The World of Catcher's Interference
"X - reached first on catcher's interference"
The line above has often been used in baseball box scores to denote one of baseball's orphaned statistics: catcher's interference. It is an event that happens just infrequently enough for people not to care about it, but important enough that the official scorer has to report all instances of it in the totals of a game. The play doesn't count as an at bat for the batter, but the batter doesn't get credited in his on-base percentage for reaching base safely. But a batter who came up just once in a game and reached base on catcher's interference would keep a hitting streak going. A batter reaching base on catcher's interference who comes around to score is an unearned run, but batters who reach after him are usually earned runs.
For reasons I've never figured out, I felt that it was one of my missions in life to keep track of this play on my blog, The Griddle. I note the last instance of it on the sidebar and ask people to let me know when the play occurs, which invariably happens when I'm away from a computer, out of town, or busy with some other mundane task, like eating.
The baseball rule that spells out catcher's interference is Rule 6.08(c):
The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when:
The catcher or any fielder interferes with him. If a play follows the interference, the manager of the offense may advise the plate umpire that he elects to decline the interference penalty and accept the play. Such election shall be made immediately at the end of the play. However, if the batter reaches first base on a hit, an error, a base on balls, a hit batsman, or otherwise, and all other runners advance at least one base, the play proceeds without reference to the interference.
All that boils down to is that if the catcher's mitt touches the batter's bat before he completes his swing, catcher's interference is called. And when it happens, nobody, except for the batter, catcher, and umpire really knew what is happening. The umpire calls time and the batter is told to go down to first and everyone sort of scratches their head for a while trying to figure out what happened. Eventually "Error 2" will flash on the scoreboard and then everyone will be puzzled and look around. On TV, the announcers will look at replays and try to figure out what happened. And, after a few minutes, the befuddlement ends and the game goes on. (In theory, any fielder could interfere with the batter's swing and get called for interference, but such an instance hasn't turned up.)
Why does the play happen? I've never gotten a good answer from watching it happen, but I think (and this is highly speculative) that most catcher's interference plays happen on breaking balls. And they often happen when the batter makes a very late swing or the pitch comes in to a location that the catcher isn't expecting. So you end up with the combination of a weird swing and the catcher trying to grab a pitch in an unexpected location. This puts the bat and glove on a collision course of sorts.
Pitchers, who tend to have very poor swings at the plate, seem to get a disproportionate number of catcher's interference calls. Baseball-reference.com lists 64 instances of a pitcher getting on base via catcher's interference since 1956. Chris Short accounted for 11 of them and he was also the last AL pitcher to reach base on catcher's interference, back when he was playing for the Brewers in 1973.
According to David Nemec's book "The Rules of Baseball," catcher's interference wasn't put in the rulebook until 1899. Prior to that time, catchers would occasionally try to disrupt a batter's swing by tipping the bat with his glove. Connie Mack claimed that he pioneered this strategy, but that's likely because he lived a long time and nobody was going to argue with him. However, it didn't happen too often because catchers tended to stand well behind (anywhere from 10 to 25 feet) behind the batter because they didn't have much protective equipment and valued keeping their hands, heads, and ... um ... manhood ... intact. Catchers would only move in closer if there were runners on (to prevent stolen bases) or there were two strikes on the batter (catching the third strike cleanly is one of baseball's oldest rules.)
I asked Phil Birnbaum to go through Retrosheet's data to find out how often catcher's interference had been called in the years that data is available (1956-2007). And Phil even made a graph. And after studying the graph, I believe that you really can't tell much about it.
Catcher's Interference Calls, 1956-2007
The number of instances of catcher's interference has gone up in recent years, which I think can be attributed to the increase in the number of games and better protective equipment for catchers that let them set up closer to the batter, even if it's by a couple of inches. However, the number of occurrences isn't exactly staggering, although it does happen more frequently than a complete game shutout now.
Baseball's all-time catcher's interference king is Pete Rose, who reached on catcher's interference 29 times in his career. His first one came on August 8, 1963 when Clay Dalrymple of the Phillies was nailed for it. Rose's final catcher's interference came over 22 years later on September 19, 1985 when Larry Owen of the Braves was called for it during a 9-run ninth inning by the Reds.
The single season record is held by Roberto Kelly, who got eight catcher's interference calls while playing for the Yankees in 1992. Kelly's knack for reaching first on catcher's interference earned him a trip to Cincinnati the next season in a trade that netted the Yankees Paul O'Neill.
Dale Berra of the Pirates holds the National League record for catcher’s interferences in 1983 with seven. Berra never had another CI call the rest of his career. Although Retrosheet doesn't have complete data on Dale's dad, Yogi, it appears likely that the gene for reaching on catcher's interference wasn't passed down from father to son, as Yogi has none in his stats.
Five times a player has reached on catcher's interference twice in one game. Pat Corrales did it twice for the Reds in 1965 (August 15 and September 29). The others were Ben Geraghty of the Phillies back on April 26, 1936 and also two Mariners: Dan Meyer on May 3, 1977 and Bob Stinson on July 24, 1979.
Catcher's interference has turned up in the postseason seven times, five times in the World Series. Roger Peckinpaugh of Washington was the first player to get one and it happened in the first inning of Game 7 and Peckinpaugh picked up an RBI as the bases were loaded. Rose had one in Game 1 of the 1970 World Series. George Hendrick had the last one in the World Series in Game 3 of the 1982 World Series. Richie Hebner of the Pirates (Game 3 in 1974) and Mike Scioscia of the Dodgers (Game 5 in 1985) have the only LCS catcher's interferences.
The leader among active players in catcher's interference calls is Darin Erstad of the Astros with 13. Craig Counsell of the Brewers is engaged in a neck and neck battle with Erstad with 12 CI calls. Erstad is the only player I've ever seen reach on CI in person, back on July 19, 1998 when Chris Hoiles of the Orioles knicked Erstad's bat. Or at least that's what I believe happened as I recall also that I had to stare into the sun most of the game, so pretty much anything that happened at home plate was just a rumor to me.
Edwin Encarnacion of the Reds could be the next big thing in the world of catcher's interference, picking up eight early in his career. However, Encarnacion hasn't had a single call this year and he could be losing momentum in his quest to go after Rose's record.
In Boston, since the Curse of the Bambino has been lifted, it's now time to talk about the Curse of Darren Lewis. Lewis reached first on catcher's interference back on September 13, 1998 courtesy of Tigers catcher Paul Bako. And no Red Sox player has reached on catcher's interference since then, the longest current drought for any franchise in the majors. How much longer will the people of Boston have to suffer? (My book proposal about this has gone nowhere which shows that there is a limit in the publishing world to the number of Red Sox-themed books there can be.)
There have been just nine catcher's interference calls so far in 2008. Three of them have come from Lyle Overbay who had never had one prior to this year. Carl Crawford has had two. Other players who have had one haven't fared well. Claudio Vargas of the Mets found himself taken off the Mets 40-man roster and is now playing in AAA New Orleans. Travis Hafner has been hurt most of the year. Guillermo Quiroz of the Orioles has hit .202 as a backup catcher. Milton Bradley has had a solid year, although he seemed to be getting more and more mysterious injuries after his catcher's interference on June 28.
For many players, they can have long careers and never once have a catcher's interference. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Cal Ripken, and Brooks Robinson are four notable players with long careers who never had an entry in the catcher's interference column on their ledger.
Frank Robinson received one catcher's interference in his long career and that came back on April 27, 1963 in Houston. John Bateman of the Colts interfered with Robinson in the seventh inning. Robinson must have been a little upset as he went and stole second and scored on an RBI single from John Edwards for the only run of the game.
There is only one documented case I know of when a game ended on catcher's interference. That was back on August 1, 1971 when the Dodgers were hosting the Reds. In the 11th inning of a 4-4 tie the Dodgers had the bases loaded with two outs and Willie Crawford up against Cincinnati reliever Joe Gibbon.
Manny Mota was on third for the Dodgers and either thinking that Gibbon wasn't paying attention to him or Crawford had no chance to get a hit against Gibbon, Mota tried a steal of home. Reds catcher Johnny Bench jumped out from behind the plate and stood in the base path to tag Mota.
This brought into play the seldom used Rule 7.07, to wit:
If, with a runner on third base and trying to score by means of a squeeze play or a steal, the catcher or any other fielder steps on, or in front of home base without possession of the ball, or touches the batter or his bat, the pitcher shall be charged with a balk, the batter shall be awarded first base on the interference and the ball is dead.
Home plate umpire Harry Wendelstedt called catcher's interference on Bench and a balk on Gibbon and Mota came home with the winning run. Rule 7.07 is peculiar because it imposes two different penalties for one act: catcher's interference, which allows the batter to reach first and the runners move up if forced, and a balk, which allows all the runners to move up one base. So how did Mota score? Did he score on catcher's interference or on a balk?
I discussed the play with Dave Smith of Retrosheet two years ago at the SABR Convention in St. Louis. And we agreed that the play had to be catcher's interference first because Crawford was awarded an RBI on the play, which he wouldn't have received for a balk.
So what have all these words taught people about catcher's interference? Likely very little. Catcher's interference is just a small freak play in the larger scheme of baseball. But it happens and you have to count it to make your box score balance. It's a loose end that you have to watch out for. You can take solace that I'm paying attention so you don't have to.
Bob Timmermann is a librarian who lives in South Pasadena, CA. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. He writes about variety of baseball-themed topics at The Griddle. Some of them are even important.