Catchers Aren’t Catching the Ball

This is a simple game.

You throw the ball.

You hit the ball.

You catch the ball.

You got it?

I didn’t have to look far and wide for the clips above. Every single one of them is from the first few games of the League Championship Series. Every team is represented, and the collection is hardly exhaustive. I’ve omitted many wild pitches and all of the postseason’s passed balls. So far, during the 2018 playoffs, there have been 24 of the former and six of the latter. Among postseasons since 2002, the current one has already produced the fourth-most wild pitches — with 10 or more games to go. Only once since 2004 have there been more passed balls than during this postseason.

What we are seeing this October surely has some randomness to it, but wild pitches and passed balls have been on the rise over the past few years. It’s not difficult to figure out why. I’m not sure there’s any evidence to suggest the catching profession has gotten materially worse over the last few years. It’s possible that increased emphasis on framing has caused some decline in blocking ability, but that seems more of a stretch when there is a fairly obvious cause present — namely that pitchers are throwing harder than ever and throwing more breaking balls than ever — and are throwing more pitches out of the strike zone, too. Breaking pitches, particularly offerings thrown out of the strike zone, are more likely to end up as wild pitches.

To get a better sense of the trend, consider this graph of wild pitches per game over the last 30 seasons.

We have the strike-shortened 1994 season standing out, but other than that, the four highest averages have come in the last four years. The past three seasons have been the highest during that time. A wild pitch is an official scoring decision, so it is possible that the increase in wild pitches is due to a corresponding decrease in passed balls.

Here’s the number of passed balls per game over the last 30 seasons.

While there are fewer passed balls now than in the early 90s, the numbers have actually gone up over the past few seasons. Here’s the result when we combine wild pitches and passed balls:

If you remove the strike-shortened campaign of 1994, there really aren’t any seasons comparable to what we’ve seen the past few years. For comparison’s sake, here is that last graph above with offspeed percentage since 2002.

Both have seen a steady rise over the last decade, and there has been an increase in velocity and the number of pitches out of the zone over the past decade, as well. All of those factors have likely made it more difficult for catchers to keep the ball in front of them. In the playoffs, the number of wild pitches has generally been pretty close to the regular season. The general rule has not proved correct over the past few seasons. The graph below shows wild pitches per game in the playoffs over the last 17 seasons.

The last two seasons, the number has skyrocketed. Here’s how the numbers above compare to regular-season averages.

This isn’t just a phenomenon of 2018, as the numbers were really big last year, too. While fastball use has decreased over the last few years in the regular season, pitchers have gone away from the fastball even more in the postseason, as the table below shows.

Non-Fastball Usage in the Playoffs
Year Regular Season Playoffs Change
2015 42.7% 42.8% 0.1%
2016 43.2% 48.1% 4.9%
2017 44.2% 47.3% 3.1%
2018 45.0% 48.0% 3.0%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

In 2015, pitchers went away from the fastball at roughly the same rate in the regular season and the playoffs, but the last three years have seen even more reliance on non-fastballs. When we combine wild pitches and passed balls in the postseason, we see the frequency this season is unmatched.

Balls are getting to the backstop with runners on base in this postseason nearly twice as often as they did a decade ago. The number of breaking pitches seems a likely factor. Pitchers might be focusing more on getting the batter out than worrying about a baserunner. The pitchers who have thrown them this postseason are starters and relievers, good pitchers and mediocre ones. Here’s the leaderboard for the postseason.

Wild Pitch Leaders: 2018 Playoffs
Player Team Wild Pitches
Antonio Senzatela Rockies 2
Justin Verlander Astros 2
A.J. Minter Braves 1
Adam Ottavino Rockies 1
Andrew Miller Indians 1
Arodys Vizcaino Braves 1
Brad Hand Indians 1
CC Sabathia Yankees 1
Cody Allen Indians 1
Craig Kimbrel Red Sox 1
Dellin Betances Yankees 1
Fernando Rodney A’s 1
Jorge De La Rosa Cubs 1
Lance McCullers Jr. Astros 1
Matt Barnes Red Sox 1
Ryan Brasier Red Sox 1
Ryan Pressly Astros 1
Scott Oberg Rockies 1
Stephen Tarpley Yankees 1
Walker Buehler Dodgers 1
Will Harris Astros 1

The Brewers have yet to throw a wild pitch this postseason, although they do have a passed ball. Here’s that leaderboard, as well.

Passed Ball Leaders: 2018 Playoffs
Player Team Passed Balls
Yasmani Grandal Dodgers 3
Martin Maldonado Astros 2
Manny Pina Brewers 1

Grandal had received some attention for his poor showing behind the plate in Game One of the NLCS and he had another passed ball yesterday. In terms of teams, this is what we’ve seen so far when we combine wild pitches and passed balls.

Wild Pitches & Passed Balls
in 2018 Playoffs
Team WP+PB
Astros 7
Dodgers 4
Rockies 4
Indians 3
Red Sox 3
Yankees 3
Braves 2
A’s 1
Cubs 1
Brewers 1

Given the number of games they have played, the Brewers’ work behind the plate has yielded the fewest errors when it comes to letting balls get by. The Astros have had the most trouble, with Grandal and the Dodgers coming in a ways behind. If you’ve noticed more balls getting by catchers in this season’s playoffs, you are not mistaken. While it might be a bit of an anomaly, there are certain factors in today’s game that lead to more risk of a wild pitch or passed ball. As the wild pitch is still a relative rarity, it’s probably worth focusing on getting the out even if it means throwing a ball in the dirt. While the game is simple, catching is probably harder than it ever has been, and it’s showing up in this year’s postseason.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Ryan DCmember
4 years ago

*Traumatic flashback to Matt Wieters in the 2017 NLDS*