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Seattle Mariners

Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh is MLB’s best pitch framer, but it comes with risk

Seattle catcher Cal Raleigh gestures after singling against the Cleveland Guardians at T-Mobile Park on April 2 in Seattle.  (Tribune News Service)
By Adam Jude Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The automatic ball-strike system was introduced in Triple-A baseball a couple of years ago, and there is widespread belief that its arrival at the major-league level is inevitable – coming perhaps as soon as 2025.

Minor league games, using the Hawk-Eye tracking program, have employed the ABS system in two ways. The first is with a fully automatic strike zone, in which the umpire is alerted whether each pitch is a ball or strike through an earpiece.

The second version – and the option MLB is expected to adopt – is the “challenge” system, in which umpires continue to call balls and strikes but with the pitcher, the catcher and the batter given the opportunity to challenge the umpire’s call (by tapping on their hat or helmet).

One benefit of the ABS system, as Mariners manager Scott Servais sees it, could be to curtail the stunning rise of catcher’s interference calls around the majors.

The issue came to the forefront earlier this month when St. Louis catcher Willson Contreras sustained a fractured left forearm when he was hit on a swing from the Mets’ J.D. Martinez.

And any Mariners fan who saw that play had to be initially alarmed when Cal Raleigh had his glove ripped off Monday night on an awkward swing from the Royals’ Dairon Blanco, who was awarded first base on just the second catcher’s interference call against Raleigh in his career.

“I didn’t feel like I was too far up,” Raleigh said. “I just think it was a really late swing. It was a little scary at the time, but luckily it was just a bruise.”

Raleigh said he was hit by the bat directly in the ring and pinkie fingers on his left hand, and he crouched over in obvious pain for a minute. He remained in the game after being checked by Servais and trainer Kyle Torgerson.

“I was a little nervous when I went out there, because Cal is as tough as they come,” Servais said.

Raleigh, a 27-year-old switch-hitter, is making a strong case for his first All-Star selection this summer, and he has been the Mariners’ most valuable player through the first quarter of the season. Entering Friday, Raleigh’s 1.4 bWAR (Baseball-Reference’s calculation for a player’s value) leads the team, ahead of Josh Rojas (1.1), Logan Gilbert (1.1), Bryce Miller (1.1) and Dylan Moore (1.0).

Raleigh ranks among the top 10 defensive players in the majors – regardless of position – and he’s tied with Toronto’s Alejandro Kirk for the most defensive runs saved by a catcher, with seven.

Raleigh also is the No. 1 catcher in pitch framing, as measured by MLB’s Statcast metrics.

His value to the Mariners might be greater than any catcher for any other team.

So, of course, the thought of losing Raleigh for any significant stretch – as the Cardinals have lost Contreras for a couple of months – isn’t a pleasant one for Servais or the Mariners.

In recent years, a growing trend for catchers squatting behind the plate has been to creep closer and closer to the batter. Why? Well, setting up closer (and squatting lower) allows them to catch pitches at the bottom of the strike zone closer to the plate – giving the appearance to the umpire that the pitch has nicked the zone.

By doing so, a catcher might only improve the framing of the pitch by a fraction of an inch – but sometimes that’s enough to “steal” a strike.

Catchers, however, are starting to get caught for all that stealing.

Around MLB, catcher’s inference calls have reached an all-time high. There were a record 74 violations in 2023, and that number is on pace to nearly double this year.

Raleigh’s was the 36th catcher’s interference of the year, just a quarter of the way through the season.

MLB sent a memo to teams in spring training addressing the issue, and Servais said there have been ongoing discussions around the game about how to cut down on those violations.

“Everybody understands why – it’s the value of stealing that strike and getting closer to the hitter,” Servais said. “(But) it’s to the point where there’s been talking about making some rule adjustments or increasing the penalty for a catcher’s interference. Because we certainly don’t want to lose players to injury.”

Raleigh said part of the issue is that – with pitchers throwing harder than ever – batters are standing at the very edge of the back of the batter’s box, moving them closer to the catcher just as the catcher is creeping up.

“It’s a combination of both of those things,” Raleigh said.

And this is where the ABS system could prove useful.

With a fully automatic ball-strike system in place, a catcher’s ability to frame pitches would effectively become obsolete.

With the challenge system, pitch framing would still have some value – because umpires would still make the initial call – but framing would be de-emphasized.

“The one thing that will change it is automatic balls and strikes,” Servais said. “Because framing it isn’t going to matter as much then.”

After getting his glove torn off Monday, Raleigh did move back a few inches for the rest of the game. He generally makes slight adjustments in his setup depending on where each batter digs in to the box, but he said he’s not overly concerned about it being an issue for him going forward.

The art of stealing pitches has its risks, and Raleigh hopes he won’t get caught again.