Jake Skole and Pat Cantwell are both excellent defenders. Depending upon the day and whom you ask, they might be the two best defenders in the Rangers system. With that backdrop, I decided to sit down with them to talk about the ins and outs of professional baseball defense. I could talk defense all day, but decided to hit a couple high notes. Here ya go:
How much communication is there between the two of you during a game?
JS- "Not much verbally during a game. I'll ask him where I need to play a guy, or how they're going to pitch to him in the dugout before the inning. Most the time I can't see his signs, but I like to be on the same page where if I'm playing a guy in the opposite-field gap or the pull-side gap. I don't want to be in the oppo gap if they're going to bust a guy in and vice versa. [as the ball is pitched] I try to have a little bit of momentum as it's coming in to the hitter. I can tell most of the time if he puts down more fingers than just one, so I'll know it's an offspeed pitch, but I try not to focus too much on that. When a pitcher's got a good tempo, I'm ready to roll as well. They do a good job with that here because of Pat. He's getting them the signs quickly and we're rolling right when the pitch leaves his hand."
What kind of input to you have at positioning infielders at this level?
PC- "Not too much, but if I come in and see something, and talk to Woody (Frisco skipper, Jason Wood), he'll make the adjustments. G-Rod (Guilder Rodriguez) also is a great leader, he does a great job of letting me know where, or if, he sees something I don't see about where a guy is going or what a hitter is doing. All the communication with all the infielders is important. If Trever (Adams) is at first, I know I can backpick a guy. When Hanser and Odubel are up the middle, I know Hanser has good range to both sides and Odubel is playing really well this year also."
Do you have more or less responsibilities for the infielders here than you did in college? (my first exposure to Pat was during the CWS, and they nearly had to turn down the field mics because he was chatting and hollering at the fielders between nearly every pitch)
PC-"Probably a little bit less. We had some freshman on that team, so I was just trying to help those guys out like G-Rod helps me out. It sounds corny, but it's like a big family. If Jake sees the infield shift, he's shifting. If the infielders look out there and Skole's playing the RCF gap, they make their necessary adjustments. It's all a big moving body, but we've been doing a good job of taking care of the baseball up to this point."
JS- "G-Rod will do that for the outfield too. He's been around so long, if he sees something, he'll turn around and say "Hey, scoot in" or "play this guy over here". He'll help move my other outfielders to the right spot. I'm always supposed to have equal distance between me and the corner guys. I'd be lying if I said we always have it perfect every time, but like I said, G-Rod and our infielders are so good with that, they can turn around and do it for me."
What about shifts? We don't see that often in the minor leagues, but it's becoming much more prevalent at the big league level.
PC- "The thing is you are either going to live or you're gonna die by it. It could either win you a game or cost you a game. At this level, at least if you're playing straight up or not as drastically shifted, you have a 50% shot of getting a ball down the line. If we're playing Corpus and Telvin Nash is in the 4-hole and he bunts the ball down the first base line, you can lose a game. It's one of those things where it's going to pay off and it's going to save some runs, but at the same time it's going to cost you some too."
Jake, with regards to going back on a ball (which he does very well) are you of the get to a spot and find the ball-type, or do you usually try to stay eyes on the ball the whole time?
JS- "Ideally, you want to get that perfect read and you have a good idea where the ball is going to be so you can turn your eye from it and get to that spot. Sometimes, though, guys will take a big swing and they might not hit it that well, it might come off the end of the bat or something so it's really hard to take your eye off the ball, it takes a lot of practice but we've gotten a lot better over the years, all the outfielders. So yeah, I try to stay with it, but if I got a great feel for it, like I know what the guy usually does with his swing, then I'll take my eyes off it. I go by sound a little bit, but the sound can be misleading at times. Crowd size changes the sound too. Places like Midland are tough places to play (they're second to last in attendance) because of that and the wind."
Pat, what's the most important thing for you when you realize a pitcher is struggling?
PC- "Most important is to slow the tempo. A lot of times when guys are struggling, at least from what I've seen, they are trying to speed up to get off the field faster. Trust me, just like everyone else sees it, they know they don't have their best stuff. They get a little jittery. The biggest thing for me is trying to slow them down. Just take the pitch they're throwing the best that day and use it. Like Edwar Cabrera for example, you know he's getting his fastball armside better that day, you extend his changeup off the plate a little bit, hope for a ground ball, fly ball, or anything."
How many pitches does it take for you to know what a pitcher's best pitch is on a particular day?
PC-"I usually know before he comes out of the bullpen what he's got. The other night, Jeff (Frisco pitching coach, Jeff Andrews) and I talked when Asher came out and his fastball was great, down in the zone, his changeup was good. 99% of the time when your fastball is down, you're going to have at least a 5 inning game. That was a great performance [Asher] put on. (he went 7 shutout innings and walked 0, striking out 7) I've been with him the longest. I caught him in Spokane and last year in Myrtle and now here, so I have a pretty good read on when Ash is locked in. The other guys, Eick, Chi Chi, I try to have a feel for it before they come out so if they have a little trouble in the 1st inning, we try to limit the damage and get 'em back in the dugout so they can catch their breath, then go back out for the rest of the game."
Are great defenders born? Have you always had good instincts in the field?
JS- "I think instincts have a lot to do with it. But I also think it's an attitude. You're either born with it, or you have to get it. You can teach it to guys, you can instill it in them, but it's obviously harder than a guy who is born with it. Guys get better and better with their reads and it gets more and more fun as you get better and better with it."
Was there a moment with you when you thought, this may be the way I get to the big leagues?
JS- "Yeah, hearing a little bit of praise or the opposite, where you're not doing something offensively, you want to make sure you're helping the team out in other ways. You work extra hard defensively because you never want that part of your game to be gone. You want to always be running the bases the right way, always be playing defense the right way because you're hitting might come and go, but you always need to have those two phases because that might be your key."
PC- "Well I started catching full time my junior year (at Stony Brook). You know, for my build I really don't have too much power. I like to think I'm pretty strong, but I haven't really developed or figured out how to hit the ball over the fence yet. I like hitting in the 2-hole, I like trying to hit behind guys and move guys over with bunts and stuff, but yeah, defense is definitely my game. I know in the 9th inning the chances of me hitting a home run aren't very good, but if I can get on base and I've caught a good game up until then, that's what feels successful for me."
JS- "For me, I feel like I better have my defense every day because I never know what my hitting is going to be. That's the motivation that really turns me on to defense."
Who's a guy who plays your position that you watch with envy? At the big league level, the minor league level, anywhere.
PC- "Lucroy, is playing phenomenal, but in Spring Training I work a lot with [Myrtle Beach's] David Lyon. I think he's the best blocking catcher in our whole organization. His hips and the mobility that he has that allows him to get to pitches quickly. He bodies everything up and keeps it center. I wish I had his hips. Honestly though, you look at guys everywhere. You pick guy's brains who've been there before. Bengi Molina, who I worked with in Spring Training helped tremendously. Hector and Ryley [Ortiz and Westman- Texas' roving catching instructors], Brett Nicholas, Arencibia, Soto. When you talk to those guys in Spring Training, there's no "I'm better than you because I'm up here". It's all about trying to help the next guy and getting everybody better. Hector calls us all the Wolfpack because we're always together. It's one of those things where you're always competing for the next top spot, but you love seeing guys trying to get better and improve themselves." [ personal note *catching is a cult*. A very fun-loving, grimy, serious while goofy, cult]
JS- "I like Trout and Torii Hunter. And guys I've played with; Strausborger, Hoying. The cool thing about all those guys is the passion they have for defense. Especially guys like Trout and Hunter. They're established and they don't have to go out there and run into walls. Just the passion, seeing those guys and the way they play, makes you want to play defense like that. Mikulik [Joe- former Texas roving instructor, now the manager of Myrtle Beach] was huge for me like that last year. He's so upbeat and just balls-to-the-wall on every drill, every flyball, every ground ball. Even seeing guys like Casey [Candaele- Texas roving infield instructor]. Just seeing him go about his business and the passion he brings to the defensive side. Guys like Gary Pettis are awesome. Guys the Rangers put around us that instil the defensive side of the game being so important is why I think we've made so many great defenders in this organization lately."
Finally, just for fun, what's one piece of advice you'd give to a high school ballplayer, or any young player, who plays your position?
JS- "Put in the work. Especially off the BP sessions. Trust your instincts. It took me a long time to develop my pre-pitch reads and you get that by taking all the reps in BP; you can find your range and the environment during BP. But just keep working. The more reps you take, the more comfortable you get."
PC- "The biggest thing for me, as a catcher, is communication. Just talking with your pitcher, getting to know your pitcher, getting to know your coaching staff. It's so much easier to sit down and talk with somebody you know. If you sit at one end of the dugout and they sit at the other [shakes head]. I'll talk to everyone. Might be a guy coming in to close a game and he might be a little wild. Whatever you need to say to get him to settle down. Communication with me is huge. I like to be vocal, I like to talk a lot. I've kind of always been that way. I've never been afraid to ask questions too. Whatever information you can get, the better. You pick and choose what you need to better yourself, but never be afraid to ask questions; that goes right along with having good communication skills. I would say to always have an open mind to what somebody says and have fun."
Like I said, I could talk defense all day. It's a highly nuanced part of the game. You'll hardly notice when it's good, but it damn sure stands out when it's bad. The ability to hit the ball gets you drafted, the ability to hit and catch the ball gets you promoted.
As always, enjoy baseball. Love Ya!