BY STEVE KRAH
Al Ready was a catcher at the University of Indianapolis and now he instruct receivers as the NCAA Division II Greyhounds head coach.
Ready shared elements of playing the position at the first PRP Baseball Bridge The Gap Clinic in Noblesville hosted by Greg Vogt.
Ready says catcher is the most under-coached position in baseball.
“It’s probably the most important position on the field next to the pitcher,” says Ready. “However, in a practice setting, a lot of times there’s not enough time to work with those guys.
“Their responsibilities in practice tend to be in the bullpen or whatever.”
One area of catching that Ready sees as something of a lost art is “umpire management” aka building a positive relationship with the officials.
“It’s a job you should be teaching your catchers to do,” says Ready. “The umpires are human beings. There’s a lot of screaming and hollering at the umpire and I’m as guilty as anybody.
“As the catcher, you have the ability to control some of that. You want to put yourself in a position where calls that could go one way or another are going to go your way.”
Ready encourages his catchers to talk with the umpires, making joke around with them a little bit.
“You’ll get some guys who are a little hesitant to talk and some that will want to talk your ear off,” says Ready. “The ones that don’t like to talk, it was a goal of mine to get the guy to laugh or talk to me a little more consistently throughout the game.
“When you do those types of things, the game becomes more fun.”
Ready addressed the sequence of events that happen before the pitcher releases the baseball.
With no runners on and no outs, the catcher assumes a relaxed position.
Before giving the signal to the pitcher, Ready says the catcher should look at the base coaches who may try to creep in toward the lines to pick up the sign.
“You also want to take a look at the hitter to make sure he’s not peaking back,” says Ready. “Now you’re ready to give your signal.”
Ready says only three people should be able to see the signal which is given high with the glove in front to shield it: pitcher, shortstop and second baseman.
“After the first inning, I check with my first baseman,” says Ready. “If he can see them, the runner can see them.”
Ready says the timing of the catcher’s shift is important.
If the pitcher is in the wind-up, about the time he breaks his hands is when the catcher shifts. Depending on which direction he intends to go, he turns in his right or left knee and slides over.
“You don’t want to bounce,” says Ready. “With bouncing, the hitter can sense which side of the plate you’re moving on.
“You want to be quiet. You want to be smooth. You don’t want to give up that location.”
Ready has his catchers use two stances — primary and secondary.
Primary is with no runners on base. The catcher gets low and presents a nice target to the pitcher.
“If there’s a ball in the dirt, I’m still going to try my best to block it because I want to keep it off the umpire,” says Ready. “I want to work hard for him because he’s going to work hard for me.
“But if it gets past me, it’s not the end of the world with nobody on-base.”
Secondary is with runners. The catcher’s posterior is a little higher and his thumb is cupped behind the glove. He is ready to block the ball and to throw it.
“Anytime you do a drill progression, you should work your catchers in the primary stance and the second stance,” says Ready. “That’s very important.”
Ready likes his receivers to present a low target.
“I also want to be consistent with not dropping my glove on the pitch,” says Ready. “Even with the guys in the big leagues, it’s gotten bad. A lot of those catchers are very talented. They can do a lot of things physically.
“But a lot of them are way too far back. They reach out. They set up differently on different pitches.”
Ready says the disadvantage of dropping the glove comes when the pitch is up and the catcher has to cover a lot of distance to catch the ball.
The idea is to make a target and leave it there.
“What if it’s a border line pitch and I’m going try to frame it?,” says Ready. “That’s going to look maybe not as good as if (I was moving the glove a short distance).
“The less distance you have to cover, the best it’s going to look on border line pitches.”
An absolute for Ready when it comes to catching is throwing.
“If you can’t throw, you can’t catch,” says Ready. “You can be the best receiver, block and be able to call a great game. You can do all of those things.
“But if somebody gets on-base, they’re going to run. They’re going to steal second. They’re going to steal third.”
Being careful not to interfere with the hitter or be struck by the follow-through of the swing, Ready wants his catchers to get underneath the hitter to decrease the distance the ball has to travel from the pitcher.
“The pitcher is going to like that look,” says Ready. “Sometimes (the catcher) might be back two feet.
“There’s a lot of benefits with being closer to the hitter. You’re going to get more pitches down called strikes because you can stick them.
“If you are far back and you reach out to catch a low pitch and as soon as you catch it — no matter how strong you are — it’s almost impossible to keep it right there. It will go down.”
When sticking pitches, Ready looks for catchers to have a little flexion in their left arm.
“You’re going to get that call more times than not,” says Ready.
Recalling a fall game against a junior college where there were six 1-1 counts on both sides during the game where the next pitch was low, Ready says UIndy catchers got all called for strikes while the opponent’s receiver, who was too far away from the plate, got all called for balls.
“Going from 1-1 to 1-2 can be the difference in the ball game right there,” says Ready. “Let’s say there are two outs (with a runner on second) and it’s 1-1 and you didn’t get that pitch (making it 2-1). Let’s say the next swing — boom! — it’s a double. The next guy hits a little bleeder. The run scores. The next guy jacks one. That’s three runs.
“You probably could’ve been out of the inning if you could’ve gotten that (1-1) pitch (called a strike).”
When he was a player, Ready learned how to be close to the plate and not get hit by a back-swing and he shares it with his catchers.
“Only three things can happen. Either the hitter swings, checks or he takes,” says Ready. “Two of them you have to frame. You have to stick. You have to make it look good. That’s the take and check swing. There is no risk of getting hit by a back-swing on a take or a check swing.
“You don’t frame pitches that guys swing at.”
When there’s a swing, catchers catch the ball and get out of the way.
When it comes to framing, Ready wants his catchers to frame only border line pitches.
“Anything else, we catch it and throw it back,” says Ready.
Ready says many catchers these days get as wide as possible and uses slight of hand to receive the ball.
“It use to be ‘skinny sway,’” says Ready. “The skinnier you make yourself, the further off the plate you can go.
“We use both and test out the umpire. The strike zone is what the umpire says it is. It’s going to change from day to day. It’s your job (as a catcher) to figure out what it is. If it’s expanded, you should exploit it. There’s no question about it.”
When it comes to stopping pitches in the dirt, Ready teaches his catchers to block and recover.
“Get the ball back in your hand as quick as you can,” says Ready. “All you want is a chance to make a play.”
Catchers must anticipate where the ball is going to go if it hits the ground and be ready to move in that direction without giving away location.
When blocking, Ready asks his catchers to drop to their knees to plug up the 5-hole.
The catcher rotates around a small imaginary arc.
“If I’m straight, it’s like Pong,” says Ready. “The ball is going to come in this way and ricochet that way.
“I want to be turned just slightly.”
Another key: Be a pillow and blow your air out. In other words, the catcher should not be rigid when the ball strikes his body.
“The ball can hit you and its going to deaden,” says Ready. “Then you can reach out and grab it.”
When it comes to throwing, footwork is important.
“Know the limitations of your catchers before teaching them footwork,” says Ready. “It all depends on how good the guy’s arm is.
“If his arm is not good, he’s going to have to gain some momentum (with a jab step) to get the ball down to second base.”
Ready teaches his catchers to have the thumb tucked behind and transfer the ball from the glove to the throwing hand out in front of their bodies.
“If I don’t get a perfect grip on it, I can adjust it in my hand as I get it back here to throw,” says Ready. “Getting a perfect four-seam grip on the ball is a bad expectation.
“It’s a quickness. You get it and get rid of it. You have to have arm strength and put it on the base.”
Ready says bullpens are not just for pitchers. They present a good opportunity for catchers to work on blocking, framing, shifting, footwork, signal-calling etc.
“In (the Great Lakes Valley Conference), I can tell you this, if you roll with the same set of signals with a runner on second year in and year out, you get what you deserve,” says Ready. “You should have multiple sets of signals.
“You should have a verbal where you can switch them on the fly where you don’t have to waste a trip (to the mound).”
Ready went over blocking, receiving and throwing drills he uses as part of a 45-minute progression in developing catchers at UIndy:
• Face Off. Catchers are paired up. They catch the ball and throw it back.
• Rapid Fire. A coach feeds balls to a catcher who receives them bare-handed one after the other. This helps with hand-eye coordination and reaction time.
“Training at a high rate of speed is how you slow the game down,” says Ready.
• Weighted Ball. They are delivered underhand with catchers receiving them with or without their glove.
“It will help your catchers stick the ball and not take it out of the position where they caught it,” says Ready.
• Receiving. Catchers field throws from various positions.
• 3-Ball Blocking. Catchers will get into a secondary stance and then go down to where the coach points. There is a slow and deliberate round followed by a fast one.
• Hands Down/Chin Down. It helps with catchers who like to flinch on blocking balls. A pitching machine will deliver the ball in the same spot each time.
• Block and Recover.
• Cheat. A version of block and recover where the catcher gets the ball in their hand as quickly as possible.
• Machine Receiving. The catcher starts from 60 feet, 6 inches away and sees how close they can get to the machine with each pitch. It becomes a competitive thing among teammates.
• Long Toss. Ready likes his catchers to do this in some form everyday.
• One-Knee Throwing.
• Hands Transfer.
“The transfer is key,” says Ready. “If you want to get people out, you’ve got to be able to transfer the ball.”
• Coach In The Middle. Done at the distance home to second base (127 1/2 feet) and at 150 feet with a coach in the middle, catchers deliver throws to a moving target. It also helps build up arm strength.
Al Ready, a former University of Indianapolis catcher, is now the head baseball coach at UIndy. (University of Indianapolis Photo)