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This year in catcher's interference

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Even in one of the rarest baseball events, can we find a trend or two?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

How many ways are there to first base? As a baseball cocktail party question, that's right up there with "which states have two MLB teams,"* and one of the fun answers is catcher's interference. But catcher's interference doesn't actually come up that much; in the last thirty seasons, it's happened just 589 times.

When it does happen, it seems to be pretty random. This season there were 22 instances of catcher's interference, but since 1985, season totals have never dropped below 9 or risen above 31. There's even less variation in the last ten seasons, which have seen the number of catcher's interferences drop to a low of 17 (2008) and rise to a high of 28 (2010).

This season, there were more than 180,000 plays, and 22 out of that number is very similar to looking at a drop in a bucket (actually, 1 catcher's interference per 8,360 plays would be a little more like four drops in a bucket, but I digress). I'm not usually one for forays into the useless information department, and we're talking about the slightest of slight phenomena here. Still, is there a glimmer of skill or trend here, even smaller than what we might find for hit by pitches?

With 183,928 plate appearances this season, we might expect a 600-PA player to have something like a 14% chance of getting a catcher's interference, if their occurrence is completely random. The existence of some outliers doesn't disprove that it's all random, but in 2014, half of all catcher's interference calls were made with one of four batters at the plate.

Ryan Ludwick racked up three catcher's interference calls after leading the league in 2011 (5) and 2009 (3). Craig Gentry and Brad Miller each had two, but it was Paul Goldschmidt who led the way with four catcher's interference calls this season. Goldy accounted for 18% of all catcher's interference calls this year, meaning his share of CIs is greater than Tim Lincecum's share of Goldy home runs (8%).

Date Batter Team Opp Catcher Pitcher
4/2 Seth Smith SDP LAD A.J. Ellis Dan Haren
4/2 Jayson Nix PHI @TEX J.P. Arencibia Robbie Ross
4/18 Ryan Ludwick CIN @CHC Welington Castillo Jeff Samardzija
4/18 Paul Goldschmidt ARI @LAD Tim Federowicz Brandon League
4/20 Paul Goldschmidt ARI @LAD Tim Federowicz Josh Beckett
4/21 Adeiny Hechavarria MIA @ATL Evan Gattis Craig Kimbrel
4/24 Craig Gentry OAK @HOU Jason Castro Paul Clemens
5/3 Brad Miller SEA @HOU Jason Castro Dallas Keuchel
5/8 Lonnie Chisenhall CLE MIN Josmil Pinto Michael Tonkin
5/10 Ryan Ludwick CIN COL Michael McKenry Rex Brothers
5/10 Jacoby Ellsbury NYY @MIL Jonathan Lucroy Kyle Lohse
5/13 Ryan Ludwick CIN SDP Rene Rivera Andrew Cashner
5/19 Justin Upton ATL MIL Martin Maldonado Zach Duke
5/26 Craig Gentry OAK DET Bryan Holaday Phil Coke
5/27 Paul Goldschmidt ARI SDP Yasmani Grandal Alex Torres
6/12 Paul Goldschmidt ARI @HOU Carlos Corporan Tony Sipp
7/2 Elvis Andrus TEX @BAL Caleb Joseph Chris Tillman
7/9 Adam Rosales TEX HOU Carlos Corporan Dallas Keuchel
8/2 Gregory Polanco PIT @ARI Miguel Montero Brad Ziegler
8/5 Josh Reddick OAK TBR Curt Casali Cesar Ramos
9/15 Brad Miller SEA @LAA Hank Conger Joe Thatcher
9/17 Carl Crawford LAD @COL Wilin Rosario Jorge De La Rosa

It's not all about the hitter, but the catchers seem to have relatively little to do with it. Just three catchers had calls go against them more than once, and on the list, there are as many catchers with very good defensive reputations as bad.

We should say: just like an ideal pitching plan will include some pitches out of the strike zone, good catching might involve getting an interference call from time to time. I'm not sure that the benefit of a few extra inches will make a difference in preventing stolen bases, but I'll speculate that having one's mitt further forward might aid in getting some balls framed as strikes (we do have some of the top framers in the above list). To that end, an "optimized" mitt position might run the risk of an interference call from time to time. Being on this list is not necessarily a bad thing.

Being on the list twice might be, though. Carlos Corporan was called for the lone CI in June but got caught with his hand in the strike zone cookie jar again in July. Fellow Houston catcher Jason Castro also got two such calls himself a week and a half apart. Perhaps both were testing their boundaries, and perhaps both were encouraged to test their boundaries. Only the Astros know that.

Tim Federowicz is probably responsible for the worst CI blunder of the season, and he is the other catcher with two CIs this season. While the ideal approach might lead to a CI, interference does come with a cost. In addition to giving the batter first base and advancing runners in the way a walk would, if a runner is ruled to have been attempting to steal, they can be awarded that base, too. That would only come up in the context of a runner trying to steal third (or home, technically) without runners behind him, and I haven't found an instance of that happening in the last ten years.

But a free base and advancing runners is not necessarily the only cost. Getting hit by a swing hurts, and may cause injury, even leading to the removal of a catcher from the game as it did when Yasmani Grandal blocked a Goldy swing in May. Having one's mitt shoved out of the way of the oncoming ball can separately do the same thing, as was the case for Tim Federowicz on April 18th:

Federowicz_interference_1

Federowicz sat in favor of Drew Butera in game two of this Dodgers/D-backs series, but for the third game, he was back behind the dish, if not back far enough. Getting caught off guard by the fact that Goldy doesn't really shorten his swing to get to balls low and in is reasonable. But Federowicz's error (it is, literally, an error) seems to come through reaching; as you can see here, the second interference call was away.

Federowicz_interference_2_3

It may be that some swings are harder to gauge than others; the year-to-year leaderboards for hitters include a lot of the same names, and a relatively small number of players like Ryan Ludwick, Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Edwin Encarnacion are responsible for a high proportion of the 223 catcher's interference calls. Beyond that, however, there's little rhyme or reason; although the first inning has the most CI calls in the last ten years, every inning (the first nine, anyway) has between 17 and 34, well within the numbers we'd expect if the timing was by chance. There may be little we can predict about catcher's interference, but that's not a terrible thing; although a few catchers like Tim Federowicz might disagree, their impact is rarely felt.

*Most fun thing about that one: more than half the time, people say "Chicago." Another go-to: where in the world can you go 10 miles south, 10 miles east, 10 miles north and end up where you started? There are multiple answers. Any trouble with those questions, hit me up on Twitter.

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All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, especially the B-R Play Index.

Ryan P. Morrison is a writer and editor at Beyond The Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site offering analysis of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.