JUPITER, Fla. • When a Cardinals catcher breaks from his crouch and rakes his cleats on the patch of ground between him and home plate he’s doing more than keeping his area tidy to avoid bad hops. He’s setting up a litmus test for his fundamentals.
The dirt doesn’t lie.
During a series of interviews over the past few days, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny echoed other members of the team, past and present, about how much can be learned from a few footprints. Matheny used the example of a pitcher throwing on a freshly groomed mound, and how different that canvas is after Adam Wainwright has used it vs. a young pitcher.
Former shortstop David Eckstein used to get reads on how another team’s infield plays by looking at the footprints left by the shortstop in the top of the inning.
And catchers . . . well, catchers are constantly scooting the dirt back and forth to erase any divots or wrinkles that could send a pitch in a weird direction.
“And we can check our feet,” Matheny said.
If the dirt is smooth, then when the catcher shifts his feet for a throw to second base he can check where the feet land. Matheny explained how if the throw veers, then a catcher can look down and see how his feet weren’t in line – and there’s where the trouble started. Or, the catcher can see they were too close together, crooked to the plate, or any number of things. The dirt knows.
During a recent bullpen session, Matheny remarked on what the mound could tell him, pitching coach, and the pitchers. Look at the footprints.
After Wainwright had thrown, the footfall of his left foot was in the same place. The toe drag off the rubber had the same contour. Pitch after pitch. The dirt around those areas remained as groomed as when the rake came over it before Wainwright arrived.
“Watch Waino’s bullpen going onto a perfect mound, and when he’s done there is no variance from where his stride is, where his foot drags, to where he has a toe tap,” Matheny said. “It’s all completely the same thing. Not being inches off from that foundation creates opportunity to have that kind of consistency at the plate.”
Look at some of the young players without that same feel for their mechanics, their stride, their release, and “and it looks some guy’s come in with a hoe, hacking around the dirt.”
Earlier this spring, Miles Mikolas spoke about how was slipping to the side of his landing foot, almost as if he was leaning his foot on its side and not straight, digging in with the cleats. The dirt showed that. Eckstein would spy the footprints of the other fielders – especially the shortstops – after a newly raked infield in a game and be able to reverse any trends that the home fielders were accounting for in the field. What he learned most was how far back the shortstop started, and from there how fast he expected the infield to play. The hometown fielder knows the grass. Eckstein could learn about it from the dirt.
In 2016, as he returned from injury, Wainwright had a teammate, Jonathan Broxton, point out how a small difference in how his feet are lined up on the mound or how his front foot lands would create a larger issue at the plate, as in golf. Wainwright could look down and see how his feet veered in the dirt.
“That’s really why you see catchers always sweeping,” Matheny said the other day in his office. “It’s immediate feedback.”
It’s not video. It’s not an app. It’s not even a coach.
It’s just dirt. It doesn’t lie.
“So much simplicity in that,” the manager said.