On Aug. 10, Seattle catcher Omar Narváez set a Major League record he didn't even know existed.
When rookie righty Reggie McClain threw his first pitch in the seventh inning against the Rays, he became the 38th pitcher Narvaez had caught this year, the most of any catcher in history for one team in one season. That's a pitcher group which includes a local legend like Félix Hernández, little-known rookies like R.J. Alaniz and Taylor Guilbeau, well-traveled veterans like Wade LeBlanc and Mike Leake, and even fellow backstop Tom Murphy, who has thrown to Narvaez three times.
Narvaez has since extended the mark to 39, and it will likely be north of 40 by the end of the year once September callups arrive. By comparison, Hall of Famer Yogi Berra caught in parts of 19 big league seasons across three decades and received 98 pitchers, total -- barely twice as many as Narvaez will see this year alone.
"Wow," Narvaez said when informed about the "record."
"That’s kind of impressive, because you see the locker room, and we don’t have the same pitchers we had in Spring Training. But I did not know that.”
It wasn't exactly a mark that had stood the test of time. That first pitch from McClain was a called strike to Mike Zunino, Narvaez's Seattle predecessor, who had previously caught the most catchers in a single-team season, 37 ... in 2018. Before that, the high-water number of 36 was set by Robinson Chirinos in '14 and tied by A.J. Pierzynski in '15. This one turns over a lot.
(The record for most pitchers caught in a season by a catcher who changed teams is a wild 49, held by Bobby Wilson in 2016, when he went from Detroit to Texas to Tampa Bay, breaking Victor Martinez's mark of 48 with the '09 Indians and Red Sox. Wilson is currently with Triple-A Toledo; the Mud Hens did not respond to a request for comment.)
It's not exactly surprising that catchers have to handle more pitchers, of course. After all, in 1998, the first year of the 30-team era, 557 pitchers appeared in the Majors, an average of about 18.5 per team. This year, we're up to 792 -- and counting -- pitchers, or 26.4 per team, a number that's sure to rise when rosters expand in September.
But when we think about that impact, we usually think about it from the point of view of the batters, who have to deal with a never-ending stream of velocities, release points and pitch types -- a big part of the reason why strikeouts keep going up. What about the catchers who have to handle them? Have we made life harder than ever on those who do baseball's most thankless but crucial job?
Let's start with three possibly correlated -- but also possibly not -- charts as a premise.
The first shows exactly what you'd expect: Catchers are handling far more pitchers than they used to. In the 1920s, the average catcher was receiving just 8 to 10 pitchers per year. (The famed 1927 Yankees, for example, had five starters, just four relievers, and a single cameo inning from a 10th arm, Walter Beall.) It was still only around 11-12 pitchers into the 1980s, when we saw two large jumps -- first to 17-18 in the mid-'90s as modern bullpens took hold, and then again north of 20 over the past five seasons.
Let's focus on that last jump, which pretty clearly took place after 2014, and look at catcher offense. Using Weighted Runs Created Plus, where 100 is the league average for that year, the chart shows that over the past five years, catcher offense is down considerably from the five years prior -- starting almost exactly when that last jump in pitcher usage did. (The 84 mark in '18 was one of the 10 weakest catcher seasons in the past century, and this year is only slightly better.)
Apparently, that huge drop from 2014 to '15 was not entirely predictable at the time, because here's a pair of articles from '13 and '14 talking about how catcher offense was going up. That didn't happen.
Finally, let's look at how passed balls and wild pitches have increased over the years, to the point that 2018's mark was the highest ever. (We're combining them, because they're both "pitches not received," and the difference isn't that large.) You can look at that as though catchers have gotten worse, if you like, but we choose to see it as a reflection of the fact that pitchers are just nasty. Velocity is up. Breaking ball usage is up. You think it's easier to catch 87 mph in the zone, or 94 in the dirt? Right.
So we see that catchers have to deal with more pitchers, that wild pitches and passed balls are up and that offense is down. How much of this is connected?
Part of it, probably, is that the best-hitting catcher prospects just don't get to stay there. Bryce Harper, a catcher in junior college, never caught an inning in the pros. Wil Myers was moved after his first two pro seasons. Carlos Santana's catching days ended at age 27. Kyle Schwarber's 2016 knee injury accelerated his move from behind the the plate, but he wasn't likely to be a catcher long-term anyway.
Meanwhile, the rise of quantifying pitch framing -- and the understanding that it's more important than throwing out basestealers or blocking wild pitches -- has changed the type of player who is allowed to catch. You'll never see another Ryan Doumit, for example, because any value he provided from his often-plus bat -- he hit .318/.357/.501 in 2008, to pick one year -- was given back and then some by some of the weakest framing on record. (As now-Rays analyst Jeff Sullivan accurately noted in 2013 that the end of Doumit's catching career seemed like the end of an era. It was. Bat-first catchers like Doumit, or more recently Evan Gattis, rarely still get to catch.)
Conversely, Jeff Mathis, a highly respected defender who received a two-year contract last offseason despite being a near-unplayable hitter entering his age-36 season, might be employed forever, even though he's posting a .164/.218/.230 slash line that is very legitimately one of the weakest hitting seasons ever.
But that's more about picking who does and doesn't get to catch today. What about the changing requirements of the position and the impact on those who are still playing it?
"I think that there is more recognition for the art of receiving and being able to keep strikes in the zone and get as many strikes as you can," said veteran Dodgers backstop Russell Martin, when asked if the job has gotten tougher over the years, "and how that can impact a team, a pitcher. I think there's ... a way to measure it now. You get graded on it. So is it tougher? It's tougher if you're not good at it. If you're good at it, you get more recognition."
Martin, in his 14th season in the Majors, is one of the few remaining catchers to predate the advent of the pitch tracking era in 2008. In '06, his first full season, he caught 21 Dodgers pitchers in 117 games. This year, he's caught 21 pitchers again, but in only 51 games.
This year, serving mostly as a backup first to Austin Barnes and now to rookie Will Smith, Martin has hit just .207/.330/.299. That's good for a .629 OPS, which will almost certainly be the lowest of his entire career, though it's difficult to know how much of that is just being 36 with a decade and a half of catching on his body.
It would seem to make sense that needing to learn all the new pitchers in the room would take time away from hitting preparation. (Last year, Eno Sarris of the Athletic asked Jonathan Lucroy about preparing to catch an "opener," and Lucroy had no issue with it. But when asked about preparing for a bullpen game, Lucroy "responded with expletives.")
Zunino, who was traded from Seattle to Tampa Bay last November, noted where his priorities are.
“There’s most definitely times where there are meetings and conversations that take priority over hitting," said Zunino, "I’m a firm believer that if I can put our guys in a good spot and give up less runs than we score, we have a great chance at winning. That’s sort of the pride aspect I take in it, and that just comes down to communication, trust and game planning.”
Two years ago, Zunino hit .251/.331/.509, a line 27 percent better than league average. This year, he skipped a few days of batting practice early in spring in order to familiarize himself with his new Rays pitchers. He's hitting just .171/.243/.321, which is 50 percent below average -- though he did miss time with a left quad injury.
“It’s tough in the sense of getting to learn these guys in order to make them feel completely comfortable in such a short window," Zunino added. "I think it’s one of those things that has taught me a lot. It’s taught me what’s important to a guy, just what questions to ask him, so when push comes to shove, we’re on the same page in a big moment. It’s interesting. It’s one of those things where you know you catch a lot of guys in a year, but it tests you in the sense of game calling, preparation and stuff like that. You can learn so much from them.”
In 2014, Zunino's first full season, he caught 20 pitchers in 130 games, or one new arm every 6.5 games. Last year, he caught 37 pitchers in 120 games -- a new pitcher every 3.2 games.
“I didn’t know we’d do this many changes," said Narvaez, who was acquired from the White Sox last November to replace Zunino. Then again, Narvaez is hitting .283/.356/.467, making him one of the season's best hitting catchers -- though he rates at the bottom in framing.
"The relationships we build in Spring Training, obviously, [are] gone because it’s totally different pitchers. But everybody is a really nice person, so it hasn’t been that hard. Everybody communicates well, so it’s been pretty good.”
Seattle manager Scott Servais, who spent 11 years catching in the Majors for four clubs, echoed that thought.
“It’s challenging," Servais said." Having been in that spot before, you just don’t know what to expect. It’s a comfort factor that takes a while. I know I can call this 2-1 or 3-2 breaking ball and know whether it’s going to have a pretty good chance of being a strike vs. I have no idea, I’ve never seen this guy before."
Martin has been around for long enough -- 14 years for four teams, now on his second stint with the Dodgers -- that he now rates near the top of the all-time list for most pitchers caught.
Most pitchers caught since 1921
287 -- Ivan Rodriguez
251 -- Gregg Zaun
248 -- A.J. Pierzynski
239 -- Sandy Alomar Jr.
231 -- Henry Blanco
223 -- Russell Martin
220 -- Kelly Stinnett
Most pitchers caught in 2019 (through Thursday)
39 -- Omar Narvaez, SEA
37 -- Tom Murphy, SEA
35 -- Danny Jansen, TOR
32 -- J.T. Realmuto, PHI
31 -- Jeff Mathis, TEX
"It means I've moved around a little bit. ... It's not like I've caught for 20 years though, so ..." Martin said. "I've been around for awhile. It's a lot."
Then again, he pointed to one way in which the job might be easier now -- the increase in analytical support staff and game plans, meaning the catcher isn't responsible for all the work himself.
"On this team," Martin said, "a lot of the pitchers do their own homework and then they ... prepare themselves to face the lineup. So I'm just in there, and I'm getting kind of like the answers to the test."
It wasn't quite like that during his initial run in Los Angeles, from 2006-10.
"I used to do a lot more, and I kind of ran the meetings and stuff like when I was here. I think part of it is because I was young and they wanted me to do my homework at the same time, and it gave the pitcher confidence as well, you know -- if I'm doing my homework, they trusted my ability to call and stuff."
"The way we do it now, I feel it's more efficient. It's a combination of [pitching coach] Rick Honeycutt doing his homework, the pitcher doing his homework. We have a meeting, they talk about their notes and I'm just there with my cheat sheet and I kind of write the things down, you know ... how do we attack somebody? Mid-count, as the at-bat progresses. How do we want to handle each person, and you know where the air is to finish each person, and you can go down through the lineup and then it's done."
That leads to another point, in the sense that teams, cognizant of the demands of catching, no longer ask or expect one backstop to play nearly every day. Over the past 100 years, an average of 7.1 catchers per season received enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting average title. This year, as it was in 2018, there are only five. In '17, there were just three -- and remember, for the first four decades of that "past 100 years" timeframe, there were just 16 teams.
Conversely, there were 45 catchers in each of the past two seasons to receive at least 200 plate appearances, the most in history. (So far in 2019, we're up to 37, with a month left to go.) That's a lot of backup catchers who wouldn't otherwise have been good enough hitters to merit playing time who are getting more plate appearances than they would have in the past.
Then again, last year's Red Sox won 108 games and the World Series despite having the weakest-hitting catchers in the game, at .194/.246/.288. Catching is probably harder than it's ever been. At the least, it's definitely different.
MLB.com's Greg Johns, Ken Gurnick, and Juan Toribio contributed to the reporting of this story.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.