The Technology That Taught an MLB Catcher the Most Important Part of His Job

From a Wall Street Journal story by Lindsey Adler headlined “The Technology That Taught an MLB Catcher the Most Important Part of His Job”:

The Arizona Diamondbacks didn’t intend to have 23-year-old Gabriel Moreno catch 104 games for them in a year when they have made a surprise run to the National League Championship Series. He hasn’t been a catcher for all that long.

Moreno was a shortstop when the Toronto Blue Jays signed him as a 17-year-old in 2017. He was converted to catching and learned the position in a quick five-year journey through the minors. He entered the big leagues in 2022 with significantly less catching experience than many of his peers, who might have been catching since their Little League days.

Yet the young backstop, who was traded to Arizona last winter, has already made an impact in the major-leagues. He quickly became the game’s best at controlling the running game, throwing out 22 of 57 opposing base stealers this season. It was the highest rate of success in MLB in a year when the rules changed to incentivize base-stealing.

But Moreno still needed help mastering the most crucial parts of his job: calling games and framing pitches, the most valuable skills a catcher can possess and a notoriously unscientific part of baseball.

Major League Baseball happened to step in with a technology solution that has transformed Moreno from a promising rookie into a crucial member of a team challenging to reach the World Series.

The change is thanks to the remote communications system known as PitchCom. The system allows a pitcher and catcher to communicate via pre-programed directives and an in-hat speaker.

Introduced in 2022, PitchCom initially allowed catchers to use a small remote that could send a recording of phrases like “fastball inside” or “curveball” into a headset worn by the pitcher and select infielders. It mirrored the traditional method of the catcher-pitcher dynamic: The catcher would call for a pitch, and it would be on the pitcher to shake his head until the catcher called the pitch he had in mind.

This year, as part of its efforts to speed up the pace of games, MLB began allowing pitchers to wear their own PitchCom remote on the mound, allowing them for the first time to send audio commands to the catcher. Now, instead of waiting for the catcher to call the pitch, the pitcher can just tell the catcher what he wants to throw.

“I would say probably the first half of the year, I called 95% of the game when he was behind the plate,” said Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen on Thursday.

At the start of the year, Gallen took an active role in helping his young catcher to learn the flow of the game. In the dugout between innings, Gallen said he made a point of telling Moreno why he wanted certain pitches in certain situations, and asked Moreno for his thinking on the pitches he had suggested.

Moreno missed 18 games on the injured-list with a shoulder injury in late July and early August. When he returned to the roster, Gallen told him he was going to rely on the catcher to call more pitches in their games together.

“Gabby’s gonna be here a while, and I want to have that connection with him,” Gallen said. “Now, he knows pretty much what I’m thinking on the mound, so I felt it was just easier to have him call it.”

Moreno wasn’t intended to be the Diamondbacks’ starting catcher this season. Arizona acquired him from Toronto last winter in a trade and expected to have him spend time as Carson Kelly’s backup. That plan went awry when Kelly’s arm was broken by a hit-by-pitch in spring training. Moreno was thrown into the fire and emerged as a player the Diamondbacks now hope can be a franchise catcher.

“He’s not fully developed yet,” said Diamondbacks bench coach Jeff Bannister, who worked with Moreno extensively this season. “But he’s well on his way to being an All-Star catcher.”

Moreno’s sudden success defies a number of conventions that pertain to catchers and defensive development. It’s rare for a major-league catcher with extensive club control to be traded away at all. Organizations hoard young catchers, as it is the most difficult position to develop proficiently through the minors. The Blue Jays were doing that, but Moreno’s progress was blocked by fellow young catcher Alejandro Kirk.

“We haven’t had a lot of success developing catching internally over the last five or six years,” said Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen. “It’s the hardest position to play in baseball and you don’t often wind up with well-rounded catchers because of the offensive and defensive workload.”

Teams also grapple with the concept of development at the major-league level, with some organizations preferring to fully season players in the minor leagues, while others rocket them to the big leagues to learn on the job. Moreno wasn’t supposed to do either this year, until Kelly was injured.

The organization knew it was asking a lot of Moreno, who didn’t know any of the team’s pitchers at the start of spring training. He’d caught 194 games in the minors.

In addition to easing him into game-calling, the coaching staff spent time with Moreno doing drills to improve his pitch framing. Catchers typically do some defensive work in-season, but get enough reps during games to stay sharp and therefore typically reserve big development projects for the offseason. Moreno worked on his framing skill while simultaneously applying it in meaningful games.

Still, he was a below-average pitch framer this season, using MLB’s catcher framing metric, but still found himself ahead of one-third of qualified catchers. Even in this newly baserunning-happy era of baseball, teams still highly value the ability to steal strikes due to the significant difference in outcomes between a hitter’s count and a pitcher’s count.

“Early on, we concentrated more on game-calling, game-planning, relationship-building, blocking, and throwing,” Bannister said. “We didn’t want to box him in on receiving; we wanted him to find his rhythm and timing behind the plate, so once we did that we focused on receiving.”

The Diamondbacks were full of surprises this season, especially in their ascension to the NLCS. Moreno went from an intended backup catcher to claiming the starting job while learning how to do it in real-time. His season defied convention and expectations, and there’s still room for him to learn more

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