By: Cole Bradley
ORLEANS, Mass- A catcher's job primarily consists of three things: communicating with their battery mate, quarterbacking the defense and most importantly, leadership.
Next to every other defensive position, catching is unequivocally one of the most difficult to master. What gets lost in translation over the course of a game is how well a backstop controls the strike zone.
Garret Guillemette (USC) and Justin Miknis (Kent State), the two men behind the plate for the Orleans Firebirds this summer, have it down to a science.
“The biggest thing for catchers is trying to steal those strikes for pitchers,” Guillemette said. “I’m taught to ‘stick it’ and have strong wrists. Just take advantage of those situations where the umpire is giving you a little more off the plate. It helps in the long run for the pitchers.”
Both Guillemette and Miknis have made such a subtle thing look easy to start the summer, playing at least a small role in the overall 62.15% strike percentage and 62.75% first pitch strike percentage that Orleans pitchers have posted so far.
Additionally, the Orleans staff is averaging 10.69 pitches per inning, a number that makes more sense when looking at how much Firebirds pitchers have allowed the defense behind them to work.
Regardless, that number would certainly be inflated if not for a few favorable calls.
It sounds so simple, stealing a strike, but in reality, it might be one of the toughest parts of a catcher's job. Framing requires constant deception and confidence in the pitch that is being thrown, a non-strike needs to be sold as a strike to incite a call.
Guillemette makes it clear to whoever is pitching that if he keeps it around the strike zone, there’s a good chance a call will be granted.
“When I was catching Max [Rajcic] in his first start, I told him, ‘If you throw it where I’m setting up I’ll catch it and it’ll be a strike,’” Guillemette said. “It was the same thing I told Hayden [Thomas], he was working really well on the corners so I was able to catch it and get my glove under it. He was dominant in his first outing so it worked out.”
The routine to acquire a skill that demands strength within such a minute muscle group is very precise. Wrist curls, weighted ball exercises and anything that simulates receiving a pitch helps turn a catcher into a ball club's secret weapon.
In particular, Miknis has always had an efficient approach to strengthening his wrists and hands.
“When I was younger, whenever I was just sitting around, I’d just squeeze stuff,” Miknis said. “Tennis balls or stress balls. I would do ‘farmer carries’ with the weights as well.”
Miknis found himself with a lot of time to do this after tearing his UCL his freshman year in 2020, spending a lot of it catching pitches off a machine.
“I was just trying to get back where I was, because there were three months where I wasn’t allowed to do any activity at all,” Miknis said. “Bare hand drills with tennis balls and then with the glove. Nothing really crazy.”
Presentation is always key, after all deceiving an umpire is the main objective when trying to strike-steal. Every backstop has a different and unique style in how they present a pitch, some start with a knee down, others stay in the traditional crouch and some even go with a full split behind the plate.
Technique is crucial too, every pitch is different, and therefore should be received differently based on type and location.
“The low pitch is probably the most important one,” Guillemette said. “You want to beat the ball to the spot, and when you catch it you want to keep your wrist strong and make sure not to move it too much. Outside pitches and inside pitches depend on hip movement, just get around it. Pitches up you got to catch softer. It’s a big illusion for the umpires.”
Miknis uses a classic metaphorical strategy known as ‘the wheel’ where framing every pitch regardless of location acts as points on a steering wheel.
“There’s a wheel and you go from one end to the other,” Miknis said. “It’s kinda hard to explain, but if it’s a low pitch you want to get your thumb under it. Offspeed pitches too, if it’s low just try and get it out there.”
While strike-stealing is something that almost always will always be a ‘beyond the stat sheet’ aspect of the game, it has become so important in every catcher's development, and it always rears its head at some point during every single game. Overall, defense has been both Miknis and Guillemette’s forte so far this summer for the Firebirds, allowing the second-fewest wild pitches so far this summer.
The pitching has been one of the strongest suits for Orleans through the first week of the season, but it would look a lot different without the two sure-handed backstops that have helped make it happen.
“I think it’s really hard right now at the beginning of the year getting used to all the pitchers and I think that is the biggest adjustment,” Miknis said. “Getting to know where to cheat and knowing their strengths, just working around that. I just try to relax, it’s about not trying to move the ball too much.”
The impact one call has on a single game makes every pitch that much more meaningful, which is why Miknis and Guillemette understand how important it is to help out their pitcher any way they can.
“If I’m just confident with how I am behind the plate and my positioning and how I catch the ball, I’m pretty sure the umpire will be confident in the call,” Guillemette said. “It just depends on finding that comfort behind the plate.”