One of them is among the most valuable players in baseball; another is among the most dazzling talents. But perhaps the most extraordinary and singular thing about the two catchers who will be starting in the World Series, Salvador Perez and Buster Posey, is that when we look at them, we want to see them. They seem to tell us something about how two wild-card teams could come to seem great. They seem to embody, in fact, the game itself.
It isn’t that most catchers are overlooked. We know, now, how deserving catchers are of respect. We’ve been able to measure how valuable they are to their teams, how they contribute to wins and losses. New technologies and analytics have allowed us to study how they frame pitches, steal strikes, hold baserunners on. It’s no secret how hard their jobs are, how closely they study every batter, how carefully they read every situation, how confident they have to be to call for that breaking ball with a runner on, how many small adjustments, snap decisions, and high-cost calculations they have to make. We know how physically demanding their position is, how much resilience it requires, inning after inning, game after game, rarely with rest, to remain always alert. The body control it takes to be perfectly still and yet ready to smother a wild firecracker of a pitch. The strength necessary to jump up from a squat. The precise footwork needed to receive a pitch and fluidly hurl a throw — sometimes long and sudden. The stamina to do it for nine innings, or 12, or, if need be, 18.
They’re vulnerable. They are routinely hit by errant foul balls and bats, defenseless to a long backswing that can be worse than a punch to the jaw (as Perez, who spent time on the concussion list last year and got clocked on a backswing in Game 2 of the ALDS and Game 3 of the ALCS, knows too well). Until the recent rule change about collisions at home plate, they faced the prospect of blocking barrelling men, absorbing a force that could snap a leg (as happened to Posey, brutally, in 2011).
And they’re valuable. As much as anything else, that’s what this crazy playoffs has taught us. It may be a coincidence that the two teams headed to the World Series have two of the best catchers in the majors, and it may be a coincidence that the two teams to emerge from the championship series are the two that were able to play every game with their top backstops. A best-of-seven series, obviously, is a small sample size. But in this age of great catchers, it certainly feels right. It’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if the Orioles’ Matt Wieters, a two-time Gold Glove winner and three-time All Star, had been playing behind the plate instead of the rookie Caleb Joseph, who couldn’t handle a throw home on a fielder’s choice in the first inning of Game 4 of the ALCS, allowing the decisive two runs to score. And it’s hard not to wonder whether the Cardinals would have lost three tight games in a row to the Giants if Yadier Molina — one of the greatest catchers of all time — hadn’t been out with a strained oblique. Molina, after all, is not merely one of the best at keeping runners close; he is one of the best at calling games, reading and readying the field, and reading and readying the field in high-pressure situations. Molina ranks above average in every advanced catcher stat. But his loss was incalculable. Even statisticians who have made remarkable advances in measuring catcher contributions haven’t figured out quite how to break down everything he does for the Cardinals’ defense and staff. Among his tools is a kind of psychic ability to be mindful and sympathetic, subtly supporting, responding to, and directing the pitchers on the mound — things you can’t even see, let alone measure.
Catchers aren’t easy to watch. When most of them settle behind the plate, our eyes rest on them for only the moment it takes for a hand to flash a sign. Then, they position themselves, and in doing so, become smaller. They are almost invisible, unreadable, hidden behind their masks and protected by their guards. Their bodies folded between their bent legs, they seem no more real than origami frogs. Our attention shifts, screening out the familiar and the faceless figures behind the protectors and masks, focusing on where the action seems to be. Catchers look like passive targets, merely floating gloves. This is as a catcher wants it: If he is doing his job well, he’s making the guy on the mound look good. The star catchers who guided their teams into the postseason fade, and it’s by their own design. We’re hardly aware of the currents of action already in motion, as Perez or Posey marshal a war between batter and pitcher in which they only seem to have no part (we know better, but it will be almost impossible not to think that they don’t).
If they are heroes during the World Series, it will be because of their bats — as Posey was in 2012, when he hit a two-run homer in the 10-inning game that clinched it. Perez’s most talked-about moment so far came when he reached for a pitch and knocked in the winning run in the bottom of the 12th inning of the wild-card game. But their more consistent contributions will come on defense. They are involved, after all, in every pitch.
The catcher is, in some strange way, a kind of embodiment of the game. He is the audience, facing the field. He is the umpire, armored in gear and hovering behind the strike zone. He is the sabermetrician, an adept of game theory, constantly calculating (unconsciously or not) risk and probability. He is the manager on the field, directing pitchers and sometimes defenses, making visits to the mound. And in his small rhythms, habits, and actions, he is the game itself — the sudden and violent movement, the still and quiet grace. There’s a phrase you sometimes hear about a catcher: the feel for the flow of the game. Here’s where the game’s mystery and mastery begin.
John Williamson/MLB Photos via Getty
It’s no more possible, of course, to consider “the catcher” as an abstraction than it is “the manager.” (Imagine referring to Bruce Bochy and Ned Yost as a single entity!) Perez and Posey are two of the best catchers in baseball, but watch them, and you’ll see how different they are.
Perez, for starters, is huge — 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds. Even when he rounds his back and squats, head forward, glove low, and right hand tucked behind him, he seems massive. He has that classic catcher’s quality, the solidity of a wall and the softness of a pillow. Even his smile is easy and wide. He has an unusual, magnetic energy. The Royals scouted him in his native Venezuela when he was 16; now 24, he has become a symbol of the infectious joy of the Royals, a rejuvenated team.
The Royals are unpredictable and Perez is reliable — and those two facts are not unrelated. Because he is so sound, he helps the pitching staff take chances — chances that are right now breaking the Royals’ way again and again. Perez is known for his phenomenal blocking ability; he’s considered by many the best in baseball. Knowing that Perez is unlikely to give up passed balls has given Royals pitchers the confidence to put more movement on the ball and throw their most aggressive stuff. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Royals’ rotation has improved significantly since Perez came up. That’s not all due to Perez, of course — but it says something that the rotation continues to be significantly stronger with him than without. This season, Royals pitchers posted a 3.24 ERA when Perez was catching, and 5.12 in the 202 innings he wasn’t — though this is a small sample size and a figure that doesn’t take into account team defense, park, or league.
There were few innings he didn’t catch. Among his greatest attributes was his durability: This season, Perez led all catchers with 146 games played — 10 more than anyone else. (Of course, there’s a cost. As Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh noted, Perez’s extraordinary playing time is probably linked to the decline in his offensive production since the All-Star break, and it could have consequences for his longevity down the road.) The Royals pitchers give him more chances to block balls than most other rotations would — Perez had 6,396 blocking chances, over 2,000 more than Posey — and he comes through. By some advanced metrics weighting blocking opportunities, he isn’t quite as good as his reputation, but the Royals staff is open about the effect his blocking has on their willingness to throw pitches.
“People take for granted his blocking abilities,” Bruce Chen told MLB.com. “I don’t think anyone here is afraid to throw anything in the dirt on any count with a runner on third base.” Ervin Santana echoed Chen. “The thing is, when we have him behind the plate, we’re not going to think about — is he going to block it or not?” Santana said. “We just have so much confidence that he’ll block it; he does everything it takes to keep the ball in front of him so the runner doesn’t advance.” He is a big cat behind the plate, quick and agile and low, with a silky looseness to his glove when he’s dropping to smother a ball. He can slide and dance on his knees, never panicking while the ball bounces and jives, but keeping it in front of him while also keeping his attention on base runners, the threat of his strong arm holding them close.
Blocking wild pitches is not all that Perez does for his team. He is among the best at preventing stolen bases — crucial for a Royals pitching staff that tends to let runners on. Since the Royals have pitchers with excellent pickoff moves and an ability to get the ball to the plate quickly, Perez is extremely difficult to run on. He can get the ball down to second in well under the league average of two seconds, with accuracy; he’s been clocked as the fastest at firing to first. He cheats sometimes when he sees a runner breaking or straying, sitting high in his crouch and turning his legs so that he can more quickly jab and fire, his throwing arm barely pulling back. But even from his knees he can fire a precise shot.
What’s more, he tied for second in most catcher pickoffs in 2014 — and is already the Royals’ career record holder. The catcher pickoff is one of the most exciting moments in baseball, and it is rare for a reason. A catcher doesn’t throw behind a runner unless he knows he’s got a chance. The ball has to travel 150 feet to pick off a man who’s gone 10. A catcher with a strong arm will do it successfully once, maybe twice, in a whole season. Perez did it twice in his first game in the major leagues.
He keeps the other team wary. He changes the direction of the game, yanking it up the first- or third-base line. His ability as a backstop allows Royals pitchers to take the risks that are now, however improbably, paying off. With him there, they can go big and go wild.
One of my favorite moments in baseball today is when Buster Posey trots out to the mound. Even before he says anything, there is an air about him of perfect calmness; quiet, deferential authority. Forget the pitcher; when I watch Posey, I can feel my own pulse slow down.
It can be hard to remember that Posey is a catcher in the first place. He’s known, and rightly so, for his hitting; this season, he had an offensive WAR of 5.55. When he’s not wearing his gear, he doesn’t look like a catcher. He’s not small, but there’s something slight about him — the sloping shoulders, the pale skin. His uniform looks baggier than it actually is.
Even more than most catchers, he seems to vanish into the scene. This is not a quality of character, it’s a skill: It’s how he frames pitches. What you think you see is merely a ball or strike. But Posey only seems to take himself out of the picture. When a ball is wide or low, he’ll subtly move his body instead of dropping his head or his hand, so that a borderline ball looks like a true strike. Statisticians have shown how much the strike zone has expanded in recent years — in 2008, it was 436 square inches; in 2014, it was 475 — and pitch framers like Posey are among the reasons why. Baseball Prospectus used PITCHf/x data to calculate that in 2014, he gave Giants pitchers 124 extra strikes.
Posey won’t stay a catcher for too much longer; the hazards are too great, and he’s too good an offensive player to risk it. Which is why, now more than ever, he’s worth watching. He’ll try to slip away from your attention — just as he slowly backed away from Asdrubal Cabrera when Cabrera lit into umpire Vic Carapazza after being called out on strikes in Game 2 of the NLDS. (Manager Matt Williams was kicked out of the game soon after.) As a FanGraphs breakdown of Vic’s strike zone during the 18-inning Giants victory showed, the Nats were justified in flipping out. Carapazza had expanded the strike zone — very much in the Giants’ favor. San Francisco saw 20 typical balls called as strikes, double what the Nats got.
Carapazza had a terrible night. But that was in part because Posey had such a good one. In more than six hours — six hours! Two games’ worth of innings! — he was a magician, orchestrating his own disappearing act while pulling strikes out of balls. He would receive the pitch with a quiet glove, a still head, and a pause of steady conviction, while very slightly shifting his body — seeming to stay still by making small movements. None of those strikes by themselves shifted the course of the game. There was nothing flashy, nothing you could point to, nothing you could hang your wonder on. There was only the wonderful satisfaction of witnessing a hard job well done.