I recently had the opportunity to talk with Coach Xan Barksdale of the University of Louisville. Coach Barksdale is one of college baseball’s best catching instructors. He was a Division I catcher himself at the University of Mississippi and went on to catch in the Atlanta Braves organization. He has a terrific website and a couple products that every catcher and coach should take a look at. Below is the transcript of my interview. I hope you enjoy it.
As an assistant coach at the college level, I’m sure you do a lot of recruiting. As a coach of catchers, what area(s) of the high school catcher do you most often have to correct when a player gets to Louisville?
Being at a high level program like Louisville, we have the opportunity to recruit catchers who already have most of the basics down before they arrive. Probably the biggest area I work on with young catchers is throwing and developing arm strength. Most young catchers are not aware of how much throwing catchers do at the college level and have to train their arms to prepare for that. Most catchers we get at Louisville still have a lot of arm strength to gain so we immediately put them into a long-tossing program that is geared to maximizing arm strength. Other than that, I find that many catchers coming into the college level need work on the mechanics of tag plays at home plate and catching pop-flies over home plate. Plays at the plate can be very dangerous for catchers if they are not in the proper body position so I make sure all my catchers are clear as to how it should be done. Pop-flies around the plate area have to be automatic outs at the college level. That’s a play that is often mishandled by high school catchers but it can’t happen in college. It has to be an out.
There are a lot of myths in baseball when it comes to baseball instruction. What do you see as the biggest myth associated with catching?
What comes to mind is something I hear a lot when catchers drop a ball. You often will hear someone from the stands or the dugout say “Squeeze it!” when that happens. The problem wasn’t that the catcher didn’t squeeze the ball. The problem is that the catcher caught the ball with the wrong part of the glove. Most of the time, the catcher tried to catch the ball in the palm area of the glove. A catcher should always catch the ball in the “pocket” of the glove which is the area between the index finger and the thumb. When a catcher does this, he won’t need to squeeze the glove. Catching it in the pocket closes the glove around the ball naturally.
Along the line of catching the ball, many catchers complain of having a sore thumb due to the pounding their hand takes by catching pitch after pitch. You’ve developed and sell a product that helps with this. What is it?
It’s called the Catcher’sThumb. It’s a hard piece of plastic that a catcher wears around the thumb that fits into a catcher’s mitt. Most catchers at the pro level have them but the material that is most commonly used to make them is only available to high level athletic trainers. I created the Catcher’s Thumb to give all catchers the ability to have one and the benefits from using it.
On Baseball By The Yard I’ve written a number of posts about the concept of "make-up." How important is a catcher’s make-up in your decision to recruit him?
It plays a huge role. A catcher has to be able to connect with the players on the team especially the pitching staff. Leadership qualities among catchers are a must at my level. I look for a guy that knows when to pat a pitcher on the back and when to get in his face. That takes a certain personality to pull that off effectively. Handling pressure is also important. Catchers have to make very quick decisions in pressure situations so it’s important for them to not just know what to do but to do it when it’s needed the most.
Anyone can see a catcher hit a 400ft home run or one that has a canon for an arm and label that kid a prospect. However, as you know, success at the higher levels has a lot to do with the little things most fans don’t notice. What little things do you look for when you watch catchers?
Most of what I’m looking at has to do with receiving. There is a difference between “catching” and “receiving.” Receiving means catching the ball with very little movement and “strong hands.” Strong hands means the ability to keep the ball where you catch it instead of allowing the ball to move the glove away from the zone after catching it. That’s an important part to receiving because the catcher does not want to take strikes away from the pitcher by moving his glove too much after the catch.
Other than that, I’m looking for what coaches refer to as “having life in your feet.” That means always hustling on every play and bouncing around as if you want to be there. It’s easy for a catcher to get worn down but the good ones never show that fatigue.
Living near Philadelphia, I hear the Phillies’ pitchers often say that they love throwing to Carlos Ruiz. What makes a catcher so popular with pitchers?
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
It starts with the basics like receiving well and getting more strikes for the pitcher along with being a good blocker on balls in the dirt. After that, it goes back to connecting with pitchers. Pitchers like to get into a rhythm and every time they have to shake off a catcher’s sign it slows down that rhythm. Having a catcher who is on the same wave length as pitchers is certainly a plus. A great catcher knows that every pitcher is unique in terms of their pitches and personalities. Spending time with them in the bullpen, the dugout, and the clubhouse helps catchers get to know each pitcher and what makes them tick.
Many young catchers have all the pitches called for them by the coaching staff. What are your thoughts on catchers being able to call their own game?
Calling your own pitches can be a great developmental tool for catchers. It’s a great way to learn the game because you have to be aware of many factors happening at once to know what pitch to put down. However, there are times when the coaches are more aware of the scouting report than the players so in that case we’ll relay the signs. Especially if the pitcher/catcher combination is young. If the pitcher and/or catcher have more experience, we generally give them more flexibility to call more of their own pitches. At Louisville, we try to have a balance of the two.
Probably Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals. Not only does he have great fundamentals in terms of throwing, blocking, and receiving mechanics, he has the quickness you want to see in a catcher and a good feel for the pitchers he works with. It’s clear the pitchers have a lot of respect for him. Many major league catchers have such great physical skills and athletic ability that they can get away with mechanical shortcomings. Yadier Molina combines a natural athletic ability with good mechanics. He comes from a family of great catchers (his two brothers are also MLB catchers) so he’s had some great instruction. He’d be my pick.
A number of Major League catchers did not start their career as a catcher. Carlos Ruiz actually started in pro ball as an infielder. What would you see in a player that would lead you to believe that his career should be behind the plate?
Many times the players that are converted into catchers are guys who have a pretty good bat but are a little short in the area of defense. A good bat forces coaches to find another spot for the guy to get him into the line-up. Middle infielders are good candidates for this because they usually have developed some skills that transfer well to catching. Soft hands, quick hands with the catching and throwing transition, quick footwork, and what I mentioned earlier – “life in their feet.” If an infielder no longer can handle the defensive requirements of their position, they might have enough of those skills to make the jump to catcher.
Catching is probably the most grueling position on the field and can wear down a body quickly during the season. What do you encourage catchers to do to keep their bodies healthy during the season?
Many people focus attention on the wear and tear catching can take on the knees. As I said earlier, young catchers usually don’t understand the toll that catching can have on the arm because of the amount of throwing required. A pitching staff may throw 100-200 pitches per game. People forget that the catcher makes a firm throw back every time. That’s up to 200 throws a game in some cases for the catcher. Add to that return throws when the pitcher makes his pre-inning pitches plus the pre-inning throws the catcher makes down to second base. That’s a huge amount of throwing. Unfortunately, the catcher doesn’t get four to five days off in between starts like pitchers do to allow their arm to recover. At Louisville, we put our catchers on a “pre-hab” program of tubing exercises, ice, and cardio work very much like pitchers to keep their arm strong throughout the season. Cardio work would involve a routine of light pole running and some light stationary bike work. A pitcher can run hard poles and do hard bike work because they have days to recover. A catcher is back out there the next day so they do the same exercises as pitchers but they just take it a bit lighter.
You were fortunate to play a high level Division I college program (Ole Miss.) and at the pro level (Atlanta Braves Organization) as well. At what level did you learn the most about catching?
I was fortunate that as a youth catcher my parents made every opportunity available to me. I had the opportunity to workout with a Division I catcher (Barry Winford) who played at Mississippi State University and ended up playing in the Texas Rangers organization. I also attended numerous baseball camps/clinics. My head coach at Ole Miss (Mike Bianco) and the various Atlanta Braves catching instructors were also very knowledgeable so I got very good instruction throughout my playing days. Another thing that I did that I always tell kids and coaches to do in my clinics is to study good catchers that you see. The advantage catchers have is that when you watch TV, the catcher is always in full view. You can see everything he does from giving signals to receiving to throwing and blocking. From start to finish, you see everything. If I’m a left fielder, I only get to see the end result on TV – the catch. I miss the pre-pitch steps, the first step footwork, and the angle to the ball. You don’t miss much if you watch a catcher. Of course, this requires a kid to study the catcher instead of just watching the game. There’s a lot to see if you really pay attention.
Your website has a great deal of valuable information for catchers. What inspired you to create your website?
As I said, I was fortunate that I was able to receive some great instruction due to the people I had access to. That’s not the case with most kids. When I looked around, there was very little good information for catchers on how to do things correctly. My website (www.catching-101.com) is my attempt to give tons of valuable information to those kids that are not as fortunate as I was.
I saw on your site that you have a book coming out soon. What is it about and what is the status of it?
My book on catching, that will be available at www.catching-101.com, is an expansion of much of the information I have provided on my site and in my videos. For example, in my videos I show a lot of good drills for catchers but the book will get into much more detail about how to actually do them correctly. Although it is more geared to the high-amateur level catcher, it certainly would be valuable for any catcher, parent, or coach who wants to learn about every aspect of catching. It’s a combination of my thoughts on catching and proper technique.
I am hoping to get the book finished and published within a couple months. It’s been tough since my coaching position takes up a lot of time but it should out in a few months.
You’ve also come out with an iPhone app. What kind of app is it?
The app is called the Catchers Performance Summary. It stems from a lack of statistics for catchers when evaluating their performance. With hitters and pitchers, there is every type of statistic imaginable. A batter’s average during night games vs day games. How he hits on turf as opposed to grass. A pitcher’s ERA from the wind-up vs the stretch. You name it, they have it. For catchers, there is virtually nothing. The app allows someone to record all the statistics that would be valuable for catchers to see how they’ve done and how they are progressing. It tracks the pitchers’ ERA when this guy is catching, pop-times to bases, number of blocked balls per total chances, dropped balls, and much more. After a game I can then email a report to the catcher and show him his stats for the game. We then can use that information to target areas that need improvement in practice. My catchers love it because they get instant, usable feedback on their game performance.
Baseball By The Yard would like to thank Coach Barksdale for taking the time to do this interview. We wish him and the rest of the University of Louisville Cardinals the best of luck in their 2011 season!
To get all the great instruction and products from Coach Barksdale, be sure to check out the following links:
Catcher’s Thumb: www.CatchersThumb.com
Catching 101 Book: www.catching-101.com/Catching-101/Book.html
Catcher’s Performance Summary App – www.CatchersPerformanceSummary.com