Catchers Have Been Pickier About Pickoffs in 2024

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The catcher pickoff is one of my favorite plays in baseball. It’s impressive almost every single time. Not only do backpicks call for remarkable agility and arm strength on the catcher’s part, but they also require a Holmesian ability to read the diamond. Are any runners getting cocky? Is the defense ready for a pickoff throw? Can the team risk a throwing error? The catcher needs to make those decisions rapidly, all while still performing his regular duties behind the plate. It’s not easy.

To that point, I like catcher pickoffs so much because they’re a nice reminder of the level of talent on display in professional baseball. In all my years of childhood rec league play, I never saw a catcher pull off a backpick. I don’t think I ever saw anyone try. The chances of success were too low, and the risk of a catastrophic error was too high. Catcher pickoffs are better left to the professionals. Yet this year, even the professionals are leaving them to someone else.

Here is a supercut of every catcher pickoff so far in the 2024 season. You might notice there aren’t many:

According to the records at Baseball Reference, there have been a total of seven catcher pickoffs this year. Just past the quarter mark of the season, that puts the league on pace for 26 backpicks in 2024. Last year, there were 49. In each of the previous two seasons, we saw 51. Over the last two decades, there has never been a full season with fewer than 41 catcher pickoffs. The numbers are, perhaps, even more dramatic if you remove cross-listed pickoff/caught stealing plays. There have only been five pure catcher pickoffs this year, putting the league on pace for just 19 by season’s end:

Catcher Pickoffs Are Way Down
Year All Catcher Pickoffs Full-Season Pace Pure Catcher Pickoffs Full-Season Pace
2024 7 26 5 19
2023 49 49 34 34
2022 51 51 40 40
2021 51 51 40 40
2020 17 46 15 41
2019 67 67 50 50
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

In 2023, the league leaders in catcher pickoffs were Keibert Ruiz (6), Patrick Bailey (4), and Francisco Alvarez (4). In 2022 and ’23 combined, the leaders were Ruiz (10), Jose Trevino (7), and Elias Díaz (6). While three of those five catchers have spent time on the IL this season, that group has still combined to catch 933.1 innings over 115 games. That’s nearly equivalent to a full season of work behind the dish. They have yet to pick off a single runner.

Here’s another fun way to think about how few catcher pickoffs we’ve seen in 2024. So far this year, there have been more successful steals of home plate (9) than successful catcher pickoffs (7). That’s partly because steals at home are up, but still, this simply doesn’t happen. Like, ever:

Data via Baseball Reference

Entering the 2023 season, I thought we might see an uptick in backpicks. I was hardly alone. Willson Contreras, one of the greatest backpick artists of his generation, took note of the fact that the new disengagement rules did not limit catcher pickoff attempts. He said the Cardinals would have to be “smart” regarding “when our catchers backpick runners.” Manager Oliver Marmol sang a similar tune, praising his new catcher’s pickoff abilities. He said Contreras would “play a big part” in preventing runners from “stretching out” their primary and secondary leads. More catchers, such as Sean Murphy (“Yeah, that means we’ll throw more”), and managers, including Gabe Kapler (“We’re emphasizing backpicks”), made similar remarks.

A few months into the 2023 season, Kiri Oler looked at the data and concluded that “the numbers suggest catchers could be throwing behind runners significantly more in the name of keeping runners on edge.” She found that backpicks were a much more effective tool for discouraging stolen bases than traditional pitcher pickoff throws. Yet, if catchers were throwing behind runners any more often, they weren’t earning any more pickoffs. League-wide catcher pickoff totals were remarkably consistent from 2021 to ’23. Now, in the second season under the new disengagement rules, catcher pickoffs are disappearing.

This disappearing act is especially noteworthy considering average catcher pop times have gotten quicker in recent years (at least as of Ben Clemens’s piece on the stolen base rate from last month). What’s more, it’s not as if runners have been extra cautious on the bases this season; if anything, it’s the opposite. The stolen base attempt rate is slightly up, while the stolen base success rate is slightly down. Similarly, runners are making outs on base (OOB) and taking extra bases (XBT%) at similar rates to last season, according to Baseball Reference.

Most interestingly, the decline in catcher pickoffs has not resulted in fewer pickoffs overall. Ninety-nine runners have been picked off this season, putting the league on pace for 368 pickoffs by the time the calendar flips to October. That would be the highest total in a single season since 2012. Needless to say, this means pitcher pickoffs are on the rise. If current trends hold, pitchers alone will finish the season with more pickoffs (342) than pitchers and catchers combined in 2023 (341). Pitchers have not surpassed the 300-pickoff mark since 2012; they’re on pace to smash past that threshold in 2024.

On the one hand, it makes sense that pitchers would improve their pickoff throws with a full season of new disengagement rule experience under their belts. That said, it stands to reason that runners, too, would get better at making the most of the new rules. A recent article from The Athletic noted that “stolen-base percentages actually went down with each pickoff attempt last season, perhaps because baserunners were not yet attuned to exploiting the new rules. This season, runners are taking fuller advantage. According to STATS Perform, the stolen-base percentage after zero pickoff [attempts] is .77 percent. After one, it’s .81. After two, .87.”

Thus, while pitchers are getting better at picking off runners, the penalty of a failed pitcher pickoff attempt has increased. That being so, you might think catcher pickoffs would rise as a result. Runners’ taking more aggressive leads provides the opportunity, while the disengagement limit for pitchers provides the motive. The case is solid. Nevertheless, things certainly haven’t played out that way. What’s up with that?

Perhaps it isn’t really about the pickoffs, at least not directly. Instead, catchers might simply be placing greater emphasis on a different aspect of their game: framing. Teams knew pitch framing was important long before they had any metrics to quantify it. Now that we have the numbers, framing is more in vogue than ever. As a result, it’s likely teams are prioritizing framing over other strategies (i.e. pickoffs) in spring training, game plans, and the moment. I’ve already described how difficult a backpick can be. Now imagine trying to pull one off while simultaneously attempting to steal a strike. It’s all but impossible. If anything, I’d think backpicks have the opposite effect; pitches in the strike zone are probably more likely to be called balls on catcher pickoff attempts. Indeed, Noah Woodward found just that in a piece for his Substack, The Advance Scout. Woodward also suggests that the one-knee-down catching stance, known to help with pitch framing, makes it harder for catchers to pull off backpicks. As this catching setup rises in popularity, it makes sense that we would see fewer catcher pickoffs.

Good pitch framing isn’t nearly as exciting as a successful backpick, nor is an extra called strike nearly as beneficial as a pickoff. Ultimately, however, there’s more value to be gained from framing than backpicks over the course of the season. If a catcher can only do one or the other, it’s not hard to see why framing wins out. Even Willson Contreras seems to agree. Contreras recorded 28 pickoffs from 2016-22 with the Cubs. Throwing behind runners was his signature skill. Yet, ever since he signed with the Cardinals – who encouraged him to work on his framing and switch to a one-knee-down position – he has not picked off a single runner. The evidence may be circumstantial, but it’s still compelling.

If catchers are really letting pickoffs fall by the wayside in an effort to steal more strikes, it’s worth remembering that pitchers are picking up the slack. In other words, it might be a win-win. Since the disengagement limits were introduced, pitchers have been picking runners off with greater efficiency than before. That means pitcher pickoff attempts are less detrimental than we might have thought. Meanwhile, catcher pickoff throws still come with significant risk attached; as Kiri explained in her piece last year, the probability of an error is significantly higher on a catcher pickoff throw than a pitcher pickoff throw. Furthermore, while each pitcher disengagement marginally increases the chances of a successful steal, a throwing error all but guarantees the runner an extra base. Therefore, if pitchers can successfully pick runners off at a high enough rate, pitcher pickoff throws might be a safer option for the defense than backpick attempts. Hence the win on both fronts; catchers can be more efficient when they focus on framing over pickoffs, and pickoffs might still be more efficient coming from pitchers rather than catchers.

It will take a lot more data before we can say with any certainty that catchers are truly moving away from backpicks. After all, we’re only seven weeks into the season. Moreover, catcher pickoffs are always so low in number that the league-wide backpick pace could skyrocket quickly. But hey, if we always waited to write about trends until they were undeniable, we wouldn’t be doing a very good job telling the story of the season as it plays out. Pickoffs, both the catcher and pitcher variety, are something to keep a close eye on for the rest of the year. That shouldn’t be hard to do — pickoffs are pretty fun to watch.

All stats and rankings through May 16.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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27 days ago

The framing thing makes sense, including the kneeling stance. Here is one more way, relevant throwing to 1B with a lefty hitter and to 3B a right handed hitter:

When the catcher is setting up as close as possible to the hitter, it’s that much harder to get a clear path to make a throw to the base.