Hanigan shows knack for connecting with pitchers
Cerebral backstop, who caught two no-nos, getting to know Rays like he did in Cincy
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Magic can happen when a pitcher and catcher click. So Ryan Hanigan works to make connections.
Every time the veteran receiver catches a Rays pitcher, data is transmitted to an ever-expanding memory bank. Hanigan knows the value of having that information. He also understands how it can lead to the magic. Like the kind he experienced July 2 in Cincinnati.
Hanigan caught Homer Bailey that day and a masterpiece followed. The Reds right-hander carved up the Giants, retiring 27 of the 28 hitters he faced en route to a no-hitter.
"I don't think he shook me off at all," said Hanigan, 33, who came to the Rays from Cincinnati as part of a three-team trade on Dec. 3. "When your guy throws a no-hitter and has a dominant performance like he did, that's the ultimate. It's all about finding that groove. You know, where you're in synch. I'm always trying to find the groove that makes my pitcher the best. It boils down to tempo."
Hanigan also caught Bailey's first no-hitter on Sept. 28, 2012, against the Pirates, making him one of five active catchers to catch two no-hitters, along with Buster Posey, A.J. Pierzynski, Carlos Ruiz and Miguel Olivo.
Looking back, Bailey appreciated Hanigan's efforts in working with him to establish a special connection.
"Before meetings, we typically agreed on a lot of things," said Bailey of Hanigan, who first caught the righty in Double-A. "When there is a trust factor like we had together, I kind of knew where he was at. He'd put down one sign, but I knew the next three he was about to put down. That, to me, is the definition of being on the same page."
Bailey noted a pitcher experiences times in big situations where, "You can't think about what sequence to throw, who's at bat, the situation."
"I have to just focus on making pitches and clear everything else out and have the trust in him that he's going to take care of the rest," Bailey said. "That's the little things when you build up relationships, there's trust in having that confidence in him."
Almost immediately after joining the Rays, Hanigan began familiarizing himself with the new group of pitchers he would be handling -- watching videos, talking to the pitchers on the phone, whatever it took. Though it's early in camp, he's already caught most of Tampa Bay's pitchers.
"Once I get a feel for what they do, then we can start looking at what hitters do," Hanigan said. "Obviously, hitters, their tendencies can change depending on the guy, if he's hot or cold, all the variables. The most important thing is to learn the staff. Learn what's made them successful."
"You can tell that he knows what he's talking about," David Price said. "And it's more than just receiving and blocking and setting up. He's very intelligent like [catcher] Jose [Molina]. He's already watched all of our video from the AL East last year to kind of get a feel on what the hitters are like in this division. What pitches we like to throw in certain counts. That's pretty cool."
No-hitters are special because they are few and far between, but the fact is, most pitchers only have their good stuff six or seven starts per season. The good ones know how to excel on those nights when their fastball isn't Sandy Koufax or their curve isn't Clayton Kershaw. Good catchers understand that as well, and, accordingly, hold their pitcher's hand as they navigate treacherous lineups with their B-grade stuff.
"You have to figure out how you're going to get it done with what you've got," Hanigan said. "As long as you're on the same page with what your guys are doing that day, what the pitcher's got, you can be smart about your pitch selection. You're not going to be as dominant. But you can still get outs.
"Stuff like that, you have to pick it out, and you have to pick it out quick. It has to start before the game starts. It all has to be ironed out, mapped out, and that just comes from a good relationship, good verbal communication and obviously picking up on the little things."
Hanigan is intelligent. His father worked as an FBI agent and his mother as a teacher. He attended Rollins College and majored in philosophy, completing all of his core classes toward his degree while thinking about law school. He opted for baseball instead.
The catcher doesn't brandish his intelligence on his sleeve, though that intelligence leads to the inevitable. Any time a player -- particularly a catcher -- runs a couple of sentences together, Crash Davis comparisons emerge. When asked if he's sick of said comparisons, an expressionless Hanigan replied: "Oh, I don't know, he was a Minor Leaguer."
And does he find the term "tools of ignorance" ironic?
"That's a cliché," Hanigan said.
His intelligence and background in philosophy do come into play where winning is concerned.
"Philosophy's all about learning how to think, formulate arguments and understand thought processes," Hanigan said. "You know, there's a lot of psychology in philosophy, too. So I feel like it plays with regards to getting to know these guys on an individual basis and for each personality.
"Each guy needs to be pushed a little bit more or less here and there. You can get all deep in the stuff, but I try to keep it as simple as I can for these guys. Get them thinking the right way. Most Major Leaguers, most pros, got that, but there are some guys that need to be pushed in the right direction here or there just to make sure that their thought processes are right, their attitude is right. They got their right type of drive. I want my guys to be hard-nosed, go at them, no fear type of guys. That's what I've seen from the most part with all of these guys anyway, so that's not even going to be an issue."
Thinking about a lot of different things is a part of what Hanigan does. But at the end of the day, he has a simplistic grading system for how he has played.
"Just by the 'W,'" Hanigan said. "There's different ways to get there. Sometimes I'm satisfied with an 8-7 win if we really didn't have it. We faced a tough team. We battled. We got a big out. That's just as good sometimes as a shutout, whatever.
"You have to win games different ways. There are so many games. It's a long year. You're going to have to be flexible in terms of what your formula is. You're going to have to find ways to win. That's all part of the game."
That's part of making connections.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.