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EXPLANATION FOR CATCHERS HAVING SHORTER PLAYING CAREERS

THAN OTHER POSITION PLAYERS

by

Tyler Hogue

A Senior Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment

of the Requirements for Graduation

Central Magnet School

May 2016

Thesis Committee:

Mark Kirksey

Jessica Pinson

Lynne Maxwell
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I would like to thank Mrs. Maxwell for her continuous help and guidance throughout the

entire thesis process. Additionally, I would like to thank Dr. Ash for telling me that I

would never finish to motivate me to do my thesis.

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ABSTRACT

This study examined the career longevity of catchers in baseball, as well as the reasons

for this phenomenon. In my research, I found that catchers have significantly shorter

playing careers than other position players in Major League Baseball, on average.

However, no reason was provided for why this is true. In order to answer this question, I

interviewed a former catcher at Middle Tennessee State University, a former high school

catcher and coach at Valdosta High School, and a former catcher at Jackson State

Community College. I predicted that catchers have shorter playing careers due to

intensive stress on the knees and the brutal nature of the position, and the responses I

gathered support this hypothesis. The implications of this study may lead to methods

used to make the position safer, which would increase the length of time a catcher can

play.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ..................................................................................... ii

ABSTRACT .......................................................................................................... iii

CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION .................................................................... 1

CHAPTER TWO: REVIEW OF LITERATURE .................................................. 3

Introduction ......................................................................................................... 3

The Position and its Risks ................................................................................... 4

Common Procedures as a Result of Catching ..................................................... 6

Career Longevity of Catchers ............................................................................. 6

Conclusion .......................................................................................................... 7

CHAPTER THREE: INTERVIEWS ..................................................................... 9

CHAPTER FOUR: DISCUSSION ...................................................................... 14

REFERENCES .................................................................................................... 16

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CHAPTER ONE

INTRODUCTION

I chose to research this topic because baseball has played a momentous role

throughout the course of my life. I started playing when I was 4 years old, and I am still

playing for Central Magnet School. As I have played catcher since I was 11 years old in

6th grade, I knew I would enjoy spending time researching and learning about the

catching position. Unfortunately, there are numerous downfalls to playing catcher.

Despite the safety and health hazards, this position in baseball is extremely appealing

because of how necessary and important it is to the success of a team. I chose to play

catcher because I love being involved in every play, and because no one else wanted to

play it.

Over the course of my catching career, I have seen several players attempt to play

the position. Many of these extremely athletic players had to quit catching due to injury.

Thus, the question formed that inspired my thesis: do catchers tend to have shorter

playing careers and why? I looked to answer this question by talking to as many former

catchers I could find in my community, and I was able to contact Jesse Messick, Mark

Kirksey, and Dick Martin.

This topic is significant in the world of sports because teams and coaches are

always looking for ways to increase the number of years their players can play. If it is

proven that catchers’ careers are being cut short due to knee stress, then teams will look

for ways to make the position a safer place to play. More importantly, the athletes who
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play the position will hopefully benefit by limiting the long-term effects that the position

is notorious for causing. Nowadays, it is normal for a former catcher to have a double

knee replacement before the age of 50, and I hope my study will motivate scientists and

doctors to find a way to make the position safer. A safer catching position would not

only help those who are currently playing the position in the present day, but it would

also encourage more younger players to play catcher.
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CHAPTER TWO

REVIEW OF LITERATURE

Introduction

Some people regard to the catcher in baseball as the quarterback of the team, the

leader on the field, the most important position on the field. Although this is obviously

an opinion, there is no doubt that the catcher is crucial to the success of a team.

However, the position does come with its downfalls. Throughout my 7 years of playing

catcher, my knees have slowly started to pain me more and more. Over my career, I have

broken my collar bone, hurt my shoulder, and I still have countless “battle scars” as

coach calls them. Although I love catching, I cannot imagine playing this position for

any extended period of time in the Major Leagues. Thus, the question formed, do the

plethora of injuries that catchers are exposed to have a significant impact on the

longevity of their playing careers?

My research will explore common injuries sustained by catchers and how they

may contribute to shorter playing careers. Also, my research will describe why catching

is arguably the most brutal position on the field. On average, catchers have shorter

playing careers than other position players; however, no research that I have seen has

connected this to constant pressure on the knees or other injuries. This topic is

interesting to me because I am a catcher for the Central Magnet School high school

baseball team, so I am familiar with knee pain, as well as other injuries that come with

playing the position. I am interested in researching this topic in order to prove that
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injuries cause the general trend that catchers have shorter playing careers than other

position players on average, which may lead to ways to make the position safer.

The Position and Its Risks

The primary role of the catcher on the team is just as the name implies- catch the

pitch from the pitcher in order to get called strikes. However, as easy as it may sound,

catching a baseball traveling anywhere from 70 miles per hour to 90 miles per hour,

(depending on the pitcher, pitch selection, etc.), from a distance of 60 feet and 6 inches

is far from easy. In the baseball world, catching is referred to as one of the toughest and

most grueling positions on the field. David Waldstein, who currently specializes in

sports writing for the New York Times with a journalism degree from the University of

Michigan, says catching “is a miserable and merciless place to make a living...”

(Waldstein, 2012). Also, John Wickens, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at

John Hopkins University, writes about this idea when he says, “... catchers have a risk

profile very different from players in other positions” (2015). However, several experts

and analysts have a different opinion: third base is considered the toughest and most

dangerous position on the field by many. Tim Kurkjian, a senior writer for ESPN and an

MLB analyst for Baseball Tonight and SportsCenter, describes the position as a place

where “few players want to play” due to the uncanny reflexes and skills required to

effectively defend the hot corner, as people call it (Kurkjian, 2012). However, third

basemen are not put at the risk of injury on every play; they may have 2 or 3 extremely

hard hit balls come at them in a game where they could get hurt if they do not cleanly

catch the ball, but catchers have a baseball coming right at them at 90 miles per hour
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while squatting in a painful, uncomfortable position on every play of the game.

Furthermore, why would anyone want to play this position that has a reputation of being

miserable and merciless? For me, I love the position because you are always involved

with the play, and because it is crucial to the success of the team. A coach once told me

that you have to be a special kind of stupid to play that position.

Aside from the general risk of the position, catchers are vulnerable to a wide

variety of injuries. Researchers from John Hopkins University School of Medicine,

which is currently one of the top 5 medical schools in the United States, conducted a

study that observed all the in-game injuries endured by catchers over a 10 year time

frame in Major League Baseball. Between 2001 and 2010 there were 134 injuries to

catchers. The research also found that 40% of collision injuries to catchers are to the

knee, while 30% were to the ankle (Wickens, 2015). For example, Tim McCarver, a

former MLB catcher, had “his right middle finger split open nine times from foul balls”

(Waldstein). What the researchers did not cover, however, were the injuries that develop

over time- the injuries that are the result of the constant crouching motion that puts

pressure on the knees over and over again and wears down knee cartilage. I know of

several former catchers who still have knee pain; a few have had knee surgeries to try to

eliminate this pain. Waldstein also writes about Sandy Alomar Jr. who has had 10

different operations to try to eliminate his knee pain. Catching not only presents a

plethora of dangers during the career of the player, but also to the lifestyle of the player

of his playing days are over. My injuries have included a broken collarbone, ball to the

throat, broken finger, etc. Long after my playing career is over, there is possibility that I
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will have to have operations to decrease pain in my knees.

Common Procedures as a Result of Catching

As mentioned previously, many catchers have to have operations on their knees

either during or after their careers. Two common knee surgeries are the total knee

replacement and the arthroscopic meniscus repair.

The constant crouching and bending of the knees that catchers do over and over

again breaks down cartilage in the knees. Cartilage is the protective tissue that covers the

joints of the knee. Eventually, the knee will start to cause pain when the cartilage is

broken down and the bones are rubbing against each other. During the actual procedure,

the surgeon will replace the parts of the knee that are damaged with a knee prosthesis

made of plastic and metal. Although the surgery is successful the vast majority of the

time, some patients still report minor knee pain after the procedure (“Knee Replacement

Surgery”).

The other procedure is the arthroscopic meniscus repair. This procedure is for

patients whose knee pain is severe due to torn knee cartilage. This is also common in

catchers due to the constant stress put on the knees. This procedure has three options:

meniscus removal, meniscus repair, and meniscal replacement. During the operation, the

surgeon will insert small cameras into the knee to give he or she a live visual. From here,

he or she will remove, repair, or replace the meniscus using small instruments (Green,

2012).

Career Longevity of Catchers

After reading about the wide variety of injuries that catchers endure, as well as
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going through some of them myself, I began to wonder about the average career length

of catchers compared to other positions. According to a chart on Wezen-Ball provided

by Larry Granillo, who has been researching and writing about baseball with several

websites for almost 10 years, with a minimum of 1200 games played, the average

number of games played by catchers is 1576.25 games. Players who are second basemen

play roughly 1748 games, outfielders play 1754 games, first basemen play 1823 games,

third basemen play 1825 games, and short stops play 1862 games. (Granillo, 2008).

Although this may seem like a lot of games, it is the least amount of games compared to

the other positions. Pitchers were not included due to the fact that they only play a small

fraction of the number of games that other position players do throughout the season, so

the data would be skewed. According to these statistics, catchers play around 250-300

games less than other position players. Since the MLB season is 162 games not

including the postseason, catchers’ careers are roughly cut 2-3 years shorter than players

of other positions. While catchers only play around 8 or 9 seasons in the big leagues,

other positions players get roughly 10 or 11 seasons. Granillo says, “Catchers play the

fewest games in their career, by far,” but offers no reason as to why this is the case.

Conclusion

To conclude, research shows that catching is an extremely dangerous position that

presents potential risks every pitch of every game. While the in-game injuries are

numerous, the injuries that are the worst are the ones that develop over time and affect

the players’ lives after they are done playing the game. In many cases, former catchers

become total knee replacement and arthroscopic meniscal repair patients. Also, it is
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apparent that catchers have by far the shortest playing career on average compared to

other position players according to Granillo’s chart. Therefore, I am looking to prove the

connection between these two ideas: due to the fact that catchers are prone to injuries on

every play of each game they play in, as well as the long-term effects that come with the

position, they have shorter playing careers than players that play other positions. For me,

my career as a catcher has been extremely short compared to those of major league

catchers, yet I can still feel the effects of the position. If I looked to extend my career

into college, my knee pain would only get worse.
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CHAPTER THREE

INTERVIEWS

As seen in the literature review, catching is one of the most, if not the most,

grueling positions on the baseball field. The constant stress and pressure put on the knees

has not only significant short-term effects, but also life altering long term effects. In

order to confirm and extend the conclusions drawn from the research, I interviewed three

former catchers. I wanted to get the opinions of catchers who have experienced the

consequences of playing catcher for an extended period of time. In addition, I used their

responses to prove my argument that catchers have shorter playing careers than other

position players due to the constant pressure put on the knees and the brutal nature of the

position.

I had the opportunity to speak with Dick Martin, Jesse Messick, and Mark Kirksey.

Martin started catching when he was 12 years old. He caught all through middle school,

high school, and college at Middle Tennessee State University. He is now 50 years old

with 10 years of catching experience under his belt, and I knew he could give me some

valuable information on the position. Next, Messick just finished up his catching career

at Jackson State Community College a few years ago. He started catching when he was

in 5th grade (11 years old) and finished as a sophomore in college. Finally, Kirksey

caught all throughout his high school years at Valdosta High School in Georgia. Also, he

coached at Valdosta State, and he is the current catching coach at Central Magnet

School. It was crucial to get the unbiased opinions and stories from these former catchers

to authenticate the information in my research and forge it down a new path.
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As shown on Larry Granillo’s chart of average games played by position, catchers

have, by far, the shortest playing careers, but why? First, I need to prove that the catcher

position in baseball truly is grueling and the most exhausting position on the diamond.

Martin, the former catcher at MTSU, had an interesting response when asked about the

brutality of the position:

You are literally in every single play of a baseball game whether you’re catching it

or throwing it back to the pitcher back and forth back and forth. The wear and tear

on your arm, that people don’t think about. You’re taking warm up, you do infield

practice throwing to second, third, first, you know, six or seven extra times that

other guys do not. It’s just one of those things. When there is nobody on base, and

there is a ground ball to the infield, what are you doing? You’re running down to

first base with the gear on. It takes a toll.

Instead of focusing on the stress on the knees from squatting like I have been, Martin

believes it is the little things that burn a catcher out early. I did not even think about the

arm exhaustion. As a catcher, you throw the ball back to the mound after almost every

pitch. Yes, the throw is not with the same intensity as a pitcher, but eventually it will

take its toll. Messick took a different approach to this question. He said, “We take a

beating every single day, we’re the ones in that squatting position that puts the pain on

your knees for three hours a day.” Then Messick, goes a step further and mentions yet

another aspect of catching that I overlooked: “... take balls of the chest every day, it's just

brutal back there.” When the pitcher throws a ball short of the plate, it is the

responsibility of the catcher to give up his body to block the ball with his chest. Taking a
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ball traveling anywhere from 70 to 85 miles per hour off the chest with nothing but a

couple inches of padding protecting you is normal to a catcher. While other position

players do have their fair share of vulnerability to injury from hard line drives hit or

getting run over by a baserunner, the aspect that puts the catcher at a totally new level is

they are involved in every single play. For example, a third basemen may get three of

four hard hit balls to them in a game, but the catcher is squatting down, throwing the ball

back to the pitcher, and blocking balls off their chest for the entirety of the game.

Additionally, my conversations with these former catchers allowed me to see the

long-term consequences catchers face as a result of the brutality of the position. Kirksey

and Martin have both had knee surgeries. Kirksey’s surgery went into his knee to clean

up the scar tissue buildup from the broken-down cartilage from his 4 years of catching.

Martin’s two knee surgeries were “more genetic than from athletics,” however he did

admit that catching certainly worsened his case. As Messick is only 24 years old, he has

not had any medical procedures, but he does experience “normal aches and pains from

squatting.” The most interesting part of this information is that the catcher with the least

amount of years playing the position has had worse long-term effects than Martin who

caught for 10 years and Messick who caught for 10 years. This illustrates that no matter

how long or short a catching career lasts, the brutality of the position can still take a

huge toll on your body.

Next, I asked each of the catchers was for their opinion on why they thought that

catchers have the shortest average playing career in Major League Baseball. To clarify, I

asked this question before explaining the nature of my research to ensure that the
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responses were not skewed or influenced. Here are their responses: Martin said, “I do

think that it probably speeds up you’re aging process, I guess I should say, as far as the

length of time you can play in athletics, for sure. The wear and tear of kneeling, getting

up and down up and down up and down a bunch will take its toll on your knees after a

certain amount of time.” Kirksey responded, “Oh, it's definitely the stress of the

squatting and the constant up and down. You want to get as low as possible, so a lot of

guys end up on the inside of their feet which puts even more stress on the knee.” I

already included Messick’s response, but he replied with, “We take a beating every

single day; we’re the ones in that squatting position that puts the pain on your knees for

three hours a day.” All three of their responses can be summed up into one reason- the

constant pressure put on the knees and the brutal nature of the position are the reasons

for catchers having shorter playing careers, which was my prediction. This explanation

seems obvious to catchers like Messick, Martin, Kirksey, and me because we have

experienced it, yet this correlation was never mentioned in my research. I thought it was

extremely interesting that all three of the catchers I spoke with had almost the same

exact answer.

Lastly, I asked each of them how they think the position could be made safer in an

attempt to lengthen the career of the catcher. Kirksey described an alternate workout

plan for catchers which strengthens muscles in and around the knee in order to

strengthen and secure the knee. In almost all high schools, the only leg workouts that

players do are squats, which strengthens the quadriceps while completely ignoring the

knee muscles. If new workout plans that were catcher-specific were introduced to high
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schools across the country, then maybe the career length of the catcher would slowly

begin to increase. Messick, on the other hand, said, “It’s overall always going to be the

nature of the position, but I think it's a position that is not taught, and some kids are just

thrown into it.” In other words, if the position were taught properly and more kids played

the position correctly, then more kids would be encouraged and excited to play catcher.

In effect, if more kids played catcher, then they would not have to catch as many innings

in their career, so they could end up playing longer. Martin focused more on how the

equipment can play a vital role in the career length of the catcher. “I know that they’ve

got those little rests that go on the back of your knees and your calves; any upgrade in

equipment is a bonus.” The “rests” he was referring to are called Knee Savers, and their

primary purpose is to allow the catcher to sit up a little higher in an attempt to reduce the

amount of stress put on the knees. I have started to notice more and more catchers using

Knee Savers even in high school baseball.

In summation, after talking with Martin, Kirksey, and Messick, it is clear that the

catcher in baseball exerts and strains his body more than any other position on the field.

Squatting down to catch every pitch, throwing the ball back to the pitcher, and blocking

pitches off the chest are only a few examples of how catching takes a toll on the body.

All of these aspects of the game contribute to catchers having the shortest playing career

out of all position players, on average. After analyzing the responses of the former

catchers, my hypothesis that catchers have shorter playing careers due to the constant

strain and pressure on the knees and the overall brutal nature of the position is supported

by the responses.
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CHAPTER FOUR

DISCUSSION

The results of this study should make baseball coaches more cautious of how much

their catchers play over the course of a season. If the career of a very talented catcher is

going to be cut short due to the nature of the position, then coaches will be more likely to

give them more off days where a backup catcher will play in order to preserve the

starter. In my opinion, especially in high school, it is essential to have more than one

catcher who can effectively play the position. There is no point in burning out a

catcher’s knees in high school when he could have gone on to play college and even

professional ball. A high school season can last anywhere from 20 to 40 games, and if

one person is expected to catch a majority of these games for 4 years of high school,

then there is a very low chance that he will be able to play much past high school. As a

player moves up the ladder to college baseball, it only becomes more important to give

catchers breaks throughout the season. In college, a season lasts anywhere from 45 to 50

games. Once a player reaches the Major League Baseball status, he is expected to catch

over 100 games every season. Hence, the results of this study apply to coaches at all

levels: high school and college baseball coaches need to limit the number of games a

catcher can play in order to give them the greatest opportunity to succeed at the next

level. Major League coaches also need to pay attention to the number of games their

catcher plays because they want to keep their players in the league as long as possible.

Not only do the conclusions drawn in this study apply to baseball coaches, but also

to the parents of children playing catcher. Parents need to be cautious of how many
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games their child catches at a young age in order to preserve their body for catching in

later years. Many young baseball players play in tournaments during the summer where

they catch anywhere from 3 to 6 games every weekend. The increase in popularity in

travel baseball among elementary school players has led to several catchers getting

burned out and losing their love of the position before they reach middle school.

If I were to do this study over again, I would definitely try to interview more

former catchers. The information I gathered from the 3 catchers was fantastic, so if I

could have interviewed more catchers my data would have been even better. Also, if I

interviewed more catchers, my data would have been more reliable. If possible, I would

continue my research into long-term study to attempt to lengthen the career of the

catcher. I would implement new workout routines as Kirksey suggested and observe

whether or not knee pain and soreness decreased during a season.
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References

Granillo, Larry. “Career length of players by position played.” 5 Dec. 2008,

http://wezen-ball.com/2008-articles/career-length-of-players-by-position-

played.html.

Green, John R. “Arthroscopic meniscus repair.” 20 Apr. 2016,

http://www.orthop.washington.edu/?q=patient-

care%2farticles%2fsports%2farthroscopic-meniscus-repair.html.

“Knee replacement surgery procedure.” n.d.

http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/test_procedures/orthopaedic/knee_r

eplacement_surgery_procedure_92,p07673/.

Kurkjian, Tim. “There's nothing easy about playing third base.” ESPN.com, ESPN, 6

Feb. 2012, http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/7542963/there-easy-playing-third-

base.

Waldstein, David. “One hard way to play ball.” 16 June 2012,

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/sports/baseball/russell-martin-plays-catcher-

the-toughest-position-in-baseball.html?pagewanted=all.

Wickens, John. “Most MLB catcher injuries aren't caused by home plate collisions,

Study Finds.” 8 Sept. 2015, http://hub.jhu.edu/2015/09/08/catcher-injuries-

baseball/.