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If you have watched enough baseball, you have seen it happen before.
The pitcher throws what looks to be a good pitch, and the next thing you know, he is shouting at his catcher and pointing toward the backstop as the catcher turns around in circles before realizing that he let the pitch get by him and allowed the runner to advance.
This chaotic scene is called a passed ball.
In baseball, a passed ball is a pitch – that otherwise should have been caught – that gets past the catcher allowing runners to advance bases. It can be thought of as an error on the catcher.
A passed ball is a pretty simple concept, but there are some complexities to it that baseball fans should understand.
What is the Difference Between a Passed Ball and a Wild Pitch?
Even some people who have been around baseball their entire lives do not know the difference between a passed ball and a wild pitch. Both are pitches that get by the catcher and allow runners to advance, but there is one key difference.
Unlike a passed ball, a wild pitch is a pitch that one should not expect the catcher to catch. In short, a passed ball is at the fault of the catcher; a wild pitch is at the fault of the pitcher.
The mistake people often make at lower levels of baseball is classifying everything as a passed ball. The ball that bounces in the dirt and gets by the catcher should be classified as a wild pitch because one cannot reasonably expect the catcher to catch a pitch in the dirt.
Even at some of the highest levels of baseball where catchers routinely block pitches in the dirt, scorers must be careful when classifying pitches as passed balls. If it is not a routine play, it is a wild pitch.
At higher levels of baseball, passed balls are rare because the catchers are better. In the 2021 Major League Baseball season, there were only 349 passed balls compared to 1,862 wild pitches.
Only about one in every six pitches in an MLB game that makes its way to the backstop is a passed ball. Think about that the next time you are scoring a youth baseball game and have to decide if a pitch is a passed ball or a wild pitch.
What is the Dropped Third Strike Rule?
When thinking about passed balls, it would be foolish not to bring up one of the more hotly debated rules in all of baseball: the dropped third strike rule.
The dropped third strike rule allows for a hitter to advance to first if the catcher does not secure the third strike and if first base is not occupied by another runner with less than two outs.
A runner can reach first base on a dropped third strike by either a passed ball or a wild pitch. Most of the time, this occurs on a wild pitch as pitchers often bounce breaking balls with two strikes because hitters are more likely to chase them.
If the catcher does not secure the third strike, he can either tag the runner out or throw it to first base for a force out.
People who argue that this rule should be eliminated from the game are those who believe it is unfair to the pitcher. They believe that if a hitter strikes out, he should not be rewarded first base.
Others argue that it is a part of the game that adds a necessary caveat to pitching and catching, claiming that it is not unreasonable to expect the ball to be caught cleanly to complete the strikeout.
Some professional leagues have doubled down on this idea and have gone to even more extreme rules. The Atlantic League is the first professional league to allow runners to “steal first base”.
Like the dropped third strike rule, if the catcher does not catch the ball cleanly, then the batter has the opportunity to try and reach first base before being tagged or before the catcher throws the ball to first for a force out.
The difference is that the batter is allowed to do this at any time in the at-bat, not just on the third strike. Of course, there is risk for the hitter in doing this because he essentially gives away his at-bat if he is thrown out at first.
Do Passed Balls and Wild Pitches Count for Stolen Bases?
Another common misconception when scoring baseball games is how to score stolen bases. Many believe that any time a runner advances bases without a ball being put in play it counts as a stolen base.
However, runners are not awarded a stolen base in the stat book on passed balls and wild pitches. This is because the base technically is not stolen but given in this case.
Think of it as when a player makes an error in the field. The batter is awarded the base but is not awarded a hit because if not for the error, he would not have reached base.
On a passed ball or wild pitch, if the runner was not already in motion to steal, the runner can’t be awarded a stolen base because if not for the passed ball or wild pitch, he would remain on the previous base.
When a runner is already in motion to steal the base, and a passed ball or wild pitch occurs, then he may still be awarded the stolen base if the stat keeper deems that he likely would have been safe even on a clean pitch.
So the next time you hear about a young player who has stolen 53 bases in only 15 games, you may want to take those numbers with a grain of salt as it is very likely that the person keeping the stats did not know that passed balls and wild pitches do not count as stolen bases.
Who Had the Most Passed Balls in the MLB in 2021?
As mentioned earlier, it is rare for high level catchers to give up passed balls because defense is a priority for catchers at the Major League level, and it is unlikely that they would have made it to the big leagues without elite defensive skills.
With that being said, when given enough chances to catch pitchers throwing in the high 90s and triple digits with wicked offspeed pitches, even the best of the best will let a few balls get to the backstop.
Miami Marlins catcher Jorge Alfaro led the MLB in passed balls in 2021 with 13. The next closest was a three way tie between Mike Zunino (Tampa Bay Rays), Pedro Severino (Baltimore Orioles), and Christian Vazquez (Boston Red Sox) with 10.
Zunino, Severino, and Vazquez are every day players behind the plate, each catching over 100 games last season. It is understandable why they may be high on that list because they catch a lot.
Alfaro, however, only started 61 games at catcher meaning that he allowed a passed ball almost every 6th game. In his defense, he also started games at first base and the outfield, so maybe splitting time between positions led to some rust behind the plate.
Does a passed ball count as an error?
No, a passed ball does not count as an error in the scorebooks. Passed balls are their own statistical category, so they do not show up in the E column in the box score.
Do runs that score because of passed balls count as earned runs?
No, runs that score because of a passed ball do not get charged as earned runs to the pitcher. However, if it is deemed by the official scorekeeper that the runner would have scored regardless of the passed ball – for example, the hitter hits a home run on the next pitch – then the run may be counted as earned.
Does a dropped third strike count as an error on the pitcher or the catcher?
Neither. Like a passed ball, a dropped third strike is not counted as an error in the stat book. It is counted as either a passed ball or a wild pitch. If a runner who reaches base on a dropped third strike ends up scoring, the run does not count as an earned run for the pitcher.
Who had the fewest passed balls in the MLB in 2021?
The Pittsburgh Pirates, as a team, only had two passed balls for the entire season. Both were committed by backup catcher Michael Perez. Jacob Stallings was their number one catcher in 2021, and he did not allow one passed ball in 103 starts behind the dish.
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