The Catcher (Special from the IBWAA)
MLB Working To Make One Position Simultaneously Harder, Easier Than Ever
By Sean Millerick
NOTE - This article appeared in the IBWAA's newsletter in January 2023. It is reprinted here with permission.
With all the rule changes coming to MLB this season, it might not just be pitchers and catchers that will want to show up early.
No more shifts. Pitch clocks. Bigger bases. Fewer pick-offs. It’s a lot to process regardless of whatever position you play. The elimination of the shift, in particular, has prognosticators scrambling on which lefty hitters will see their average and OBP benefit, and which ground ball artist pitchers will suffer. As for the basepaths? Surely one speedster will put up a base-stealing number fans haven’t seen in a decade, though it’s anyone’s guess as to who (give me an NL East duel of the Juniors, with Acuna edging out Chisholm). Meanwhile, the league might well set a record for people who steal at least 10.
That being said, it’s one hell of an interesting time to be playing catcher.
Why? Because 2023 isn’t going to be the end of MLB rule changes. As this season unfolds with those adjustments mentioned above, there is one more wrinkle being introduced at the AAA level. Robot umpires. Yes, the Automated Ball-Strike system is charging hard for the major league level, and one has to think that it will at least be present in the form of a challenge system in MLB as soon as 2024. Perhaps by 2025? The umpire behind the plate might work for Best Buy’s Geek Squad in the offseason.
Okay, the last bit is an exaggeration. There is still plenty for umpires to do, and besides, they have a union. But they won’t be calling balls and strikes, a fact that is going to have a much more dramatic impact on a catcher’s day-to-day than the casual fan would first think.
First though - those other rule changes: pitch clocks, pickoff limits, and bigger bases. As a result of them over a three-year stretch in the minors from 2019-2022, the overall stolen base percentage increased by 10%. That’s far from nothing. Between these changes and the drop in power, MLB teams might actually do what the league intends and start to manage like it’s the late 1990s/early 2000s. And thanks to that pickoff provision, more than ever before, controlling those baserunners is going to be the province of the catcher. The way catchers need to call games will change. There’s also no limit on catchers attempting to pick off the runner. Expect that to happen more often.
Lastly, and most obviously, catchers as a group are almost certainly going to be less effective at throwing out runners, and their number of total attempted throws is absolutely certain to increase. So injury risk goes up, and the success rate goes down. Not great.
Of course, throwing out the runner isn’t the be-all, end-all of being an effective catcher. There are things like pitch framing. Positioning themselves and their glove perfectly to get the desired call. Lobbying with the umpire on behalf of the pitcher. Tailoring the game based on the game the umpire is…Yeah, you can probably see where this is going.
Now, none of this is to say J.T. Realmuto’s job is in danger, or that the Braves are going to really regret that Sean Murphy trade. Until Rob Manfred gets around to determining that offense will really go up if teams get to have two DHs, any catcher that can consistently be league average or better as a hitter is going to be able to find a roster spot. The thing is, not every catcher is Realmuto or Murphy. The majority of professional backstops derive the lion’s share of their value from their defensive contributions. Take Jose Trevino, last year’s leader in pitch framing and defensive runs saved. Yes, he had a career-best offensive season. But take away the pitch framing and water down that AL best caught stealing rate? What does that do to this value?
Plenty of catchers really only find work because of the very skills that these rule changes directly impact. The elite will be fine. The middle class on down though? The impact could be seismic.
Further down the road, what will the impact be on how catchers are developed? On how attractive the position is to pursue, or on the type of player that opts to pursue it? Will needing to worry less about fooling an umpire or keeping them happy allow catchers to flourish in other areas? It’s impossible to quantify how that’s going to change right now, but change is definitely coming.
Bottom-line, the game is getting simultaneously harder and easier than ever for the professional catcher.