FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Red Sox possess one of the deepest and most skilled pitching staffs in the game. From Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz at the top to Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens and Matt Barnes in the upper levels of the minors, there's little disputing the wealth of talent.
But in this day and age of endless data streams, video and scouting, great pitching is wasted without a skilled catcher behind the plate.
The current generation of Red Sox fans understand this concept really started with Jason Varitek and his ring binders before the Red Sox were World Series champions in the early 2000s.
Trust through leadership.
No pitching staff in baseball has come to trust its catchers and communicate with them more than the Red Sox.
Why is that?
"I don't know if there's a fine art to it," manager John Farrell said. "I think you can't just fast forward. You have to spend time with individuals and you have to spend time getting to know what triggers or buttons to push, and that's going to differ in the heat of the moment, not just in spring training. So, there's going to be things that just need to go through the cycle and have repetition to it. You just can't automatically think he's going to build a rapport with someone and have them buy into him completely. It just takes time.
"The amount of conversation that goes on just leading up to a series or a game, and then how that also continues as they come off the field each inning. He'll get to know how he operates here. He's been under a number of different managers and I'm sure they had their own approach or style but I like to think we engage our catchers frequently and regularly."
Farrell, of course, has a unique perspective. He was a star pitcher at Oklahoma State. He pitched in the big leagues for the Indians before moving into the front office. There he became Cleveland's farm director before the Red Sox hired him in 2007 to be their pitching coach. He knows better than most the importance of the pitcher-catcher relationship and developing catchers who speak the language of each pitcher.
Each pitcher on a staff may speak the same language but with a very different dialect. It's up to the catcher to interpret that dialect in the heat of battle to avoid game-changing mistakes.
Wanting to find out what catchers do to earn that trust, I sat down with David Ross, who enters this spring as the veteran backstop on the roster, following in the footsteps of Varitek, Victor Martinez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
What is the key to handling a pitching staff?
"I think it depends on what kind of pitcher you have," Ross told me. "I think part of handling a pitching staff, knowing what he's comfortable, what he likes to do and his personality, and if you can go outside the box or not. The personality has a lot to do with it. So, it's a little bit of mind game with how to get the best out of that guy and that's the fun part of catching."
Is each year different?
"It's just a little bit of starting over," Ross said. "Obviously, there's a little bit of familiarity there. I think, in general, each year is unique to itself. Each hitter have different swings in different years and there are things you have to adjust, body types you have to adjust, how they worked out that offseason. You have to find that comfort zone and every year is different. A pitcher may have a better pitch the next year than they did the year before and one pitch may slack off a little bit. Pitchers are a little bit more consistent than hitters are but for all intents and purposes, we try to start from scratch and go from there."
Ross will be 37 on opening day. He has caught for the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Red Sox again. He caught the last out of the World Series last year, winning a ring for the first time at the age of 36. One of the factors that made the Red Sox experience unique in 2013 wasn't just winning but the way everybody communicated, especially pitchers, catchers and coaching staff.
"We talk a lot, we do," Ross said. "We talk a whole lot. It's nice. The communication is there between all of us. And we're all on the same page. We know important that part of the game is. Getting the most out of our pitcher that day and finding the best way for them to succeed is goal number one between everybody. It's a group effort, which is nice around here. Everybody is on board. John being an ex-pitcher, has even more input than most managers so it's kind of nice."
Now it's Ross' turn to make another 37-year-old catcher feel at home after the Red Sox signed A.J. Pierzynski to split the catching duties.
"You build your own rapport with each pitcher," said Ross. "I can tell A.J. as much as I want but until you get back there and see these guys consistently, and get in a game atmosphere and see what they like to shake to or what their go-to pitch is or what they have the most confidence in and are comfortable with.
"That's what you have to figure out. It's my job to have them as comfortable as I can possibly get them when I'm catching. A.J. does his thing to get them as comfortable as possible when he's catcher. Every catcher is different. I had a tough time getting the best out of Felix Doubront last year. Salty got the best out of him. Every year, it's somebody different."
Every catcher is different. And how they get along with each pitcher can vary drastically. Ask Ross. He admits that he had trouble with Jair Jurrjens in 2011, a year that the Atlanta ace started 12-3. Two of those first three losses came with Ross catching.
"I remember with Jair Jurrjens in Atlanta, one year he was having a phenomenal year," Ross said. "Every time I caught him, he'd get lit. It's an uncomfortable feeling. Sometimes, you just click with certain pitchers and sometimes you don't. Sometimes it takes longer to build that relationship. It's always a give-and-take between pitcher and catcher and trying to figure each other out. Anytime we can help the other [catcher], that's why we pay attention. It's nice to have another veteran catcher on the team because I can look at him and how he does things and maybe learn something."
Clay Buchholz offered the following insight, backing up what Ross what saying.
"Obviously, being on the mound, it's a high-stress position," Buchholz told WEEI.com. "It can be, anyways. The [fewer] things you have to think about as far as setting up a hitter [the better]. Obviously, you're always thinking about the next pitch that you want to throw, what pitch you're setting up. But when you have a catcher that studies and knows the guys we're playing and you're able to have confidence in what he puts down, that takes all the second-guessing out of the way. Obviously, that's going to help you out."
Buchholz had a difficult time adjusting to Jason Varitek when he first came to the majors. True, Varitek was behind the plate for Buchholz's no-hitter on Sept. 1, 2007 but it took a while for the leader and captain of the Red Sox to get on the same page with Buchholz and vice versa. The next year, with expectations sky-high, Buchholz fell to 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA. Buchholz offered some insight as to why that was.
"I think it's more of an adjustment for the catcher to the pitcher," Buchholz said. "I think you have guys who like to throw their fastball a lot. I have multiple pitches that I throw and that I like to throw in any count. I'm going off of trying to mess up the hitter's timing rather than make a perfect pitch each time so if I can command and control different speeds and different pitches, I think it's harder to call a game for me because sometimes I get hitter thinking, 'this is what he did last time and he threw a changeup 1-2.'
"The catcher might then call a changeup but that might not be the pitch that I'm thinking about throwing right there. I think the catchers have to adapt to each pitcher and that's why it takes a little bit longer for a new catcher to come straight in and have a smooth game as far as calling the pitches and not having a lot of shaking off and time in between pitches. That's why I say it's the catcher that has to adapt."
Buchholz said constant communication is the only way to grind through the process.
"Even in between innings, whenever you come in, we did that a lot last year where I would shake off to a pitch and then either Salty or Ross would come over and in between innings and say, 'This is what I saw right there. What did you feel right there? What did you see? What made you want to throw that?' You just talk about it and think about all the things that can get you on the same page," the right-hander said. "They can put down a pitch and know what you're thinking. I'm a little bit different because I'm not the typical pitcher that goes out and throws fastball early and then ahead in the count will throw a curveball. I'll do different stuff.
"Especially when you have two catchers that are flip-flopping and splitting time because it's gets a little bit harder because the catcher might not catch you the same time. It might be where one catcher catches you one start and then doesn't catch you for two starts. If you throw to him multiple times, you catch on a lot quicker than if it's once every other start or every two starts. Feel and communication is definitely key on all that."
And that will be the case again in 2014 as John Farrell has indicated in camp that he will not have a specific catcher for a specific pitcher this year. Ross is quick to point out there's much, much more to calling a game than just dropping fingers down and having the pitcher read them.
"It's more than just calling pitches," Ross said. "It's the conversations you have off the field. It's conversations you have in their bullpen [sessions]. It comes from reading swings, having them trust in you and being confident in what you're doing. That instills confidence. When you're a young guy, it takes time. I took my licks and learned from them. You have to do that through the year.
"What's your money pitch? What pitch are you throwing 3-2, two outs, bases loaded? What pitch can I count on that I'm going to get a good quality pitch and it's going to be a strike? And those are the things you have learn. Somebody can tell you as much as they want but how you call a game, it's a thing you learn and the faster you can learn, the better."
Pierzynski offered a more psychoanalytical interpretation.
"You just have to find out how they tick," Pierzynski told me. "You have to find out their strengths, more than anything you want to know their strengths over their weaknesses because at the end of day you're going to go with with their strengths over their weaknesses. I'm a big believer you go with a pitcher's best pitches in crucial times and using the other times to work on other things they need to find. At the end of the day, you want to go with their strengths because that's what's they'll feel most comfortable with and that's what they'll use to get most guys out.
"You've just got to know them on a different level. It's always different when you're facing a guy than when you go out there and catch them. You have to get guys out. It's different hitters and different mindsets when you're on the same team." And that's where having Ross next to him in the clubhouse helps Pierzynski.
"He was here last year," Piezynski said. "He went through the battles with these guys last year. He know their strengths and mentalities. We've talked a lot about a lot of these different guys and he definitely helps, having a veteran guy around that knows what to look for."
The Red Sox are always looking to the future and that future behind the plate is 23-year-old defensive phenom Christian Vazquez, the prospect from Puerto Rico who threw out the first 11 base runners in camp this spring. While Jackie Bradley and Xander Bogaerts have rightly gained attention in camp, it's Vazquez who might be making the biggest impact with his skills.
And in listening to him, it's clear the communication message has been passed along, starting with minor league catching coordinator Chad Epperson.
"They say we need to read swings and read the hitter, see the hitter and read what they do and be yourself," Vazquez said. "Don't be afraid to call a pitch. Just trust the stuff of the pitcher. Make your priority the pitcher. That's the most important thing to get, get the trust of the veteran guys, like Lester and Buchholz. Make the first priority them and they're going to trust you as a catcher.
"I worked with Jose Molina in the offseason and we talk a lot about different things like how we can call a game if the hitter is late, let's throw this. It's good because Jose Molina is a veteran guy, a long-time good catcher. It's fun to listen to and learn a lot."
And that should be music to the ears of any Red Sox pitcher.