What’s the difference between a wild pitch and a passed ball?
After Ryan’s 277, the next pitcher on the list is Mickey Welch with 274, followed by Bobby Matthews, who threw 253. A wild pitch usually passes the catcher behind home plate, often allowing runners on base an easy chance to advance while the catcher chases the ball down. Sometimes the catcher may block a pitch, and the ball may be nearby, but the catcher has trouble finding the ball, allowing runners to advance. A wild pitch is recorded only if the baserunner advance. If the bases are empty, the batter cannot run to first on a wild pitch.
The difference between a wild pitch and a passed ball is small. In both cases, the catcher is unable to control it and at least one runner advances. In the opinion of the scorekeeper, a passed ball is scored if the catcher SHOULD have controlled the ball. Simply put, it occurs when the pitch isn’t caught by the catcher due to the pitcher’s fault, and runners advance as a result.
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One piece of evidence I cited last year for treating errant pitches as counts was that their respective means and variances were close to each other—a canonical Poisson trait. What I failed to appreciate was that the variance of both wild pitches and passed balls were actually less than their respective means, which is somewhat unusual. Zero-inflation is not the only possible explanation for underdispersion , but with a maximum possibility of one errant pitch at a time, any underdispersion in this context by definition involves extra zeroes. Recently, we overhauled our approach to how we evaluate passed balls and wild pitches here at Baseball Prospectus.
However, I suspect that if you compared wild pitch rates at lower levels of baseball competition, and certainly with ordinary people off the street, that zero inflation would be less of a problem. In the event that a wild pitch is called after two strikes and the players on base advance but the hitter doesn’t, the play is recorded as a wild pitch and a strikeout by the scorer’s table. If a runner is attempting to steal a base before the wild pitch is thrown, then the play is ruled a stolen base instead of a wild pitch. Lastly, a wild pitch penalty can be averted if the defending team is able to make an out before any of the runners on base are able to advance. In fact, these models show some of the highest reliability I have seen in baseball statistics. For simplicity’s sake, I limited the predictions to passed balls for catchers and wild pitches for pitchers.
The batter is not awarded an RBI if a baserunner advances to home on a passed ball. Another really important element is the control of the pitcher. If you have a pitcher that can hit targets consistently, there is less guesswork involved in the process. A catcher will have an easier time handling not only the location of pitches but also the speed and movement of those pitches. In addition, if a catcher is good at blocking, there will be fewer errant throws or mishandling of pitches.
You’ll often see scorekeepers give a baserunner credit for a stolen base on a passed ball or wild pitch, even though that runner wasn’t originally stealing a base. Additionally, you’ll often see a base stealer robbed of a stolen base simply because the ball gets by the catcher. The MLB career record for passed balls allowed is 763 by Pop Snyder, while Rudy Kemmler set the single season record of 114 in 1883. The single season record in the modern era is 35, set by Geno Petralli in 1987. The record for passed balls in a single game, six, was set by Rube Vickers in 1902 and later tied by Petralli in 1987 and Jerry Goff in 1996. The record for passed balls in a single inning is four, and is jointly held by Petralli, Ray Katt, and Ryan Lavarnway, all three of whom were catching knuckleball pitchers.
If you require something more elaborate (such as a zero-inflated binomial), you’ll need to try something else. So do either of these matter, or are the effect too small? In the former , the indifference of difference between 2 and 4 seam fastball both the pitcher and catcher probably mask any possible useful observation. In the latter, the battery is on its “best behavior”, but the identity of the runner changes the margin for error they may have.
I will combine all of these in the next post into a larger model predict passed ball and wild pitch rates and then using that to evaluate catchers. You can see that passed balls are a little farther from the center of the plate than the average pitch, but that wild pitches are drastically so. Thus scorer are calling pitches far out of the zone wild pitches while those that look more like a normal pitch a passed ball, but there is considerable overlap. Nolan Ryan is generally considered the career leader in the category, throwing 277 wild pitches over his 27 years in Major League Baseball.