Twins' pitchers and catchers: Working hand to glove

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 12, 2011 - 12:29 AM

Carl Pavano and Drew Butera exemplify how the relationship between pitcher and catcher can impact performance.

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As Drew Butera has shown working with Carl Pavano,a catcher must learn a pitchers’ strengths and weaknesses — and perhaps more importantly, their personality on the mound.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, DML - Star Tribune

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On days when Carl Pavano starts, you're likely to see him and catcher Drew Butera huddled on the outfield grass several hours before game time. It's the team-designated time for stretching and warm-ups, but for the unlikely pair -- one a grizzled and journeyed veteran, the other, a second-year backup -- it also makes for some of the most valuable moments of the day.

While they stretch, the two review hitting matchups and go over what Pavano feels are his best pitches recently and for specific situations, factors that might change continuously throughout the season.

"I probably drive catchers crazy, to tell you the truth," Pavano said. "My start days, I've got a lot of thoughts, a lot of energy, and I like to converse with my catcher."

But Butera seems more than willing to field whatever Pavano decides to throw his way.

"You can't just sit there and talk to him at the table -- his competitiveness is going to be different than when he's playing cards or eating dinner," Butera said. "Once you get between the lines, it's a completely different ballgame."

Pavano's meetings with Butera -- his personal catcher for most outings -- highlight the unique relationship that binds the two positions. Not all pitcher-catcher partners are so chatty, and not all connect in the same manner, but by whatever method, the cohesive nature of the relationship requires work.

"The pitcher and catcher relationship is like a dance," said longtime Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, a former catcher with the Senators, Rangers, Angels and Cubs. "You want to be together. It's never the same, day by day, inning by inning."

Three factors

Rick Aberman, a Twin Cities sports psychologist who works with the Twins on mental aspects of the game, said a successful bond is built on three factors: trust, communication and respect.

"You look at [teams] and sometimes it's a bit like a chemistry set," he said. "It doesn't mean you can't produce or perform if you have a poor relationship, but your chances of performing at your highest are going to be enhanced if you have a better relationship. When we're happier, we do better."

For some, like closer Joe Nathan -- who very rarely shakes off a catcher -- that trust is especially important.

"I'm a guy that doesn't like to think [about pitch selection] a lot on the mound, so to do that would take me out away from my game a little bit," Nathan said. "I need to know that whoever's behind the plate has done his homework."

Said pitching coach Rick Anderson: "If you don't trust your catcher, you're in trouble, because you're up there shaking, not knowing what to do."

While shaking is not always bad while players are trying to get on the same page, it can put doubt in the pitcher's mind -- and a pitch thrown without conviction is more likely to fail. But trust doesn't happen automatically. To earn it, a catcher must learn a pitchers' strengths and weaknesses -- and perhaps more importantly, their personality on the mound.

"You're dealing with 12 different guys and you've got to figure out what works," catcher Joe Mauer said. "People respond to different things, whether they get yelled at or whether they get coddled."

Gone awry

When the relationship runs smoothly, fans often don't pay attention to what goes on between pitches.

But the second something goes awry, the connection, or lack thereof, becomes impossible to ignore.

On June 24 in Milwaukee, Twins reliever Jose Mijares replaced Scott Baker and tossed six consecutive fastballs to Prince Fielder, the last one of which the Brewers slugger lifted for a two-out, two-run double, good for the 4-3 victory over the Twins. Afterward, the clubhouse seethed as Mijares blamed Mauer for not calling any breaking balls, while Mauer retorted that Mijares hadn't placed the fastballs where he had set up his target.

In general, such situations could mean something in the relationship is lacking. Or it could mean the two simply haven't worked together much, With Mauer out for a substantial portion of the season, he had to learn and "re-learn" many of the pitchers.

"If you ask Joe, that was probably his biggest fear coming back -- fitting right in and flowing with the pitching with the way they had been working [with Butera and Rene Rivera]," said Anderson, who noted that starters such as Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker had adjusted pitches.

Said Mauer of the inevitable squabbles: "Guys get frustrated. In 162 games, that's going to happen. There's been times when my personality clashed with pitchers ... usually it gets resolved pretty quick."

A regular thing

The bond between Pavano and Butera was struck last year, when the latter started catching a few times a week to give Mauer a break. By mid-July, the pair had found an amiable groove and decided to make it a regular thing. This year, they kept the trend, with Butera catching for Pavano in all but 20 of his 145 innings.

Butera shrugs off the preference -- "It's not something inherently special; it just worked out to our advantage," he said -- but like any workplace, there are some relationships that help motivate and boost the production of both individuals.

"They just really hit it off," Anderson said. "Drew calls the game like Pav likes it ... he's got a mental thing like, 'God, this guy really makes me work.' "

For Pavano, that means being a "good target," setting up a sure glove in the spots Pavano likes: on the corners and around the bottom part of the strike zone.

"I'm a very visual guy when I throw," Pavano said. "Wherever you put the target, I'm going to hit the glove. We work extremely well together and on a consistent basis."

However, part of that may be mental. Pavano had a slightly lower ERA with Butera than with Mauer last season, but this year -- in the small sample size -- he has actually pitched better for Mauer. He has a 4.50 ERA with the veteran and a 4.97 ERA with Butera.

Generally, relying on a specific partner can be prohibitive, and the Twins try to avoid preferences, with the exception of Pavano and Butera.

Aberman explained that a reliance like that could take a psychological toll on how a pitcher believes he will perform.

Learning to function at a high level with different pitcher-catcher partners can be challenging, but that's all part of baseball, Butera said.

"Sometimes it's a little more of a battle," he said. "Sometimes you've got to change the game plan ... that's what makes it fun. It keeps you on your toes and on the edge of your seat."

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