This isn’t summer camp. This is Spring camp, and the Arizona Diamondbacks aren’t sitting around a campfire to tell stories. They sit around home plate for that.
The Arizona Diamondbacks have begun spring camp, and anyone who’s spent time at a camp knows what to expect: a lot of “get-to-know-you” games. Baseball camp is no different.
One such game, the “campfire drill,” was pitched to manager Torey Lovullo last spring by pitching coach Mike Butcher and quality control coach Robby Hammock. According to MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert, Butcher and Hammock instruct “pitchers to stand in front of home plate in the bullpen area and explain to the catchers sitting in folding chairs around it what pitches they liked to throw in certain situations and where they liked the catchers to set up.”
Butcher, along with first base coach Dave McKay, was one of the few holdovers from ex-manager Chip Hale’s staff. He took over the role in Hale’s second season, 2016, after previous stints as pitching coach with the Rays and Angels.
Hammock you might remember from his playing days, a catcher by trade who also spent some time at third and in the outfield as a part-time player for the 2003 and 2004 Dbacks. After bouncing around the upper minors in the Orioles’ and Yankees’ systems in 2009 and 2010, Hammock returned to the Dbacks to finish his career.
As the quality control coach on Lovullo’s coaching staff, per the team’s Twitter, Hammock “assists with on-field preparations and scouting.” More to the point, he also works with catchers.
So it’s appropriate that Butcher and Hammock should present this exercise together, battery mates in their own right. But the campfire exercise is less geared towards building report for in-game strategy, and more towards communication.
Like most talents, pitching is often driven by instinct – when pitchers explain their thought process, they get to flex the muscles that turn pitching from a talent into a craft. Self-awareness is good in that way.
There’s even baseball parlance for it! Television broadcasters refer to this process by saying a pitcher – usually a fireballer – “stopped throwing and learned how to pitch.” It’s an important part of pitcher development, though not something that everyone masters. And of course, as is always the case with self-awareness, too much can get in the way.
Which is why the catchers are part of the campfire drill: to understand pitchers’ instincts and, by knowing how they think, develop a relationship and shared language so that pitchers never need to overthink. Good catchers steer a pitcher in the right direction with their gamecalling – great catchers do so while making the pitcher think it was his idea.
A big part of the Diamondbacks spring camp will be sussing out which pitchers and which catchers will make the Opening Day roster. Carson Kelly and Alex Avila are the odds-on favorites, but Caleb Joseph and John Ryan Murphy are part of this process too.
The Arizona Diamondbacks spring camp will involve much more than storytelling, of course. Ultimately, not everyone in the campfire circle will make it to the dugout on Opening Day. It’s all part of the process.