2008 - After an afternoon of watching playoff baseball -- Go Phillies! -- I figured this would be a great time to add the first catching-related post to our blog. Obviously, if we are talking about the ability to block the "out-pitch", we must assume the pitcher actually has an "out-pitch" and that likely reserves this blog entry to coaches of catchers who are at least over the age of 14. This doesn't mean this blog cannot be entertaining and a valuable source of information for everyone else, so please keep reading. I will stay away from breaking down the block itself. This instruction is available all over our website. This will reflect more on the importance of the skill.
One of the most important things we try to stress to our students is that the ability to recognize a ball in the dirt and execute the proper block is as valuable a skill as there is in the game of baseball or softball. Sure the ability to hit a home run every 8.9 at-bats is great, but a sound defensive skill-set can carry a team through the eventual rough patches that all young, or old for that matter, pitchers will run into.
As I was watching Brad Lidge close out the victory for my beloved Philadelphia Phillies, something stood out to me. Lidge's ability to throw his slider for strikes was a huge weapon. Let's face it, at 86 mph, any pitch diving 8 inches back into the bottom of the strike zone right before the plate is bound to have a positive result. But an even bigger attribute was his ability to bury it a foot in front of home plate and not worry about whether the runner on third base is coming home.
Many who know me, know of my affinity for the Phillies, but a lot of you may not know about my apprehension about putting Carlos Ruiz behind the plate on a regular basis last season. I think his receiving ability has improved, but in my opinion is still questionable, and his throw to second could be so much quicker if he would just keep himself on the ground through the throw....but I digress. One thing he does very well is block anything in the dirt, especially the 86 mph slider that comes up a foot short.
Coaches do me a favor and picture this...bottom of the 6th, 7th, 9th -- whatever the final inning would be for the age level you are coaching -- 2 outs, runners on 2nd and 3rd, a hitter who knows how to handle a bat is the go-ahead run at the plate -- now I want all of you to picture the look on your pitcher's face when you tell them to throw the ball a foot in front of home plate. Better yet, look at the face of your catcher when you tell your pitcher he's not to even touch the bottom of the strikezone with this pitch. Don't worry, I promise you, their eyes aren't actually going to pop out of their head.
Truth be told, if you are dealing with kids under the age of 16, this can be a chore, and may not exactly be a situation you look forward to as a coach. If you are one of the "lucky ones" and have a catcher who can be relied on to keep every out-pitch headed for the dirt in the general vicinity of home plate, congratulations. For this very reason you have probably stayed competitive for most of the season. However, if you are of the majority, then welcome to the club.
In order to understand our goal regarding the "out-pitch" we must first understand what we are referring to. We are talking about that off-speed pitch that should be killing worms. The pitch that looks like it has a shot to end up in the strikezone, but the laws of this universe will just not allow it to. The hitter has less time to figure out whether or not to swing than the catcher has to figure out whether to block. This is why these pitches can be effective if you have a catcher who can block. Keep in mind that this pitch does not have to be used to strike out a batter, just get a strike when it is desperately needed.
One of the most powerful tools a pitcher has is the ability to throw any one of his pitches in a spot where the hitter has no chance to put it in play and still have the ability to get them to swing (Think Jonathan Papelbon 96 mph fastball at the letters, a 94 mph Mariano Rivera cutter two inches off the inside part of home plateor a Jennie Finch drop-pitch that just drops off the table). But the ability to throw a pitch in the dirt (a place where only Ichiro has historically been able to make consistent contact) and not worry about that pitch costing your team a run, is by far the ultimate "out-pitch." However, the only way that pitch is effective is if your pitcher has the confidence to throw it there, knowing their catcher will keep it in front...somehow, someway.
Back to the NLDS game between the Phillies and Brewers....bottom of the 9th, 2 outs, runners on 2nd and 3rd and Corey Hart (20 HRs in 2008) up to the plate. Lidge was able to get ahead of a Hart without risking the ball being put in play because he had confidence in Carlos Ruiz to block whatever pitch he bounced to the plate. Now back to that slider that dives 8 inches back down to the bottom of the strikezone. Strike Three! Game Over!