Here's a question for you guys, and something I've been wondering about for a while now: Is Jorge Posada good at calling games?
Yesterday, for the second time in this brand-new season, Jose Molina was behind the plate for Mike Mussina. I don’t know if the Yankees are going to use Molina as Mussina’s personal catcher – Posada missed Moose's first start with a sore shoulder, and last night was a logical day off because of today's afternoon game. Still, given that last season Mussina pitched to Wil Nieves until July -- you remember Nieves; incredibly nice guy, didn’t have a hit until May 9th -- it seems that Mussina prefers, or at the very least has no objection to, throwing to someone other than Posada.
I don't think this is a problem -- Molina’s got to start sometime, and unlike other recent Yankee backups he’s a capable hitter; if Mussina likes working with him, so much the better. And Mussina can, as you may have noticed, be a bit persnickety about his pitching circumstances, so I don’t want to read too much into his apparent inclination towards someone a bit more defense-oriented.
Randy Johnson, in his brief and unhappy time in the Bronx, also opted for a personal catcher, the YES booth's own John Flaherty*. Now, Johnson was so prickly that he makes Mussina look like a Teletubby, so you can take that with a grain of salt as well. Still, since Flaherty and Nieves, even working together, would be hard pressed to hit their way out of a paper bag, there must be some reason two of the best pitchers of their generation embraced such blows to their run support.
This is all just curiosity on my part, and no cause for concern -- Posada’s game calling really isn’t a big issue. He’s so good offensively, even during an average season, that he makes up for any defensive shortcomings, and he’s been incredibly durable besides. Of all the mid-90s Yanks still around, he’s the one I think the team will find it hardest to replace. And besides, he’s been behind the plate for countless excellent pitching performances over the years, including a perfect game – obviously he can’t be that bad.
That said, these questions have been floating around since the early days of his career, back when he and Girardi shared the catching duties. Posada was still learning the ropes, and Girardi was apparently in high demand among the staff, until he finally left for the Cubs. Buster Olney (then the Times' beat writer) wrote in February of 2000:
"Posada has been the primary catcher the last two years, but Torre and the coaching staff relied heavily on Girardi, for his experience and his empathetic relationship with pitchers. Although the earned run averages accumulated by the pitchers when working with Posada and Girardi were generally identical, the coaching staff would often use Girardi to work on a particular problem with a particular pitcher. When Orlando Hernandez was not throwing inside as much as the Yankees' staff wanted in 1998, Girardi stepped in for a game to nudge El Duque. When Roger Clemens was struggling into August last season, Girardi was assigned to work with him."...
..."After Leyritz left the Yankees, Girardi became Pettitte's catcher. There were games when Pettitte never shook off a sign from Girardi. But before that can happen, Pettitte must trust his catcher, and in the few games they have had together, he has not had faith in Posada.
Posada has teamed successfully with Hernandez, and interestingly, their personalities are similar, both determined and stubborn. Their disagreements lead to angry clashes that seem to spur great things from Hernandez. Posada, in fact, begins baiting Hernandez before each game, knowing how El Duque will respond.
As long as Girardi was with the Yankees, club officials determined, those pitchers who preferred him would never develop a relationship with Posada. Now those alliances must be sealed; there is no other choice."
During the 1999 playoffs, Olney noted, Girardi caught Cone as well as Pettitte and Clemens. Posada, who had started at catcher 109 times during the season, started only 3 of the first 11 postseason games, before successfully lobbying Clemens and Torre to catch Game 4 of the World Series. That’s almost unimaginable now, but back then it still wasn’t clear exactly how good Posada would be -- he was one of those rare players who didn’t come into his own until he was 28, in the 2000 season.
Regardless, all of the pitchers mentioned in Olney’s article seem to have eventually overcome any issues they may have had with Posada, and Clemens and Pettitte both came around in a big way: in recent years, the first words out of either of their mouths after a good performance were likely to be “Georgie called a great game.” Posada is a notorious hard worker, dramatically stepping up his defense in his mid-30s, so I find it easy to believe that he’s gotten better over the years. Or maybe it just took a while for him and the pitching staff to adjust to each other.
Game calling skills are tough to measure, obviously, since it’s not always clear whether a given pitch was chosen by the pitcher or the catcher, or what the coaching staff might have suggested before the game -- and besides, the results depend entirely on the pitcher’s execution. Kyle Farnsworth is probably going to do some Farnsworthing no matter how meticulously you've planned your pitch sequence, and Mariano Rivera could probably strike batters out if he threw to a lump of clay. In fact, catchers' game calling may be one of those concepts, like clutch hitting, that seems like it ought to exist -- might, in fact, exist -- but has little to no statistical evidence supporting it.
So, what do you think? Is it important for a catcher to call a good game, and does Posada generally do so? Or was Randy Johnson actually right about something?
*On a side note, does anyone else think Flaherty would make a fantastic bench coach? I'd say manager, but I'm not sure he has the personality for that. But dozens of times over the last couple years I've heard him predict a pitch selection or matchup or baserunning move, explain why it would be a good or bad idea, and then have it happen exactly as he said it would -- I mean to the letter. I imagine it might be slightly dry for casual fans, but he really knows his nuts-and-bolts stuff.