Hall-Dale baseball coach Bob Sinclair knew he had a special freshman two years ago in Akira Warren. The catcher was young, but a year-round player and a student of the game, and Sinclair gave him free reign at the position. That meant signaling coverages, instructing fielders and, most importantly, calling the pitches for the Bulldogs’ veteran hurlers.

It’s worked. Hall-Dale has gone 31-8 since then, with two playoff appearances and a Class C state championship, with Warren calling the pitches each step of the way.

“For the most part, we leave it up to the catcher to call the game,” Sinclair said. “I have faith in Akira to make those right decisions, based on his knowledge of the game and the experience he brings.”

Hall-Dale catcher Akira Warren catches a pop fly during Class C state game last year in Standish. (Staff photo by Joe Phelan/Staff Photographer)

Not every coach follows the same strategy. Calling pitches is a significant responsibility, and different coaches have different philosophies on where that responsibility should fall. Some, like Sinclair, leave it up to their catcher to call the game, pick the pitches and guide the pitcher along. Others prefer to call the pitches from the dugout, with themselves or their assistants giving the signal to the catcher, who then relays it to the pitcher.

Others, yet, change their approach from year to year — if not month to month, or even week to week — based on who is playing behind the plate and the experience he brings.

In the (Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference), just watching different coaches throughout games, I’d say it’s probably 50/50,” Lawrence coach Rusty Mercier said. “There’s a good amount that allows the catcher to make those calls.”

Monmouth’s Eric Palleschi, who lets junior catcher Matt Fortin call the pitches for the Mustangs, said most of the Mountain Valley Conference coaches leave the responsibility to the catchers, and Richmond’s Ryan Gardner said the same is true for the small-school East-West Conference, since few pitchers go in with expansive arsenals.

You’re either throwing a fastball or a curveball,” Gardner said. “There’s not much to choose from at the lower level. Lots of times, you’re looking to throw strikes.”

There are benefits to each approach. Skowhegan coach Mike LeBlanc never calls the pitches, and said he has never felt the urge to take the responsibility from his catcher.

The game is for them, and if the coaches are trying to overthink everything, they’re just taking the game away from the kids,” said LeBlanc, who this year has a three-year starter and senior behind the plate in Aiden Louder. “We might have to pull them aside if they make a bad selection and say ‘Look, why did you call that?’ But for the most part, I give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Edward Little’s Dave Jordan, a former catcher, said he’s called the pitches ever since his days at Poland from 2005-08, and that while he likes the notion of a catcher calling the plays, is more comfortable taking the stress away from his players.

“We feel like we know hitters pretty well. That’s a lot to put on a 14- to 18-year-old a young man. We try to help with that,” he said. “And also, if you have a young catcher and you have a senior pitcher out there, sometimes knowing the call’s coming in from the dugout may give him a little more confidence.”

Other coaches will change their approach based on their personnel on hand. Gardiner’s Charlie Lawrence let senior Kolton Brochu call the game last year, but with a first-year varsity player behind the plate this season in sophomore Kyle Adams, has taken on the duties himself.

I’d like to see the kids call them, but it also puts a lot of pressure on a kid,” he said. “This year, with a young catcher, it’s just one less thing he has to worry about. He can just look over, we can manage that part of the game for him, and just let him worry about his catching techniques and first-and-third situations and that type of stuff.”

Messalonskee’s Ray Bernier, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction. He often calls the pitches for the Eagles, but this year, with a senior in Carter Lambert catching, has handed over the reins.

I kind of want them to earn their way in there,” Bernier said. “I evaluate that a lot in the preseason. And I evaluate it most in the summertime. … I try to have all the catchers in our program and even down to the middle school kind of understand the concept of calling a game, and what hitters might be thinking in specific counts.”

When Bernier and his coaches do call the pitches from the dugout — or if Lambert looks over for some advice — the coaches use a wristband system to prevent any sign-stealing. There’s a sheet of codes determining pitch and location, with each column and row numbered. Bernier gives three numbers, and Lambert has all the information he needs.

It’s a tried-and-true process — Messalonskee used the method en route to winning a state title in 2012.

“It changes every single game. We print off a new sheet, new thing slides into the catcher’s wrist, and we move on,” Bernier said. “It works great. Some people think it can be time-consuming, but as your catcher gets used to it, it’s really quick.”

At Lawrence, Mercier utilizes a unique strategy of his own. Whether a four-year starter or fresh-faced frosh is catching, he estimates he calls 75 percent of the pitches early in the season, and then begins to scale back as the season progresses and the catcher becomes more familiar with what his coach is looking for.

Messalonskee catchers were an arm sleeve with the different pitch calls on it. (Contributed photo)

 

The Bulldogs’ catcher this year is Nate Bickford, who has played junior American Legion for Mercier, and who got to call nearly all of the games in the summer.

I like to get him in sync the same way I am early in the season,” Mercier said. “We like to pitch a lot to contact early in the season. Things are different now with the (composite) bats than they used to be, we’re really looking for contact now versus big strikeout games, especially with pitch counts.”

Whether the catcher is making the call or relaying it, however, the focus is always on making sure he’s learning along the way.

“We practice it daily,” Monmouth’s Palleschi said. “We face live pitching every day, and every day Matt and I will work on that exact thing, making sure we’re setting guys up and doing what we feel is the best approach.”


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