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Catcher interference calls are skyrocketing in the MLB. It puts players in danger



Catcher interference calls are skyrocketing in the MLB.  It puts players in danger

Weeks before opening day of this season, Major League Baseball sent a memo to all 30 clubs highlighting the increase in catcher interference. The number of cases of catchers being hit by opponents’ bats increased rapidly. Catcher’s interference was called 94 times in 2023, almost 20 times more than in 2022.

What caused the dramatic increase? Catchers were getting closer to the plate. In the era of pitch framing, teams concluded that the closer a catcher is to receiving a pitch, the more likely he is to steal a strike.

It worked so well that the catchers moved closer to the batter’s box. This spring’s memo essentially warned teams to take it out and move the catchers further behind the plate to minimize the risk.

But anyone who saw St. Louis Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras suffer a broken left arm Tuesday night knows the risk is always there.

Catcher’s interference calls continue to skyrocket at an historic rate. The average catcher interference total from 2010 to 2018 was 31. This year, there have been 33 calls — less than two months later.

MLB’s concerns were already mounting. There are more than double the number of outages in 2024 compared to the 2022 season at the same point (15). The league is on pace for a record 148 catcher interferences this season. The push to frame the lower strike has inadvertently compromised catchers’ safety.

“The risk is high,” Cardinals manager Oli Marmol said earlier this week. “We just experienced it.”

Contreras was immediately hit by the swing of New York Mets’ restricted hitter JD Martinez. The catcher underwent surgery on Wednesday and will miss at least six to eight weeks. Contreras was one of the worst baseball players on borderline sub-zone pitches last year. The Cardinals, a defense-oriented club, worked extensively with Contreras to make improvements in that area.

During his first year in St. Louis, the Cardinals overhauled Contreras’ approach, including his positioning behind the plate (Contreras ditched the traditional squat behind the plate in favor of the one-knee-down method). Indeed, they also brought Contreras closer to the plate.

The Cardinals are hardly the only baseball team to employ this method, but they were the first to pay the price for it this season.

“The more catchers are assessed for framing, the closer they get to the batter to achieve that low pitch,” Marmol said. “You see more catchers doing that because they can hit the low pitch, but you also see more catchers and backswing guys getting it because they’re closer. Sometimes the catcher could unconsciously move closer and closer from batter to batter without noticing.”

That appears to have been the case for Contreras, who was caught by the swing of Martinez, who naturally has a deep swing and lines up as close to the back of the batter’s box as possible. Replays showed the head of Martinez’s bat hitting Contreras’ left arm square. It also showed how far Contreras had come in his attempt to map the field.

“There’s always a risk as a catcher,” Contreras said after the injury. “It could have been something else. It could be my knee, it could be a concussion. That risk will always be there. “I don’t blame any part of my game because this happened tonight.”

Maybe that’s the problem. No position player in baseball takes a more consistent beating than the catcher. And while teams across the board covet the low-strike call, catchers bear the brunt of the consequences.

“We used to always talk about catcher interference, tapping long strings on your glove or tapping your glove,” said Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch, who played seven seasons in the major leagues. “Then it became the glove in its entirety. (Contreras) is one of the first I’ve seen on a limb.”

That’s risky,” Hinch added. “The closer we get to the plate, the more hits we can absorb on the bottom rail. Catchers are evaluated. They get paid for how well they can control the bottom rail. That led to more and more catcher interference throughout the game. … We want our guys to be close enough to have an impact with the low attack, but not get in danger. It’s a difficult balance when the incentive to do it is real and the risk is extreme.”

Some teams place more emphasis on the low shot than others. Philadelphia Phillies manager Rob Thomson was a catcher in the Tigers organization for four seasons. He learned that when the bat comes through the zone, the glove must follow.

“JYou’ll get more dirty tips,” Thomson said. “You’re closer to the plate, you’re closer to the strike zone. It’s a better presentation for the referee.”

Still, Thomson prefers his catchers to keep some distance from the plate.

“We keep an eye on guys who do that and remind the catcher, ‘You need to back up a little bit,'” he said.

The happy medium for some teams seems to be self-control. The Minnesota Twins, for example, watch their catcher’s every pitch. It’s one of the most important responsibilities in the game for first base and catching coach Hank Conger.

A good, tight setup is generally better than worse, whatever you prefer. But it is clear to prevent not only hindrance to the catcher, but also injuries,” said manager Rocco Baldelli. “I think there are a few reasons why (being closer) is helpful, but there are other times when we’re yelling at them to make an effort to be helpful too, you know?”

The Atlanta Braves have been assigned two coaches to catch duties. Sal Fasano is the catching coach. He is assisted by Eddie Pérez, who spent nine of his eleven seasons in the big league playing for the Braves. Pérez certainly understands the strategy behind being close to the plate, but thinks the responsibility of informing the catcher that he is too close falls on those watching the game from the dugout.

It’s always a good idea to be closer to the hitter,” Pérez said. “There’s a thought that if you’re closer to the hitter, you’ll get more calls.”

“Sal always reminds them to get back, you don’t want to get hurt,” Pérez added. “You can see better from (the dugout). When you’re catching, you don’t know how far you are from the hitter, and every hitter has a different setup, so you have to adjust. … As a catcher, they have to tell you from the side how close you are to the batter.”

But the unintended hits behind the plate can sometimes be a two-way street. Catchers often get clipped by hitters’ swings, no matter where they are. Since the average bat speed is about 75 miles per hour, some argue that the responsibility falls on the hitter to ensure that not only their physical body stays within the parameters of the batter’s box, but their swing as well.

“What I don’t necessarily agree with is that it could also be the way people swing,” Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “It could be the way catchers position themselves, yes. But it can also be a bit of the way some people swing. And it is dangerous.”

Now that the league is aware and MLB is clearly aware of the risks, what can be done to reduce catcher interference – and the inherent risk of injury? Cardinals’ starting pitcher Miles Mikolas suggested a physical line behind the plate that catchers cannot cross, a box of their own, in a sense. Could the automated ball-trike system (which theoretically eliminates the value of framing) be the answer? Possibly, but it’s an imperfect system in the minor leagues and it’s far from a big league product.

I don’t know what else they could do other than reward the hitter with more bases, put him on second base,” Hinch said. “There are things you could probably do to make it super impactful for the game, but I don’t know if anything could be more impactful than losing one of your best players for six to eight weeks, 10 weeks, whatever it will be. ”

The cardinals now know how serious that impact can be. The bigger question looms: baseball?

The AthleticsMatt Gelb, Cody Stavenhagen, Aaron Gleeman, Patrick Mooney, David O’Brien and Eno Sarris contributed to this story.

(Photo of Contreras being helped off the field: Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)