The Ghost of Passed Balls Past

Even Ivan Rodriguez wasn’t immune to passed balls in his Hall of Fame career. (via Wknight94)

When manager Casey Stengel was asked why the Mets chose catcher Hobie Landrith as the first pick in the National League expansion draft for the 1962 season, he sagely observed that without a catcher, a team would have an awful lot of passed balls.

Landrith turned 32 before Opening Day 1962. He could best be described as a journeyman. In 12 seasons, only twice had he played more than 100 games. But he’d accrued only 27 passed balls during that time.

Actually, Landrith didn’t log much time with the ’62 Mets. He was traded to the Orioles on June 7 to complete a deal for Marv Throneberry. The Mets were going nowhere, and Landrith’s defensive talents were sorely needed in Baltimore. First-string catcher Gus Triandos was injured, and knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, though he was an All-Star in 1961 and 1962, was giving the Oriole catching corps fits. The O’s backstops registered 49 passed balls (38 on pitches from to Wilhelm) in 1959. That was 30 more than any other AL team. The O’s also registered 24 in 1960, 30 in 1961, and 32 in 1962.

In 1960, Orioles manager Paul Richards, a former catcher and a renowned pitching guru, designed an oversized catcher’s mitt (42 inches in circumference) the players called Big Bertha or the elephant glove due to its resemblance to an elephant ear. It was specifically designed to handle the knuckleball; unfortunately, it was outlawed (a maximum circumference of 38 inches was established), and Wilhelm’s favorite catcher, Joe Ginsberg, was released in mid-June of 1960.

Triandos was pretty capable with the bat, but he led the league in passed balls with 28 (24 with Wilhelm on the mound) in 1959 and 21 in 1961. Triandos’ travails coincided with the arrival of Wilhelm during the 1958 season. Triandos accrued 138 passed in 13 seasons. More than 10 per season is a dismal average, yet Triandos is only in 80th place among career leaders.

The career leader list is heavily tilted toward 19th century catchers. You’ve probably never heard of Pop Snyder, yet there he sits at the top of the list with 763 PBs in 18 seasons. Snyder began his career in 1873, when equipment, techniques, and rules were different from the modern era. (Overhand pitching was not legal until 1884, and the 60-foot, six-inch distance from the pitching rubber to home plate was not established until 1893.) Still, it is remarkable to note that with 99 passed balls in 505 innings in 1881, Snyder was averaging almost one per five innings.

For 19th-century catchers, having a large number of passed balls was no impediment to Cooperstown induction. You might have heard of Hall inductees Deacon White (505 PB in 20 seasons), King Kelly (420 PB in 16 seasons), and Buck Ewing (360 in 18 seasons). And let’s not forget Connie Mack (310 in 11 seasons).

The top 50 is dominated by 19th-century catchers. You have to go all the way down to 48th place to see a modern player: eight-time All-Star Lance Parrish is there with 192 in 19 seasons. Three places behind is Ted Simmons, who is sometimes mentioned as a Hall of Fame possibility despite just 54.2 WAR and 182 passed balls in 21 seasons.

Even good catchers will rack up impressive numbers of passed balls if they hang around long enough. For example, Benito Santiago sits in sixth place with 157 in 20 seasons. It’s no surprise to see notoriously slow-footed Ernie Lombardi in 66th place with 152 passed balls in 17 seasons, though he did end up in Cooperstown. Jorge Posada is in 73rd place with 142 in 17 seasons, and Tim McCarver and Darrell Porter sit in 84th place with 132 in 21 and 17 seasons, respectively. Jim Sundberg has 88th place all to himself with 130 in 16 seasons.

The top 100 also includes three more Hall of Fame inductees: Carlton Fisk in 89th place with 129 in 24 seasons, Ivan Rodriguez in 93rd place with 127 in 21 seasons, and Gabby Hartnett in 95th place with 126 in 20 seasons.

Much like pitchers who rank high in career losses, good catchers who hang around long enough tend to become leaders in negative statistics. Clearly, some sort of average is needed (say, PBIC– passed balls per number of innings caught) to get a better ranking of backstop efficiency.

For example, the aforementioned Lombardi’s 152 passed balls ties him with a 19th-century catcher named Sleeper Sullivan, who needed only four seasons (1881-1884) to accumulate this total. Given Sullivan’s lack of offense (.184/.194/.228), it’s surprising he lasted that long. For his defensive shortcomings, he was given the memorable nickname of Old Iron Hands.

Curiously, the term backstop applies not only to catchers but also to the structure behind the plate that prevents errant pitches from going into the stands. The meatbag backstop is the first line of defense, the structural backstop the second. The no-man’s land in between is of variable distances, though 60 feet is average. A shorter distance might result in more clean rebounds for the catcher, thus discouraging runners from advancing and saving a catcher from a passed ball (or a pitcher from a wild pitch) even when a ball goes astray.

When the first line of defense is breached and a runner advances, the distinction between a wild pitch and a passed ball is sometimes difficult to make. When I’m scoring a game, my ability to discriminate between the two is in inverse proportion to my distance from the batter’s box. At a minor league or college game where I’m closer to the action, I usually can make an accurate call. If I’m sitting in the cheap seats at a major league game, I defer to the official scorer. Even so, I suspect the official scorer, despite that individual’s optimal perspective, frequently checks the replay before making the call. Much like an error, a passed ball is assessed when a “reasonable” effort should have resulted in a caught ball. Needless to say, my reasonable, your reasonable, and the official scorer’s reasonable probably would resemble a Venn diagram, not three concentric circles.

Crowning the King of Baseball
Administrators of a venerable but little-known award have some work to do.

Most fans couldn’t care less whether the scorer rules PB or WP, but there are ramifications for the battery. Just as an outstanding infielder or outfielder can cut down a pitcher’s ERA, a good defensive catcher can cut down on a pitcher’s wild pitch total, thus making his control appear better than it is. One suspects that when a ball gets by, catchers with good defensive reputations sometimes get the benefit of the doubt from the official scorer, particularly if the pitcher is a knuckleballer or has a reputation as a wild thing.

If you get to games early and watch workouts, you may see a coach repeatedly and deliberately bouncing balls in the dirt while the catcher drops to his knees to block them. This is the dreariest drill I’ve ever witnessed, but during the course of a season it will likely bear fruit. I remember one spring training in Tempe when several Angels catchers made a game out of it. I’m not entirely sure of the rules, but it appeared scoring depended on whether a catcher caught the bounced ball, simply knocked it down but kept it in front of him, or let it get by him.

Even the most adept defensive catchers suffer when dealing with knuckleballers. Consider the case of Sundberg, who won nine consecutive Gold Gloves starting in 1976. In 1980, Sundberg tied Parrish for the league lead in passed balls with 17. He had never been in double digits before, but 1980 happened to be the year the Rangers acquired knuckleballer Charlie Hough from the Dodgers.

In the strike-shortened 1981 season, Sundberg was behind the plate for just 98 games and cut the total to eight, yet somehow that reduced total still led the league. In the 162-game 1982 season, he led with 16.

After the 1983 season, Sundberg was traded to Milwaukee, but Rangers catchers maintained the tradition. Donnie Scott led the way in 1984 with 18. Geno Petralli took over in 1987 with 35. If you are bowled over by that total, you should be. It is the largest passed ball single-season total in the modern era. Yet given the swollen numbers of 19th-century catchers, Petralli’s total is only good enough to tie him for 203rd place in the single-season sweepstakes. Curiously, he’s in good company, as his total ties him with Hall of Fame members Buck Ewing, Connie Mack (who did it twice) and Wilbert Robinson.

If you’re wondering about the all-time record, that belongs to Rudy Kemmler of the Columbus Buckeyes of the American Association. Kemmler endured 114 passed balls in 1883. Baseball seasons were shorter back then, and Kemmler appeared in just 82 games. The season probably seemed a lot longer to him.

Petralli followed up his record-setting 1987 season by cutting his total to a more reasonable 20 in 1988. Other Rangers catchers followed with similar seasons. Chad Kreuter took up the baton with 21 in 1989 before Petralli returned with 20 in 1990. That 1980-1990 period coincides with Hough’s tenure with the Rangers.

You might feel special sympathy for any catcher who has to deal with a knuckleballer on a regular basis. If so, you should reserve a huge dose for Rick Ferrell. A member in good standing of the Hall of Fame, Ferrell accrued 142 PB in 18 seasons. That career total places him in 73rd place. But most of those PBs were accrued in the last few years of his career.

Ferrell arrived in the majors at age 23 with the Browns in 1929. For the first decade of his career (he also played for the Red Sox and Senators), he was a dependable backstop. He averaged five passed balls per season during that span. In fact, in 1933 and 1936, he had just one each season. He was an AL All-Star from 1933 through 1938. That all changed in 1939.

That year, Ferrell, then with the Senators, accrued 19 passed balls; he followed that up with 17 in 1940. Both were league-leading totals. Even worse, he was not a workhorse during those seasons. He logged 707 and 832 innings respectively (the standard 154-game season contained 1,386 innings in regulation time). So Ferrell was leading the league in PBs but was nowhere near the lead in games played. Not a good sign. So what happened to him?

Dutch Leonard happened to him. More precisely, Emil John “Dutch” Leonard (not to be confused with Hubert Benjamin “Dutch” Leonard, who pitched from 1913 to 1925).

Leonard logged four seasons (1933-1936) with the Dodgers, where his knuckleball was discouraged. He returned to the minors during the 1936 season, went 13-3 for the Atlanta Crackers, led the league in ERA at 2.29, and helped the team to the Southern Association pennant. The following year, he went 15-8 with the Crackers. Notably, his battery mate was Paul Richards, who encouraged his efforts with the knuckler.

After the 1937 season, Leonard was drafted by the Senators, for whom he went 12-15, with a 3.43 ERA in 1938. A mediocre record, but it was in keeping with the Senators, who finished in fifth place at 75-76. Notably, he led the league in wild pitches (11), WHIP (1.227) and walks per nine innings (2.1), indicating that his knuckleball was working, for good or for ill.

Ferrell caught Leonard’s flighty offerings through the 1940 season. He led the league in passed balls with 19 in 1939 and 17 in 1940. Despite leading the league in losses in 1940 with 19, Leonard was a member of the AL All-Star squad.

A month into the 1941 season, Ferrell was traded to the Browns, who had finished seventh the previous season, three games ahead of the Senators. Upward mobility? Just barely. But his passed ball totals returned to normal during his stay with the Browns, which lasted through the 1943 season, after which he was traded back to the Senators, just in time to miss out on the Browns’ one and only pennant in 1944. As a consolation prize, Ferrell was named to the AL All-Star team (it was his seventh selection) in 1944.

When Ferrell returned to the Senators, Leonard was still flinging flutterballs, but this time he had company. Johnny Niggeling, for one.

Ferrell was familiar with Niggeling, whom he had caught at St. Louis. He was there when Niggeling led the AL in wild pitches with 11 in 1942. Also, Niggeling walked 93 in 206.1 innings. Nevertheless, he went 15-11 with a 2.66 ERA. The knuckleball was getting results, so it was easy to overlook the walks, passed balls, and wild pitches. But there was more.

Also in the Senators’ rotation was Roger Wolff. Wolff’s pro career started in 1930 at age 19, but he did not arrive in the majors until age 30 with the A’s for a couple of games in 1941. Inserted into their starting rotation the next two seasons, he was a reliable innings-eater (214.1 and 221 IP). Given the haplessness of the last-place A’s in those two seasons, being an innings-eater was almost like being an ace. The Senators must have sensed some potential in Wolff, so they swapped Bobo Newsom for him. The Senators’ faith in Wolff was rewarded but not immediately. Wolff was 4-15 in 1944 but rebounded big-time with a 20-10 record in 1945.

Like Wolff, southpaw Mickey Haefner was a late bloomer, arriving in the big leagues at age 30 with the Senators. Yet another knuckleball pitcher, he was also a good innings-eater (228 in 1944, 238.1 in 1945). Thankfully, as far as Ferrell was concerned, his control was pretty good. In 1944 he had zero wild pitches in 228 IP. Knuckleballer or not, that is an impressive feat.

During the 1944 season, the four knuckleballers started 120 games (the primary outlier was Early Wynn with 25 starts). In 1945, that same foursome started 111 games (the main exception was Marino Pieretti with 27 starts). Ferrell was probably seeing knuckleballs in his sleep. His total of 21 passed balls in 1945 was his career high, but given his age and the challenge of catching all those knuckleballers, it is astonishing he kept it that low.

I wouldn’t say having to catch so many knuckleballs was why Ferrell retired after the 1945 season. After all, he was 39 years old, so he was right on the verge anyway. Having played on poor to mediocre teams during his 18-year career, he never made it to the postseason. Ironically, the closest he got was 1945 when the Senators finished two games behind the pennant-winning Tigers. He did return for a curtain call with the Senators in 1947, when he started 27 games behind the plate. By then, only Mickey Haefner was left from the 1945 knuckleball squad.

Given Ferrell’s experience, it is not surprising he had a theory on catching the knuckleball. It was, “Don’t reach for it, let it come to you,” which sounds like some sort of blissed-out stoner or a New Age philosophy. Suppose the ball doesn’t come to you? What else can you do but reach for it?

Of course, there’s always Bob Uecker’s famous dictum about how to catch the knuckleball: “Wait till it stops rolling and pick it up.” Uecker, by the way, accrued 47 passed balls in his six seasons, good for 376th all-time. Not too shabby for a part-timer.

Uecker’s crowning achievement was the 1967 season, his last, when the Braves acquired him to take the heat off Joe Torre, who had the burden of handling knuckleballer Phil Niekro. Thanks largely to Niekro, Uecker led the league with 27 passed balls (two with the Phillies and 25 with the Braves) in 538.2 innings. If Braves GM Paul Richards (there’s that man again) had any wisdom to pass along regarding the knuckleball, Uecker didn’t get the memo.

In 1969, 20-year-old rookie Bob Didier took over behind the plate for the Braves. Niekro (an All-Star that season), helped Didier accrue a league-leading 27 passed balls. Making his own contribution to knuckleball wit and wisdom, Didier expounded “If you blink, you miss it.” In today’s parlance, practice mindfulness.

His wisdom notwithstanding, Didier couldn’t hack it offensively, so in 1970 he shared catching duties with Bob Tillman and Hal King. He also shared the wealth: Each catcher was charged with 10 passed balls. The totals were not surprising, given that both Niekro and Wilhelm (a 1970 NL All-Star) were on board all season.

In 1971, hard-hitting rookie Earl Williams was deemed the primary catcher. It was asking a lot of him to learn such a complicated position while handling Niekro’s knuckler (mercifully, Wilhelm was released mid-season). Williams was charged with 15 passed balls (not too bad, all things considered), but the sophomore jinx hit in 1972 when he recorded a league-leading total of 28.

The stats for 2018 indicate the passed ball is still hearty. Appropriately enough, the two teams fighting it out for the major league lead in PBs were the Yankees and the Red Sox. They tied at 25. The Yankee total was greatly enhanced by the 18 racked up by Gary Sanchez, who was the individual major league leader.

So it appears that passed balls will always be with us, albeit not as abundantly as they were in the 19th century. If knuckleballs become trendy, however, passed balls could make a big comeback.

Closing thought: If you are a big fan of knuckleball pitchers, does that make you a knucklehead?

References and Resources


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.

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3 Comments on "The Ghost of Passed Balls Past"

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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Benito Santiago was not 6th on the all time PB list but 62nd according to baseball reference. Bering a knuckleball fan does not make you a knucklehead but when younger, you probably were known to throw a “knuckle sandwich” in a heated exchange or to “knuckle down” when showing extra effort at the task at hand.

GoNYGoNYGoGo
Member
Member
GoNYGoNYGoGo

Frank, great article but I think you underestimate the combo of Gary Sanchez and Yankee GM Brian Cashman who insists Sanchez is actually a major league catcher. Together, they have the potential to break all those 19th century records.

Johnston
Member
Johnston

Every catcher I’ve ever spoken about knuckleballs, indie, college and pro, hated them. That kind of says it all.