One More Time: One-Knee Catching Doesn’t Lead to Wild Pitches

Image credit: (Photo by Frank Jansky/Getty)

It’s the myth that will never die, at least on a number of broadcasts around the country.

It’s the late innings of a game, there’s a runner on base and a hard-throwing reliever in the game. And as the pitcher gets the sign and goes into his delivery, the catcher gets into his crouch with one knee on the ground.

Cue the complaint from the color commentator.

There are a number of variations, but they all end up covering the same ground. This catcher with his new and unconventional stance is sacrificing his ability to block an errant pitch, or even just a nasty pitch, to better frame borderline pitches.

This is viewed as, depending on the energy level of the commentator, either a risky endeavor that could lead to a wild pitch or passed ball, or an affront to every thing that is good and right about baseball.

It seems to make logical sense. How can a catcher block pitches as well from a one-knee, untraditional setup. So it’s the myth that will not die.

But I’m here to try to kill it again. I studied this a year ago, and came to the conclusion that I could find no proof that one-knee catching causes more wild pitches or passed balls than catchers using a traditional stance (defined for these purposes as a crouch where both knees are off the ground).

Last year, I explained that my research could not find any evidence of any issues with one-knee catching when I had logged which stance each catcher used (one-knee, standard or a hybrid with one-knee in bases free situations and traditional with runners on base). That study found no appreciable difference between the passed ball, wild pitch or caught stealing rates of traditional or one-knee catchers, although it did find that catchers who used a hybrid approach did have a slightly higher rate of passed balls and wild pitches.

Today, I’m approaching it from a different angle to try to better explain why I can confidently state that the proliferation of one-knee catching is not leading to a higher rate of passed balls and wild pitches.

The one-knee catching stance is a very new development. Pretty much no one in baseball was doing it in 2017. As late as 2019, it was seen as a very novel technique. But by 2021, roughly 45% of MLB regular catchers were using one-knee setups as their primary stance with another 10% using one-knee setups as part of a hybrid setup.

So here’s the hypothesis. If one-knee catching had an impact on passed balls and wild pitches, we would see an increase in MLB’s league-wide data. In 2017, we had catchers all using traditional stances. In 2022, we have a large number of catchers using one-knee stances.

So here’s the key number: 0.05.

As helpfully recorded by Baseball Reference, in an average MLB game in 2022, there are 0.05 passed balls. So if you watch 20 games, you will see a passed ball. That rate is the lowest in the history of the major leagues. The wild pitch rate is 0.34. That is lower than the rate in any year since 2012, five years before the idea of one-knee catching began to proliferate in any way and is right in line with wild pitch rates of the past few decades.

If you look at that graphic, the steady growth of one-knee catching in 2019, 2020 and 2021 should have led to a spike in wild pitches and passed balls if one-knee catching leads to more balls that get away from the catcher. No such spike was recorded. Even more so, in 2022 (with one-knee stances growing ever more popular), the wild pitch and passed ball rates have plunged further.

So one-knee catching has led to the smallest combined amount of passed balls and wild pitches since 2008 and one of the lowest overall combined rates ever.

That seems pretty conclusive, but we can control to ensure there aren’t other contributing factors that could muddy our findings. 

Can we say that pitchers are easier to catch in 2022 than they were in 2017? Logic would say no. If anything, the velocity and pitch quality has improved in the past half decade. Fastball velocity has increased by nearly one mph in the majors since 2017. And at the same time, the fastball usage percentages have gone down. For every 100 pitches, MLB catchers in 2022 are having to handle five more sliders and an additional cutter and six fewer fastballs. Fastballs are less likely to be balls in the dirt that result in passed balls and wild pitches, so this change should up the rate of potential passed balls and wild pitches.

The opportunity rate for wild pitches and passed balls has remained quite static. The overall percentage of balls in the dirt with runners on was 2.3% of pitches in 2017 and is 2.2% of pitches in 2022, according to Baseball Savant.

There are other factors we cannot rule out. We do know based on average sprint speed from 2017 and 2022 that baserunners are on average of similar speed this year as they were in 2017, according to Baseball Savant. However, we cannot rule out that 2022 baserunners are simply more cautious than baserunners from other recent seasons. 

But the simplest answer is extremely likely to be the correct one. Catchers have quickly adopted one-knee catching around the game. Adopting one-knee catching has not led to more passed balls or wild pitches. 

The data tells us so.

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