Catching Fire

By the time the White Sox' $54 million closer Liam Hendriks strode to the mound in the top of the ninth inning last Saturday on a chilly night at The Grate, the contest between the local club and the Texas Rangers displayed the kind of drama that makes the game so compelling.

Sox starter Dallas Keuchel had pitched into the seventh inning, allowing seven hits. Two runners got as far as third base but advanced no further. Keuchel fanned just two batters, but the key to his success was that he walked no one. When he departed, his teammates led 1-0.

The lone run had scored on a wild pitch in the bottom of the sixth after two outs and no one on base. A couple of base hits and a walk followed before catcher Jose Trevino was unable to corral a breaking ball from Kyle Gibson as Yoan Moncada raced home. The wild one was one of six Texas misfires during the weekend series in which the Rangers were swept by Tony La Russa's surging forces.

Last season with Oakland, Hendriks gave up a home run in the first of his 24 appearances. It was the lone round-tripper he yielded over 25⅓ innings in the entire COVID-shortened season.

After striking out Trevino to open the ninth, Hendriks prowled around the mound, exuding the swagger and overt confidence that he displays both on and off the field. Only problem was the 1-1 letter high fastball that Hendriks tried to fire past the next hitter, Willie Calhoun. Chances are if he threw the same pitch to Calhoun 10 times, the Ranger DH would swing and miss maybe six or seven times.

Calhoun is playing in his fourth season for the Rangers, and he's seen Hendriks before. In fact, he's faced only seven other pitchers more often. So maybe he was looking for the high fastball. Once he parked the sphere into the right centerfield seats, who cared? The score was tied, and Hendriks blew his second save in six opportunities.

Furthermore, Calhoun's blast was the fourth homer that Hendriks has allowed in 9⅓ innings this young season, a fact that defies explanation. To Hendriks's credit, he retired the next two hitters, setting up additional suspense in the bottom of the inning.

Luis Robert led off with an infield hit, bringing up switch-hitting Yasmani Grandal with his buck-thirty average - a prime candidate for a double play judging from the manner in which he continually grounds the ball right into the exaggerated shift employed by the opponent.

The analytics dictate that Robert had a better chance of scoring from first with no outs than from second base with one out. However, La Russa ignored those odds because of Grandal's struggles. So Yaz bunted and did so successfully as Robert advanced to second.

But wait. With first base now open, there was no way the Rangers were going to pitch to Yermin Mercedes. Yes, our very own Yerminator, who already had one hit and a .424 batting average. La Russa's strategy basically took the bat out of the Yerminator's hands, and after reliever John King struck out Billy Hamilton, the game appeared headed to extra innings.

By the way, Hamilton, inserted into left field for defensive purposes in the top of the seventh inning, had nailed Calhoun attempting to score from second base on a two-out single. His throw reached Grandal on the fly and Statcast told us that the ball traveled 95 mph. It was a thrilling play in a tense, close, exciting ball game and made La Russa's timing impeccable.

King ran the count to 0-2 to the next hitter Nick Madrigal, which was a mistake because the Sox second baseman is the best two-strike hitter in the game. Madrigal lined the next pitch over Joey Gallo's head in right field, and the Sox were 2-1 winners.

Madrigal has endured a liberal amount of criticism in his short career dating back to last season. He doesn't hit for power. He's made some crucial fielding and baserunning mistakes at the worst times. This despite hitting .340 in 2020 and .305 so far this season in which Madrigal is 9-for-22 with two strikes. That's a .409 mark. The MLB average for two-strike hitting is .177. That, folks, is other-worldly.

Let's return for a moment to the first run the Sox scored on Saturday. The Rangers' Trevino employs the latest technique that most catchers these days are using. Apparently in order to frame low pitches, nearly every catcher you see goes to one knee in an attempt to steal a strike for his pitcher. Catchers are right-handed so the right knee usually is planted in the dirt regardless of whether runners are on base.

In Trevino's case Saturday, Gibson, a right-hander, threw a breaking ball which moved to Trevino's right. With his right knee on the ground, he had no chance of shifting his body to block the pitch. A futile attempt to backhand the ball gave the Sox their 1-0 lead.

Until a few years ago, a catcher used a primary stance with less than two strikes on the hitter and with no one on base. If he wanted to drop to one knee, no harm could result. But when it was imperative to keep the ball in front of himself, a secondary stance was in order whereby a wider stance was indicated so that the catcher could move left or right to block a bouncing pitch.

The game has seen pioneers like the Tony Pena, who caught for 18 seasons (1980-97) in both leagues. Pena often positioned himself in a hurdler's stretch, providing the lowest target possible for his pitcher. However, he was agile and altered his stance depending on the situation while winning five Gold Glove awards.

Perhaps the biggest influencer in catching was the 17-year career of Johnny Bench of the Reds. He introduced the hinged glove, which resembled a first baseman's mitt rather than the pancake style that had been used for decades. Bench was able to catch with one hand, keeping his bare hand behind his right thigh. In 14,487 innings behind the plate, Bench was charged with only 94 passed balls, using the traditional style of a secondary stance. In 1972, Bench threw out 31 of 55 would-be base-stealers, an astounding 56 percent compared to the league average of 35. For his career, Bench eliminated 43 percent of the runners who tried to steal.

Grandal was touted as one of the top defensive catchers in the game, primarily for his pitch-framing prowess, when the Sox signed him for four years at $73 million prior to last season. Nevertheless, before to coming to the South Side, Grandal led the National League in passed balls three different seasons with the Dodgers.

Grandal liberally uses the dropped knee approach, which he claims gives him greater comfort after an inflamed knee sidelined him during spring training. However, three times this month he's been charged with catcher's interference when his glove has made contact with the hitter's bat. It happened twice last Tuesday in an 8-5 win over Cleveland.

Pitchers today throw harder than ever and many possess sharp-breaking sliders and cutters which create additional pressure on their catchers. That might explain the increase in pitches going to the backstop instead of into catchers' gloves. The rate of passed balls plus wild pitches for 2020 compared to the 2000 season showed an almost 20 percent increase of errant pitches and botches catches that couldn't be corralled. One has to wonder whether the dropped knee approach has contributed to this change.

You also have to wonder whether getting a strike for your pitcher is worth the risk of having a pitch carom off the backstop. If hockey goalies, who have a lot in common with their baseball brethren behind the plate, employed the same one-knee stance to protect their 24 square feet of real estate, you'd regularly have scores in double digits.

Nevertheless, like seven-inning games, runners on second to start an extra inning, and defensive shifts, pitch framing is here to stay. According to Statcast, the Brewers' Omar Narváez is the top pitch-framer in the game today. The same Omar Narváez who played three seasons (2016-18) for the Sox when he was considered an offensive threat but only mediocre defensively. For his career Narváez, has thrown out just 22 percent of attempted base-stealers.

Grandal, who ranked in the top four of pitch-framers the past three seasons, has slipped to 23rd so far this year.

Just like catchers who might find greater comfort resting on one knee, La Russa's White Sox surely are feeling greater solace today than a week ago since they've reeled off four straight wins after the weekend sweep of the Rangers, leaving the fellows with a 12-9 mark, 1½ games out of first place.

Michael Kopech's five inning, 10-strikeout performance on Sunday to beat Texas 8-4 was exactly what the club needed. Kopech was subbing for ace Lucas Giolito, who had the worst outing of his career last Monday in Boston on Patriots Day, lasting just one inning. Giolito, who suffered a small cut on his right index finger, will open a three-game set at home against Detroit on Tuesday. Cleveland comes to The Grate for the weekend.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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