CSS Button No Image Css3Menu.com

Baseball Prospectus home
  
  
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

<< Previous Article
Premium Article Expanded Horizons: Gam... (05/04)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Checking the Numbers: ... (04/30)
Next Column >>
Premium Article Checking the Numbers: ... (05/13)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Changing Speeds: The D... (05/05)

May 5, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Catchers on Catching

by Eric Seidman

Let me start out by saying that I am fascinated by catchers, players who garner a great deal of value simply by playing a certain position. One of the major spurs of my interest is the lack of a definitive measure quantifying their defensive contributions. It might be on the easy side of the spectrum to note which catchers excel at their position as well as which could use some work, but those are vague and qualitative attributes. There have certainly been attempts to quantify what a catcher adds or subtracts with his non-offensive responsibilities but nothing has really caught on with any force, concretely convincing fans through points of difference, or by being offered on a website.

A major reason for this lack of catching on, pun completely intended, is that in the back of our minds we as fans grasp that there is much unknown regarding the daily duties of a catcher. Or, for that matter, how important those duties are; inaccurate measures would surface without a realization of these facts. In other words, it isn’t wrong to measure wild pitches and passed balls or success at slowing the running game, but those aren’t the sole characteristics of catcher defense. Thinking about the topic amidst the hoopla surrounding Victor Martinez and his supposed poor throwing mechanics, I realized how easy it would have been to begin my foray into catcher defense quantification by discussing what I think they do. I decided to go a different route, however, and thanks to Nick Piecoro of The Arizona Republic and John Perrotto of The Sexy Man Times our very own site, I was able to get in touch with a few people whose opinions on the subject matter more than mine does – actual major league catchers.

I was able to speak to three different generations of catchers: Jason Jaramillo of the Pirates (youngin), Gregg Zaun of the Brewers (veteran, and proprietor of one of the coolest websites around), and A.J. Hinch of the Diamondbacks (catcher-turned-manager). All three agreed to answer a few questions regarding their jobs and what they felt were the most important responsibilities. Now, this is not an appeal to authority in any sense of the phrase, as the rule of thumb here should be to trust but verify as opposed to blindly accepting their input, but as a fan and analyst I know that I would weight their opinions heavier than mine or those of other analysts.

On Their Main Responsibilities:

Jaramillo: “To take care of your pitchers. You have to be everything to them: friend, confidant, psychologist, you name it. That's the most important thing you do as a catcher, make sure you are there for your pitchers and do everything you can to make them successful and help them through the game.”

Zaun: “The catching side of it is your total responsibility. It's the first and foremost thing you worry about. The hitting is extra. The defensive side of it, working with your pitcher, calling a game, catching all the pitches, even the tough ones in the dirt, trying to control the running game, is why you are there. Anything you provide beyond defense is a bonus, in my opinion.”

Hinch: “I would put the No. 1 priority on implementing the game plan against the opponent. So much of our game is built on the pitcher/hitter confrontation. It starts with both the pitcher and the catcher. Being able to instill that game plan in the pitcher’s mind, develop the confidence to use it and then adjust as the game goes along. It’s not as simple as this is the script and we’re just following the script. That would be priority No. 1 for me because that’s where the competition begins. And the execution of that game plan. Provided the game plan is right—and that’s where the adjustments come in. So understanding how to call a game, the strengths and weaknesses of the pitcher matched up with the strengths and weaknesses of the hitter and adjusting with a lot of factors. How well is the guy swinging the bat? Does he make an adjustment and move up on the plate or move back on the plate? Choking up on the bat with two strikes? All sorts of scenarios of that could adjust that game plan and be able to react accordingly.”

How do they weight these responsibilities?

Jaramillo:“Everything after taking care of your pitcher is No. 2. I'm not trying to avoid the question but that is so much more important than anything else you do as a catcher, including hitting, that it's hard to rank the rest.”

Zaun:“Actually catching the ball. I know that sounds pretty simple but the most important job you have is to make sure you catch every pitch, use soft hands and frame it well for the umpire to see, and give your pitcher confidence that he can throw any pitch in any situation without fear that it's going to wind up going to the backstop. After that is building a relationship with the pitcher, having him gain your trust and knowing that you're totally there to help him and 100 percent committed to doing that. Of course, a lot of that entails calling a game, being as prepared as you can possible be to make sure you're always ready to call the best pitch for each situation. The throwing comes last. It's not that it's not important to try to stop the running game and keep guys honest but that takes a back seat to catching and calling a game.”

Catchers Become Analysts: What Goes Into Their Ideal Defensive Metric?

Jaramillo:“Again, it all goes back to handling your pitchers. That's not the easiest thing to tell about a catcher until you see him work with different guys on his staff. It's also why framing pitches is more important than blocking balls or throwing out runners because you want to give your pitcher every chance to get the calls go his way.”

Zaun: “The first thing I would look for is durability and toughness. It's not an easy position to play. You're squatting behind the plate for around 150 pitches a lot of nights and you're also challenged with catching pitches that can be traveling 95 mph or breaking sharply and quickly. It takes someone who can withstand bumps and bruises and is willing to get dinged up because catching is hard on your body. After that, I'd like to see his hands. You want someone with soft hands, who catches everything and frames the pitch to make sure the umpire gets a good look at it. It's very important. Again, I realize that caught stealing is one of the stats you see often with catchers but it doesn't tell you everything about a catcher. It's how he handles himself behind the plate and how he handles his pitching staff that makes the biggest difference over the course of a long season.”

Hinch: “Obviously the defensive fundamentals. Blocking balls saves bases and saves runs and is very important. Being able to control the running game doesn’t always equate in throwing runners out. But maybe it stops the opposing manager from running. Someone like Yadier Molina does an uncanny job of stopping the running game without even having to throw because of his reputation, because of the statistics that he’s put up in the past and his actions impact the game. It’s nothing that he’s really doing. It’s a lot of what he’s done. Those are important. I’d say one of the more overrated things—a catcher doesn’t really frame. He doesn’t dictate strike/ball as much as people think, in my opinion. It’s important that you be able to receive a ball, give a good target, give a clean look for the umpire. And you do some subtle things that might make it a little more comfortable for the umpire, but more times than not a ball is a ball and a strike is a strike.

One of the best compliments you can give a catcher is that he’s unnoticeable. That encompasses a lot of the qualities of a good catcher. One, he’s not dropping a lot of balls. He’s not jerking the ball that’s a ball off the plate and trying to make it a strike. He’s not letting a ball get to the backstop. He’s not grabbing a ball that’s in the zone and taking it out of the zone. He’s just unnoticeable. That’s a compliment. A lot of balls in the dirt aren’t getting by. There are not a lot of delays in the game by him trying to pick balls. Those are the signs of good catchers. They’re very efficient and clean, catch clean games. More times than not, they’re noticed by people who either played the position or by their pitching staff and not so much by what they’re not doing.”

Just How Important Is Calling A Game?

Jaramillo: It's a major part of the job because, again, it goes back to taking care of your pitcher. You want the pitcher to have the utmost confidence in your ability to call a game because that makes it easier for him. If he believes in what you're calling then he has to think a lot less and just worry about executing pitches, which a tough enough job when you're facing major-league hitters.

Zaun: It's everything. If you don't call a good game then you're not giving your pitcher a chance to be successful. It's really important to build that trust with your pitchers and get in synch with them, so you can think along with them. I'm not saying you're never gotten to get shaken off by a pitcher but when you see a pitcher continually looking in for the sign then making the pitch, you know the pitcher and catcher are on the same wavelength and chances are good that it's going to be a good game.

Until Next Time

One of my goals for the last year has been to delve into catching metrics, dissect what has been done and potentially propose a new way of quantifying the very important aspect of the game. In talking to the catchers, some of the assumptions already implemented in prior methods are, in fact, considered to be important, but an awful lot of weight seems to be placed on the more qualitative facets of crouching behind the plate. Does it mean we should cease activity because we cannot measure what is qualitative? No, because being 65 percent of the way there is better than nothing, so long as we don’t act like we are 100 percent of the way there, and the more data compiled through avenues like Pitchf/x, the more we can eventually examine what they bring to the plate—I’m on a pun-roll.

Next week, I will look at a slew of catcher-oriented articles written over the last few years and the methods employed, with the ultimate goal of walking before running; or, in this case, walking before getting caught stealing.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Bob

This is awesome, Eric. Maybe it's the old school Orioles fan in me, but I've always liked Greg Zaun (nephew of Rick Dempsey).

May 05, 2010 08:03 AM
rating: 0
 
Dr. Dave

Has the trend toward managers calling the game from the bench reverted to tradition? How many catchers are on their own to call a game?

May 05, 2010 10:40 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

While this is entirely my guessing, I'd expect that managers calling the game would be essentially reserved to, like, Scioscia when Bobby Wilson is behind the plate, where the manager used to catch for a living and the guy behind the plate now is inexperienced. I can't imagine managers calling games is that widespread. Maybe in certain situations, but not all game.

May 05, 2010 15:08 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

I remember reading that catchers had little effect on ERA. Do they have an effect on the individual components like hits or home runs allowed? In other words, do catchers have an effect on SIERA?

On a side note, catcher-turned-manager Hinch is younger than Zaun.

May 05, 2010 10:44 AM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

I was also thinking that - I would probably (if I had the time and resources) try to break it down to the granular level of balls and strikes as a starting ground. Expected base running runs allowed (that the catcher could conceivably affect would also play a role, I would imagine. Great start, Eric.

May 05, 2010 17:48 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

If catchers are able to call pitches and if catchers can then call the pitch best suited for the current defensive alignment, perhaps defensive efficiency or some such plays into it to... basically, how many batted balls are hit to where fielders are positioned regardless of whether an error is committed or not. Though I guess something like that would be hard to separate from pitcher execution.

May 05, 2010 21:14 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

It would be incredibly difficult!

May 06, 2010 04:29 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Which is why I'm sure you can do it.

:)

May 06, 2010 13:12 PM
rating: 0
 
drmorris

Eric, It seems like it should be manageable for you BP rocket-scientists to devise a stat measuring a catcher's influence on overall opponent running game...i.e. a catch-all (excuse the pun) metric of steals attempted, steal success rate, bases advanced on loose balls, etc. No?

Hardly a definitive stat, but a pretty good indicator of "running game control."

May 05, 2010 11:25 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

We'll get into this more next week, but this is something I definitely have interest in. Also throw in there lead runners thrown out on sac bunts, which is an aspect of catching not often mentioned. If it's runner on 2nd, 1 out, and a bunt is laid down, and Yadier throws to third, think of how the momentum of a game and the probability of scoring changes between 1st and 3rd, one out, and 1st, 2 out.

May 05, 2010 15:10 PM
 
Patrick Ferrington

I think a good place to start might be to see if catchers do have any sort of measurable affect on called balls and strikes. Not sure how easy that would be historically but Pitch Fx data in recent seasons might be able to help out.

You might also see if you can get a scouts opinion on what they look for when rating a catcher defensively and how they go about it.

May 05, 2010 11:30 AM
rating: 0
 
OonBoon
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Isn't Zaun actually older than AJ Hinch?

May 05, 2010 12:46 PM
rating: -5
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Where did I say he was younger? I simply said three generations, as in three people in different areas of the game; a young guy, a veteran, and a catcher-turned manager. Seriously, nitpicks like this are just a waste of everyone's time.

May 05, 2010 15:07 PM
 
bravejason

Has anyone ever considered not having the catcher put down signs and not call the game? Just let him put the mitt in the center of the strike zone and let the pitcher decide on his own the pitch selection and location. No need to worry about the catcher and pitcher not being on the same page. The pitcher pitches and the catcher catches. Nothing more nothing less. Presumably, a veteran pitcher would be more comfortable with this idea than a rookie making his debut.

If the manager wants to call pitches or throws to first base, that's fine. The pitcher can get the signal from the dugout just as easily as the catcher.

There is an arguement that the catcher needs to know what pitch is comming so he can be prepared to catch it, but I'm just not sure how important that is. We've all seen a passed ball followed by the commentator noting that it was obvious that what the pitcher thought the catcher signaled wasn't what the catcher thought he signaled.

May 05, 2010 13:24 PM
rating: -2
 
Richard Bergstrom

Two points.

There's a big difference between catching a 90 mph fastball and a 70 mph curveball, especially from the catcher's point of view with a bat being swung right in his line of vision. Pitches not only break down, but can also break to the right or left. Part of the idea of a slider is that it looks like a fastball but breaks late in the trajectory. So, the catcher needs to know what is being thrown.

Second, the catcher can see aspects of the fielding alignment such as the outfield depth, whether infielders are playing in or covering the corners, and the signals from the shortstop/second baseman on whether the play is coming home. The catcher can also hear calls from the dugout and can better see signals from the manager and/or pitching coach. These aspects can also aid in better pitch calling.

May 05, 2010 13:51 PM
rating: 0
 
You must be a Premium subscriber to post a comment.
Not a subscriber? Sign up today!
<< Previous Article
Premium Article Expanded Horizons: Gam... (05/04)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Checking the Numbers: ... (04/30)
Next Column >>
Premium Article Checking the Numbers: ... (05/13)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Changing Speeds: The D... (05/05)

RECENTLY AT BASEBALL PROSPECTUS
Every Team's Moneyball: Cincinnati Reds: Go ...
Every Team's Moneyball: Chicago White Sox: T...
Premium Article Some Projection Left: The Moran Mystery
Notes from the Field: Seven Days and 32 Pros...
Spring Training Notebook: Cactus League
Premium Article Rubbing Mud: The Demise of the Two-Out Rally
Some Projection Left: Matuella has Tommy Joh...

MORE FROM MAY 5, 2010
Premium Article On the Beat: Wednesday Update
Premium Article Transaction Action: Odds and Ends
Premium Article Under The Knife: Blue Moon Rising
Premium Article Prospectus Hit List: Runaway Redbirds
Premium Article Changing Speeds: The Designated Jester

MORE BY ERIC SEIDMAN
2010-05-18 - Premium Article Contractual Matters: Werth The Funds
2010-05-13 - Premium Article Checking the Numbers: Caught Quantifying
2010-05-07 - Seidnotes: Livan La Vida Loca
2010-05-05 - Checking the Numbers: Catchers on Catching
2010-04-30 - Premium Article Checking the Numbers: A League Average Artic...
2010-04-29 - Premium Article Seidnotes: Volume 1
2010-04-22 - Checking the Numbers: The Doctor is Operatin...
More...

MORE CHECKING THE NUMBERS
2010-05-24 - Premium Article Checking the Numbers: The Trade-Me Clause
2010-05-19 - Premium Article Checking the Numbers: Bad Ollie or Worse Oll...
2010-05-13 - Premium Article Checking the Numbers: Caught Quantifying
2010-05-05 - Checking the Numbers: Catchers on Catching
2010-04-30 - Premium Article Checking the Numbers: A League Average Artic...
2010-04-22 - Checking the Numbers: The Doctor is Operatin...
2010-04-21 - Premium Article Checking the Numbers: Churn and Burn
More...

INCOMING ARTICLE LINKS
2013-04-02 - Premium Article Painting the Black: The First 24 Hours
2010-05-13 - Premium Article Checking the Numbers: Caught Quantifying
2010-05-11 - Changing Speeds: Retro Game Story: Cardinals...