Why Cubs individualized one-knee stances — for current catchers and any they may add
Catching has been in the headlines this week, thanks to free-agent signings and a three-team trade.
When veteran Yan Gomes joined the Cubs, catching coach Craig Driver started working with him on a one-knee-down stance. It wasn’t foreign to Gomes, but he’d always favored a more traditional setup.
“Maybe you can teach old dogs new tricks,” Gomes said.
Catching was in the headlines this week, thanks to some big free-agent signings — Christian Vazquez with the Twins, Mike Zunino with the Guardians and Omar Narvaez with the Mets — and a blockbuster three-team trade that saw Sean Murphy join the Braves and William Contreras join the Brewers.
Although much of Cubs fans’ offseason angst has been focused on free-agent shortstop Dansby Swanson, all the movement in the catching market isn’t helping the anxiety. The Cubs need catching depth after the departure of Willson Contreras.
Their priorities in that search reflect a shift in the industry.
“It’s a two-way position,” team president Jed Hoyer said last month at the general manager meetings in Las Vegas. “You obviously want guys that can hit, but it’s a run-prevention position.”
With that shift toward defense and game-calling, catching on one knee has risen in popularity.
One-knee stances aren’t new — Tony Pena, a five-time All-Star in the ’80s, famously caught out of a kickstand stance. Critics of the stance call it lazy and wring their hands over the potential for passed balls. But J.T. Realmuto’s success with the stance with the Marlins and Phillies while displaying his agility has helped popularize it in recent years.
“I think you’re going to be hard-pressed to get people that aren’t believing now to believe at all, [but] the statistics [show] that there’s at least value for certain players,” Driver said.
He doesn’t mandate one-knee stances, letting each catcher feel out what’s most comfortable. But Driver has seen a range of advantages from a stance that naturally brings a player closer to the ground and changes his sight lines.
“What we’ve found as an industry is that some guys benefit from a blocking standpoint, some benefit from a throwing standpoint, and a lot of guys benefit from a receiving standpoint,” Driver said.
With Gomes, Contreras and P.J. Higgins, Driver worked with a full spectrum of experience and skills last season. Gomes went from using a one-knee stance about 40% of the time, he estimated, to dropping a knee 95% of the time with no runners on and fewer than two strikes.
“It relaxes us a little bit more,” Gomes said, “and helps us use our hands a little bit better, catching the lower pitches a little bit better.”
With runners on and in two-strike counts, he tends to prefer a traditional secondary stance, from which he feels more comfortable throwing to a base or blocking a chase pitch.
For Contreras, the main benefit was managing his health. In general, he pointed out, catching on one knee relieves the stress on a catcher’s back. He also used the stance to take pressure off the sprained ankle he played on for the last two months of the season.
Higgins was a little more stubborn, as he put it, about dropping a knee. He converted to catching in 2016 and was just feeling comfortable and proud of his play when Driver floated the idea of a one-knee stance a couple of years ago. Now, he’s a believer, using a one-knee stance with no runners on.
There isn’t enough major-league data available on Higgins to say whether the numbers support his feeling. But Gomes’ framing numbers at the bottom of the strike zone improved from a 44% strike rate in 2021 to 49.9% this past season, according to Statcast.
“I don’t think there is a 100% right way,” said Gomes, who’s poised to take on a bigger role next season. “But there’s definitely benefits that you can take from both sides.”