Here’s why the Rays are wary of baseball’s latest trend

ST. PETERSBURG — This idea screams Rays. It’s understated. Cutting edge. Mostly, though, it’s all different shades of clever.

The strategy of moving your catcher closer to home plate in order to better frame low pitches and convince umpires to call them strikes? Brilliant. It’s just the kind of thing the guys in lab coats would dream up in the back offices of Tropicana Field.

Except that’s not how it happened.

The Rays did not invent it, and they’re not the foremost practitioners of the strategy.

While the rest of Major League Baseball seems to be in an uproar about backstop positioning after the Cardinals’ Willson Contreras had his arm broken by a J.D. Martinez swing on Tuesday, the Rays are more likely to err on the side of caution when it comes to the practice.

“We do not talk about moving closer,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash, who spent parts of eight seasons in the big leagues as a catcher. “More times than not, we’re mindful of who’s got the big backswing, and we tell them to back up.”

The Contreras incident brought the issue to the forefront, but it’s been bubbling just beneath the surface for years. Catcher interference calls have been enough of an issue that it was a topic of discussion at the winter meetings in December and then MLB addressed it with individual teams during spring training.

It hasn’t worked.

Since 2021, interference calls have steadily risen from 62 to 74 to 96. And going into Friday night’s games, they were on pace for 146 this year. To illustrate Tampa Bay’s reluctance to push the envelope, the Rays are in the middle of the pack with nine catcher interference calls since 2021.

And while the Rays are not responsible for the strategy, one of their catchers was around at the start of the revolution.

There does not seem to be a single eureka! moment for the history books, but much of the current pitch-framing conversation seems to center around Yankees catching coordinator Tanner Swanson. Back in 2018, Swanson was a coach in the Twins’ minor-league system and worked with current Rays catcher Ben Rortvedt at Class-A Cedar Rapids. The focus at that time was not moving closer to home plate, but putting one knee in the dirt to make it easier to handle low pitches.

Swanson helped Twins catcher Mitch Garver evolve from a defensive liability to an above-average catcher in a remarkably short time while putting one knee down and moving closer to the plate.

“Basic physics says the ball is travelling toward the ground. So the further away you set up to the plate, the more space there is for gravity to take the ball to the ground,” Swanson said outside the Yankees dugout on Friday. “So there is money to be made somewhere between the ground and the bottom of the strike zone. And the closer you are to the plate, the better opportunity you have to present those pitches before they get too low for an umpire to call a strike.”

The concept does not just work for pitches in the dirt, but also breaking pitches. While pitchers are spinning the ball to get sharp movement, if the batter does not chase a pitch, a catcher wants to receive it before it breaks completely out of the strike zone.

“It’s got a lot of benefits,” said Rays catching coach Tomas Francisco. “You get the low pitch a lot more, but you also cut the angle of pitches. When you get closer to the plate, you’ll get a slider moving 12 inches and you can cut the angle of it so it so you’re not catching it as far outside as if you’re staying back.”

The Yankees hired Swanson from the Twins after seeing his work with Garver, and they’ve clearly bought in on the concept. New York has had more catcher interference calls (19) than any team in the majors since 2021. Rortvedt, who also went from the Twins to the Yankees, has played 97 games in the majors but has four catcher interference calls, which is about a 25% higher rate than the typical catcher.

“Four? It really feels like more than that because you really, really take it to heart when it happens to you,” Rortvedt said. “You feel pretty bad about it when it happens.”

Rortvedt and Alex Jackson, who both play with one knee down, said the Rays explained their basic catching philosophies when they joined the team, but did not expect either catcher to change his style. Instead, they adjust their positioning behind the plate depending on the hitter’s swing path, the pitcher’s repertoire, the game situation and other factors. Along the way, they’ve made small tweaks suggested by the team.

“Now, all these catchers are graded on a nightly basis, game to game,” Cash said. “They know whether they’re plus or minus on getting strikes on that exact night. You can break it down pitch to pitch, inning to inning combined with who is umpiring.”

So how much closer to home plate are we talking about?

“Marginal,” Rortvedt said.

Six inches?

“Six inches would be a lot.”

Think about that. A slight adjustment of where a catcher sets up on a 1-1 pitch can be the difference between a 2-1 count or a 1-2 count, and that’s the difference of a couple of hundred points in expected batting average. It could also be the difference in a broken hand or a concussion on a backswing.

Swanson, however, points out that being slightly closer can also help catch foul tips before their trajectory gets high enough to rattle a catcher’s mask.

Is any of that in the back of a catcher’s mind, particularly in the days after the Contreras injury?

“There is zero thought about that,” Jackson said. “We all know what we signed up for, it’s what we love to do, and that’s just part of it.

“It’s the nature of the beast.”

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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