How Rapsodo Helped Launch Rafael Lopez’s MLB Catching Career
Listen to Raffy talk more in depth about his first experience with Rapsodo in the MLB on the Rapsodo Baseball Podcast.
A RAP WHAT?!
“Lopez!!!! You got Zeuch!”
“Got it,” I said.
“No drops!” My catching coordinator screamed at me.
I was with the Toronto BlueJays in 2017. I had signed with them late in February after being a September call up with the Reds the previous year. I had a really hard time getting signed, and was finally offered an opportunity in Toronto's minor league camp.
I was running to the bullpen trying to find whoever Zuech was when I saw this odd device on a tripod standing behind the plate.
I looked at my coordinator and said “What the hell is this?” He chuckled along with the analytics guy and said “it’s a Rapsodo.”
"A Rap what?!” I said. He chuckled again.
“Well, what the hell does this thing do? I responded." It's in my way. How am I supposed to block?”
“You don’t need to today,” my coordinator said.
“You still haven’t told me what this thing is!” I said as I put my mask on, feeling my knees crack as I squatted down for the bullpen session.
Finally, he gave me an answer.
"It's a machine with a camera and radar. It gathers pitcher information as he releases the ball. Velocity, spin rate, spin direction, movement...”
I was intrigued.
After the first pitch, I called time out from the bullpen and ran over to the pitcher to look at the iPad the pitching coach was holding. It had everything a pitcher could ever want to know on the screen... I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I knew in that moment the way I caught and interacted with pitchers was going to change.
I ran back to homeplate with a smile on my face. My catching coordinator looked at me when as I was running back:
"Not as pissed off now? The Rapsodo is pretty cool. Isn’t it?”
I answered with a few expletives, squatted back down, flipped my catcher's mask back up and agreed.
"Yeah, it is pretty cool.”
I spent the rest of the bullpen brain storming how I could use this information as a catcher. How can I use this in conjunction with receiving pitches, calling a game, and helping the pitcher overall? From that day on, I was going to take full advantage of Rapsodo data.
Learning to Understand and Utilize Rapsodo Data
A few days later the front office pulled me into a player meeting. The head of the minor leagues knew me from the Cubs:
“We really don’t have room for you on any of the rosters, but we want to give you an opportunity to make a team out of camp.”
“Well, what do I need to do?” I responded.
“You need to help with the development of the young arms that we have.”
“Bingo!” I thought to myself. "I am going to make a team with the help of Rapsodo."
I left the meeting and immediately went over to check out some pitching analytics with the team's data analyst. I started asking him tons of questions, and he gave me my first real introduction into Rapsodo pitching data.
Once he explained how the spin rate effects four seam fastballs, I immediately understood why seemingly average pitches could make everyone swing and miss at a high fastball right down the middle; or why they could make hitters pop-up on what looks like a “cookie cutter” fastball…
Then it hit me… all those hitting coaches who told me I was swinging too hard on those pitchers were dead wrong. That average pitcher wasn’t so average after all because had he a good spin rate!
We continued talking about fastballs. Once I understood that higher spin rate fastballs will continue to ride, I knew I could give a lower target for the pitcher on the low fastballs that I called, and a not as high of a target for higher fastballs. This technique could help the pitcher visually as well.
The next bullpen I asked to catch where the Rapsodo would be set up. I let the pitcher throw his first few fastballs before asking about his spin rate. I already had an idea visually that he at least had an above average spin rate. There was life to his fastball, with a little more “giddy-up” than I expected. The coach confirmed that he did have a decent spin rate based on his Rapsodo data, so I went about giving targets accordingly.
I could really see a difference in this pitcher’s ability to hit the targets - and when he missed, his misses were much smaller. Another thing I picked up on while catching him – pitchers that throw fastballs with a greater spin rate at the knees always create deception that the pitch is going to go in the dirt. This would make it a tough pitch to track for batters because it appeared to be a low ball, but in reality, it’s strike at the knees. I then knew I could freeze a lot of batters in the box with this pitch.
I made it a goal of mine to never “give up” on that low pitch when I was behind the plate. I would focus on my frame, knowing many batters would freeze at the sight of a low in the zone fastball. The reason this pitch is so hard to see and then hit is because it has a lot of magnus force – which is the impact a ball’s spin has on gravity. To the naked eye, its hard to determine whether it will be a ball or a strike.
Improving Catching Skills with Data Validation
As the year went on, I kept using Rapsodo data to help me receive and block pitches. I ended up starting that year out in AA as the backup catcher. My catching and hitting were at the highest level they had been in my career – and I knew Rapsodo played a major role in my improvement.
I was now an expert at reading Rapsodo data and utilizing it to call the best pitches for each pitcher, but I was shocked to find that Rapsodo data also helped me with blocking.
Most catchers can relate when I say it's tough to block those nasty slurves, sharp sliders and anything that has that bite to it. The spin rate greatly affected how the ball would move after it hit the dirt, especially on harder surfaces.
I would always get so mad at myself when my slide to block would take me too far or not far enough, depending on the pitch. The ball would then go over my shoulders or would be off-centered enough to ricochet, making it difficult for me to keep the runner from advancing. Rapsodo data gave me more insight into blocking certain breaking ball pitches and with practice, it became easier to anticipate where to send the center of my chest protector to execute in each block perfectly.
Once I understood the type of spin each pitch was going to produce, if I needed to block, I had a good understanding of where physics and gravity was going to take the ball.
Helping Pitchers Improve
That year in AA, I was surrounded by so many young stud pitchers, and it was amazing to me how many of them had no idea where to aim or target their pitches based on their data. With my Rapsodo knowledge, I knew I could help.
One thing a young pitcher needs to understand is how to properly target their pitches. Rapsodo data can actually help with where they need to aim at for the start of their pitches. Too many young pitchers just aim to where they want the ball to end up. This caused a lot of issues for young guys because every pitch moves differently. And everyday an arm can feel different. I noticed this problem with pitchers who had higher spin rates on their off speed – they tend to forget how much their pitch will move.
For example, a right-handed pitcher with high spin rates can actually aim at the right-handed batter to get the ball to start breaking at the perfect time for it end up where they want it in the zone. This works the same way but vice a versa for left-handed pitchers. For pitchers with good up/down movement and great spin, aiming at the catcher's mask or even the umpire's mask may result in more strikes.
It is key for both pitchers and catchers to realize that the pitcher should be targeting where they want their off speed to start breaking. In my experience, pitchers have a much easier time with command and control of their breaking pitches when taking this approach.
Key Takeaways for Catchers Using Rapsodo Data
As a catcher it is so important to understand these kinds of little intricacies that help your pitcher, yourself, and ultimately your entire team. These are the small differences between bases loaded 3-2 count and a walk or strike three. Always remember this: as catchers, so much of the game and its outcome are reliant on us… so why not use ANY available information and data to your advantage!
Don't forget to check out Raffy’s full story about utilizing Rapsodo data while in the MLB on the Rapsodo Baseball Podcast!
Are you ready to change the way you see the game? Head on over to www.rapsodo.com/baseball to learn more about Rapsodo data and products.