The list of pitchers Alan Ashby caught in 17 big-league seasons from 1973 to 1989 is an impressive one. The former Astros, Blue Jays and Indians backstop called games for some of the most dominant pitchers of his era. He also put fingers down for some pretty colorful characters. Now 61 years old, he works as a radio broadcaster for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Ashby talked about catching some of baseball’s finest during a visit to Fenway Park earlier this summer. A primary focus was “the best of the best,” which included Nolan Ryan’s fastball — not the most explosive he caught — and Mike Scott’s mystery pitch.
David Laurila: Who were the smartest pitchers you caught?
Alan Ashby: Let me start backwards on that one. Guys like Nolan Ryan — who I caught for nine years — there just aren’t many guys like Nolan Ryan. Nolan is a street-smart guy, a bright guy, but it didn’t take a lot of smarts with his stuff. He could pitch — and did for much of career — away, away, away. Let’s just say he was smart enough to know he could do that, because nobody could hit the stuff.
Guys who had to move it around, like a Vern Ruhle or a Ken Forsch, had to utilize guile on the mound. If that translates into intelligence and smarts, so be it. A lot of guys who don’t have good stuff are applying everything they’ve got, intelligence-wise and otherwise. I could come up with a list of names of guys to put on that list.
The guys that generally aren’t on the list are people like Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard and Joe Niekro. They had very unique stuff. Mike Scott, in his heyday, was another.
DL: How did Ryan’s fastball differ from Richard’s fastball?
AA: The difference is that J.R. would make his sink. The best way to make Nolan angry was to tell him he had a good sinker on a given night.
Everybody would say to me, “Boy, it must be hard catching Nolan Ryan.” But when he was on, it was quite easy. He threw a four-seamer, and as anyone who has played the game knows, a four-seamer is very true through the air. It tends to ride and you can catch it very easily, up. Even if it’s at the knees, you catch it in that up position.
Conversely, J.R. had that sinking action and it would just eat you alive. You’d have to turn your hand over, and you had to do it over and over. Any catcher will tell you that’s the toughest pitch to deal with — a hard sinker from a right-hander, or a slider from a left-hander — something that takes you to your glove-hand side, down. J.R. was tough because his ball was always biting on you.
DL: Who else had a great fastball?
AA: I caught Jim Kern when I came up through the minor leagues with the Indians. Kern was right near 100 mph. When I was a coach, I caught Billy Wagner when he was with the Astros. He probably had the best fastball, on a regular basis, I’ve ever seen. It was a pure, riding four-seamer that just jumped at you.
Nolan had a great fastball, as did J.R., but they were also starters. That’s a game of conservation, as many as nine innings. Billy would go out there for an inning and blow gas at 100 mph-plus. Warming him up — I was getting a little older, but I was still aware of the difference — I never had a fastball get on me like his did.
DL: Who had the best fastball among guys who didn’t light up the radar gun?
AA: Sid Fernandez. I never caught him, but I hit against him. The radar reading on the scoreboard would say 86 mph, but my teammates and I couldn’t get to him. You’d foul it off or you’d pop it up. It was uncanny. It was a riding four-seamer, and I don’t know if it was deception or what it was, but somehow you couldn’t get to it.
Jim Deshaies was much the same way. Jim would actually start some games — this was occasionally — around 80 mph with his fastball, and hitters wouldn’t get to it. He’d leave it up in the strike zone, 84 to 86 mph, and guys would swing and miss. It was unbelievable. Four-seamers, just straight as can be, and they couldn’t get to it.
DL: Who had the best slider?
AA: J.R. Richard had the most devastating slider of anybody I was around. I wasn’t aware of guys hitting that pitch. He threw so hard. He was scary to right-handed hitters. His slider was something other than his fastball, and all right-handed hitters had to be aware of his fastball. It was just pure filth.
The Dodgers were our rival back then, and Steve Garvey was one of the great hitters in baseball. That slider of J.R. Richard’s would just eat him alive, just like it did all other right-handed hitters.
Sliders are so varying. You’ll hear terms like cut fastball and slider, and you’ll see anything from what I would refer to as a slurve to an over-the-top thing that looks more like a small curveball. A whole variety of pitches. Ken Forsch had a little cutter and he called it his slider. I played with some guys who said they threw a cutter and it was a huge slider. The terminology can really get messed up.
A lot of guys had a good slider, but the big thing is none of them had the fastball J.R. did. Nolan never threw a slider; he threw a curveball. When you can throw really hard and throw an effective slider as hard as J.R. did, it’s going to be the best of the bunch.
DL: Did Ryan have the best curveball you caught?
AA: Probably the best swing-and-miss curveball. Bert Blyleven had the best curveball I faced. He also threw hard, and that’s a big part of breaking-ball effectiveness. Guys didn’t hit Nolan’s curveball because they were so aware of his fastball. His curveball was sharp, but it had to be with as hard as Nolan threw it.
I can actually see in my mind a hanging curveball to Dusty Baker, for the final out — a ground ball to third — of no-hitter number five. It was a hanger. I thought it was going to get crushed, and I think Dusty thought he was going to crush it. Time makes you think, “Nobody could ever hit so-and-so,” but I kind of do these replays in my head and see pitches that are contrary to what I want to conjure up in my mind. Everybody is hittable at some point. But yes, Nolan had a very good curveball.
DL: Who had the best changeup?
AA: Nolan came up with a great changeup late in his career. But Dave Smith, who I think is the all-time saves leader for the Astros, had a tremendous changeup. He threw it out of a little bit of a splitter grip, but it didn’t do anything. It just floated.
The best changeups come from the guys who trust their grips and throw it as hard as they can. That’s all a changeup is. If I was telling a kid how to throw a changeup, I’d say find a grip you can control, that you can trust, and throw the ball as hard as you can. You need arm speed to have a great changeup. I caught some guys with good ones, but Dave Smith was probably the most consistent.
DL: What about best control?
AA: Maybe Don Sutton. He could do a lot of magic with areas of the plate. A guy I was around that I didn’t catch, when he first came up, was Roy Oswalt. He was really gifted. To me, he was like Greg Maddux, only with exceptional stuff, velocity-wise. But it didn’t last long in terms of the location. I though Roy Oswalt had a chance to become one of the greats. Another was Gaylord Perry. He had great control.
DL What was it like to catch Perry?
AA: I didn’t really get to catch him a lot other than in the bullpen. Gaylord was the most intense preparer I have ever been around. When he warmed up in the bullpen, or between innings, he had to put all of his pitches to there, and to there. And if he didn’t, he demanded of himself — not anybody else — to throw another pitch to get that second one there. That’s how he worked. He was meticulous about his preparation. I really admired him for the way he went about his work.
DL: Did Mike Scott doctor the baseball, as many have claimed?
AA: If Mike Scott was guilty of the implication, then were a lot of other guys, including teammates of mine. And there were some guys who were pretty effective. Let’s put it that way
For a small window, Mike was really, really good. Mike had a good arm. He wasn’t upper-90s, but he was low- to mid-90s and he learned how to create some movement. Anything else I could say would be unfair. Mike is a great friend of mine.
Again, let me be clear about this. There are other names, highly-regarded names, that “would never do such a thing” that are on the same list.
DL: What was Joaquín Andújar like?
AA: Joaquín is famous for having showered with his uniform on and for burning his uniform in the clubhouse. He once yelled at reporters because, during his previous eight outings, all of which he lost, they didn’t come up to ask him questions. Now they were, because he’d actually won.
He fancied himself a switch-hitter. We had this jacket thing — a one-sleeved jacket — and on least two occasions he put the sleeve on his left arm after getting on base. The switch-hitter thing doesn’t really apply — not sure why I mentioned it — but he was keeping his non-pitching arm warm.
Another thing Joachin would do is cross me up, but maybe he just wasn’t seeing well. At least that was his story, and he stuck to it.
DL: You also caught Dennis Eckersley.
AA: Dennis came onto the scene as a young kid, a brash young kid, and he had great stuff. He was fun. He was hated by the opposition because he was so brash, and he was loved by his teammates because he was so brash. I remember Eck striking out Rod Carew, when Rod was as good as they came. Rod might have looked out at the mound or something. Eck said, “Sit down, meat.” He was definitely brash.
The funny thing is, most of us look at hall-of-famers with this eye of, “Wow, magical stuff.” I played with a young Dennis Eckersley and a young Craig Biggio, and in each case I had no concept. Nor did any of our teammates. We had no concept that these players were going to go on to become the players they did. Zero. It’s a funny thing when you see end results of great players.
DL: Did you catch any knuckleball pitchers?
AA: Joe Niekro. And I didn’t do a lot of catching; I did a lot of goalie-ing. That’s why my fingers look like they do. I became a horrible catcher in the process. It destroyed my mechanics. I think I’ve figured out how I should have gone about things, but I hadn’t at the time. Joe threw a knuckleball that was about 10 mph harder than that of his brother. It was like a butterfly on steroids. Phil threw a soft floater, and you could kind of flow with it.