Bassitt running down the road trying to loosen the load
Blue Jays starter taking it easy by letting catcher call pitches – for now
Perhaps Chris Bassitt is, indeed, the smartest man in the room when it comes to calling his own pitches. It has been his decision in ’23, whenever he has toed the rubber, mostly every five days. After all, he’s ultimately responsible for the success or failure of each outing. Calling his own pitches is what he began the game doing on Friday, facing his former team, the Oakland A’s.
But, emerging from the dugout for the second inning, having suffered a shocking three-run first, in what was his 16th start of the year, and having, to that point, both called and executed a total of 1,416 pitches while working with three Blue Jays catchers over the 86 days of the ‘23 season, the cerebral righthander began his eight warmups and for those that looked closely, Bassitt was minus the PitchCom apparatus usually belt-high by his right-side. The game result over the next four innings with catcher Danny Jansen calling pitches was both encouraging and eye-opening.
“After the first inning, he said, ‘Hey, you’re calling it,’” Jansen explained of the dramatic change in Bassitt’s gameplan. “I think part of that is, he’s always competing, but it’s almost like less thinking for him. You still think… pitchers shake. That’s what it is. They still have an idea, but it’s almost like taking a little bit off that too.”
The insignificant physical weight of the PitchCom keypad he’d become accustomed to for 16 starts, a small, first-year device attached to his right-side belt loop, does not reflect the, obviously huge mental weight that must have been lifted from his shoulders for the next four innings facing his sad-sack former team.
Consider that in that first inning, the A’s had scored three runs on four hits, including a home run by JJ Bleday, grinding Bassitt for 29 pitches. Over the next four frames, with Jansen suggesting the plan of attack and with Bassitt approving pitch choice, the A’s managed just one additional run on one hit. And that run came on a fifth-inning leadoff hit-batter, Connor Capel, drilled on a two-strike count, then coming around to score on a sac-fly. It was the only blemish with Jansen calling pitches.
“A guy like Bassitt has nine different pitches,” Jansen explained of the difficulty of being on the same page when that book is War and Peace. “That’s kind of how he operates, like he wants to have rhythm. I really think it’s hard to do what he does. It’s hard to think and pitch. He’s obviously very good at it. He’s shown that he’s good at it. He’s a smart dude. He’s got different pitches. He knows how to pitch guys. He thinks about the game in a certain way.”
That being said, besides the actual welcomed results of Bassitt finally going old-school, speaking as someone that has been around major-league baseball for more than half a century, there has always seemed a certain balletic rhythm to baseball, that can be jarred loose by watching any pitcher reach down to his PitchCom device to call his own game. It’s like going to Swan Lake and having Baryshnikov looking at a wristband before his next “grand battement”.
Admittedly, most MLB pitchers are unique in their thinking. As a group, they have the most confidently fragile egos in all of sports. When a pitcher’s best fastball gets raked by the hitter, if he can’t think of an excuse, then his career may be doomed.
My best fastball? Home run? How is that possible? Maybe I stink? No the wind wass blowing out. I’m alright. In a pitcher’s head, there is always a reason, an extenuating circumstance. That’s why someone else should be controlling the sequencing of pitches, specifically the catcher. You can’t both angst and call pitches.
Maybe Bassitt had reached the point, nearing the halfway point of the season, where he realized that trying to execute pitches was enough of a mental grind, so, to keep making the decisions on which pitches to throw was becoming too much. Without realizing it, maybe he had truly fallen into patterns within a game. Given the number of specialized analysts that MLB teams employ, maybe his sequencing had become predictable at around the third or fourth circle of his subconscious.
Bassitt will have made 17 starts in the first half. When things were going well, his pitch-calling seemed like an avalanche of right decisions. Consider in his best eight starts, Bassitt allowed six runs in 57.1 innings. Confidence breeds success and pitch-calling was easy. But then also consider that in his worst eight starts, the results were akin to Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner, allowing 46 runs in 36.1 innings with the Acme PitchCom machine strapped to his side. Are certain teams more tuned in to Bassitt’s patterns? There is certainly a chance he had become predictable for some.
Consider that over the year, the first two hitters he faced in those first 16 Jays’ starts (combined 32 batters) have posted a 1.245 OPS, with five walks, three doubles and three homers. That might be more than just luck coming out of the first-inning gate, even though the sample size is not totally reliable.
Jansen, for his part, is a big proponent of PitchCom. That being said, there’s also a reason so few MLB pitchers call their own game. Now, at least for the moment, count Bassitt among that larger group. He still will have the last word, although as the great lefty, Mark Buehrle once explained, when you allow your catcher to call the game and if you have multiple catchers instead of a personal one, you never become predictable. All you then have to do is execute.
“PitchCom itself is a good thing… with the (pitch) clock,“ Jansen said. “It’s a very necessary device, and (regardless of) the clock, it’s nice not to worry about switching signs every three batters, or three pitches. That little bit of stress gets taken out, which is good.
“As far as pitchers (calling their own game), rhythm is a huge thing. Rhythm is a very big thing as far as pitchers go. You want them to have the best rhythm. You want them to be on a page.”
What Does the Jays’ No. 1 catcher think about the challenge of working with Bassitt and his huge and dynamic repertoire. Even in those successful, final four innings against the A’s in which Jansen was suggesting pitches from behind the plate, the assertive righthander still was shaking off pitch calls that he didn’t like. It didn’t bother Jansen, who feels that aspect of communication can and will improve.
“Yeah, it’s something that going forward we’ll work on,” Jansen shrugged. “It’s hard to do what he does. Going forward, if he decides to give the catcher -- if it’s me -- more freedom, then he’s still going to shake. He’s still going to have the call in him and you still want to be on page. If there’s an option or two, then he still has the ability to call it. It’s less thinking on his own.”
Bassitt’s Wednesday start vs. the Giants will be his 17th at the official half-way mark of the Jays’ schedule. The team is 8-8 in previous starts, with Bassitt calling pitches. The 34-year-old knows he can be better than that for his team. He knows he must be better than that for himself. Perhaps, he just needs to tap into his inner Buerhrle and trust that whatever is whispered in his ear via PitchCom. Hey, bottom line is both pitchers and catchers attend the same prep meetings with coach Pete Walker and have access to the same analytics info. So, if a pitcher trusts his catcher and executes properly, good results will be there. For now, Bassitt is better off.