Baseball Has a Catchers Problem

They keep getting hit by batters, the sign of a fundamental shift in the position
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 18, 2024 1:50 PM CDT
Baseball Has a Catchers Problem
St. Louis Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras, right, is helped off the field by trainer Adam Olsen after being struck by a bat on May 7.   (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

It was a gruesome injury to one of baseball's best catchers: A Mets batter swung at a pitch during a May 7 game and ended up connecting instead with the left arm of Willson Contreras, fracturing it. The All-Star catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals is now out for at least 10 weeks. The injury wasn't exactly a fluke: As the Wall Street Journal explains, it's the result of a new trend in baseball—catchers creeping ever closer to batters in a bid to steal strikes—that the league may have to curb.

  • The trend: It's illustrated in stats on catcher interference—when a catcher interferes with a batter's swing—which used to be a relatively rare event. Last year, the league logged 96 such calls, up from 74 the previous year, 61 in 2019, 41 in 2016, and 33 in 2015. This year is on pace to be the highest total yet, notes the Journal.

  • The reason: An analysis by Gabe Lacques at USA Today doesn't think it's a coincidence that the numbers started jumping around 2015, the year MLB started using granular Statcast data. Teams realized they could have a profound effect on games if catchers could "frame a pitch" to make non-strikes look like strikes.
  • The result: Several years in, the ability to frame a pitch has become the most important skill valued in a catcher, far more than being able to throw out a base runner or block a wild pitch, according to both stories. One Chicago Cubs coach estimates that pitch-framing is 80% of a catcher's value these days.
  • Changes? "MLB addressed it in spring training with us," Oakland manager Mark Kotsay tells the AP, "in terms of talking about it with our catchers and making them aware that the catcher injury has increased over the last two years, especially with concussions and being hit in the head. So there's definitely a fine line." If injuries continue, the league's competition committee could change the rules to bar the strategy.
  • Moot point? Of course, the league already is testing an "automated strike zone" in the minors and might bring the technology to the majors as soon as next year, per the Journal. Essentially, it means letting a robot, not a human, call pitches, and deceptive catchers likely would not be able to fool the bots.
(More baseball stories.)

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