by Clara Richards | Washington University in St. Louis
In his eleventh start, catcher Caleb Lomavita walked to the mound to greet his new pitcher and ask an essential question.
“Hey, what’s your name again?”
There’s a period of adjustment for every player coming to the Cape Cod League, but the catchers have a particularly tough task. They have to call pitches and catch for teammates who, sometimes, they’ve never seen throw before. They don’t know how fast their velocity will be or what type of command they have on the mound; a 97 mile pitch might fly towards them, and they just have to follow their instincts.
“You don’t have any trust with them,” Lomavita said. “Right there, you need to just be athletic. You can’t think about anything. Once you start thinking too much, that’s when it starts to become hard.”
Not all of the Cape Cod League’s teams leave the pitch calling to the battery. Some teams use earpieces to communicate pitch sequencing. But for head coach Mike Roberts, the decision to put the responsibility on the pitcher and catcher is a no-brainer.
“What I’m trying to do is encourage catchers to become more fundamentally sound,” Roberts said. “The earpieces are just to speed up the game and, and if a pitcher and a catcher are in sync, you don’t need an earpiece. Today, we’re trying to electronify the game, and I don’t think we can ever electronify it; it’s just a backyard wiffle ball game.”
Roberts thinks that catching is the most difficult position in the sport of baseball today. He used to think that it was the pitcher, but he’s changed his mind because of the wildness of pitchers today. “To be an excellent catcher today, you have to be old school and just more fundamentally sound than any position on the field,” he said. “Otherwise, it shows up, because you’re involved in every pitch.”
Instead of focusing on stealing strikes, Roberts stresses the essentials for his catchers. He’s given Miknis tips about keeping his thumb in the air instead of down to keep him from dropping balls, and he’s helped Lomavita with pitch calling. But in terms of framing, Roberts stresses that the goal is to be overlooked instead of having any dramatic movements.
“Catchers and coaches teach them that, ‘Okay, you have to get on one knee to pull the ball up out of the ground to make the umpire see that it’s a better pitch,’” Roberts said. “Well, catchers have not improved by going to one knee — they’ve actually gone the other way.”
The task of catching for the Kettleers’ pitching staff has posed an interesting challenge for the duo of Lomavita and Justin Miknis from Kent State, who have rotated behind the dish for the first half of the season. At college, they both have the fall preseason to get to know their pitcher’s tendencies. Without those months of introduction, it makes those early mound visits extra valuable for the catchers. Miknis likes to throw questions at them: what’s their strikeout pitch? What’s their best pitch thrown on a 3-2 count? What are they the most comfortable with in certain situations?
And then in the stressful mound visits—the 3-2 counts, the bases loaded and the just-need-to-throw-a-strike moments—some of those talks are just a regular conversation. Lomavita will crack a joke to ease the tension, maybe talk about someone in the stands. Miknis might tell them to breathe and focus on throwing over the plate.
The catchers’ education on the Cape hasn’t just been from Roberts. It’s also been from each other, and some of it has nothing to do with baseball itself. The biggest competition between two may be about fishing. Lomavita, who grew up in Hawaii, argues that he’s had more success on the Cape so far.
“This poor guy hasn’t caught something since the first day. I feel bad for him,” Lomavita joked about Miknis’s fishing abilities.
Granted, it might be true for as long as the two have them have been on the East Coast together — “I haven’t caught anything, and it’s upsetting,” Miknis concurred. But Miknis said that Lomavita also might be overhyping himself: “He’s only caught one or two.” They’ve trekked all the way out to ponds in the middle of the Cape, surrounded by brush and mosquitos, and tried their luck.
The fish just didn’t want to bite. Maybe it was the lures, and maybe the water in Miknis’s host family’s pond was too cold. Regardless, Miknis and Lomavita tried anyway. That time together, both in the dugout and outside of it, has solidified their relationship as they continued to learn from each other.
Lomavita admires the simplicity of his fellow catcher’s mentality. “He’s bought into the simplified game of just catching the ball,” he said. “I’m enjoying just catching the ball; I’ve got the pitcher’s back. We’re just mentoring each other. And if we see something, we tweak it a bit.”
And Miknis, who played his last game before departing before the draft, has picked up some keys from his coworker. “He’s going to be really good, Loma is,” Miknis said. “I’ve learned that just being relaxed is gonna take me a lot farther than trying to be tight. It’s hurt me when I’m tight and the balls tip my glove, so I just need like relax; he does that really well.”
There is undeniable pressure on the battery to control the sequence of pitches and the trajectory of the game, but it’s one that these two catchers have relished.
“I’ve seen pro catchers who didn’t like to catch. Caleb and Justin really like to catch,” said Roberts. “They work at it, and they don’t mind getting beat up. It’s a long day, so you gotta love it. And these guys love to catch.”