Let’s Make the Bullpen Catcher the Emergency Catcher

This postseason has featured plenty of interesting baseball with all sorts of compelling performances. Without diminishing Javy Baez’s tags or Clayton Kershaw’s brilliance, it’s probably fair to say that the two main storylines have concerned bullpen usage and the impact of replay. Perhaps we’ve reached a bullpen tipping point, but it seems almost certain that this postseason will lead the league to revise exactly how replay is applied to split-second base detachments.

While most people have latched onto these stories, I’ve had my eye on something different. The Cubs and Dodgers both carried three catchers for at least one series and have both used three catchers in a single game during these playoffs. Admittedly, this is a less important and obvious development than bullpen changes and replay controversies, but it sets up a discussion I’ve been wanting to have about a potential rule change.

Most major-league teams carry two catchers on their 25-man roster. Occasionally, you’ll find a team willing to carry three if one of the catchers can play another position or if one catcher is managing an injury, but for the most part there are two players who know how to catch on the roster and a utility player whose job it is to wear the gear if something terrible happens.

Given that the position is unique, managers are extremely hesitant to put someone behind the plate who isn’t a true catcher. It’s one thing to put a second baseman in left field for two innings, but receiving pitches is nothing like playing the other positions. This is a totally rational preference.

But one of the effects of this unwillingness in the game to risk using the emergency catcher is that managers rarely want to replace their starting catcher unless he gets injured. Catchers are less likely to be replaced on defense, in the box, or on the bases, because once a club turns to its backup catcher, they’re working without a net. If the backup gets hurt or ejected, the manager is then forced to break the glass and put the non-catcher Romine behind the dish.

Injuries aren’t that frequent, so some of this risk aversion is overblown. For example, it’s probably alright to pinch run for a slow catcher in the eighth inning without a problem — the odds that a backup gets hurt in one inning of work is quite small — but let’s accept the overall premise that getting caught with no catcher is sufficiently bad such that one has to avoid it in all but the most critical circumstances.

Given that, it strikes me that MLB should develop a rule that eases this risk. Catching is a taxing position and anything the league can do to rest its catchers — in order to keep them healthy and productive — is worth doing. Shaving a couple extra innings a week seems like a useful step in that direction. But MLB is also interested in more offense, which should lead them to encourage pinch hitting and platoon advantages for hitters. Were a manager is more comfortable replacing his catcher, he can let a slugging outfielder hit for the catcher a few times per week.

Catchers typically aren’t great hitters, so fewer at-bats mixed with more rest seems like something MLB would want to support. The question is how to craft a rule that facilitates this without disrupting the nature of the game in a meaningful way.

In the All-Star Game, for example, catchers are allowed to re-enter the game if their clubs use all the backup catchers on the roster and then the last of those suffers an injury. This kind of thing is sometimes allowed in high-school leagues, as well. Certainly this is fine in an exhibition contest. Over a full season, however, you could imagine a scenario in which teams cite questionable injuries to squeeze a little advantage out of rule designed to ease the catcher-replacement embargo. In the case, it’d be possible to pinch run for a slow catcher, score a run thanks to that speedy pinch-runner, and then have a backup catcher feign injury the next inning in order to bring the starter back. That’s not really the intent of the rule and it’s not easy to draft a rule in a way that easily prevents that. Even if the terms are composed by independent injury arbiter or something, how would it be possible to litigate the authenticity of a sore elbow?

The rule should be designed such that clubs are encouraged to use both catchers when it makes sense, but not to use the rule to get around MLB’s substitution rules. In other words, teams should be able to use their entire bench and not just their bench minus a catcher.

Enter the bullpen catcher. Every team employs at least one person whose job it is to catch warm-up pitches in the bullpen, and this person is typically a former catcher who wasn’t quite good enough to make it in the majors. I propose a rule that allows a team to bring its bullpen catcher into the game, but also turns the corresponding lineup spot into an automatic out.

This accomplishes our two goals, allowing a manager always to have a defensive catching option available in case of injury, while not creating any incentive for a team to benefit from a fake injury. Under these terms, it wouldn’t be possible to run for Buster Posey, invent an injury for his backup, and then bring Posey back. A manager could run for Posey and bring in his backup — and, were the backup to get hurt, there would still be a real catching option available. It would cost an out when Posey’s lineup spot comes around, but that seems like a worthwhile trade.

Presumably, teams wouldn’t need to utilize this rule very often because injuries aren’t terribly common, but it would allow them the peace of mind to use their actual backup catcher more often. That could be good for offensive production and durability.

I recognize that this isn’t exactly at the top of the list of what’s wrong with baseball, but it’s low-hanging fruit that would help players stay healthy and productive for longer. It would also be nice to see hard-working bullpen catchers get a little taste of big-league action. This rule change would provide a safety net without turning the current substitution framework into a farce, and as MLB and the MLBPA finalize a new CBA, it’s worth considering.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Monsignor Martinez
7 years ago

Not sure I agree with this one. I don’t see a strong need to allow bullpen catchers to play as well.