Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon and pitcher Chris Sale

Sandy Leon explains how he calls a game

Nick Friar
April 14, 2019 - 10:12 am

Through the first 15 games of the 2019 season, Red Sox starting pitchers have only worked through the sixth inning four times. It took 14 games for one to record an out in the seventh inning (Eduardo Rodriguez vs. Baltimore on Friday).

Opponents are mashing the starting rotation to the tune of a .314 average and a .972 OPS while averaging 2.48 home runs per nine innings (19 over 69 frames). Furthermore, they’ve walked 35 hitters and plunked another three.

All of that has resulted in an 8.07 starting rotation ERA and a 1-9 record.

This is already having a residual effect on the relievers, who have combined for 58 2/3 innings, almost 10 less than the starting rotation altogether. Through the first 15 games of last season, Sox starters logged 83 innings, posting a 2.06 ERA and a 9-1 record.

Of course, Red Sox starters had Sandy Leon calling games from behind the plate last season. Currently, he’s down in Pawtucket, trying to find his swing (3-for-22, .136 average).

Regardless of Leon’s offensive struggles throughout the 2018 season, Sox starters were quick to bring up Leon’s game-calling ability, a trait so important that it helped extend Jason Varitek’s career despite hitting woes over his last six seasons. Knowing what he’s done and can still do with the staff doesn’t make Leon’s days in Pawtucket any easier.

“Whatever I can do, I mean, I think that’s why I played in the big leagues for four, almost five years — because I know the guy who’s on the mound and what kind of stuff they got,” Leon told WEEI.com

There’s more to calling a game than knowing the person standing 60-feet 6-inches away. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know Chris Sale has one of the best sliders in the game.

That’s where scouting reports come in, right? Knowing your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. As long as a catcher has adequate reading comprehension skills, they should be able to understand whatever the analytics department puts together.

But that’s not enough. The way Leon explains game-calling, it seems he uses reports as a foundation rather than a pitch-by-pitch guide.

“You might go through a lot of stuff,” he said. “Like, depending on how you pitch the guy the at-bat before. What kind of swing is he taking with a slider, with a fastball. I’ve got reports, that helps, but I go more with my mind and the guys on the mound.”

So, Leon is able to identify a hitter’s swing while catching a slider from Sale, or 99-mile-an-hour cheddar from Nathan Eovaldi. It doesn’t seem possible. Though it would explain why pitchers have what feels like unwavering confidence in any sign Leon put down.

“That’s good because you have all the trust in the catcher, but it’s a lot of pressure, too,” Leon said. “You have to call the right pitch in the right situation, who’s the guy hitting in that moment. It’s tough. To call the game is not easy.”

While this seems like an intangible trait, Leon learned a lot about his craft from watching games and playing winter ball. There’s a chance others can learn what he now knows, too. However, it doesn’t appear to be a tool one can grasp this quickly.

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