Baseball’s on Track for Another All-Time High by Jeff Sullivan May 23, 2017 You’ve read enough articles over the years that you’re pretty well aware of the major trends within the game. Relative to history, strikeout totals keep climbing higher and higher. Fastball velocities keep climbing higher and higher, and the number of defensive shifts is on its own upswing. And, of course, there’s the recent home-run spike, which has seen the total dinger number skyrocket. This is the modern-day brand of baseball that we accept: there are more whiffs than ever, because there’s more heat than ever, but the reduced balls in play are at least partially offset by the balls that are leaving the yard. All of this is well and irrefutably established. What if I told you that, right now, baseball is on pace for another all-time high? One that has nothing to do with homers or strikeouts or anything else. Would you be curious? It’s only natural that the answer would be yes — we all want to know what’s going on within the game. So, I’ll go ahead and let you in on the secret. But, let me forewarn you. It’s awfully stupid. Catcher’s interference! Maybe the most forgettable way for a hitter to reach first base. I gathered the information from Baseball-Reference, and I went back to a nice round-numbered year just for the heck of it. Don’t you worry — there isn’t some hidden previous spike in the 30s or 40s. These are year-to-year league-wide rates expressed as the number of interference calls per 10,000 plate appearances, and, right now, the league’s at 2.97. That’s an average of three catcher’s interference calls per 10,000 PA. The previous high was last year’s 2.11. The previous high was 1963’s 1.96. That’s a weird-looking spike. What’s going on? Well, in all honesty, maybe we don’t need to search for an explanation, here. Because, this season, there’s been a total of just 15 catcher’s interference calls. When you have a number so low, it can bounce around just as a fluke. There’s not a big difference between 15 and 10, and 10 wouldn’t mean very much. So there isn’t some league-wide outbreak of bats hitting gloves. The plot makes this seem more dramatic than it is. But I’ll say that, while 15 is a small number, these numbers are always small, and we’re coming up on just the last week of May. In all of 2009, there were 19 catcher’s interference calls. The year before, there were 17. A decade and a half ago, there were 12 catcher’s interference calls, and this year has already passed that. It’s not all a fluke. There’s something here, even if it’s limited. You might recall that I’ve written a few times before about catcher’s interference. Usually, those have been posts about Jacoby Ellsbury, and here’s the most recent one. Ellsbury is a prolific base-reacher by way of technicality, and last year alone he drew 12 catcher’s interference calls. That shattered the previous single-season record, by four. Ellsbury stands at 28 calls in his career, which is one off Pete Rose’s all-time record of 29. Sure enough, this season, Ellsbury has drawn another two calls, and here’s the most recent of them. That’s from May 11. Ellsbury also drew a call on May 1, so he’s doing his usual thing. Catchers still haven’t quite figured out what to do. Maybe there’s nothing to do. Anyway, while Ellsbury’s two calls stand out, they don’t stand out the most, not in 2017. See, if you believe this sort of thing is annoying, Ellsbury isn’t 2017’s biggest offender. Here’s a clip from May 14: Here’s a clip from April 30: Here’s a clip from April 28: Here’s a clip from a little earlier on April 28: What the clips have in common: Josh Reddick. Reddick drew three calls in three days, including two in the same game, against the same pitcher, and with the same catcher. Reddick is up to four catcher’s interference calls on the year, already. The individual leader in 2015 finished with four. So did the leaders from 2014 and 2013. This season, Josh Reddick has more catcher’s interference calls than Carlos Gonzalez has home runs. Reddick and Ellsbury alone are more or less responsible for driving the early 2017 spike. Over the observed window, there are 18 players who have drawn at least 10 calls in their careers, with Reddick having recently joined the group. Here are all their career totals: Looking at things in that way, it’s Rose and Ellsbury who emerge. For a different look, here’s the same plot, examined on a rate basis. This time, it’s each player’s average plate appearances per interference call. There’s Ellsbury in fifth. And now, there’s Reddick, in eighth. He’s basically in a three-way tie for sixth. For Reddick, he’s on something of a surge, now at a career average of 310 plate appearances per call. His average before this season was one per 443 plate appearances. Reddick didn’t draw his first call until 2014, when he was already an established regular. It seems like Reddick has made some tweaks. It seems like those tweaks have caught a few catcher gloves. Real quick, as an aside, I’d like to bring your attention to something. Look at that last plot. There’s Chris Short, with one interference call for every 71 plate appearances. Chris Short was a pitcher. He made a couple All-Star Games. He batted 786 times, drawing 11 catcher’s interference calls. To make things even weirder still, Short is tied for second place in most catcher’s interference calls suffered as a pitcher on the mound. Phil Niekro was on the mound for 14 such calls. That’s an easy first place, and not a surprise, given how catchers would’ve tried to catch him. Short was on the mound for six such calls, tying him with Nolan Ryan. Catcher’s interference is incredibly rare. Unless, that is, you were Chris Short. Anyway, I don’t know if there’s a real pattern, as much as there is just Ellsbury and Reddick making things weird. Ellsbury went crazy a season ago, and now Reddick is on fire, so to speak. If there were a real trend, and if I were forced to come up with a possible explanation, I’d maybe try to link it to pitcher velocity. Perhaps batters are just standing further back in the box to gain an extra split-second, given that fastballs are harder than they’ve ever been. It’s also not inconceivable there could be some link to framing techniques. I don’t have anything further there. It’s just a little thought. More probably, Ellsbury’s just a freak, and Reddick has his own freakish tendencies. As a consequence, a league-wide statistical spike emerges. Baseball’s on pace for an all-time high. It’s about as invisible as an all-time high could possibly get.