Catcher-umpire relationship faces new tests this season

Baseball, more than most team sports, naturally creates social distance. There aren’t many circumstances that bring people together in close quarters for more than a second or two during a specific play.

With one major exception: The catcher and the plate umpire.

For all the extensive changes and protocols Major League Baseball is putting in place to protect everyone on the field during a game, there isn’t much that can be done about the need to have an umpire peering over the catcher’s shoulder calling balls and strikes. (Short of the oft-predicted robot ump, which has yet to be used in the sport at this level and won’t be used this season.)

Umpires are expected to wear a face covering underneath their regular mask. And they’ll try to avoid staying too close to catchers and batters aside from the moment pitches are being thrown.

But there’s no way around the inevitable need for catchers and umpires to be close to each other a lot during a ballgame. How much concern do they have about that fact?

“There’s really no concern level,” Nationals catcher Yan Gomes insisted today. “I think everyone here’s doing a really good job on the testing and everything. It’s really just a matter of everybody staying safe and not doing those silly, try-to-joke touches or anything. I think we’re just going to have to be careful with that.”

Indeed, there won’t be playful back-and-forths between catcher and umpire anymore. It’ll be all business.

Gomes-in-Gear-Blue-Sidebar.jpgBesides, catchers have enough on their plate during this unprecedented season. They’re responsible for making sure the ball doesn’t touch more hands than it needs to, or else ensure it gets replaced ASAP.

“As of right now, it’s been fairly smooth,” Gomes said. “Our guys did everything they could to set it up the best way they could. The only thing might be tempo. I think we have to switch balls a lot. I think we’re just being very careful for now, from pickoffs to when I throw the ball down to second and stuff like that, we’re switching balls.”

Gomes and catching teammate Kurt Suzuki haven’t had a chance to see how it’ll work with umpires yet, because the Nationals haven’t had any present for intrasquad games to date. That should change soon.

Gomes and Suzuki won’t complain once the men in blue return, because it’ll mean one fewer unwanted responsibility for them: Calling balls and strikes during intrasquad games.

It can be a fun exercise at times, helping a pitcher get a call on the outside corner or rewarding a hitter for a good take. But it also leads to some awkward moments, not to mention a newfound appreciation for the difficult job umpires have every single night.

“It’s been super tough,” Gomes said. “I think I respect them even more. From my angle, I’m over here trying to frame balls. And then I tend to forget which pitch it was. I haven’t had too many people complain. I think I’ve done an OK job.”

Who among the Nationals catchers has the better strike zone?

“I think Kurt is a little tighter than I am,” Gomes said. “I think the first day I made some tough calls for our own pitching staff, and I was like: ‘You know what, I’m going to give at least a couple balls (off the plate) for these guys.’ ‘Cause the rollover innings (when a pitcher hits his limit for the inning and has to call it off before three outs are recorded) are probably the toughest thing.”

Catchers might not be the only players who need to be on their best behavior with umpires this season. There have been rumblings about umpires flying on team charters to get from series to series to avoid commercial airplanes and the health risks involved in their usual mode of transportation.

How do the players feel about that possibility?

“I mean, that could be a good thing from a safety standpoint. And that could be a really awkward deal if something happens in that game,” Gomes said with a laugh. “I think we’re going to have to be very cautious with that, putting them in one little section of the plane and hopefully not having to interact very much with players.

“That’s an interesting thing, but if it’s something to keep everything safe from the game standpoint, I think we can make that adjustment. I think everything with travel is going to be unique this year. Why not add umpires in there, too?”

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