This offseason for the Pirates has been very focused on catching, and news of the MLB Umpire Union voting to work with electronic strike zones added to that. I couldn’t think of anyone I’d like to talk to about all this more than Michael “The Fort” McKenry. You see him every game on the pre and post games for ATT Sportsnet breaking down the game and producing special spots about catching and hitting the ball that really show you what goes into even the slightest of adjustments a player needs to make.
Pittsburgh is blessed to have solid, accessible experts like Fort and I really enjoyed picking his brain on these subjects. I’m not gonna lie, we went on some tangents as I tend to be a baseball geek and talking baseball with a catcher is quite possibly as good as it gets.
The Pirates chose to cut ties with Elias Diaz this off-season and I asked Michael for some thoughts on that. He fell out of favor more quickly than he has seen, but Elias and Cervelli were a good tandem. Fort believes Elias has power to hit 25 home runs, but his launch angle was way off last season causing him to hit far too many ground balls. He sees him as potentially one of those guys who we could see leaving fans wondering why we got rid of him.
Honestly, this is very much so the feeling I had about Elias and I had to ask a follow up, so I asked if he envisioned the Pirates carrying three catchers and if so, would Diaz be a potential pick up at a cheaper price than he would have gotten. Here's what he had to say about that:
“There is so much information out there it makes the why easy to identify, the challenge is getting to the how. Someone should have coached him and identified the holes in his positioning last season, he needed help. If I were asked, that’s what I’d tell them.”
He also thinks they will carry 3 catchers as rosters expand to 26 next season. Signing Luke Maile, a very defensive oriented catcher seems to be a nod to the importance of the defensive side of the game and with that I moved on to what exactly Jacob Stallings did well enough to have so many pitchers openly request him as their backstop.
“He’s just so cerebral, ya know? He attacks calling a game and preparing for a game with the best in the game. Stallings was able to adjust mid game if the scouting report was off or the pitcher didn’t have a pitch on a given day. Not everyone can do that efficiently,”
Along those lines, I wanted to know what a catcher’s preparation with a pitcher is like, how is the pitching coach involved? Michael is a wealth of information on this subject and I think if either of us had even longer than the time he was so gracious with, it's plausible we’d still be talking. Here was his take:
“Every player gets a distinct plan. Some pitchers, like Taillon, love analytics more than most. He will want all the details, but that can at times be what is his biggest kryptonite, and it’s up to the coach and catcher to help him trust what he throws is good enough to get outs. Others you have to convince they can trust you, and that you trust them to throw their best pitch. Prepare them to accept the credit by playing to their strengths.”
He also outlined the typical formula for information flow from the main analytical guy in the organization who gives all the numbers, a 20,000 ft overview if you will, then another breaks it further and individualizes the numbers for the matchups at hand. A solid catcher, such as Stallings then works with the pitching coach and his own knowledge of the staff to pick out swing-and-miss pitches and who does my guy match up with well or doesn’t have a good mix to face. He gave me a great for instance:
“If you’re facing Mike Trout, quite possibly the best low-ball hitter in the league and your pitcher’s best pitches are a hard slider and low fastball, you can’t just ask him to throw high heat because that’s not his best and you’re overthinking to a degree. Instead you would ask him to throw a little lower, a little more outside, there are times when walking him is a win.”
We started talking about the new management team and after I suggested Ray Searage was wrongly accused of spearheading the pitch-to-contact debacle Fort provided some clarity “Honestly, that comes down to every person on that mound”. I followed with an example of Chris Archer and his sinker woes last season to which he elaborated, “right, if he didn’t believe in that pitch he should have said no, asked questions, started a dialogue. That’s how you improve.” So of course, I had to ask what philosophy works best in his opinion when it comes to coaching pitchers, “Everything needs to be by personality, not philosophy, 1000%. He also added when he used to catch, he would tell his pitchers, “It’s your ERA, if you shake me off, have a reason, have purpose with everything you throw...Pretend like you’re 12 years old again and you can’t lose, whatever you did way back then is probably your identity.”
On the hiring of Ben Cherington:
“They hired the right GM, and Don Kelly as a bench coach was brilliant, a window into what Houston is doing...He is the personality guy and every team needs that, Bannister used to be that and he was tough whenever needed, but could also be your best friend depending on what a player needed.”
We finished up our chat with some more wide range MLB issues like the MLB Umpire union agreeing to work with the electronic strike zones, which I quickly learned he and I both have strong feelings about.
“Where does it stop? Every year there are 3 or 4 more ideas. I can see a day when there are no umpires, the technology is there, and this deal will open the door to that.” Said McKenry who then offered an example of an MLB player who right now is a lock to be on a roster due to his framing metrics, Austin Hedges, a player who is averaging around .180 but his defense keeps him on a roster and is key to his pitcher’s success. He also pointed out the issues experience in Fall League and said the accuracy needs to be around 99.9% before it is implemented.
Fort is right, the game is changing and not everything is being considered. We talked for quite some time about how far this could go from check swings being reviewed to Rob Manfried’s seeming rush to eliminate some minor league affiliates. Here’s what Fort had to say, “MLB has all the control in minor league baseball, where does it stop? Some of my very best memories are from the lower levels of the minors” I asked if there were any rule changes they had implemented that he liked and he replied:
“Yes, the 26 man roster, that was long overdue but the new rule where pitchers must face three batters, man we were just getting to the coolness of lefty vs righty based on analytics. MLB took that away from fans, fans are gonna miss out on it. Last season Colin Moran was killing lefties off the bench and coaches kept sending them up to face him. Then you started to see righties.”
I interjected here that Richard Rodriguez would be a tough matchup for Moran, to which he replied “absolutely, that’s what I mean, we were just getting to this cool strategy where righty vs lefty matchups would be utilized based entirely on analytics. I feel bad for the fans that they’ll not see as much of that because of this rule."
I genuinely appreciate the time Michael gave me to talk all about, as he put it and I concur, “The single most impactful defensive position on the field.” The Pirates should add to their depth at this key position, if not they are neglecting one of the very building blocks on which all ball clubs should be built.
There is a reason so many catchers go into broadcasting and coaching, there is no one other position that is as heavily involved in every aspect of the strategy applied. If you want to know what your team is doing right or wrong, ask a catcher, hopefully you get one half as engaging as Mr. McKenry.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007
Follow Michael McKenry on Twitter: @theFortMcKenry