Blocking: Are We Demanding Enough From Our Catchers?

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In this blog I briefly write about some thoughts on blocking problems, solutions, and its effect on saving runs. This is not nearly enough material to appropriately cover blocking in its entirety. Keep an open mind and enjoy. 

Questions: 

  1. What is the ball in the dirt problem MLB catchers have to solve?
  2. What behaviors emerge under the constraints?
  3. What are the payoffs and results of these events? 
  4. What tasks can you design to help your catcher’s learn 

The Runner

In The Bill James Handbook 2019, Baseball Info Solutions and Bill James (2019) present the times of 105 MLB baserunners. The top five baserunners’ average time to second base on stolen base attempts from 2019 are arranged in the table below. We also know each runner’s ft/s thanks to Baseball Savant. What we don’t know for sure are the average primary lead distances of those runners in 2019. Ben Lendberg (2015) wrote an article relating to some elite MLB base stealers and their lead distances and speed.

That information is also arranged in the table below. From here what I want to find are each runners’ secondary lead averages. We can also use Lindenberg’s work (2015) to answer this. Those as well are arranged below. Finally, I want to find the time it would take each of these top runners to reach second base from their secondary lead. I first converted ft/s into mph before using the calculation DistanceSpeed= TIme to estimate the base runners time to second base after a secondary lead. 

 

MLB 2018

Actual Estimated

Runner

Avg TIme ft/s Distance from 2B Primary Lead Speed (mph) After Second. Lead

Avg Time 2B

Hamilton, B

3.39 30.1 78′ 20.5 74′

2.5

Mondesi, A

3.41 29.9 78′ 20.4 74′

2.5

Smith, M

3.42 29.8 78′ 20.3 74′

2.5

Dyson, J

3.42 29.0 78′ 19.7 74′

2.5

Gordon, D

3.43 29.0 78′ 19.7

74′

2.5

The Catcher

What is the actual arm strength average (mph) and release averages of MLB catchers? The actual answer to this question was found at Baseball Savant. Arm strength is measured in mph. Release time is from the time the catcher receives the ball until he releases the ball. The purpose of this question will become more clear as you read. What we don’t know are the catcher’s air time and tag time. Air time is the time it takes the baseball to reach second base once it has been released. We can find air time by simply subtracting the league average pop time by the release time. Tag time is the time from catch to tag and is an approximation.

 

MLB 2019

Actual

Estimated

All C’s

Arm Strength Pop time Release time Air time Tag Time

Recovery

81.3

2.01 0.72* 1.29 0.20

?

The Task

If a runner attempts to advance on a ball-in-dirt, how much estimated time does a catcher have to recover? When we subtract the expected time to second of elite base runners by the catcher’s times, we get an estimated answer. This answer assumes that the baserunner makes his decision as the ball makes contact with the ground.

2.5 – (0.72+1.29+0.20) = Time for Recover (s)

2.5 – 2.21 = 0.29s

What does recovery time mean to me? I would define recovery time as the total time from ball contact with the ground to the holding of the ball with glove or/and mitt. Once it is in either hand, the release time begins. The release times above are averages on stolen base attempts when the decision to attempt was made before the pitch was thrown. This leads me to believe that a catcher has even less recover time. 

The task for a catcher, on any ball in the dirt within his reach, is to recover the ball in less than or equal to approximately .29s (BR 1st). Balls in the dirt vary in complexity and this is according to the variability of pitch speed, location, reverse-spin, stance, and base runner. Catchers under these task and environmental constraints must find functional information-movement couplings. In other words, when the pitch invites a block, be sure to have ample solutions.

When do pitches invite a block attempt? According to Baseball Savant, only 4,903 out of 743,572 pitches in the 2019 regular season and playoffs were balls in the dirt (attack zones 37-39) with runner(s) on base in a close game. That is only 0.7 % of all pitches thrown from our search. This granular of a search in Baseball Savant frames a specific ball in the dirt problem that does not happen often. Looking through Baseball Prospectus leaderboard you will find that Roberto Perez led MLB in blocking runs saved with 8.8 and had a total number of 4,801 blocking chances.

This information is great but there are things we don’t know but would like to know such as the number of times base runners attempt to advance and how many times did the runner advance safely and catcher assists. The problem with answering those questions is to follow.

Emerging Behaviors

Given this significant time constraint, what blocking movement patterns emerge? More simply, how do you think a catcher would move given this small window of time? Different than how he/she would without this constraint. Below are some videos from Baseball Savant and Synergy of the emerging behavior of big league and BGSU catchers.

In this video we have Chicago Cubs’ David Bote attempting to advance to second base on a pitch thrown in the dirt. Carson Kelly of the Diamondbacks blocks the pitch, recovers and makes a strong and accurate throw just in time to get Bote. In 2019, Bote showcased an above-average ft/s time of 27.6. Assuming that Bote is around 74’ away from second base after his secondary lead and makes his decision to advance when the ball bounces, his average time to second base would approximately be 2.7s. The GIF you see below was a video converted into a GIF.  Other than that, this clip was not altered in any other way.  (Link to Video)

In the video below we have Twins catcher Mitch Garver preventing bases with right knee down and a runner on first. This is Game 1 of the ALDS with the tying run at the plate. The pitch is just outside his body but within his reach. Garver’s dynamic physical capabilities are on display here. From this position he can prevent runs by pitch framing, blocking and throwing. 

Below are two videos from this 2020 spring “season” if you will. Both are current catchers at BGSU. In both videos there are runners on first and second. Both catchers showcase zero recovery time. It’s as if the ball never made contact with the ground. Did I cherry pick these videos? I chose the ones that best represented their blocking actions. The result of the pitch is a ball but the base-out state was maintained and therefore both prevented expected runs on both plays.

What actions do you see from the catchers with a ball in the dirt? What I see are four catchers who solve the ball in the dirt problem in their own unique way while also expressing similar glove patterns. All four catchers lift their mitt in what appears to be an attempt to secure the ball in their mitt. This could potentially be explained by the constraints acting on the catchers.

Movements are excluded with the informational and/or physical constraints on them and these are the self-organized patterns observed. Informational constraints as in the coach verbally cueing the catcher to secure the ball in the mitt. While some prefer the glove, others prefer the chest or more specifically, the belly button. Some even use the glove first and use the chest as the backup plan, like Carson in the first video. The two BGSU catchers are fielding the hop as if they were infielders. All types have value but what value and how much?

Payoffs

Payoffs are essentially one’s return from their input or investment. When I talk about input, I am referring to one’s actions as they relate to their decisions. With each action are expected returns. Our returns here are runs saved or runs debited depending on our decisions and actions. The question we have to ask ourselves is, what decisions and actions are best for saving runs. This is the first principle of fielding, to prevent runs and you can do that by preventing bases. For catchers, the first principle of fielding a ball in the dirt is to prevent runners from advancing on balls in the dirt by being in the plus column when you break down the numbers.

Here is another great question, are more runs saved by lifting the mitt and securing the ball with the glove or by letting it hit off your belly button? It is my hypothesis that more runners advance as the result of the ball coming off the chest protector than the frequency of the ball actually going through the catcher’s legs. We need to find out for sure what run value each has.

Results

Under an unfortunate set of circumstances, our seasons were canceled. Outside of measuring framing runs, this is one area I wanted to collect more data on during the season. Given the games we did play, I was able to put together a small sample of blocking data. BGSU catchers in a total of gathered blocking opportunities were 39 for 41 (95%). Of those balls in the dirt, only two runners advanced. Both times the catcher attempted to lift their mitt to catch the ball and they missed. Using RE24 and neutralizing the run environment, we can estimate that the catchers saved around 20 expected runs.

In a team practice setting, I witnessed the positive effects of this fielding approach. Like many teams, practicing dirt ball reads is one slice of a base runners’ development. What usually happens in these activities is a very high advance rate by the runners around 80% of the time.

It’s like we don’t expect our catchers to prevent bases because a successful block has for too long been one where the catcher “keeps the ball in front of him.” Are we demanding enough out of our catchers? Every time we did this task as a team I would pitch. I would throw around 65-70 mph from 45’. I could pick-off, vary pitches, and more. I would only positively reinforce pitches where the catcher prevented the advancing of base or even better, he created an out.

After having trained under the temporal constraint, where these behaviors started to emerge, transitioning from the stopwatch task to a task that behaved like the game (live runners, etc.) was a seamless transition. Looking back I would have collected data on catcher prevention rate. Base runners would start out going on every ball in the dirt and get thrown out by 6’ or get caught up in a rundown. This fielding approach was an unfair advantage. A few of the catchers would take 10+ variable reps without a single attempt. Base runners got to the point where they would not attempt any ball on the dirt. I had to start spiking balls at 50’ but at that point, should we debit runs from a catcher if he doesn’t prevent advancement on pitches of that caliber? A question for another blog. 

For professional catchers, this would also be a manual process but one much longer. You can search and analyze these events on the Baseball Savant search page but you would need to open the hundreds of thousands blocking opportunities and manually record data specific to chest or glove and advance or no advance. I sat down to try this, giving myself an hour, I only got through 90 opportunities and a lot of them are just short hops that the catcher picked.

You can’t just download the CSV and analyze it that way.

You would need to watch every video. 

You get the point.

Analyzing data on blocking would take a lot of time. For anyone interested in doing this, I would love to see your results following that lengthy process.

Practicing The Skill

Learning how to solve the ball in the dirt problem takes practice. For skill transfer, I would recommend using representative task design (learn more in my last blog posts) to help with designing activities your catchers can do as the meat and potatoes of his individual defense.There are more general exercises a catcher should do to improve movement quality but here I am referring to more environment-specific practice activities that manipulate constraints and direct attention to specifying information.

A simple way of doing this would be to add a temporal task constraint. What I am referring to here is our recovery time from the beginning of the blog. The recovery time above is specific to MLB but can easily be scaled to your playing/coaching level. Whatever time constraint you are placing on yourself/your players, attempt to be on your feet with the ball in one or both of your hands in less than that time.

This works especially well if you have limited space like most of us right now. If you are restricted to the cage and you need to get some blocking reps in, add the time constraint. The individual with you will need a stopwatch. Start the time when the ball makes contact with the ground and stop when the catcher has both feet on the ground with the ball in one or both hands. 

Be sure to also add variability to these reps. Getting reps is a good thing but repeating the same rep one after another has negative effects on skill transfer. Have the one throwing throw overhand while varying skill (frame, block, throw), pitch speed, pitch type, pitch location and pitch movement. You can vary your equipment such as your mitt size and your space such as on dirt outside or turf inside. Again, scale those variables to your individual needs and the demands of each of your performance environments. You can even vary the ball type by adding tennis balls. You could probably take a lot of your current blocking favorites, add the time constraint plus variability and sharpen a few of your drills.

For feedback, you can have your partner after each rep simply verbalize to the catcher their recovery time. For measurement, print off a google sheet with the catcher’s name, recovery time, and hop location side (Glove, middle, Throwing) as the columns and have someone record the results. Make a goal for yourself such as 80% or better within my allotted time and if you have catching friends, compete against them.

Another great way to add this constraint is in the bullpens. This will spice things up a bit. If you (coach) can’t be in the bullpen with the catchers, ask someone waiting or even a student manager to record the catcher’s times. This is a good way to ensure that they are working towards their objective of preventing more runs in a bullpen setting where we do not have base runners. 

Exposure to this type of representative practice will likely improve the number of runs saved on blocking attempts. Although balls in the dirt only account for 0.7% of MLB pitches, it is one skill that has significant run value potential. While developing the skill of pitch framing should always be prioritized over all other skills as it has the greatest effects on run prevention, blocking should be added frequently but not taking up any more than 10% of training time.

Wrap Up

It is my belief that catchers with exposure to extended practice can field a hop with their glove like an infielder. Like an infielder, the ball is going to take high and low hops and in the case of a high hop, the ball bounces off the body and from there they’ll have a more difficult play. This is where using the rep without rep approach comes into play. They acquire the correct attention and become more adaptable to training conditions over time. I’m not here to say that a ball skipping through your five hole isn’t going to happen, it likely will.

However, the question is do more runners advance as the result of the ball coming off the chest protector compared to the ball going through the catcher’s legs? If pitched balls go through the legs less than runners advancing from balls on the chest, more runs would be saved with the mitt.

References

Baseball Savant 

Bill James Handbook

Baseball Prospectus

https://grantland.com/the-triangle/2015-mlb-statcast-baserunning-data-ichiro-suzuki/

https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/leaderboard/sprint_speed

https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/sporty-videos?playId=27bd5242-aeec-4807-bfac-4acab4ef33b4

 

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Comments

  1. Coach_Riebesell

    It just takes an open mind and the right questions to unlock a wealth of knowledge. Thinking back to my playing days, someone suggesting anything other than letting the ball hit your chest and simply using the glove as a ‘defensive tool’ to shield your 5-hole would have been met with a lot of backlash. But look at these examples. This position is seeing a great deal of progress in terms of defense because of research like this. Great work Coach Q!!

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