Houston — A couple of them were the result of being crossed up by the pitcher — he was expecting a breaking ball or off-speed pitch and he got a fastball. Not much a catcher can do about that, except hope the ball doesn’t hit him in a tender spot.
Still, the raw number is jarring, especially with a catcher so highly-touted for his defensive skills. Tigers rookie Jake Rogers has five passed balls in 16 games. His predecessor in Detroit, James McCann, had five in 114 games last season and hasn’t had one in his first 85 games with the White Sox this year.
For all the things Rogers does exceptionally well — block balls, quick feet, quick release, strong, accurate arm — the passed ball has been a part his package. He had five passed balls in 69 games before being called up this season and 11 in 98 games in 2018.
“You don’t want passed balls, obviously,” Rogers said. “These guys throw with a lot of movement and it’s hard to time up sometimes. It’s going to happen. Obviously you don’t want it to happen — the fewer the better.”
So what’s going on here? How is a young catcher as agile and athletic as Rogers so often chasing pitches to the backstop? Talking to bench coach Steve Liddle, who also coaches the catchers, several factors are involved. One is his relative unfamiliarity with the pitching staff.
“Whenever you are catching guys you haven’t caught in a while, balls will sail on you,” Liddle said. “And we have pitchers who throw true cutters. I think you saw one get away from him the other night that Edwin Jackson threw.
“It’s not as easy as it looks on TV. These guys are throwing 95 mph and the ball’s moving all over.”
The primary factor in this, though, is the emphasis all organizations put on pitch-framing.
“From the first day of spring training, we’re teaching them to steal strikes,” Liddle said. “When you spend so much effort trying to frame pitches, sometimes you realize, hey, if I move glove an inch I’m not going to get that pitch.
“When you do that, you risk getting the passed ball.”
Think about it. A pitch is a couple of inches off the corner. If the catcher moves his body or fully extends his glove, there’s no way he can pull it back into the strike zone. Often, then, a catcher will make a quick stab at it while bringing the glove quickly back into the strike zone.
“There’s been so much put on these catchers to try to steal strikes, they wind up pulling their glove toward the strike zone on a marginal pitch, trying to steal it, and it goes clanking off his glove.”
There is a cause and effect.
According to Statcast data, Braves catcher Tyler Flowers is among the major-league leaders converting 53 percent of pitches that weren’t swung at into called strikes. And he leads baseball with 13 passed balls.
Christian Vazquez of the Red Sox is also among the best pitch-framers. He has eight passed balls this year, 11 in 2018 and 11 in 2017. The Brewers' Yasmani Grandal, same story – six passed balls this year, tied for MLB lead with 16 in 2017.
It puts coaches and player development staffs in an awkward position. What, generally speaking, do you value more — stealing strikes or catching the baseball?
“You’d rather not give any free 90-foot advancements,” Liddle said. “I personally don’t think it’s worth the trade-off. But that’s just me. I may be old-school. Some teams have their catchers go on one knee with runners on base. The Twins do that, and we will see it this weekend. And it's cost them runs.
“But, somebody upstairs with a Cray Supercomputer must think the trade-off’s OK.”
In Rogers’ case, he doesn’t think it needs to be one or the other. He feels he can get to where the pitch-framing doesn’t adversely impact his ability to catch the ball.
“I am trying to steal strikes for these guys and sometimes I try to do too much, bring it too far,” Rogers said. “It depends on the situation. You don’t want to put runners in scoring position. There’s a balance.”
Asked what he will work on this offseason, he said both.
“I will watch video and focus on the calls I wasn’t getting and go from there,” he said. “And I will do a lot of work on trying to catch the ball cleaner. And I am going to talk to the (analytics) guys about this, too. They are looking all over it. We will butt heads and go from there.”
Right now, Rogers is just cutting his teeth at the big-league level. He’s also dealing with a 1-for-23 hitting slump that includes 13 strikeouts. The Tigers aren't trying to put too much on his plate. They'd rather he just settle in.
“Right now we’re giving him about a month up here and let him catch his breath,” Liddle said. “The game is a little bit quicker. They get caught up in that. You worry about base stealers. You worry about guys running.
“Then you take your eye off the ball for just a millisecond and the next thing you know, the ball’s moved just a hair on you and you don’t catch it.”
The pitch-framing mentally can work the opposite way, too, as Liddle has explained to Rogers. Sometimes a catcher can get too lazy with what he thinks is an obvious strike.
“I told him not to umpire,” Liddle said. “Sometimes you catch a ball and assume it’s a strike and not frame it at all the way and not get it. It’s cost him. He’s got some work to do, but a lot of young catcher have the same growing pains.
“He’s going to be OK, believe me.”