Baseball's new rules are changing the catching position

Mets catcher Francisco Alvarez throws to relief pitcher Drew Smith during a game at Citi Field on Sunday, June 4, 2023. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The conditions had to be perfect — or about as perfect as they can be in baseball’s new landscape.

Adam Ottavino was on the mound just as the pitch clock reset to 20 seconds. With the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto on first, the Mets reliever started his motion with six seconds left, and his cutter got to home plate at about 91 mph to a righthanded hitter. Catcher Francisco Alvarez had to reach across his body to glove the outside pitch, putting it close enough to his throwing hand to cut down on the transfer time.

Then he had to laser it to Jeff McNeil at second base, but not to the bag. No, that doesn’t work all that well these days as baseball’s new rules dramatically shift the way we think about base-stealing, baserunning and the catching position in general.

Instead, Alvarez threw it well to McNeil’s left, and the infielder’s falling momentum propelled him into Realmuto as he attempted to steal second.

And even then — despite the quick delivery, the right pitch, the fast exchange, the excellent pop time, the accurate throw and the precise tag — it was close enough that Realmuto was called safe before it was overturned after a replay.

It was only the second caught stealing of Alvarez’s season despite a plus arm and above-average pop time. He’s now thrown out 5 of 43 would-be base-stealers this season.

“What have we done with the catching position?” Mets manager Buck Showalter said last Wednesday, a day after that pivotal caught stealing in the eighth inning helped preserve the Mets’ 2-0 win. “Guys are getting a full running start . . . Anyone can do it. Time it right and you’re two steps into the sprint before the pitcher even releases the ball.”

Stealing bases is easier

Baseball has rolled out a bevy of new rules in recent years, but for the most part, people have become acclimated. It happened with the wild card and interleague play in the 1990s and the universal designated hitter and expanded playoffs more recently.

But this feels different — and many around the sport believe it will change the way catchers are scouted, evaluated and developed.

There are various opinions on how that will manifest, though. The only thing that people fully agree on is this: It’s a lot easier to steal a base, even for non-traditional base-stealers, and even against elite catchers.

Going into Monday’s games, there were 1.44 steals per game, compared to 1.02 last year. Runners have been successful 80.0% of the time; it was 75.4% last year. If sustained, this year’s number would break the 2021 record of 75.7% (a year when baserunning strategy was optimized and had 2,924 attempts all season; there already have been 1,601 attempts through Sunday, putting the league on pace for 4,361 attempts this year, or a 48.6% increase from 2021).

The reasons are plentiful. There’s the pitch clock, which is timed at 15 seconds with bases empty and 20 seconds with runners on; bigger bases that shorten the basepaths, and a limit of two disengagements per plate appearance (that means a max of two pickoff throws unless a runner advances). Baseball also has been experimenting with ABS in its lower levels — Automatic Ball and Strike system or, colloquially, robo umps — meaning that much of receiving, a prized skill set that allows catchers to “steal” strikes via framing, could become obsolete.

“The new rules have definitely increased the impact baserunners are having in the game but also the ability for catchers to mitigate it,” said Tanner Swanson, the Yankees’ catching coach. “Arm strength, just throwing value in general has increased and will continue to increase. From a scouting standpoint and a training standpoint, the ability to control the running game from behind the plate is probably more important now than maybe it’s ever been.”

It‘s possible, too, that we‘re seeing shifts in real time. The Mets signed Tomas Nido, a defense-first catcher with a historically fast exchange time and strong game-calling skills, to a two-year contract this past offseason. But on Monday, after getting corrective eye surgery last month that likely would have addressed some of his defensive lapses this year, Nido was designated for assignment. The move made room for Omar Narvaez, who returned from the injured list, and Alvarez, who‘s been too good to option. But rather than working out a way to hold on to Nido until closer to the trade deadline, the Mets thought an open roster spot was more important than any potential trade return.

When it comes to Yankees catchers Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka, who both have below-average arm strength and pop time, it also means thinking about where they throw the ball rather than just how they throw it. That goes back to not necessarily making throws to the bag but instead understanding how to use an infielder’s momentum to make sure the tag time is as economical as possible.

Can players adapt?

Realmuto, an elite catcher and one of the few who’s had some measure of success in the new landscape, said adaptation is possible but probably will be gradual. There’s also an element of understanding that catchers are going to have to take their licks, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

“Really just try to be as fast and as accurate as you can,” he said. “It’s the same thing that you’ve always had to do, it’s just now the success rate is going to go down no matter what — no matter how good you are . . .

“As a catcher, you really can’t change what you’ve done in the past. You’ve just got to accept the fact that you’re going to give up a few more stolen bases. Really, for me, it’s more on the pitchers to be able to be a little faster to the plate and be able to change up their times.”

Realmuto noted that pitchers who recently have been in the minors — which debuted its pitch clock in 2022 — generally have been more adept at getting the ball in faster, making a catcher’s job easier. Established guys probably will get there, Realmuto said, but it stands to reason that older staffs might take longer.

“We have a lot of guys who have been in the major leagues a long time,” said Glenn Sherlock, the Mets’ catching coach. “We’re trying to get pitchers to be quicker to the plate and trying to get catchers to be more accurate in their throws.”

Added Ottavino: “It’s tricky. It’s an uphill battle . . . The catchers are trying to do their best, but a lot of the time, it’s out of their hands. It’s on the pitcher.”

PitchCom and robo umps

Then there’s the specter of robo umps. There’s no guarantee that ABS will come to MLB, but they’re certainly exploring the concept. If that happens, most agree it fundamentally will change how scouts evaluate catching prospects.

“Say they do the robo umps and they let average runners steal bases,” said Showalter, who isn’t a fan (to put it lightly). “So now you’re looking at what? Offense. Strictly offense. Can you catch the baseball and block, and it doesn’t matter how you present it or frame it and it doesn’t matter where you throw because it’s not a tool that plays much.”

It also might mean moving below-average defenders to a position that historically has been considered defense-first.

PitchCom is changing the way games are called — there already have been instances of pitchers making their own calls.

Robo umps take away the receiving skill set (presumably, there’s no fooling a computer), and while arm strength is well and good, it becomes less of a factor if even big arms can’t gun down middling runners. What’s left is blocking, which, while important, is lower on the list of elite tools.

“That may mean more conversions of good offensive profile players that maybe aren’t great defenders [to catcher instead of keeping them] at third base, leftfield or a corner outfield or infield spot,” Swanson said. “Maybe we get more out of their offensive profile behind the plate when receiving becomes obsolete.”

There isn’t a consensus, though. Yankees manager Aaron Boone said the new rules are shifting things only “a little bit,” though he acknowledged that “a few years from now or five years from now, there may be some different players in the game than even exist now. I think [the changes are currently] slight, but I think throwing matters a little bit more now.”

Mets reliever David Robertson thinks it could be more extensive than that.

“I’ve been playing the game for 15, 16 years at the pro level and then they just throw these rules on us,” he said. “I don’t even know if you’ll see pitchers getting better or not [at getting quicker] . . . and I definitely think that if they change the rules again, it might really change the catching position. I don’t know how, but I’m sure it will.”

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