"You really want to know what they like to do and what they don’t like to do in any situation. That way, you make it easier for them when they’re on the mound." -- Victor Martinez
New acquisition Victor Martinez caught Clay Buchholz on Thursday for the third time and essentially has become the young righty's personal catcher. Martinez, acquired from Cleveland two weeks ago, has caught John Smoltz once and Brad Penny once but now has caught Buchholz three times.
It's not easy for a catcher, even a veteran like Martinez, to come in right away and call games from behind the plate. He might know what a pitcher likes to throw to get a strikeout, for example, but he might not know how he likes to attack different hitters early in counts or what he wants to do when he needs a ground ball.
Buchholz pitched against the Oakland A's at Fenway Park on July 28, throwing to George Kottaras. He has thrown to Martinez in each of his last three starts. Here's a look at some of the contrasts between the two starts, contrasts that you can attribute, in part, to the way Martinez called the game.
(You have to take all of these adjustments with a grain of salt given the small sample size. Some of them might have been due to the difference in lineups or difference in ballparks. Still, though, it's interesting to look at.)
Buchholz threw 57 fastballs, 23 changeups and a season-high 21 curveballs while pitching to Kottaras on July 28. It was the first time he'd thrown more than 20 curveballs in a game since he was called up from Triple-A Pawtucket at the All-Star break.
On Aug. 2, Martinez's first start behind the plate, Buchholz threw 47 fastballs, 18 changeups and just six curveballs. He also threw four sliders. Buchholz has said often in the last few weeks that he's struggled to get a feel for his curveball, and you could infer that he indicated that to Martinez during their conversations. He threw a handful of curveballs, but when the situation called for something other than a fastball, Martinez usually called for a changeup.
That theme repeated itself on Thursday.
Buchholz hasn't had a feel for the curveball and hasn't been able to throw it for strikes, and Martinez has gone right along with that, not being afraid to emphasize the changeup and slider if the curveball isn't there. Buchholz threw 60 fastballs and just eight curveballs, relying primarily on his changeup as a pitch to induce swings and misses as well as ground balls.
"I didn’t throw a whole lot of curveballs because I felt really good throwing the changeup," Buchholz said. "That’s been the biggest pitch for me throughout the last month or so. The slider came out of my hand pretty good today, but I didn’t see many opportunities to throw it. I thought I had a better matchup with the changeup. I thought I could have thrown either of the four pitches during the game, but I just preferred the changeup."
So, too, did Martinez. He's the one who calls the pitches.
Against the Athletics on July 28, Buchholz kept everything up and in, even throwing his curveball up and over the inner half.
(In looking at the approach charts, take the point of view of the catcher with the idea that everything on the left side of the chart is inside, to lefties or to righties, and everything on the right side of the chart is outside.)
Against the Orioles on Aug. 2, though, Martinez kept his target down and away. Buchholz threw just one curveball and just one changeup over the inner half of the plate, and everything else was away.
Staying on the outer half of the plate again is a way of simplifying everything. It takes quite a bit of confidence to attack the inside half of the plate, and you're not going to get burned nearly as badly by pitches on the outside corner as on the inside corner -- particularly with offspeed pitches.
Then again, it also leads to a lot of ground-ball outs. Here's Buchholz's approach chart from Thursday's loss to the Detroit Tigers:
It's obvious right away which previous start has more in common with Thursday. Buchholz and Martinez have come up with a game plan that consists primarily of pounding the outside corner with both fastballs and offspeed pitches, and it's starting to work.