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Jails Are Coronavirus Hotbeds. How Many People Should Be Released To Slow The Spread?

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, epidemiologists warned that jails and prisons would be breeding grounds for infectious disease, thanks to their densely packed populations and uncertain access to hygiene products and medical care.

And, sure enough, the four biggest known clusters of outbreaks in the U.S. on June 3 were all linked to correctional facilities, according to a tracking project by The New York Times.

But while experts are unsurprised by the outbreaks in correctional facilities, it’s less obvious what should be done about it. Computer simulations suggest that reducing the jailed population could help control the spread of the virus inside and outside the jails. And officials have been doing that — but they’re wrestling with where to draw the line. Over the last week, police across the country have arrested at least 9,300 people protesting the police killing of George Floyd, prompting more urgent questions about law enforcement’s handling of the crisis.

To try to understand just how big a role jails could play in spreading COVID-19 in the U.S., a team of researchers built a statistical model of how the virus moves in and around jails, simulating the spread from early April onward. Several epidemiologists we spoke to said the model, developed by researchers at Washington State University, the University of Pennsylvania, the American Civil Liberties Union, Tusculum University and the University of Tennessee, is the first they’ve seen that considers the effects of jails on the disease’s spread, which leading models of the virus have ignored. The study suggests common estimates are vastly undercounting the toll of COVID-19 because they fail to account for the flow of people into and out of jails; thousands could die inside facilities, and many more could die in the communities surrounding jails.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the model found that if social distancing measures outside jails succeed in controlling the virus, jails would become a primary vector of spread, leading to large numbers of preventable infections, hospitalizations and deaths. An otherwise effective virus response would thus be undone by ignoring jails.

On the other hand, the worse the pandemic is outside jails, the smaller jails’ role in spreading the disease becomes. Say businesses, schools, parks and other social hubs open without restriction all at once. As the virus spreads like wildfire in the outside world, jails are no longer a primary source of infection, simply because the infection is rampant everywhere.

Of course, the model’s predictions are just estimates — and they depend on several assumptions that do not mirror reality. (Anyone who wants to build a COVID-19 model has to make some educated guesses, not all of which will turn out to be right, as FiveThirtyEight has explained in the past.) The model, for example, only factored in larger jails, and it uses estimates for important characteristics of the virus, like exactly how the virus spreads and what percentage of the population is getting it, since there is still so much we don’t know about it. The researchers also assumed that the country would be living under a nationwide shelter-in-place order for the full time period covered by the model, which extends for several more months. We already know that’s not the case.

But while the model’s creators acknowledge that the model’s estimates won’t align precisely with reality, it can still tell us something about the dynamics of disease spread.

“There’s no doubt the impact will be very, very large,” said Lucia Tian, chief analytics officer for the ACLU, who took part in the research.

In the team’s simulations, the more jail populations are reduced, the more it flattens the curve inside jails and out. Dramatic cuts in jail populations — for instance by stopping 95 percent of arrests and doubling release rates, which the authors calculate would reduce the detainee population by more than 85 percent — are forecasted to be most effective in preventing deaths.

By demonstrating the relative effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of several policies, Tian hopes the model can aid leaders and policymakers as they attempt to minimize the damage. She explained with a classic adage of statistics: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Amid the pandemic, many agencies have made fast and dramatic changes in an effort to empty out jails. The number of people in state prisons — where people, generally those sentenced to a year or more, serve their time after they’ve been convicted — has barely budged. But the typical jail, which holds mainly people who have not yet been tried or those serving short misdemeanor sentences, has lowered its population by over 30 percent, with a few reducing their populations by around 60 percent, according to a report by the criminal justice think tank Prison Policy Initiative. Cuts like these would have been hard to imagine before the virus — but are they enough?

“There’s no golden or perfect amount by which a population should be reduced,” said Wanda Bertram, who contributed to the report and works as the Prison Policy Initiative’s communications strategist. “There’s simply the fact that compared to any other measure that a jail or prison can take, nothing is nearly as effective at slowing down the spread of the coronavirus as letting people go.”

Because New York City has been the epicenter of the virus in the United States, it provides a useful case study of the debate about the threat of COVID-19 to incarcerated populations. Jail populations in the city have been dropping for years, down by more than half in the last decade. Since the epidemic began, they have dropped another 25 percent — to their lowest levels since the 1940s — which city officials say is even more meaningful given the reductions of the last several years. “We’re diverting, we’re issuing probation, we’re sending less people into the system. I think that’s all happening, even before this pandemic hit,” said New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea.

Shea pushes back against calls for further cuts, arguing that a significant portion of the people still in jail are charged with serious or violent crimes, or have previously been convicted of multiple serious offenses. “Each of these releases has a potential impact on public safety, and you try to weigh that against the humanity issue of having someone contract the disease in jail,” Shea said. “We’re trying to strike that balance.”

But advocates still worry about the roughly 4,000 people still being held and point to hundreds of arrests made during the demonstrations of the last several days, which included clashes that led the Legal Aid Society to say that police were “brutalizing” protestors. Many are calling for further reductions at Rikers Island and other city jails, which the president of the city’s corrections officers union referred to as “the epicenter of the epicenter.”

Agencies don’t always agree about who should be considered for release. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which has consented to releasing hundreds of people awaiting trial during the COVID-19 outbreak, has clashed in the past with NYPD leadership over jail reduction policies.

But even for an office willing to consider alternatives to incarceration in more serious or gun-related cases, the pandemic has prompted some difficult decisions. Jill Harris, chief of policy and strategy for the Brooklyn district attorney, is particularly worried about releasing those charged with domestic violence, which may be rising even as other types of crime decline in shuttered cities. Harris, who worked at the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance before coming to the district attorney’s office, says the pandemic adds to the existing complexities that make domestic violence especially difficult for victims to report and for law enforcement to disrupt. Victims may feel even more conflicted about reporting abuse if it means potentially exposing their partner or family member to the virus in jail. And as families shelter at home, there may be fewer opportunities to report an abuser who is physically there all the time.

“Reducing incarceration and increasing public safety go hand in hand,” she said. “But there does get to be a point where the people who are there need to be there. And I feel like we are approaching that point in Brooklyn.”

The virus has led to fast and unprecedented reductions in jail populations, and reformers are witnessing the nation’s jail system make the types of changes they’ve been told for years are impossible. After the last three months, legal experts and advocates have the same question: If jails can do it, can other parts of the country’s vast justice system change, too?

“It’s kind of an exciting time to work in criminal justice, because in a way, I think that [the] emergency could be the spark that leads to innovation,” said Lucy Lang, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who now heads the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Institute for Innovation in Prosecution. “If we mean that we’re going to really stick with the decreased population, then what are we going to do instead?”

Lang said maintaining lower levels of incarceration is made possible by an all-hands-on-deck approach, where many agencies intervene to relieve some of the conditions that put people in danger of arrest. Reformers also say more extensive use of alternative crime responses like special courts, violence interrupters (people who try to prevent violent crimes by intervening with those likely to commit them before they happen), community policing, diversion programs (sending offenders to a rehabilitation program rather than prison), reduced sentencing and bail reform can pave the way for less incarceration.

Some of the ideas Lang described question long-held beliefs about crime and punishment. She recounted a recent response to a homicide that included a restorative justice approach as an alternative to incarceration or trial. In that instance, those harmed by the crime met with those responsible to ask the perpetrators to confront the consequences of their actions and reach consensus on how amends might be made and further harms might be prevented. “It was clear [the victims] experienced a much greater sense of resolution and justice than if there was a trial.”

Eventually, though, the pandemic will ebb and the criminal justice system will have to figure out the new normal. Christine Tartaro, professor of criminal justice at Stockton University, hopes advocates are right that this moment could be a turning point. “I am curious … as we reduce the census throughout all of these jails and prisons, if after this it makes us think about whether we need to go back to filling them again.”

But that’s far in the future. For the moment, people are still thinking about how full jails should be right now.

Additional reporting by Laura Bronner.

After Minneapolis, Can Trump’s Law-And-Order Strategy Work?

When President Trump delivered his inaugural address in 2017, it was in an unfamiliar style. Gone was the jokey off-handedness of Trump-on-the-trail. In a stilted, elegiac tone the freshly-minted president spoke of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” and “young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.” The content of the speech was familiar, though: Trump would bring America back from the brink. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” President George W. Bush called it “some weird shit.”

Trump ran on law and order — “I am the law and order candidate” he helpfully explained — even if empirical evidence suggested nothing was wrong with the law and order Americans were already living under. The country’s rates of violent crime were trending downward when he ran — falling 51 percent between 1993 and 2018 — and the economy was churning along, but Trump tapped into some Americans’ dissatisfaction with the status quo. Law and order was about the restoration of a certain social configuration favorable to white Americans as much as it was a concern with crime.

As the strange election year that is 2020 marches on, Trump has returned to his 2016 rhetoric, but it may register differently. Late Thursday night, Minneapolis residents burned down a police station after the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody. The president tweeted in response that, “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”

It was a familiar law and order message from Trump. But he tweeted it into an unfamiliar America: Over 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 in the past few months. One out of every four workers has filed for unemployment. As the country lives through actual American carnage, will Trump’s law and order message resonate as it once did? Or will the bleak realities of 2020 prove inhospitable to the man who once proclaimed, “I alone can fix it”?

In 2016, voters seemed excited by Trump’s verbal promiscuity, the lurid way that he painted the state of the nation. In his telling, America had descended into disarray thanks to porous borders that allowed in terrorists and job-stealing immigrants. He was engaging, if not accurate (the economy was doing well in many parts of the country and President Obama had actually deported more immigrants who were living in the country illegally than previous administrations). Pew Research surveys show that 2016 Trump supporters ranked the economy, terrorism, and immigration, along with foreign policy, as the most pressing issues of the election. And according to another Pew survey, 78 percent of voters who supported Trump in 2016 felt crime had gotten worse since 2008.

Trump’s law and order framework was a sturdy way for him to talk about a more elusive idea — nostalgia for a mid century America with robust domestic manufacturing and a clearly-defined, if racist, social order. While Trump is no wonk and couldn’t talk particularly compellingly about globalization, the consolidation of industry and the widening gap between CEO and worker pay, he could talk about “the good old days” when you could smack someone around. It evoked something deep, that call for everything and everyone in their proper place.

The law and order message might not sit so well in 2020. The country has now lived through years of controversies over video-taped killings by police, and the pandemic makes the world feel more chaotic day by day. We’ll have to wait to see the social and political reaction to the demonstrations in Minnesota, but there might be more sympathy for the turbulent feelings that make people riot or protest. While many will still roundly condemn looting, it’s perhaps easier for a greater number of us to imagine the kind of jagged anger — grief, if we’re being concise about it — that causes it than it was four years ago.

Understanding the catharsis of looting — if not approving of the act — is something that has long eluded the understanding of white America, including liberal white America. “Shoot to kill arsonists and shoot to maim looters” was the order from Chicago’s white, Democratic Mayor Richard Daley during the 1968 riots following Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. King, for his part, called riots, “the language of the unheard.” Even Obama struggled with his reaction to the Ferguson, Missouri riots of 2014, receiving criticism from voices on the black left when he said he had “no sympathy at all for destroying your own communities.” He later said he would have done some things differently in his response to the Ferguson crisis, writ large.

Minnesota has also proven a difficult testing ground for Trump’s return to law and order rhetoric. Reaction to the violence in the state — and the killing of Floyd — has unfolded somewhat differently than past violent deaths in police custody. Police chiefs from around the country swiftly condemned the officer who killed Floyd. Even as police on the ground in Minneapolis arrested a black journalist on live TV, the mayor and governor — both Democrats — called for calm while saying they understood and were sympathetic to the anger behind the rioting. Fox News guests and analysts condemned the officer’s actions, though it remains to be seen how conservative media and the right will react to the ongoing protests and violence. In a YouGov poll, 78 percent of surveyed adults thought the officer in the Floyd case should be arrested (he was on Friday afternoon).

It seems unlikely, though, that Trump will easily give up the race-baiting language of “thugs” and the like. For Trump, who is famously ideologically flexible, the idea of law and order is perhaps his deepest-held, most sincere political belief. In 1989, in the midst of the Central Park Five controversy, when five black and Latino men were accused of the brutal rape of a white jogger, he took out full-page advertisements in New York City newspapers to decry waffling over the punishment of the men. (Later, they were famously found to have been wrongly convicted). “What has happened to law and order, to the neighborhood cop we all trusted to safeguard our homes and families?” Trump wrote. “I am not looking to psychoanalyze them or understand them, I am looking to punish them,” he said of the alleged criminals. “I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.”

In 2016, Trump was able to echo these sentiments from 1989 easily — he was on the outside looking in. But in 2020 it will take more dexterity to run a campaign angry at authority when he is the authority. Once you have promised to end an imagined carnage, only to encounter actual death and societal destruction, the misdirection of your talking points risks exposure. But on this point, Trump has always been true to himself: He is the law and order candidate once again.

Are Jobs Returning In Reopened States?

When the novel coronavirus began spreading rapidly throughout the U.S. in late March, 42 states and Washington, D.C., issued stay-at-home orders that shuttered all or most nonessential businesses for an average of nearly 50 days, with some orders lasting as long as 70 days (and counting). Over the same period, the U.S. has seen unprecedented job losses, with Thursday’s report of 2.1 million initial claims now part of a tally of 41 million Americans who have filed for unemployment insurance since the second week of March.

Although last week’s jobless claims declined at a faster rate (-13.2 percent) than they did the week before (-9.0 percent), the numbers involved remain immense by any historical standard:

There are a few shreds of encouraging news in the most recently compiled jobs data, though. For weeks, we’ve been waiting for the sheer number of people on temporary layoff or furlough — as opposed to permanent unemployment — to return to work and no longer show up in the official unemployment data. And as the economy begins to open up in 36 of those 42 states with shutdown orders, one place they might finally be appearing is in the number of continued unemployment claims.

As opposed to initial claims, which represent the number of newly unemployed people filing for insurance, continued claims represent the total number of people — newly unemployed or not — whose claims were paid out in a given week. These claims run a week behind initial claims because we don’t know how many of those will eventually be insured. Now that we are months deep into the unemployment crisis, continued claims are arguably a better measure of the current state of joblessness in the U.S. than initial claims are — and for the week ending on May 16, total continued claims declined for the first time since the last week of February, before economic disaster hit American shores.

On top of laid-off workers potentially going back to work, this decline also speaks to companies’ beginning to hire slightly more than they have for most of the crisis. Total job postings on the employment-search website Indeed have increased in each of the past three weeks. Before we get too optimistic, though, those numbers are still sharply worse than in the same time frame in 2019: The volume on May 1 was 39.3 percent worse than on the same date a year ago, but it was just 35.1 percent worse than 2019 on May 22. Still, this is another data point showing that the unemployment situation has started to ever so slightly improve over the past few weeks.

Does that owe to states’ efforts to reopen? To look at this relationship, I asked Indeed for its job-posting trend data broken out by state and classified each applicable state according to how long ago it ended statewide stay-at-home orders.

The four states that reopened the earliest have been a mixed bag since lifting stay-at-home orders. The job-posting trend in Alaska has increased by 8.8 percentage points over the past four weeks, relative to its final week with orders in place; similarly, Montana’s trend is up by 4.9 points. But in the two more populous states, Colorado’s job postings are down 0.8 points, and Mississippi’s are down 5.7 points — meaning that job postings are down more now (relative to 2019) than they were when statewide orders were in place.

That’s just a sample of four states, of course — two of them ranking among the least populated in the country. But the group of states that reopened three weeks ago is larger (11 states) and has seen a similar pattern relative to states that waited longer to reopen:

There could be some selection bias here: States that waited longer may have been in a stronger economic position than those desperate to reopen sooner (although everything above is measured relative to each state’s own jobs trend for its last week in lockdown). And states that never issued stay-at-home orders are, on average, down less in job postings from 2019 (-34.5 percent, as of May 22) than states that still had orders in place as of May 22 (-38.3 percent). But those numbers are also indicative of how little power government orders may have to restart the job market anyway when compared with the power of the virus itself.

Polls show that more than two-thirds of Americans remain somewhat or very concerned that either they or someone they know will become infected with the coronavirus. That has reshaped people’s willingness to go to restaurants and otherwise spend discretionary income, even in states that have loosened restrictions on those activities. As economists have been saying for a while, the only thing that can fully inject life back into the economy is getting the virus under control, which is more true now — according to new daily cases — than it was a month ago, regardless of whether stay-at-home orders were loosened.

And even with the total unemployment situation improving slightly this week, more trouble is on the horizon. The first wave of companies that were granted loans under the Payroll Protection Program will have their expenses covered only through June 30, after which we could see more potential job losses — or temporary layoffs turned permanent. (The U.S. House passed a bill to extend the window to use PPP funds by four months and push back the deadline to rehire workers through December, though it will face opposition in the Senate.) And, of course, any economic progress could be derailed by the ever-present threat of another surge in cases.

It’s another reminder that the virus is what ultimately started this financial crisis — and it will largely dictate the terms of the economic recovery.

Definitely Our Last Michael Jordan/LeBron James GOAT Take. Definitely.

FiveThirtyEight

This week, the Hot Takedown crew examines the issues underlying the contentious salary negotiations between MLB owners and players, which could prevent the league from starting its season by the Fourth of July. The owners had proposed a 50/50 revenue split that was a nonstarter for several reasons. While a “salary cap”-style system isn’t awful for the players in theory, starting that system the year revenue is guaranteed to be down would leave a justifiably sour taste in players’ mouths, especially given that the owners have been less than transparent about the extent of the losses they’re projected to take. We hope the history of distrust between the owners and the players won’t keep us from seeing baseball this summer, but we’re afraid that it might.

On to happier tidings: Tom Brady ripped his pants and was briefly relatable. We look at “The Match: Champions for Charity,” which lived up to its grandiose name, pairing Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning against Phil Mickelson and the adorably flustered Brady in a charity golf match on Sunday. We talk about why the format worked so well and what golf has going for it at the moment, including a more Republican fanbase that might be more receptive to its return. We don’t think that the partisan divide around the coronavirus contributes more to a successful return to sports than the environmental and structural factors leagues are dealing with (outside vs. indoor; team vs. individual; contact vs. not). But it may make a difference as to which sports will thrive once they return.

Finally, Neil takes us down one last “Last Dance” Rabbit Hole and creates a new lens through which to view the Michael Jordan/LeBron James GOAT debate. It turns out that if you were to simulate LeBron on Jordan’s teams and Jordan on Lebron’s teams 100 times, Jordan’s stats go down and LeBron’s go up — but both of them win fewer rings. This is, in part, because we live in the universe where both Jordan and LeBron have gone to more championships than is statistically likely. In MJ’s case, 99 percent of the time he falls short in the simulation of what he actually achieved. Perhaps that’s also a definition of greatness.

What we’re looking at this week:

Catcher Is Baseball’s Most Endangered Position

The rebuilding Baltimore Orioles hope Adley Rutschman becomes the new face of the franchise. Dubbed the best MLB draft prospect since Bryce Harper by Baseball America, Rutschman was taken with the first overall pick last June, the first full-time catcher selected No. 1 since Joe Mauer in 2001. But he could also become a new archetype for his position: a catcher whose primary value is his hitting.

Rutschman told FiveThirtyEight that the story behind his bat is one of nurture as much as nature. As a young player, he taught himself to switch hit with the aid of his father, a baseball coach at George Fox University, a Division III school in Oregon. They would head to the college field with a 5-gallon bucket of balls, or he would hit into a portable net in their home’s driveway. After his freshman season at Oregon State, when he hit just .234, Rutschman rebuilt his swing to add more lift and power. As a sophomore with the Beavers, Rutschman slashed .408/.505/.628, helping the school to a College World Series title and setting a series record for hits. He was even better as a junior, batting .411 with a 1.326 OPS. MLB.com and FanGraphs project him for above-average hitting and power in the majors.

In striving to improve, Rutschman tries to embrace change. “Being OK with being uncomfortable is a huge thing I like to go by,” he told FiveThirtyEight.

Catchers and MLB teams might soon have to get very comfortable with change. Catcher is the one position on the field for which teams have still routinely traded offense for defense: It’s the rare position that has gained in defensive importance this century. But no other position is threatened with having so much defensive value stripped away. An automated strike zone, which MLB has begun to experiment with, would eliminate the value of receiving, and advances in training are already shrinking the gulf in defensive skill at the position.

Yankees catching instructor Tanner Swanson told FiveThirtyEight that an automated zone would completely change the position: “It would be almost a second DH.”

All of this means that finding bats to man the backstop might become very important. It’s a potential sea change in baseball, but Rutschman and the next wave of catchers might be well positioned for it: MLB.com’s top 10 catching prospects include five catchers projected to be better-than-average hitters.

Catchers have been among the worst hitters in baseball — and sometimes the very worst offensive performers in a given season. They’ve often competed with shortstops for the distinction of worst hitters in the game, according to weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which adjusts for the ballpark and the run-scoring environment in any given year. But since the 1970s, shortstops have consistently improved in offensive performance, crescendoing in recent years to what is now described as a golden age at the position. Catchers, meanwhile, continued to lag.

Teams can afford more offense at shortstop, once a defense-first position, because of the confluence of the rise in strikeouts, home runs and defensive shifts: Shortstop is one of many positions seeing fewer and fewer defensive opportunities. If defense is less important, it makes sense that clubs would seek more run-production ability from that position.

But unlike other defensive positions on the field, the position of catcher has added defensive value in recent years. Why? Over the last decade, first hobbyists then teams have quantified the hidden and powerful skill of pitch framing, a catcher’s ability to receive borderline pitches in a way that gets them called as strikes. Teams began to understand the vast difference in framing skill at the position and the number of runs that could be saved by good framers — and runs cost by poor receivers. They started to target players who possessed framing skills and even teach those who didn’t. The value in framing is thought to account for the majority of defensive value behind the plate.

But the skill faces two threats, one existential, the other more immediate.

Framing relies on the fallibility of the human eye, the home plate umpire’s perception of the strike zone. But MLB now has the technology to automate the strike zone. It has experimented with such a zone in the Arizona Fall League and had planned, before the pandemic struck, to bring it to some minor league parks in 2020. Adding an automated zone has also been discussed this year as a way to allow umpires to maintain appropriate distance from the catcher and batter if there is a season. But if MLB chose to automate the zone, catchers could lose much of their value.

“Without question, it [would] completely shift the scope of skills that are required to now play the position. It really shifts the population of who you put back there,” Swanson said. “[Catcher] then becomes more of an offensive position.”

Catchers still perform other important defensive duties, of course: They throw out runners, make pitch selections and block bad pitches. But catchers’ arms have become less relevant as the number of stolen bases drops. “The blocking piece becomes more important,” Swanson said, “[but] I don’t see the throwing piece changing unless you start playing less athletic catchers, and maybe to combat that teams start trying to run more. So it’s the cat-and-mouse game.”

One of the greatest drawbacks of the automated zone, Swanson said, is that a catcher would not even have to catch the ball unless there were runners on base or two strikes. He suggested that stealing first base might need to be an option to ensure that catchers actually try to catch pitches, particularly awkwardly located ones.

But even if MLB decides against an automated zone, there’s another challenge to the framing value of the position: Catchers are getting better at it, so the gap between the best and worst framing catchers is shrinking. Over the last decade, the standard deviation of framing runs — a measure that relies on pitch-tracking technology to determine the probability of a called strike and the associated run value for each pitch, for qualifying players<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/catcher-is-baseballs-most-endangered-position/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="

Catchers with at least 1,000 pitches caught in a season.

“>1 — has fallen.

The skill gap in pitch framing is shrinking

Difference by standard deviation in framing runs saved by MLB catchers by year since 2008

Year Standard deviation in framing runs saved
2008 12.21
2009 10.23
2010 9.36
2011 11.69
2012 10.04
2013 9.28
2014 9.34
2015 8.27
2016 8.38
2017 9.62
2018 6.84
2019 7.42

Source: Baseball Prospectus

If the floor continues to rise, teams will be forced to look elsewhere to create competitive advantage at the position.

Orioles assistant general manager Sig Mejdal said the team had considered that catchers’ defensive value could be threatened before they selected Rutschman with the No. 1 overall pick. But Rutschman has a strong arm, and the throwing component will always be a part of the position, Mejdal noted. Rutschman has received high grades for his all-around ability behind the plate and hitting at it. Rustschman graded as an average framer in a small minor league sample last summer, but some evaluators are bullish on his framing upside.

“I think how we evaluated catchers a decade ago or two decades ago, when we really didn’t appreciate pitch framing, I think we would return to those times” if the value of framing diminishes, Mejdal said. “Of course, there are less stolen bases in the game now, but I still think there is going to be significant appreciation of their defensive skills.”

That appreciation could perhaps include skills that have largely been unquantifiable to date. Mejdal said the new Orioles regime has begun to investigate the value of pitch calling. “It’s irresponsible not to,” he said.

It’s possible that pitch calling will become the new pitch framing. But as innovation changes the game, and without more value placed on specific skills behind the plate, catchers might need to take a whole new approach to their position. Catchers might soon need to turn into sluggers, just like Rutschman.