Many of you are aware that I’m a catcher and therefore sending me emails about Brian Schneider’s two passed balls yesterday — how can he be such a great defensive catcher yet drop two balls when the supposedly lesser Paul LoDuca dropped two all year?
And no, it can’t be blamed on drinking too much pre-game “Schardonnay”.
First, let me establish that I know a little bit about what I’m talking about here. I caught at the NCAA D-1 level for four years and been banging around in semi-pro leagues for over 15 years since. Many of the pitchers I’ve caught in my life either are, or were, in the Major Leagues. Dozens of others pitched at pro levels around the world. I’ve caught knuckleballers (Jim Bouton), flamethrowers (Joe Borowski, before the arm injuries), and every type in between. That said, I have some understanding of Schneider’s difficulties.
One thing I can say from my experience: it’s a heckuva lot easier to catch most MLB pitchers than most amateur pitchers, because the pros almost always know where the ball is going — often within 2-3 inches. This, however, is the conundrum: when a pitcher is nearly always hitting the target, a catcher can tend to expect the ball to be near the glove.
The second thing I can say is that it can be extremely difficult to catch a guy in a game who you’ve never, or rarely, caught before — particularly if that pitcher has a lot of velocity, a lot of movement, and tends not to hit his target.
Enter Oliver Perez — a guy who throws a 93-95-MPH fastball with lots of movement, and who would not be confused with Greg Maddux when it comes to control. Add in the fact that Schneider missed the bulk of spring training due to hamstring issues, and you have a recipe for passed balls.
Yes, Brian Schneider is getting paid tons of money to catch in the big leagues, so you might say there’s no excuse for two passed balls in one game. However, given his unfamiliarity with Ollie at this stage of the season, I’m willing to give him a break on that first one. It was a 3-0 pitch and Schneider was expecting a straight fastball somewhere near the middle of the plate. Instead, a swerving fastball went running way inside (a wild fastball is much tougher to block / stop than a breaking pitch, because with a breaking pitch you expect the ball to break down or sideways while a fastball is expected to have a truer, or at least consistent, flight path). After looking at the replay, I’ve decided the official scorer made a mistake — it should have been ruled a wild pitch. Generally speaking, however, most scorers refuse to score a wild pitch on a ball that doesn’t first touch the dirt — don’t ask me why.
On the second passed ball — which I also watched on replay several times (gotta love the DVR) — it looked to me like the blame could have been shared between Schneider and Heilman. Before setting up his target, Schneider was leaning toward the inside, I presume to get the batter Shane Victorino thinking that the pitch was going to be inside. Right before Heilman started his motion, Schneider leaned back over to the outside, where he wanted the pitch, but didn’t move his feet. Heilman’s changeup had more movement than usual, and was a good foot or foot and a half off the plate. Though Schneider was already leaning that way, it appeared that he was expecting (or hoping) the ball to take a turn back toward the plate instead of continuing outside. And the way it popped out (and has been popping out), it looks as if he’s using a new glove — but if that’s the case I’d be surprised.
Remember now, Heilman walked Carlos Ruiz to start the inning, and eventually walked Victorino on that at-bat, so his control was off. Although Schneider had previously caught Heilman and knew how his pitches moved, he hadn’t yet caught Aaron on a “bad day”, and may have expected him to be more precise. No excuse for letting that ball get away, but I can understand how and why it happened.
As the season progresses, and Schneider becomes more familiar with the pitching staff and their pitches, we’ll see that he is indeed an upgrade — defensively. Whether he’ll do anything other than hit weak ground balls to the right side, however, is another question entirely.