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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Push to ‘steal’ strikes draws catchers closer to plate and to danger

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras (Wikipedia)

By Katie Woo / The Athletic

Weeks before opening day this season, Major League Baseball sent a memo to all 30 clubs highlighting a rise in catcher’s interference. The instances of catchers being struck by the bats of opposing hitters were rising rapidly. Catcher’s interference was called 94 times in 2023, nearly 20 more times than in 2022.

What was causing the increase? Catchers kept moving closer to the plate. In the era of pitch framing, teams deduced that the closer a catcher is to receiving a pitch, the better chance he has to “steal” a strike.

It worked well enough that catchers kept shifting closer to the batter’s box. The memo this spring essentially warned teams to cut it out and move catchers farther behind the plate to minimize risk.

But anyone who saw St. Louis Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras fracture his left arm last Tuesday knows that the risk remains ever-present. The average catcher’s interference total from 2010 to 2018 was 31. This year, it has been called 33 times less than two months into the season.

There are more than double the interferences in 2024 compared with 2022 at the same point (15). The league is on a pace for a record 148 catcher’s interferences this season. The push to frame the lower strike has inadvertently put the safety of catchers in jeopardy.

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

Contreras was struck by the swing of New York Mets des-ignated hitter J.D. Martínez. The catcher underwent surgery Wednesday and will miss a minimum of six to eight weeks. Contreras was one of baseball’s worst framers last year on borderline pitches below the zone. The Cardinals, a defense-oriented club, worked extensively with him to improve in that regard.

In 2023, his first year in St. Louis, the Cardinals over-hauled Contreras’ approach, including how he set up behind the plate. (Contreras ditched the traditional crouch behind the plate in favor of the one-knee down method.) They also moved Contreras closer to the plate.

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

“The more catchers are evaluated on framing, the closer they’re getting to the hitter in order to get to that low pitch,” Marmol said. “You’re seeing more catchers do that based on being able to get the low pitch, but you’re also seeing more catcher’s interference and backswings getting guys based on them being closer. Sometimes, the catcher unknowingly could get closer and closer from hitter to hitter without noticing.”

That seems to have been the case for Contreras, who was caught by the swing of Martínez, who has a naturally deep swing and sets up as close to the back of the batter’s box as possible. Replays showed the head of Martínez’s bat hitting Contreras’ left arm square. It also showed just how far Contre-ras had reached in his attempt to frame the pitch.

“There’s always a risk being a catcher,” Contreras said after the injury. “Could have been something different. It could’ve been off my knee. It could be a concussion. That risk is always going to be there. I’m not blaming any part of my game because this happened tonight.”

Perhaps that is the problem. No position player in baseball takes a more constant beating than the catcher. And as teams across the league covet the low-strike call, catchers take the brunt of the con-sequences.

“We used to always talk about catcher inter-ference being long strings on your glove or tick-ing your glove,” said Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch, who caught seven seasons in the major leagues. “Then it turned into the glove in its en-tirety. He is one of the first I’ve seen on a limb.

“That is risky,” Hinch added. “The closer we get to the plate, the more strikes we can grab at the bottom rail. Catch-ers are getting evaluated. They’re getting paid on how well they can control the bottom rail. That’s led to more and more catcher interferences.”

Some teams emphasize the low strike more than others. Philadelphia Phillies manager Rob Thomson was a catcher in the Tigers organization for four seasons. He was taught that as the bat comes through the zone, the glove should follow.

“You’re going to catch more foul tips,” Thomson said. “You’re closer to the plate, you’re closer to the strike zone. It’s a better presentation for the umpire.”

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

“We keep our eye on guys that do that and remind the catcher, ‘You got to back up a little bit,’” he said.

The happy medium for some teams seems to be self-monitoring. The Minnesota Twins, for example, monitor their catcher every pitch. It is one of the in-game responsibilities of Hank Conger, the first-base and catching coach.

The Atlanta Braves have two coaches assigned to catch-ing duties. Sal Fasano is the catching coach. He is assisted by Eddie Pérez, who spent nine of his 11 major league seasons catching for Atlanta. Pérez certainly understands the strategy behind being close to the plate, but he thinks the responsibility to inform the catcher that he is too close falls on those watch-ing the game from the dugout.

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

He added: “As a catcher, they’ve got to tell you from the side how close you are to the hitter.”

But the accidental blows behind the plate can sometimes be a two-way street. Catchers are frequently clipped by hit-ters’ swings regardless of where they are positioned. With the average bat speed registering roughly 75 mph, some argue the responsibility lies on the batter to ensure that not just their physical body remains within the parameters of the batter’s box, but their swing as well.

“The thing I don’t necessarily agree with is it can be the way people are swinging, too,” Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “It can be the way catchers are setting up, yes. But it also can be kind of the way some people are swinging. And it’s dangerous.”

With the league on notice and MLB aware of the risks, what can be done to cut down catcher’s interference — and the inherent injury risk? Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas sug-gested a physical line behind the plate that catchers cannot cross, a box of their own in a way. Could the automated ball-strike system, which theoretically eliminates the value of fram-ing, be the answer? Possibly, but it’s an imperfect system in the minor leagues and is far from being a major league product.

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

The Cardinals now know how severe that impact can be. The bigger question looms: Does baseball?

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