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  • What's Up With All These Catcher's Interferences?


    Matthew Trueblood

    Twice in the early stages of Wednesday night's Brewers-Dodgers game, a catcher's interference helped the Dodgers score. This is becoming a pattern, so let's talk about it a bit.

    Image courtesy of © Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

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    One thing you need to know about me is that I'm a catcher's interference nerd from way back. I've always loved tracking them, especially when a hitter is unusually good at causing them, or when a catcher is unusually bad at avoiding them. (I bet it won't surprise you to learn that Pete Rose long held the record for times reaching base that way, but are enough of a head to remember Jacoby Ellsbury's extraordinary race for that record?) 

    Even absent that aspect of it, though, it's interesting to attune to catcher's interference, because the trend line league-wide in their frequency is impossible to miss.

    A decade ago, a night like the one William Contreras just had--twice committing interference in one game--would constitute almost 10 percent of all the instances of interference over an entire season, for the whole season. Now, it feels much more like a drop in the bucket. The numbers above don't even include Contreras's foibles last night.

    That's another thing, though. Are these really mistakes? Or are they just the natural, unavoidable, occasional result of changes in the way hitters, pitchers, catchers, and umpires interact? I wrote at length about this in 2017, for Baseball Prospectus. Hitters are trained, more than ever, to let their barrel travel backward as they begin their swing, to generate power and get on plane with the incoming pitch. They do so from the very back edge of the box, because pitchers throw harder than ever and are trained to maximize their extension toward home plate, so the precious extra inches of distance from setting up even in the middle of the box are much-needed.

    Catchers, meanwhile, know they're increasingly evaluated (and eventually paid) based on their pitch framing. They try to catch most pitches earlier, closer to when they cross home plate, because that's when they're more likely to look like strikes to the umpire. Thus, we have hitters taking bigger swings from deeper in the box and catchers creeping up to stick their mitts out there to get the ball if the big swing doesn't come. The real estate within which so much of the game is decided has moved slightly back, and it's become more densely populated. Collisions are inevitable.

    The Brewers' famous prioritization and excellent instruction of catchers in the area of framing seems to come at some cost in this area. They're now up to six catcher's interferences this season, second-most in MLB. Contreras, alone, accounts for five of those. No individual catcher in baseball has that many. In the medium term, he'll have to find some way to continue being a good pitch framer, without putting his glove out there quite so far. Giving up outs and runner advancement that way is always frustrating, but just as importantly, there's always some risk that this kind of collision could lead to an injury. 

    For now, it's not a huge deal. The Brewers would not have won Wednesday night, even absent those accidents. It's just a little baseball enigma worth unraveling, while we have the chance.

     

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    It's worth noting that on the broadcast last night when Martinez came up for the 3rd time they were showing how far he was lining up in the box. His right foot was clearly beyond the (no longer visible) back chalk line. Contreras either has to call him out on that or move back.

    I wonder if robots will remove the incentive for catches to creep up in the box, if indeed that is happening. 

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    6 hours ago, Team Canada said:

    Contreras either has to call him out on that or move back.

    I don't believe a catcher can do much about it other than complain to the umpire.  It is the umpires responsibility to make sure the batter is inside the batters box and not the catcher.  I don't think the umpire would have allowed for Contreras to move any further back as they are going to stand where they feel comfortable calling balls and strikes.  This is really the umpires responsibility. 

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    The subject of catcher’s interference reminds me of an obscure rule that I didn’t know about until about 10  years ago when I first saw it come in to play.

    The rule basically allows the batting team to “decline” the interference and take the result of the play. The interference does not immediately result in a dead ball. 
     

    The time I saw this the batter hit a weak grounder that scored a runner from third while  the batter was thrown out. The manager of the hitting team had to decide if he wanted to exchange the out for the run or give the hitter a chance to do better. 

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