be educated and trained outside of games. But I want to avoid interfering in their game as much as possible.
This isn’t complete, sandlot independence. We still have signs and plays. I still implement strategies from the dugout. But whenever possible, I extract myself from decisions that the kids can make.
One product of this approach is a catcher who gains confidence, learns the game more deeply, and becomes a leader.
It’s a beautiful thing when a catcher calls an amazing game, and a coach can’t take credit for it. Giving a catcher this control gives him more ownership over how the game is run.
It will also create a much more engaged catcher, rather than one simply waiting for the coach’s next direction.
Teach How to Call a Game
Most young catchers will be resistant to this approach at first. They’ll lack the confidence in calling a game properly. That’s where the coaches come in.
Help them understand how to call a game. Teach them the differences in how you might call pitches based on the opposition, spot in the lineup, score, count, and number of outs.
Make sure that the pitcher and catcher are aware in between innings of where you are in the lineup and what hitters have done previously. Use that time to talk to them about what you might want to do. But make sure the catcher is part of these decisions.
You can also have mound meetings during important moments to make sure everyone is on the same page. Ultimately, though, let the catcher drive the decision.
All Ages Can Do This
At the youngest ages, there’s really no argument for a coach to call pitches. You’re just happy if the pitcher can get the ball over the plate. Your control of the game is completely unnecessary.
At the older ages, these kids are smart and experienced enough to call their own game. If they don’t understand, teach them.
The first group of Spiders graduated to high school last year, and I can tell you that we sent smart, well-rounded catchers to those schools. Regardless of whether the high school coaches call the game or not, those boys will be leaders and highly knowledgable in ways that others often are not.
Embrace Some Chaos and Mistakes
Our current group of Spiders had our first season together at 11u last season. Most of our catchers had very little, if any, experience calling a game.
The result was some chaos. There were many teaching moments. Even some frustration. But we got better as the season went on. And this fall, we’ve seen tremendous strides in this area.
There will be growing pains. Looking back, I underestimated how much work our catchers needed here and should have spent more time helping them through this.
It’s why there are two helpful resources in the dugout for the pitcher and catcher that I hope to utilize more in 2020. We have our official scorekeeper who can quickly relay where we are in the lineup and what hitters did previously. We’ll also make working with the pitcher and catcher in between innings a more prominent role for the bench coach.
You May Be Surprised
I encourage you to try allowing your catcher to call games. Not just for an inning or a single game. Allow them to learn from their mistakes and get better.
You can do this slowly, too. Start with league or pool play games, or any game that is less important or less competitive. If for no other reason but to let the boys have a little more fun.
You may be surprised by the results. The kids will not call pitches the way you would. Sometimes that works out really well. Sometimes the catcher is less predictable.
I can tell you first hand that I have far more pride seeing our catcher call a good game than calling a successful game myself. It says that we’re doing more than moving chess pieces around. It shows that we’re creating smart baseball players.
When it starts to click, it’s awesome to watch.
I wrote a second post about the general approach and 14 factors that influence how to call a good game. It may be a good one to share with your catchers.
Do you call pitches, or do you let your catchers do it? What are your thoughts on this?
Let me know in the comments below!