Catchers Catch/Pitchers Pitch. But who controls Jays in-game pitch-calling?
Bassitt’s struggle with new technology draws response from a thoughtful Steve Rogers
As the 2023 season opens, it’s clearly a brave new world for veteran starting pitchers, given the pitch-clock and a newfound ability, via PitchCom, to call their own games. Sure, the PitchCom wireless device was available to catchers in 2022, not universally utilized, but at that time it was simply a one-way street, with pitchers being only able to receive. But MLB experimented this spring training and pitchers can now send the signals and run their own show.
It sounds great, but already some talented veterans have struggled in their first start with the technologies – both pitch clock and PitchCom. It’s a small sample size and we don’t know which veteran starters called their own pitches, but it has been a struggle for many hurlers, especially those that did not have the advantage of working the same tech in the minors.
Consider a ’23 study of 13 big-name starters with past career success, a list that includes Jacob deGrom, Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, Chris Sale, Jameson Taillon, Zack Wheeler and three Jays’ starters, Bassitt, Berrios and Manoah. In their debut outings, the baker’s dozen of starters combined for a 12.14 ERA, with 93 hits in 49.2 innings. Now, believe they will certainly be better moving forward, but how much of that success will be the fact of simply getting used to the game’s new rules? There is the perspective of history needed for that question.
Over my half-century of working with and being around major-league pitchers, up-close and personal, I’ve detected a commonality that likely extends back to the dawn of the major-league game. I have observed the majority of pitchers -- starting pitchers in particular – who for their own sanity, when they struggle, need to have something or someone to blame for failure, whether they let it be known publicly, or, far more often and to their credit, do not.
There is an old cliché for hitters in baseball that says “in what other sport can you fail 70-percent of the time (bat .300) and make it to the Hall-of-Fame. Then on the other hand -- and there is no accepted cliché for this -- if a pitcher fails 30-percent of the time (i.e. allowing an overall .300 batting average) he’s a failure. There lies huge extra pressure on pitchers.
The list of handy excuses includes: sun, wind, bad hops, bleeders, bloops, wrong pitch signal, terrible umpires or too many days between starts. The bottom line is that for the sake of their own sanity, deep down inside, the flummoxing fact of failure can never be placed on themselves. No pitcher believes, “they’re hitting my best stuff, maybe I don’t belong.”
Now PitchCom is removing one of their easiest internal excuses. The catcher. Before this year, when catchers were calling pitches, sure they could shake them off, but catchers remained key components in the finger-pointing equation. If you as a pitcher are now calling your own pitches, blaming a catcher for wrong-headed pitch-calls is suddenly off the table.
We needed to bounce this off someone who has been through it. Former Expos’ pitcher Steve Rogers was, for about 11 years, what Blue Jays’ starter Dave Stieb was to the Jays in the ‘80s. Both Rogers and Stieb were among the best starters of their era, blessed with outstanding major-league stuff, underappreciated with neither winning a Cy Young, although they possibly should have. Rogers was a deep thinker on the mound, looking for every conceivable edge. Jays’ newcomer Chris Bassitt reminds me in many ways of Rogers.
In his first start in St. Louis, Bassitt called his own game with Danny Jansen behind the plate. His rationalization was that with an eight-pitch repertoire and a 15-second and 20-second pitch clock that there was no time to work with Jansen having his new batterymate trying to guess what pitch and location he wanted to throw. That brings us to asking Rogers his opinion.
I recall a warm summer eve, in August ’79, a Saturday night in Manhattan in the middle of an Expos series at Shea Stadium. A small group relaxed at Rusty Staub’s restaurant on the Upper West side with Rusty, myself, Rogers and Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Dave Van Horne winding down, talking baseball and sampling wines recommended by the ever-gracious host.
Rogers in a start in Philly had just surrendered solo homers to Mike Schmidt and Manny Trillo in a seven-inning no decision, allowing three runs. He was concerned, offering that he believed he was tipping his pitches and that hitters could see the grip he had on the ball as he delivered. He was seeking affirmation from Staub, a student of hitting. The answer from Le Grand Orange was a short belly laugh. Staub insisted Rogers was giving hitters way too much credit. They only have survival at the plate on their minds, staying alive, Staub explained.
I sought out Rogers this week, now an executive with the MLB players union. I asked how he and his whirling maelstrom of thoughts might have handled the twin gifts of PitchCom and the pitch clock given some of the perfectionist insecurity he had towards his own terrific career.
“Glove or earpiece, I could get used to the system,” Rogers said. “It all has become a necessary evil. Fifteen or 20 seconds between pitches seems extremely short, but when I was in rhythm, I would have to imagine I was well within those parameters. But when I was struggling, my guess is I took twice as long.”
Rogers was first promoted to the Expos midway through the ’73 season at 23-years-old and had an immediate impact, going 10-5 with a 1.54 ERA in 17 starts. In the prime seven years of his Expos career, 1977-83, he went 107-77, with a 2.93 ERA averaging 7.1 innings over 236 starts.
“When you are a rookie, you need to rely on your catcher and his knowledge of the hitters,” Rogers explained before finishing the thought tongue-in-cheek. “After you get established, normally a pitcher gets really super-smart and God forbid he has a young catcher.”
Rogers for his first few years worked with catchers John Boccabella, Barry Foote and Bob Stinson, then for those prime eight years of his career was blessed with Hall-of-Fame catcher Gary Carter. They developed a silent bond that seldom required shake-off.
“By the third season, Kid and I had worked through the learning curve and after that he and I thought ahead, seven pitches deep into my bag of tricks. A large part of my comfort was the internal confidence in my ability to execute any of those pitches.”
The confidence Rogers describes is his balance of skill, trust and execution. It’s something that Bassitt needs to arrive at in his relationship with Danny Jansen. Yes, the righthander has eight pitches, while Rogers claimed seven, but Bassitt after suffering through his worst career start in what was his Jays debut, partially blamed the pressure of the pitch clock and not having time to shake off Jansen to get to his pitch. Rogers thoughts on execution are the last word.
“If Kid called a fastball in on a lefthanded hitter and I was thinking flat slider in, I would simply throw what Kid put down,” Rogers said. “It was very seamless and comfortable. It always became a pumped feeling to be setting my splitter – No. 7 in the repertoire – and have Kid read my mind and put down the wiggle (for the splitter) on Pitch No. 68 in the fifth inning.”
That moment of being on the same page is an evolution. The Jays’ rotation top four is not what it showed in the first start. They are more what career histories show, but with the pitch-clock and PitchCom, the turnaround, the adjustments may take a while to see. That should have happened in the spring, but didn’t. The Jays’ veteran rotation may have thought they knew what to expect, but it’s not just them. Major-league hitters, pitchers, umpires and managers all do not yet seem comfortable with the new rules.
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