Outside, it’s a cold, wet day in February. Inside, Mike Macfarlane and I are talking baseball. We’re sitting in his Martin City baseball facility (he’s the “Mac” half of “Mac-N-Seitz”). The former Royals catcher is answering questions and telling stories. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, nobody’s around and the building that can be so alive with the sounds of pitching machines, bats hitting balls and balls hitting gloves, is now quiet.
I think about where to start and tell him I just read knuckleballer Tim Wakefield’s new book. I ask Macfarlane what it was like to catch him — and off we go:
“Mentally and physically exhausting.” Catching a knuckleball required full concentration on every pitch. Mike didn’t know where the knuckleball would go. If he reached for it too soon, he’d miss it. Wakefield would throw two seemingly identical pitches, same arm angle, same delivery — one would be down and away to a right-handed hitter, the next might be down and in. Macfarlane said he and Wakefield took no-hitters into the seventh inning three times. A two-strike passed ball might end it, and Mike was trying to catch a hummingbird with chopsticks.
Despite being in a situation many catchers would dread, Macfarlane enjoyed the challenge. He told me that Wakefield was fearless; Tim knew he had to live and die with his knuckleball and wasn’t afraid to throw it in any situation. Mac also said that Wakefield never got flustered, never got angry — a catcher could have six passed balls and Tim would say, “Don’t worry about it, you’re OK.”
Everyone knows how hard it is to catch a pitcher who throws a knuckleball, but Mike said one of the hardest things was adjusting to the next pitcher. Wakefield followed by Roger Clemens wasn’t just tough on hitters; a knuckleball in the mid-60s followed by fastballs in the mid-90s also required some adjusting from the catcher.
I told Mike what Wakefield wrote about a closer-by-committee system in the bullpen (Wakefield thought structured roles were better), and MacFarlane agreed with Wakefield. Macfarlane does not think that relievers are interchangeable. Mac said he’d caught guys who were lights-out in the eighth inning but lost it if they were left in for the save. A four-pitch leadoff walk would be followed by the pitcher taking something off in order to find the zone. A 93-mph fastball dropped to 88 as they struggled to locate the plate. In Macfarlane’s opinion, some guys can handle the pressure of closing a game, some can’t.
Macfarlane said the same thing about hitters: Some guys tear the cover off the ball down in the order, but put them in the 3-hole and they “get a nosebleed.” I must have looked confused because Mike laughed and said, “They can’t stand being that high in the order.” A 3-hole hitter has to want to be the man, and not everybody does. Some guys are more comfortable being role players.
According to Macfarlane, it’s not only the order that can change a hitter’s mindset; it might be the score and stage of the game. Mac remembered Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs being tough hitters every time they came to the plate — the situation didn’t matter. On the other hand, Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle might be 0 for 4 and scuffling, but if they came to the plate for a fifth at-bat with the game on the line, watch out. In Mac’s experience, some hitters got more intense and put up better at-bats in the late innings of a close game.
So it’s possible that you’d rather have a .275 hitter at the plate with the game on the line than a guy hitting .300, depending on their personalities. Some guys rack up hits when it doesn’t matter, and some guys can’t seem to get interested unless it does.
Mac likes Salvador Perez a lot. He thinks the Royals got a chance to lock up a good catcher and did so. He also agrees that Sal’s size might be an issue in the future. Mike said Perez has the frame to hide 10 pounds from observers, but his knees will know. “People compare him to Sandy Alomar; well, Sandy had bad knees.”
Mac worries about Perez suffering from information overload. They’ve now got stats telling you what happened in Thursday games over 82 degrees with the wind blowing in from left at five miles an hour — is that helpful, or does it obscure more important stuff? Macfarlane believes a catcher should gather all the information he can before the game, but once it starts, the catcher should call it based on feel and what’s happening that night.
For instance: You might have planned on a lot of sliders, but if the pitcher doesn’t have a good one that night, change plans. Forget that pitch or turn it into a “show” pitch (show it to the hitter, but not for a strike). You might have planned to pitch a hitter away, but if you look down and see he’s edged his feet closer to the plate, change plans: Come inside and jam him. A guy might be a great fastball hitter, but if you find out he’s hung over and has been napping in the clubhouse, change plans: Go after him with heat and take advantage of a drop in bat speed.
What’s happening right now changes everything.
We talked about veteran catchers. If they have a good reputation, Macfarlane thinks that helps young pitchers. Any pitching coach will tell you not to throw a pitch if you have doubts. Thinking, “I’m not sure about this,” while you’re in the windup takes your mind off execution and usually results in a bad pitch. David Cone thought this concept was so important that he decided any sign Joe Girardi put down was the right sign. That allowed Cone to put all of his concentration on pitch execution.
Macfarlane said that when a veteran catcher puts down a sign, a young pitcher is more likely to believe it’s the right pitch — a guy with a lot of experience has called it. That confidence results in better pitches. Then Mac added something I’d never considered: If a veteran has the reputation for being a stand-up guy, the pitcher has even more confidence. If the pitch gets hammered, the pitcher knows the catcher will take (or at least share) responsibility for calling the pitch. The pitcher doesn’t have to worry about pitch selection or what happens if the pitch is unsuccessful. Once again, that allows pitchers to give 100 percent of their concentration to execution.
Salvador Perez will have to earn the pitchers’ confidence that when Perez puts down a sign, it’s the right one. And if things go wrong, pitchers need to know that Perez will take responsibility for calling the pitch.
I asked Macfarlane about catching techniques and then told him a story. I once mentioned “framing” a pitch, which earned me a lecture from Jason Kendall. Jason told me that good catchers don’t “frame” pitches; they receive them — as quietly as possible. Macfarlane agreed. Exaggerated “framing” (pulling a ball back into the zone) irritates umpires. And irritated umpires take it out on pitchers. Borderline calls won’t go the pitcher’s way because the umpire wants to show that he won’t be fooled by “framing.” Just receive the ball quietly while keeping as much of the ball, mitt and body in the strike zone as possible. This gives umpires a “good look.” Perez will have to develop his reputation with umpires as well as Royals pitchers.
Macfarlane thinks arms are better now, pitchers are in better shape and throw harder, but whether a pitcher throws 98 or 88, pitching is still about ”taking a hitter’s legs away.” (A great way of putting it.) Find a way to destroy the hitter’s balance. I asked about new pitching coach Dave Eiland, and Mac said Eiland was one of those guys who would throw a BP fastball in a hitter’s count — just when the batter thinks he can lean on one, the pitch comes in with less velocity. Don’t be surprised if you see Royals pitchers doing the same thing in 2012.
Mac likes Yost as a manager. I asked why. He laughed and said, “He’s a catcher.” Mac thinks Ned delegates well, and he understands the decisions Yost makes during games. In short, Macfarlane thinks Yost knows what he’s doing. Mac said Yost did the right thing last season when he refused to pinch hit for Alcides Escobar, calling the decision, “A no-brainer.” It was a development season (something teams usually won’t admit — it’s bad PR), and getting Esky those at-bats was necessary. If the focus has switched to winning in 2012, Mac thinks we’ll see Mitch Maier get a lot more pinch-hit appearances.
Bottom line, what does Mike Macfarlane think about the 2012 Royals?
He’s excited. He thinks the Royals will play at least .500 baseball in 2012 but should have a winning record and then explode in 2013. Mac thinks the timetable could change but sees good things ahead.
After thanking him for his time, Mac replied, “Hey, we’re talking baseball. What’s better than that?”
Well, I’d say playing baseball … then watching baseball … but on a cold, wet Tuesday afternoon in February, nothing’s better than talking baseball.