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January 2, 2002

The Man with the Golden Gun

Honoring Baseball's Best Catcher Arms

by Michael Wolverton

It's time to present the inaugural Golden Gun award, given to the league's best catcher at shooting down would-be baserunners. The winner is the major-league leader in Stolen Base Runs Prevented (SBRP), which is calculated from the number of opponent steals (SB), the number of runners the catcher throws out (CS), and the number of runners the catcher picks off (CPO), using this simple formula:

SBRP = 0.49*(CS+CPO) - 0.16*SB

If you want to know where this formula came from, see my Pudge vs. Piazza article from this past spring on ESPN.com.

Without further ado, here is the 2001 Golden Gun winner, along with his nine runners-up:

Catcher            Team  SB  CS  CPO  SBRP
Jason LaRue         CIN  27  41    2  16.8
Mike Matheny        STL  31  25    5   9.7
Einar Diaz          CLE  84  45    2   9.4
Brad Ausmus         HOU  45  30    4   9.4
Ivan Rodriguez      TEX  23  23    3   9.0
Charles Johnson     FLA  53  33    0   7.6
Paul LoDuca         LAD  48  30    0   6.9
Henry Blanco        MIL  43  27    1   6.7
Brandon Inge        DET  30  23    0   6.4
Doug Mirabelli      T/B  58  31    1   6.3

For nearly lapping the catcher field in the areas of arm strength and accuracy, Jason LaRue will receive a fabulous prize, to be chosen by the Baseball Prospectus staff from among the following: an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas (value: $8,000), a new Mazda Miata (value: $25,000), our sincere congratulations and best wishes for a successful 2002 season (priceless).

If you didn't know about LaRue's throwing prowess before now, that's understandable. This was his first year as eve a semi-regular starter, and while he had a reputation as having an above-average arm, I don't think anyone expected him to put up numbers like this. In the past four years--the only ones for which I have data--only Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Matheny have put up better single-season totals than LaRue's 2001.

Rodriguez and Matheny both make an appearance on this year's top ten list, and they're not the only return performers. Of the ten catchers listed above, six--Matheny, Rodriguez, Brad Ausmus, Charles Johnson, Henry Blanco, and Doug Mirabelli--were among the top ten in SBRP last year.

On the other side of the coin (and the spreadsheet) are the catchers whose arms did the most damage to their teams:

Catcher            Team  SB  CS  CPO  SBRP
Scott Hatteberg     BOS 115  10    0 -14.0
Mike Piazza         NYM 113  22    0  -7.7
Michael Barrett     MON  94  17    1  -6.6
Robert Fick         DET  60   7    0  -6.4
Brook Fordyce       BAL  97  21    0  -5.6
Todd Greene         NYY  39   3    0  -4.9
Jason Kendall       PIT  72  15    0  -4.4
Eddie Taubensee     CLE  29   1    0  -4.3
Randy Knorr         MON  27   1    0  -4.0
Todd Hundley        CHC  50   9    0  -3.8

If LaRue's 2001 totals are impressive, Scott Hatteberg's are positively eye-popping. His Runs Prevented total of -14 is easily the worst of the past four years (Mike Piazza's 2000 is next at -10.7). I doubt it represents the worst catcher throwing year in history--for one thing, I can still remember Craig Biggio launching eephus balls from behind the plate--but I wouldn't be surprised if it was among the worst.

These numbers make it clear just how much difference a throwing arm can make to a catcher's value. Take LaRue, for instance. Clay Davenport's hitting metrics rate LaRue as well below average at his position, just 29th among catchers in Runs Above Replacement Position. But when you add in the value of LaRue's arm, he moves up to rate among the very best catchers in baseball overall.

For example, Robert Fick's bat was 17 runs better than LaRue's. But LaRue's throwing was worth 23 runs more than Fick's, enough to make up for Fick's offensive advantage and then some. Only a handful of major-league catchers--Piazza, Rodriguez, Johnson, Paul LoDuca, Jorge Posada, and Einar Diaz--have enough of an offensive advantage to overcome LaRue's huge edge in the throwing department.

A similar analysis suggests that Paul LoDuca may have been the most valuable catcher in the majors last year, rather than Mike Piazza. Clay's numbers give Piazza a 14-run advantage over LoDuca at the plate, but SBRP gives LoDuca's arm a 15-run advantage over Piazza.

Applying the same reasoning to the other end of the catcher value spectrum suggests that Scott Hatteberg's defensive ineptitude made him the least valuable catcher in the majors last year. Despite being a serviceable hitter for his position (5.3 runs over replacement, according to Clay's numbers), Hatteberg doesn't have a large enough offensive advantage over any catcher in the league to make up for his disadvantage in SBRP.

Are we going to see LaRue among the contenders for the Golden Gun next year? I think the odds are pretty good. His SBRP rating will probably regress some in the next few years as baserunners and managers learn to avoid running on him. But they won't learn that well. Teams still run on Pudge Rodriguez often enough to make his arm a very valuable asset to his team, attempting a steal every 19 innings or so the past couple of seasons (down from once every 15 innings in 1998). The most valuable catcher arms tend to stay valuable from year to year. So even if he doesn't improve his hitting, LaRue is likely to remain a valuable major leaguer in the near future, based solely on the strength of his arm.

Michael Wolverton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Paul LoDuca,  Jason LaRue

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2002-04-04 - The Body Armor Ban
2002-02-15 - Controlling the Running Game
2002-01-17 - The Legend of Jack Morris
2002-01-02 - The Man with the Golden Gun
2001-06-13 - Mike Hampton
2001-01-19 - Not Getting His Due
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