To shake or not to shake was a uniting theme between the Nationals and the Atlanta Braves in their recent four-game series that pitted the National League East foes against one another in a fight for first place in the division. For the Nationals, the question was whether to shake off fastballs in favor of other pitches for Friday starter Stephen Strasburg - in particular, against Braves slugger Jason Heyward. For the Braves, it was a continued shakging off of catcher Evan Gattis’ signs by Sunday starter Julio Teheran that had feelings riled up and the hopes of a quick pace between pitches all but extinguished by the incessant shakes by Teheran.
With a game plan against Heyward that had Strasburg throwing almost exclusively fastballs (18 of the 19 pitches to Heyward), the Nationals right-hander had postgame comments that gave the impression that while the effort was there to throw what was put down by catcher Jose Lobaton, the conviction in a given pitch might have been lacking and counter to the hurler’s inner game plan. Pitching coach Steve McCatty went as far to say that all Nationals pitchers have the ability and talent to override any preconceived game plans against hitters in response to Strasburg’s comment that the attack employed against neutralizing Heyward’s potent bat wasn’t the right plan, but the one they went with.
For Teheran, the perceived ability to shake off at will wasn’t the issue. But like Strasburg, there possibly laid some issues with game plan cohesiveness between all parties involved. Sunday’s game was one that tested the patience of Teheran as well as batter and fan alike, as his batterymate Gattis went through several signs for each batter and wore a path between home plate and the mound with all of the ad hoc meetings at the mound to get on the same page with respect to pitch selection. The frustration was noticeable on Teheran’s face and the difficulties in agreeing upon pitch and location appeared to play a role in his fifth-inning balk, prompted by Teheran’s frazzled attempt at calling time and stepping off of the pitcher’s mound in order to once again pow-wow with Gattis about signs.
While the contrasts between the two situations are obvious, there lies a fair number of commonalities threading the two situations that underline the complexities of making the right pitch. For one, there is the rapport a catcher will have with his pitchers -- knowing what each pitcher likes to throw in a given count or hitter. With this also comes sequencing of pitches -- the off-speed pitch thrown in a hitter’s count could very well be setting up the 0-2 fastball in the next at bat--and how each pitcher likes to back up certain pitches. For Strasburg, some of his annoyance in the approach to Heyward could potentially arise from this intricate game within the game; perhaps a well-timed changeup in the first Heyward at bat was felt to be the pitch that would open up the remaining at bats to put Strasburg in the driver’s seat, but with so many fastballs called, this opportunity was wasted.
There are other layers to this onion of strategy, with another big component to a pitcher’s success lying in the confidence he has in a pitch, or his stuff in general, on a given night. If a pitch was missing or hot in the bullpen, a pitcher may not want to go to it, or conversely, he’ll want to go to it, despite previous trends or what the book says on a particular hitter. The ability for the catcher to know what’s working that night and still be able to add on or take off of what was originally planned is an understated one, but one that is invaluable and exponentially increases a catcher’s value in the eyes of pitchers. While this doesn’t appear to be the case for the pitcher-catcher duos mentioned, the ability for each player to understand the language of choice is also crucial, as things can and will be lost in translation or in a poor command of the language, leading to bad outcomes simply due to a breakdown in communication.
In the end, the tango the pitcher and catcher dance with each batter faced is complex, with a lot of body language mixed in among the tangible cues and leads given; if you miss your step or don’t see your partner begin to ad lib, what was once a palpable rhythm can become a morass of frustration that only seamless communication and a respect for one another’s abilities will overcome.
Stuart Wallace blogs about the Nationals at District Sports Page. Follow him on Twitter: @TClippardsSpecs. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.