Cameron Rupp works on sharpening skills behind the plate

Cameron Rupp works on sharpening skills behind the plate

Cameron Rupp works on sharpening skills behind the plate

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Every morning, the seven catchers in Phillies camp haul their duffel bags of equipment from the clubhouse at Spectrum Field more than 100 yards to the indoor batting cages at the Carpenter Complex. This is where, for 15 minutes, machines fire baseballs at them in the name of defensive improvement.

But it’s not just balls in the dirt, the quintessential catcher’s drill.

“We put the machine on tough pitches,” Cameron Rupp said. “That ball that’s down and a borderline strike. You work on trying to make that a presentable pitch. It’s a big pitch for guys. It can fluctuate a 1-1 count to a 1-2 count or a 2-1 count. Now it’s in the hitter’s hands or the pitcher’s hands.”

This spring, for Rupp, is about refinement. He may not be the catcher of the future; Jorge Alfaro is considered one of the game’s top catching prospects. But the job is Rupp’s in 2017. His .447 slugging percentage last season ranked among the best in baseball for catchers.

But, as Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has often said, the position is a defensive one. So much of Rupp’s success is defined by the non-quantifiables – how he calls a game and frames a pitch.

“There’s a feel during the game,” said John McLaren, the Phillies’ bullpen coach who also handles the catchers. “To me, that separates the really good catchers that can make in-game decisions. We’re at that stage with Cam now.”

That means research, both in video and scouting reports, and some experimentation. The Phillies had a chance to pick A.J. Ellis’ brain for six weeks last season, and Rupp learned some preparation techniques that will be applied before every series in 2017. Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday, two veteran catchers, are in camp and can provide best practices gleaned from their experiences.

As pitch-framing data have gained prominence in baseball circles, McLaren has sought knowledge. He read a story in the Kansas City Star last September about how the Royals’ analytics department investigated pitch data that showed Salvador Perez was a better framer in high-leverage situations. He showed it to Rupp.

Some teams, according to published reports, have kept internal measurements on pitch framing for years. Publicly, Baseball Prospectus’ figures showed Rupp cost the Phillies 3.3 runs with his framing. Context is important: Buster Posey, by the same measurement, saved the Giants 27.6 runs with his framing technique.

“Cam has good hands,” McLaren said. “There’s some things we are working on with Cam. Focusing, mainly. He wanders sometimes.”

This is the problem for a team attempting to groom the modern catcher. There is so much information available, from detailed reports on hitter tendencies to called-strike charts to endless video. A catcher can be overloaded, especially an inexperienced catcher managing a young pitching staff.

Rupp said his mistakes in 2016, sometimes from calling the wrong pitch, were good lessons. But nothing will substitute for repetition.

“You learn the hitters,” Rupp said. “You also have to know your pitchers. The wrong pitch in the right location still gets guys out. That comes into play.”

McLaren praised Rupp’s willingness to adopt new ideas. There is no shortcut in developing a wise catcher. Alfaro cannot be sent to the minors after 2017, and that is why the Phillies intend to have him spend as much time learning this season at triple-A Lehigh Valley as possible. That provides Rupp with more chances in the majors to prove his acumen.

There is one area where Rupp expects improvement: He played for much of last season with an undisclosed arm injury. He threw out just 27 percent of possible base-stealers, a tick below the league average. He was at 38 percent in his previous two seasons.

McLaren said the coaching staff often quizzed Rupp last season about his game calling. It was not to second-guess him, but to understand his thinking. They want Rupp to have conviction in his decisions.

“You can’t just wing it,” said Hanigan, a 10-year veteran. “You can’t be guessing. You have to have a purpose. Even if your purpose is wrong, at least you had a plan. That’s going to happen. It’s baseball. But, really, it’s just about how much you care about that part of the game.”

That process, Rupp said, is never-ending. The spring is a good chance to gain ground.

“You can focus on what you really want to be better at,” Rupp said. “At the same time, I’m not going to be complacent. There’s still two young kids that want my job. So I have to keep it. The only way to keep it is to continue to get better.”

mgelb@philly.com

@MattGelb

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Published at Wed, 22 Feb 2017 06:04:00 +0000

Categories: Phillies

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